Before You Begin

Start off your unit by sharing the pull-out Masterpiece Poster, Maya Culture, from the center of the September 2004 issue, or assemble a selection of photographs of Maya artificats for students to look at from books and Web sites (see "Maya Resources.")

Ask students to come up in pairs to study and discuss the images, which can include jewelry, masks, statues, and even household tools. (The poster also shows one of the many great stone temples that the Maya built.) Next, ask students: What do you know about the Maya? How do you think they created these artifacts? Then launch into your Maya study with the following activities, all of which correspond to a type of artifact found throughout Maya culture.


About the Maya

The Maya were one of the greatest New World civilizations. They excelled in the arts, mathematics, architecture, farming, and astronomy. The early Maya lived in villages, where they farmed corn, or maize. Hundreds of years later, they built vast city-states. It was during this time that the Maya made many advancements. They built great structures and studied the planets to create calendars, one of which had 365 days. And they did this all without modern technology! The Maya began declining around 900 A.D. due to warfare, drought, disease, and overpopulation. Spanish explorers conquered the remaining Maya in the 1500s.


Towering Temples

MAYA FACT: Temple-pyramids are an amazing architectural achievement of the ancient Maya. One of the most famous of these is Kukulcán, or El Castillo, in Chichén Itzá, Mexico. It stands about 80´ high, and is 180´ wide on each side at its base. Carved monster masks adorn the temple.
ACTIVITY: Students can sharpen their measurement skills — and practice cooperative learning — by creating an El Castillo scale model as a class. Ask students to estimate how big the model should be in inches, based on the measurements of the original. Next, have groups measure appropriately-sized platforms out of self-hardening clay. Stack the layers as shown, adding glue between each layer, and insert a dowel in the center. Invite students to add staircases to the sides and a temple on top out of additional pieces of clay. Finally, challenge students to research how the design of El Castillo relates to the 365-day solar Maya calendar. 


Magnificent Mosaics

MAYA FACT: The ancient Maya made exquisite masks from stone, wood, gold, obsidian, and shell. These masks often contained many pieces of jade arranged in mosaic patterns. Maya royalty also had personal items beautifully decorated in these patterns.
ACTIVITY: Students can make their own intricate mosaic masks in the style of the ancient Maya! Begin by sharing some mosaic and mask examples (see “Maya Resources”), then have students draw and cut out a mask shape — with eyes, mouth, and nose — on an 8" x 10" piece of oak tag. Next, have students cut out tissue paper “tiles,” each no larger than an inch square. Show students how to glue the tiles one at a time next to each other on the mask, as shown. Once the glue is dry, invite students to share and compare their masterpieces with each other.


Amazing Animal Pendants

MAYA FACT: Jewelry was an important part of upper-class and royal dress. Pendants shaped like animals were especially popular.

ACTIVITY: Have students, working in small groups, research animals common to the ancient Maya world (see Maya Resources.) Each group should find a photograph of its totem animal and record its habitat, life cycle, and the locations where it can be found today. Next, give each student a ball of self-hardening clay to shape into his or her group's animal, as shown. Encourage groups to wear their pendants as they present their animal research.


Maya Mythology (Using the Reproducible)

MAYA FACT: Maya myths describe the ties between humans and the world of gods and demons. The most famous text is the Popol Vuh. In one of its myths, the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque are summoned to Xibalba, the underworld.
ACTIVITY: Distribute copies of the Maya Myths Reproducible (PDF), below. Since students are likely familiar with this style of storytelling, focus on the importance of a comic´s sequence of events. Ask: “How does a comic compare to other kinds of narratives?” Then invite students to plan and draw their own mythical comics.


Create-Your-Own Codex

MAYA FACT: The Maya recorded important information — such as scientific discoveries and historical records — using glyphs, or pictures, instead of an alphabet. Glyphs were painted on pottery, inscribed into fig-bark books called codices, and carved into stone.
ACTIVITY: Ask: “How many examples of Maya glyphs can you find (on the poster or among the images you´ve provided)?” Then invite students to make their own codices to record an important event in their lives. For each codex, use half of an 8.5" x 11" piece of construction paper, folded like an accordion to create three surfaces. Have students draw an original glyph on each surface with colored pencils. Then have each student “read” his or her codex aloud.


Jaguar Warrior Banners

MAYA FACT: Maya rulers often waged war between city-states to acquire more territory. Rulers wore magnificent headdresses to present an imposing image. As a sign of power, some also went into battle holding banners made from the skin of the jaguar, or b´alam, a powerful animal the Maya worshiped and feared.
ACTIVITY: Invite students to become academic “warriors” with their own jaguar banners! Host a confidence-boosting march before a standardized test, challenging class project, or assessment period. First, show students how to measure and cut out a 10" circle of oak tag. Tape a straw to the back of the circle for use as a handle. Have students decorate their banners by glueing pieces of spotted animal-print material (available at fabric and discount stores) onto the front of the oak tag. Students may also glue strips of ribbon or fabric along the bottom edge, as shown. Next, ask small groups of students each to brainstorm their own special “fear-vanquishing” chant, and nominate a spokesperson. The spokesperson then leads the chant by reciting the words first and having the group repeat them.


Birthday Pottery

MAYA FACT: Maya artists crafted beautiful pots, urns, vases, goblets, plates, and jars with painted images and glyphs.
ACTIVITY: Students can make their own Maya vases with special painted glyphs that represent their birthdays. Start by having students visit and enter their birth date. A converter will give them the Maya names for the day and month, then students can locate their combined glyph. To create each vase, flatten a piece of self-hardening craft clay (with a diameter of about 4") into a base. Coil more pieces of clay into 8 “snakes.” Place the first coil around the base, then stack each additional coil on top. Blend with moist fingers inside and out. Before the clay dries, add a glyph with acrylic paint.


Modern Maya Pen Pals

More than six million Maya descendants still live in the Yucatán Peninsula. Many of these modern Maya incorporate the customs of their ancestors into their daily lives. To learn more, invite students to write letters to Maya children c/o the Maya Education Foundation. Send letters in Spanish to Armando J. Alfonzo Utrilla, Rt. 106, House 076, P.O. Box 38, S. Woodstock, VT 05071-0038.


Maya Feast

MAYA FACT: The Maya ate lots of different foods — including peppers, beans, squash, and fruit — but served corn at each meal. Maya women made cakes by grinding corn kernels into zacan, a thick dough cooked on a stone comal.
The Maya also made salsa from tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, and juice from sour oranges. They called this spicy mixture Xni Pec. For the Hanal Pixan festival — also known as the Day of the Dead — the Maya prepared a large meal of zacan stuffed with meat, beans, and chili peppers wrapped in cornhusks and steamed. Today, this food is known as tamales. And did you know that the Maya loved chocolate? They cultivated a tree that grew the cacao bean, which was ground into a fine powder and mixed with water. They added vanilla, honey, and a variety of ground chili peppers to make a spicy chocolate drink. Only royalty drank this beverage.
ACTIVITY: Invite your students to a Maya feast! It´s easy to buy corn-flour tortillas, but more fun to make them as the Maya did. See "Maya Feast Recipes" for a quick how-to. As students are munching, read aloud The Corn Grows Ripe, by Dorothy Rhoads (Puffin, 1993). If you have more time, check out the recipes for salsa, tamales, and chili chocolate drink for a full Maya banquet to culminate your Maya unit. Remember to take a poll after everyone samples the chili chocolate; then challenge students to calculate what percentage of the class liked the drink and what percentage did not.