General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Jul 2018/2 Rain
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.5.11.19 - 2040 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

Mexicolore contributor Eleanor King

RESOURCE: Maya markets

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. Eleanor King, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Howard University, Washington (USA) for writing specially for us this most useful introductory article on (ancient) Maya markets. In a second, forthcoming, article for us, Professor King explores the reasons behind the surprising lack of evidence for pre-Hispanic Maya markets in the archaeological record.

Pic 1: A typical English farmers’ market
Pic 1: A typical English farmers’ market (Click on image to enlarge)

Have you ever been to a market? Have you threaded your way through people crowded at small stands selling everything from food to art at a farmers’ market or a holiday, religious, or school fair? Most of us have had that experience, whether the market was inside or outside, large or small. Even our modern malls could be called a type of market, with their many stores opening up onto a common concourse. People in the past had markets, too, all over the world. The Maya were no exception, though it took scholars a while to realize that (see “The Maya Market Mystery”*).

Pic 2: Reconstruction of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco
Pic 2: Reconstruction of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco (Click on image to enlarge)

So, what did Maya markets look like? Though the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco now lies buried beneath Mexico City, we have some idea of it thanks to descriptions left by the Spanish conquistadors. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, for example, reported that even two days would not be enough for a visitor to see everything (Léon-Portilla 1962:25). We also have plans of its layout, showing that food was sold in one part, precious items such as featherwork and jade in another, pottery and more everyday wares in yet another (Feldman 1978). We have no such record of Maya markets, however, beyond the facts that they once existed and that the Maya loved to trade (see “The Maya Market Mystery”*). However, recent advances in archaeological techniques and new information from projects all over the Maya area have begun to fill in the gaps. Using that information and comparing it to what we know about markets from other parts of the world, we can begin to draw a picture of what typical Maya markets looked like and how they operated.

Pic 3: Drawing of the market at Tikal. The market is the large enclosed rectangle with further divisions inside in the center of the East Plaza. The enlarged section clearly shows the internal stall divisions
Pic 3: Drawing of the market at Tikal. The market is the large enclosed rectangle with further divisions inside in the center of the East Plaza. The enlarged section clearly shows the internal stall divisions (Click on image to enlarge)

The first thing to remember is that there was a lot of variability in the Maya area. There was no single economy or way of doing things. Markets, like everything else, therefore differed from site to site and region to region. Some markets were permanent like the ones at the great sites of Tikal (Guatemala) (see pix 3 & 7) and, probably, Calakmul (Mexico). In those cities every day was a market day. Many markets, however, only occurred periodically. That means that different cities in a region took turns hosting the market on different days of the week, so that the market itself actually moved around from place to place. It means that markets probably occurred at small and medium-sized sites, too, though the evidence for that is still incomplete. Travelers can observe the same pattern today in the mountains of Guatemala, where the city of Antigua hosts a permanent market, but other towns only have markets on certain days of the week.

Pic 4: Pottery figure of a Maya market seller, Veracruz region
Pic 4: Pottery figure of a Maya market seller, Veracruz region (Click on image to enlarge)

Similarly, there were wide variations in the types of vendors that sold in Maya markets. In the small, local markets you might have found only a few crafts people, farmers, storekeepers, and peddlers, with maybe occasionally a merchant who traveled within the broader region. In a large regional and/or city market you might have found the long-distance traders as well, those who traveled far and wide in the Maya area and beyond to bring back rare and often expensive goods.

Pic 5: The West Plaza at the Maya site of Maax Na, Belize, likely held a market. It is linked to the rest of the site by a raised causeway/road and the main entrance to it is marked by Stela 2 (left, arrowed on map), a plain monument
Pic 5: The West Plaza at the Maya site of Maax Na, Belize, likely held a market. It is linked to the rest of the site by a raised causeway/road and the main entrance to it is marked by Stela 2 (left, arrowed on map), a plain monument (Click on image to enlarge)

Within Maya sites, markets were usually located in the city or town centers, but not in the main ceremonial plaza. Rather, they took place in easily reached side plazas. Although market plazas probably served other purposes when the market was not in session, it was important that the space be kept separate from the main ceremonial activities at the site, because markets are often liminal (“in-between”) or marginal areas where the usual social rules do not apply. For example, in Kinshasa, Ghana, where men are generally in charge in public, women alone rule the market. Similarly, in the Maya area women are more visible in the markets than in other parts of public life. Often a monument or signpost of some kind (pic 5) marks the separation between the market space and the rest of the site, to signal “different space, different rules.”

Pic 6: Artist’s impression of Maya load carriers arriving at a market laden with goods
Pic 6: Artist’s impression of Maya load carriers arriving at a market laden with goods (Click on image to enlarge)

Though they were separated from other activities at a site, market plazas had to be easy to travel to (pic 6). They were therefore usually near important roads or even at crossroads. Entrances were restricted, though, with usually only one main entrance marked by the monument or signpost. Limiting access to the market was a way for the elite at a site - those in power - to control the flow of goods and people. They could thus tax merchants and visitors alike. Otherwise, the elite do not seem to have interfered in the functioning of markets, maybe in part because different social rules prevailed there. Instead, supervising the market would have been a market manager. This person might have been a merchant, too, and/or drawn from the ranks of the lower elite.
Besides a separate space and restricted entrances, other requirements for a Maya market included the presence of water nearby, either in a well in the market or in a pond or reservoir right next to it. Merchants would have needed regular access to water to prepare food and to clean up after a busy day.

Pic 7: Artist’s reconstruction of the market at Tikal; illustration by Peter Speir
Pic 7: Artist’s reconstruction of the market at Tikal; illustration by Peter Speir (Click on image to enlarge)

Within market plazas the architecture was distinct from that in other parts of the same site. Markets had special buildings that served specific functions, beginning with market stalls. These were usually lined up in rows, with some of them forming the outside perimeter of the market. Some of the stalls were permanent and could have been used for storage as well as for selling. Others were temporary structures that could easily be put up and taken down. How elaborate a stall was would depend on the type of market. At some sites, like Tikal with its daily market, sturdy stone buildings served as market stalls (pic 7). At other sites, where the market only happened once a week or once a month, removable stalls would have been necessary to allow the plaza to be used for other things.

Pic 8: The woven reed mat (artist’s illustration) so ubiquitous in Mesoamerican markets, even today
Pic 8: The woven reed mat (artist’s illustration) so ubiquitous in Mesoamerican markets, even today (Click on image to enlarge)

The type of vendor would also help determine the type of stall. Full-time merchants, especially those who traveled long-distance, would need a place to store their goods while they were away getting more. Part-time vendors would have used more temporary structures or even just mats (pic 8) laid out on the ground. These merchants would have included crafts people whose main job was making pots and tools and farmers who occasionally sold their extra produce in the market.

Pic 9: Modern Maya markets today, such as the one at Chichicastenango, Guatemala, still take place in a plaza with a shrine nearby - in this case, the church
Pic 9: Modern Maya markets today, such as the one at Chichicastenango, Guatemala, still take place in a plaza with a shrine nearby - in this case, the church (Click on image to enlarge)

Other special buildings within a market would have include a so-called “judges’ stand” from which the market manager could oversee the market. That building might have been taller than the others and might have had unusual features such as broad viewing platforms so that the manager and his/her assistants could survey all the activities. Another important building would have been a shrine. We know from the Aztec and other cultures that both merchants and visitors liked to be able to pray and leave offerings to the gods to safeguard them, especially when they were traveling. Even today many important markets are held near a church (pic 9) or other sacred place, so that people can take care of both their religious and economic business at the same time.

Pic 10: Mural by Rina Lazo of classic Maya society, focussing on the sacred nature of food. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 10: Mural by Rina Lazo of classic Maya society, focussing on the sacred nature of food. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

What was sold in Maya markets? A little of everything! Most of the goods would have been perishable - food, either raw or cooked, cotton mantles, feather headdresses, and other organic materials that would rot and vanish quickly in the heat and humidity of the rainforest. We know they were present in bulk, though, because of two pieces of evidence. First, Christopher Columbus encountered a large Maya trading canoe off the coast of Yucatán during his fourth voyage to the New World. He described its contents in detail and most of what he listed were perishable items like the ones above. Second, soil scientists have recently helped archaeologists identify markets by showing that organic remains leave traces of phosphate behind. In a market, whether ancient or modern, people will tend to drop food as they buy and eat it in front of the stalls. Years later, traces of phosphates from that food will remain in the soil for scientists to find. The linear pattern the traces make can even show the rows where temporary market stalls were set up.

Pic 11: Ceramics emerging from the ground at an archaeologist’s dig
Pic 11: Ceramics emerging from the ground at an archaeologist’s dig (Click on image to enlarge)

Not all the goods sold in markets have disappeared, though. Many items, such as clay pots and stone tools, can still be found there as can the spots where crafts people sold them. Debris from resharpening old stone tools that clients brought to them or from making new ones mark the places where the flintknappers sat. Similarly, concentrations of ceramics of different kinds (pic 11) can show where potters sold their wares.
Despite all the things we know about Maya markets, it can still be hard to picture them. The market plazas are now all empty, the people long gone. For us to understand how lively they were we need to use our imaginations. Can you see the people in your mind? Can you hear the vendors calling out their wares and smell the food being cooked? Can you draw a Maya market?

References cited:-
• Feldman, Laurence H.
1978 Inside a Mexica Market. In Mesoamerican Communication Routes and Cultural Contacts, T. A. Lee Jr. and C. Navarrette, eds. Pp. 219–222. Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation, 40. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University.
• Léon-Portilla, Miguel
1962 La institución cultural del comercio prehispánico. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 3:23–54.
For further reading:-
• King, Eleanor M.
2018 Markets and the Maya: From Muddle to Metamorphosis in Our Models. The Codex 26(1-2):14-29.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Stock image from Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/en/market-vegetable-market-1558658/)
• Pic 2: ‘Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago’, photo by Joe Ravi (Wikipedia Creative Commons Share-Alike License CC-BY-SA 3.0)
• Pic 3: Drawing courtesy of the Tikal Archaeological Project, Penn Museum, USA
• Pic 4: Photo © and courtesy of Justin Kerr, image no. 1865 (‘Woman Market Vendor’) in Kerr’s ‘A Precolumbian Portfolio’ (www.mayavase.com)
• Pic 5: Photo (L) and drawing (R) by Leslie Shaw
• Pic 6: Illustration commissioned by Mexicolore from Steve Radzi
• Pic 7: Illustration by Peter E. Spier/National Geographic Creative
• Pic 8: Illustration commissioned by Mexicolore from Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 9: Photo ‘Chichicastenango, Guatemala, Summer 1997. Market on steps of Santo Tomas Church’ by Gabridelca~commonswik (Wikimedia Creative Commons)
• Pic 10: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 11: Photo by and courtesy of Eleanor King.

* Forthcoming...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 10th 2018

Learn more about the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco...

Feedback button