Maya Musical Instruments, conch shell trumpet, whistles, flute, rasp, Bonampak Mural
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May 11, 2021

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Flute, Classic Maya (AD 250-900), Chau Hiix, Belize, Bone. Preserved in the stable environment of a cave, this flute may have been played in rain making rituals. It bears the image of a god of ancestor. Gods and humans are frequently depicted playing music in caves for such rituals.

Rasp, Classic Period (AD 250-900), Caracol Belize, Bone.

Room 1 Bonampak Mural

Bonampak Mural
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Maya Musical Instruments, conch shell trumpet, whistles, flute, rasp, Bonampak Mural

Top photo: Trumpeter Figurine, Postclassic (AD 1250-1530), Santa Rita Corozal, Belize. This figurine of a man blowing a conch shell trumpet was found with other such objects at Santa Rita Corozal. Buried during a New Year’s Celebration. the figure announces the year and the renewal of the world.

Music has held a special role in human society for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, a flute player would be present at sacrifices in order to drown any disturbances from the external surrounding. Music was also central to the rituals and traditions of the Maya, evident in the objects left in the archaeological record.

The Mayas had numerous wind and percussion instruments, including flutes, whistles, trumpets, rattles, bone and gourd rasps and drums. These instruments have been described in texts and depicted in Maya art. One of the most intriguing instruments to have been found is the Maya whistle. Maya whistles have been found in several archaeological sites. For instance, Investigations at the ancient Maya site of Pacbitun (Belize) in 1986 and 1987 unearthed a range of well-preserved musical instruments from Late Classic period elite and royal burials.

Apart from Belize such whistles have also been found in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, an indication that these regions may have belonged to one common musical sphere.

The Maya played whistles and ocarinas during celebrations and to communicate in the dense rainforest. Found in the burial of sites, whistles were thought to guide the dead through the underworld. The images above are two which were found in Pacbitun in Western Belize. Like a modern orchestra, Maya musical processions had a standard order. First came the rattles, then the huehuetl (drums) and tortiseshells and the trumpeters came last and separate group.

The Bonampak murials show the pageant of rulership with performances from actors, singers, musician and dancers. The murials are vibrant with percussionists, shaking gourd rattles, pounding drums and beating tortiseshells with deer antler mallets. Although silent for centuries, the Bonampak band is a lively one.

It is was once unclear as to what these objects were really used for. Once perceived as merely objects of art, archaeologists are now seeing them as they really are - musical instruments.

Images seen below were objects from Belize that were on Loan for an exhibit MAYA: Hidden World’s Revealed at the Connecticut Science Center.

Photographs courtesy Institute of Archaeology

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