In the early 19th century, American writer John Lloyd Stephens and English illustrator Frederick Catherwood brought to light the long forgotten Maya civilization that had once populated much of Mexico and Central America.
In Copan, Honduras, the first city they visited, the two explorers uncovered a wide plaza dotted with many strange stone statues, called stelae, dating back to the Classic Maya period (AD 250-900). These large and highly detailed monoliths portraying Mayan rulers in full ceremonial headdress and ornamental robes must have caused Stephens and Catherwood to pause in wonderment. What could be their purpose? It’s a question that has puzzled archeologists ever since.
But now a new explanation has been developed. According to Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona, the extensive plazas were crucial to Maya city planning and state theater may have played a large role in Maya political organization.
Decked out in showy headdresses and elaborate costumes, the Maya kings danced in front of huge audiences, made up of most if not all of the kingdom’s population. The spectacles served a number of purposes.
"Large-scale theatrical events gave physical reality to a community and helped to ground unstable community identities in tangible forms through the use of symbolic acts and objects," Inomata wrote recently in the journal Current Anthropology.
"The centrality of rulers in communal events suggests that the identities of a Maya community revolved around the images of supreme political leaders. ... Large gatherings also gave the elite an opportunity to impose their ideologies and cultural values on the rest of society through performances."