Tikal, Temple V. During the Classic Era, some
of the most powerful Maya kings reigned at Tikal
I’ve recently enjoyed reading about the expeditions and adventures of John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood in the recently published Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (William Morrow, 2016), by William Carlson. The narrative of their travels in Central America is interrupted three times; first, for a brief biography of Stephens; second, for a brief biography of Catherwood; and finally, for an overview what is now known about the Maya. It is during this third excursus that Carlson describes Maya Kingship as follows:
For the ruling classes, especially the kings, a great deal is known because of the record left in Maya art and hieroglyphs. We know the holy lords lived polygamous lives surrounded by wives and courtiers in royal palaces. They sat on thrones covered with jaguar pelts, commanding their subjects, dispensing justice, greeting emissaries, royal allies, and foreign merchants. In scenes chiseled into limestone and standstone, on painted murals and polychrome pottery, they were finely dyed textiles with geometric designs and flamboyant headdresses heavy with the long iridescent feathers of the quetzal and other tropical birds. They drink frothy brew made from the cacao bean (and gave the world chocolate). They prized exotic goods brought from the coasts and the mountains in trade or tribute: marine shells, stingray spines, coral, finely cut chert, obsidian, pyrite, polished into mosaic scepters and mirrors—and, most of all, jade …. Control and display of these prized goods reinforced their status and power.
But nothing demonstrated their supremacy like their ability to mobilize mass labor forces, corps of engineers, artisans, and artists, to build and embellish monumental centers devoted to their reigns and dynasties. (pp. 382–383)