The ancient Maya and modern lawyers

Anyone who has visited an ancient Maya site anywhere in the Maya world for let's say more than fifteen seconds will attest to the impressive stone structures that tower above the jungle floor. Fact is, the tallest buildings in Belize to this day are the pyramids at Xunantunich and Caracol, located in the western part of the country. These huge pyramids were basically sub-structural. That is to say the pyramids themselves were essentially piles of stone rubble with a carved stone exterior, forming a platform upon which religious structures were constructed. Often the temples were made of perishable materials which over the centuries since their abandonment have disappeared, leaving only plaster floors to reveal their former presence. Generally these pyramids had four sides, with what appears to be a staircase leading up the front of the structure. Herein lies a problem. The "steps" are very steep, even for someone six feet tall. The ancient Maya were relatively small people, and remain so today. Excavation of burials from the same time frame as the Classic period pyramids shows that the average male was five feet two inches tall while the females measured four feet ten. Now you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that climbing up those "steps" on the front of the pyramid would have been a real struggle. Why not make the staircase easier to climb by reducing the height of the individual steps?

An alternative explanation, and one that fits with the archeological and historical evidence, is the notion that the "staircases" aren't what they appear to be. Rather than providing access to the structure located at the top of the pyramid the steps were actually part of an elaborate theater arrangement in which the steps served as a stage for religious productions in which certain individuals attired in costumes representing various gods would perform for audiences seated below in the plaza. It is certainly no accident that the acoustics in every Maya plaza complex are such that one can stand at the top of the pyramid and carry on a conversation with someone in the plaza below without raising their voice above a conversational level. Think of the plaza/pyramid arrangement as an amphitheater turned on its side. It works.

The pyramids and the associated religious structures were not open to the public, so to speak. The common Maya would no more think of entering a temple than we would take it upon ourselves to go storming into Saint Peter's basilica and climbing up the altar.

The descriptions of the religious ceremonies suggests some real showmanship was involved. At least some of the rituals took place at night. Priests dressed in elaborate costumes with jaguar skins and quetzal features would slowly ascend the "steps" of the theater amid clouds of creamy white smoke generated by the burning of copal incense (the resin of the copal tree, called "pom" in Maya) and the flickering fire light of torches. Using hand-held mirrors made from polished crystals of iron pyrite (fools gold) the priests could reflect the fire light into the smoke while the music from flutes and drums established the desired ambiance. Most modem rock concerts employ the same special effects. By the way, the use of mirrors and smoke to obscure reality is the origin of the term "smoke and mirrors". a tactic most often practiced by lawyers today,


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