Maya stelae at Lamanai, closeup
Maya stelae (singular stela) are monuments that were fashioned by the Maya civilization of ancient Mesoamerica. They consist of tall sculpted stone shafts and are often associated with low circular stones referred to as altars, although their actual function is uncertain. Many stelae were sculpted in low relief, although plain monuments are found throughout the Maya region. The sculpting of these monuments spread throughout the Maya area during the Classic Period (250–900 AD), and these pairings of sculpted stelae and circular altars are considered a hallmark of Classic Maya civilization. The earliest dated stela to have been found in situ in the Maya lowlands was recovered from the great city of Tikal in Guatemala. During the Classic Period almost every Maya kingdom in the southern lowlands raised stelae in its ceremonial centre.
Stelae became closely associated with the concept of divine kingship and declined at the same time as this institution. The production of stelae by the Maya had its origin around 400 BC and continued through to the end of the Classic Period, around 900, although some monuments were reused in the Postclassic (c. 900–1521). The major city of Calakmul in Mexico raised the greatest number of stelae known from any Maya city, at least 166, although they are very poorly preserved.
Hundreds of stelae have been recorded in the Maya region,
displaying a wide stylistic variation. Many are upright slabs of limestone sculpted on one or more faces, with available surfaces sculpted with figures carved in relief and with hieroglyphic text. Stelae in a few sites display a much more three dimensional appearance where locally available stone permits, such as at Copán and Toniná. Plain stelae do not appear to have been painted nor overlaid with stucco decoration, but most Maya stelae were probably brightly painted in red, yellow, black, blue and other colours.
Stelae were essentially stone banners raised to glorify the king and record his deeds, although the earliest examples depict mythological scenes. Imagery developed throughout the Classic Period, with Early Classic stelae (c. 250–600) displaying non-Maya characteristics from the 4th century onwards, with the introduction of imagery linked to the central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan. This influence receded in the 5th century although some minor Teotihuacan references continued to be used. In the late 5th century, Maya kings began to use stelae to mark the end of calendrical cycles. In the Late Classic (c. 600–900), imagery linked to the Mesoamerican ballgame was introduced, once again displaying influence from central Mexico. By the Terminal Classic, the institution of divine kingship declined, and Maya kings began to be depicted with their subordinate lords. As the Classic Period came to an end, stelae ceased to be erected, with the last known examples being raised in 909–910.
CLICK HERE for more on the stelae at Lamanai, 1.3mb pdf
Photograph by Marty Casado in 1997
Click here to comment on this picture.
Other Belizean "Pictures of the Day":
San Pedro Daily, Tony Rath's "Images of Belize"