Vintage photos documenting the discovery of Maya ruins, 1880-1900


The Maya people have been called by many names over the years, such as the "mystical Maya" and "the Magnificent Maya", and many scholarly books have been written about this ancient Mesoamerican civilization.

Many years before European explorers arrived in the New World, the Maya were building large cities, studying astrology, creating complex written languages ​​in the forests and coastal plains of Mesoamerica – a cultural region that included Mexico and Central America. Both parts are included. The Spanish conquerors did not arrive until the 1500s, but by that time the Maya cities were already abandoned and in a state of ruin.

The Spanish conquest took away most of the defining characteristics of the Maya civilization. Agents of the Catholic Church wrote detailed descriptions of the Maya, in support of their efforts at Christianization, and in support of the Maya's absorption into the Spanish Empire.

Various Spanish priests and colonial officials then left details of the ruins they had seen in the Yucatán and Central America. In 1839, American traveler and author John Lloyd Stephens visited several Maya sites with the English architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood.

His pictorial accounts of the ruins aroused strong popular interest and brought the Maya to the attention of the world. The late 19th century saw the recording and retrieval of ethno-historical accounts of the Maya and the first steps in understanding Maya hieroglyphs.

The last two decades of the 19th century saw the birth of modern scientific archeology in the Maya region, with the subtle works of Alfred Maudsley and Teoberto Maler. By the early 20th century, the Peabody Museum was sponsoring excavations in Copán and the Yucatán Peninsula.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, progress was made in understanding the Maya calendar and identifying deities, dates, and religious concepts. Since the 1930s, archaeological exploration has increased dramatically, with large-scale excavations in the Maya region.

What happened to Maya? How did they build such a vast empire that it just turned into ruins? For more than a century, scholars dug through ruined Maya cities in search of pottery, burial sites, murals depicting everyday activities, and the remains of tools.

Maya hieroglyphs were tricky, but no one knew how to decode them. No matter how many artifacts scientists uncovered, they were never enough to paint a complete picture of the Maya.

Archaeological evidence tells only part of the story. Written records give more specific information, such as names, dates and major events. Maya have carved many such written inscriptions on their buildings and monuments. Although there is still much that historians do not know about the Maya people, scholars have developed several theories about the causes of their decline.

First, many believe that the Maya exhausted their resources from their surrounding areas to the extent that they could no longer sustain themselves in the region.

Other scholars argue that the war led to a decline in trade, their army and their dynastic power, resulting in anarchy. Finally, scholars also believe that a catastrophic change in the environment, such as a drought, wiped out their civilization.

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