Utok' upakal

Ancient Maya warfare

Were the Maya peaceful?

In the past, the Ancient Maya were thought to be a unique peaceful society, ruled by star-gazing priests. This was mainly due to the fact that early on people were only able to read numbers, calendrical and astronomical texts such as the Venus Tables in the Dresden Codex. The researchers were convinced that all Maya texts were of astronomical and ritual nature and that the Maya did not write about affairs such as lives of rulers or warfare.

Leaves 46 to 49 from a facsimile of the Dresden Codex, a Maya screenfold book. Am2006,Drg.224, From the collection of: British Museum
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Maybe not!

The view of the peaceful Maya has changed dramatically over the last few decades, once the non-calendrical part of ancient texts were deciphered, but studies of scenes such as those from Bonampak have also helped. These scenes on the murals inside an ancient Maya structure are clearly war-related.

Photo of Bonampak mural, Claudia Zehrt, 2018, From the collection of: British Museum
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The same war-related scenes can be seen inside the Lower Temple of the Jaguars (or what Maudslay called Sculpted Chamber E) at the northern lowland site of Chichen Itza, Mexico. The scenes in this structure show lines of warriors with weapons and armour marching.

Yaxchilan lintel 16 (755/770)British Museum

Weapons and armour

The scenes show weapons such as spears, atlatls (spear-throwers), knives, clubs, and axes. They also show protective gear such as shields and cotton armor, helmets, wristlets, and anklets.

Photo of Lintel 45 from Yaxchilan (1899/2017) by A.P. MaudslayOriginal Source: Biologia Centrali-Americana, Archaeology Plates, Vol II, Plate 97

Flint and shield

Itzamnaaj Bahlam II (or Shield Jaguar II) is holding a spear and a flexible shield and grasping the hair of the captive kneeling in front of him.

Ancient Maya spears usually had wooden shafts with obsidian or flint points.

Shields could be either rigid, or flexible as shown here. The colonial sources suggest that the flexible shields were tightly woven from reeds.

The rigid shields might have been built on a wooden frame covered by deer hide. Here a Maya king is holding a rigid shield on his left arm.

Nahb’aj ch’ich’ witzaj jol : “the blood pooled, the skulls piled up”

Maya hieroglyphic texts contain several war-related expressions, such as capturing (chuhkaj), bringing down (jubuy), burning (puluy), axing (ch’ahkaj), or ‘star-war’ events (which we still cannot read in Mayan and can only describe).

Lintel 41 from Yaxchilan, From the collection of: British Museum
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Lintel 41 from YaxchilanBritish Museum

The four glyph blocks on the left, or the top left caption, talk about a ‘star-war’ event against the site Sanab Huk’ay.

The caption on the right then records the capture (chuhkaj) of a person nicknamed “Jeweled Skull”, saying that he is the captive (baak) of Yaxchilan's king Yaxun Bahlam.

Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán, Mexico; Am1923,Maud.5 by BM ImagingBritish Museum

There is also an expression likely referring to the army: ‘his flint his shield’ (utok’ upakal).

One of the common expressions of an army’s defeat is "his flint and shield was brought down" (jubuy utok’ upakal).

Aj k’al baak : “he of 20 captives”

Maya rulers liked to present themselves as mighty warriors, and warfare expressions appear in their names and titles. One of the most famous and longest-reigning of ancient Maya rulers, K’inich Janaab Pakal from Palenque, has a shield (pakal) as part of his name.

Drawing of the name of K'inich Janaab Pakal, Eva Jobbova, 2019, From the collection of: British Museum
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Yaxchilan Lintel 24 (723/726)British Museum

Shield Jaguar

Another Maya king, this time from Yaxchilan, was nicknamed Shield Jaguar.

This was because the hieroglyphic signs for shield and jaguar (you can see its head) form his name.

Photo and drawing of the side of the Lintel 25 from Yaxchilan (1889) by A.P. MaudslayOriginal Source: Biologia Centrali-Americana, Archaeology Plates, Vol II, Plate 89

Escudo Jaguar

Shield Jaguar, was obviously proud of his military achievements, as the title 'master/guardian' of Aj Nik is almost always attached to his name. Aj Nik was Shield Jaguar’s captive.

Can you spot Shield Jaguar's name?

Yaxchilan lintel 16 (755/770)British Museum

Yaxun Bahlam IV

His son Yaxun Bahlam IV, continued in his father’s militant footsteps, as his royal title includes an expression Aj k’al baak, ‘he of 20 captives’.

Yaxun Bahlam aj k’al baak k'uhul pachan ajaw‘Yaxun Bahlam, he of 20 captives, holy lord of Yaxchilan'

Although sometimes it has been argued that ancient Maya warfare was different from modern warfare in that its purpose was not to appropriate land or territory or to move borders, the warfare motivations among the ancient Maya varied as well and included political, ideological and economic motivations.

War Grave, Himes, 1944-06-17, From the collection of: Getty Images
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Credits: Story

All images © Trustees of the British Museum, unless otherwise marked.
Text and image selection: Eva Jobbová, Senior Research Fellow: British Museum Maya Project.
Thanks to: Claudia Zehrt, Ana Somohano Eres and other British Museum Maya Project collaborators .

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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