Copyright © 2007 Dorling Kindersley
The Maya lived in Central America and were powerful from around AD 250 to 900. Farmers and traders, they built spectacular cities and developed a system of writing that used picture symbols called GLYPHS.
The Maya were divided into kingdoms, each of which had a city and a ruler, who acted as war leader, lawmaker, and chief priest. After 900 Mayan civilization declined, possibly because their farming methods led to exhausted fields and failing crops.
Pyramids were the largest buildings in Mayan cities and were built as temples and royal tombs. Shrines where sacrifices were made to the gods were at the top, while burial chambers were hidden deep inside. The pyramids were built of stone, and covered with red-painted plaster, but this plaster has not survived.
Mayan glyphs were painted on walls and pots, and carved into pieces of jade and monuments of stone. They were also written into books called codices, which were made out of long strips of bark paper that folded up like screens. This complex writing system was controlled by scribes of very high rank.
The study of Mayan hieroglyphs began 200 years ago. By the 1950s, scholars had worked out the glyphs for the names of rulers and animals. Then, in 1960, it became clear that most Mayan inscriptions are historical. They record important events, such as the births, marriages and deaths, and the victories in battle, of the godlike Mayan kings.