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Mexicolore contributor Cara Grace Tremain

RESOURCE: Ancient Maya clothing

We are sincerely grateful to Cara Grace Tremain, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, studying ancient Maya dress and identity, and Field Director of the Ka’Kabish Archaeological Research Project in Belize, where she has worked since 2010, for this illuminating introductory article on ancient Maya dress.

Pic 1: Maya noble, from lintel 24 at Yaxhilan; illustration by Krystyna Deuss
Pic 1: Maya noble, from lintel 24 at Yaxhilan; illustration by Krystyna Deuss (Click on image to enlarge)

What did the ancient Maya wear?
The ancient Maya are well-known for their exotic, vibrant, appearances and practice of unusual body modifications. They exploited the materials available to them in their tropical environments to manufacture colourful textiles and striking ornamentation. They produced a wide range of outfits for different occasions, including lavish dress for large public events; vibrant dance costumes; protective armour for conflicts; sporting attire; and simpler, yet no less sophisticated, clothing for everyday situations.

Pic 2: Stela H, Copan archaeological site, Honduras
Pic 2: Stela H, Copan archaeological site, Honduras (Click on image to enlarge)

Public Events
During large public events, where the community would come together to witness the performance of rituals or other ceremonial duties, the ruling elite would wear large, lavish, outfits to reflect their important positions in society. These outfits would include large feathered headdresses, jade jewellery, and clothing made from the skins of dangerous animals (such as jaguars). Images of such lavish outfits are often seen on carved monuments set in public areas of ancient Maya sites, for all the community to see (see pic 2).

Pic 3: God Aprime dances in blood sacrifice costume as he 1) cuts his head with a stone knife, 2) uses a hand stone, and 3) transforms into the bee keeper; details from a Maya ceramic vase (K2942)
Pic 3: God Aprime dances in blood sacrifice costume as he 1) cuts his head with a stone knife, 2) uses a hand stone, and 3) transforms into the bee keeper; details from a Maya ceramic vase (K2942) (Click on image to enlarge)

Dance Costumes
Participants in celebratory dance events are often portrayed with very large costumes that encompass the body with an extravagant costume made of jade, feathers, and other exotic materials. In addition to large headdresses, dance participants often wore large backracks with long feathers. Despite the size of these costumes, they were designed to be light enough to move around with, so it is likely they had a light wooden frame onto which materials were attached.

Protective Armour
The ancient Maya regularly participated in wars and conflicts and developed protective clothing as a means of defense. These outfits involved a padded mantle (perhaps made from twisted cotton or thick leaves), often covered with animal skin, and accoutrements such as shields decorated with animal hide or feathers. Interestingly, ancient Maya scenes show war captives and prisoners stripped of much clothing and their ear jewellery replaced with strips of bark paper—which archaeologists take to be a sign of humiliation and defeat.

Pic 4: Ballgame scene, from a ceramic Maya vase (K1209)
Pic 4: Ballgame scene, from a ceramic Maya vase (K1209) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sporting Attire
The ballgame is a well-known Mesoamerican sport, and ballplayers wore specific and distinct attire. To reduce injury to the parts of the body which regularly came into contact with the hard rubber playing ball, a horseshoe-shaped yoke was worn around the waist and padding was worn around the knees and elbows. Scenes on painted pottery often show distinctive headdresses being worn to indicate which team a ballplayer belonged to (see pic 4).

Pic 5: Male and female Maya clothing
Pic 5: Male and female Maya clothing (Click on image to enlarge)

Everyday Clothing
Basic components of everyday dress included a loincloth or short skirt for men and a huipil or long skirt (perhaps paired with a quechquemitl) for women (see image to right). These outfits would often be embellished with jewellery such as bracelets and anklets, necklaces, and ear jewellery. Hairstyles were given much attention, and would be tied up (almost never left loose) and decorated with bands of fabric and long feathers. The ancient Maya show neatly maintained hairstyles in their art, suggesting that they may have put a stiffener in their hair to keep it in place.

Pic 6: Ear jewellery made from shell, jade and ceramic. Photo taken at the Maya Hidden Worlds Revealed Exhibit, Denver Museum of Art and Science, Colorado
Pic 6: Ear jewellery made from shell, jade and ceramic. Photo taken at the Maya Hidden Worlds Revealed Exhibit, Denver Museum of Art and Science, Colorado (Click on image to enlarge)

What evidence do we have for Maya dress?
Archaeologists often recover pieces of jewellery such as earrings, necklaces, and rings made from durable material such as shell, bone, precious stone, and even metal (see pic 6). Additionally, body modifications such as elongated heads and shaped and decorated teeth are recovered from ancient Maya burials (see pic 7). Unfortunately archaeologists rarely find evidence of textiles or attire made from perishable materials because the hot, humid, environment of the Maya region causes them to disintegrate. Fortunately, information about clothing that does not survive in the archaeological record can be seen in a wide range of Maya art including murals, ceramics, sculpture, figurines, and books (known as codices). These images show many elite Maya individuals but there is little information about the dress of lower classes, because they are not often portrayed in the art. Nevertheless, archaeologists assume that non-elites wore plainer clothing and did not have access to the full range of exotic materials seen in elite outfits.

Pic 7: Modified Maya skull, Museo Regional de Antropología, Palacio Canton, Mérida, Yucatán
Pic 7: Modified Maya skull, Museo Regional de Antropología, Palacio Canton, Mérida, Yucatán (Click on image to enlarge)

What materials did the ancient Maya use?
Animal Skins
Skins from various animals were turned into hides to decorate clothes and produce footwear. Jaguar hides were a favoured form of decoration because they were a reflection of wealth and power. The bones of animals were also used in the manufacture of various ornaments and jewellery.

Bird Feathers
The feathers of different birds were used to decorate headdresses and other items. Sometimes birds were trapped and bred and other times they were hunted and released. The Resplendent Quetzal was revered for its long iridescent green tail feathers, which were often used to decorate headdresses and backracks (see pic 8).

Pic 8: Resplendent Quetzal
Pic 8: Resplendent Quetzal (Click on image to enlarge)

Insects
Cochineal insects were used to produce a red colourant that could be used as a dye, paint, and cosmetic.

Plants
Fibres from various plants, such as cotton and agave, were used to produce fabrics, and other parts of the plants including seeds, sap, leaves, and flowers, were also used as medicines and food.

Pic 9: Metal ring excavated from the site of Ka’Kabish, Belize
Pic 9: Metal ring excavated from the site of Ka’Kabish, Belize (Click on image to enlarge)

Metal
It was not until around 1000 A.D. that metal was introduced into the Maya area from West Mexico (which had received the technology via maritime trade from South America) but it soon came to be an important material for the manufacture of ornamentation, including rings (pic 9) and bells.

Pic 10: Spondylus princeps from the Sea of Cortez, Mexico
Pic 10: Spondylus princeps from the Sea of Cortez, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Shell
Both freshwater and marine shell were used to make jewellery, containers, and mosaics. Spondylus shell (see pic 10), which has a vibrant red exterior and shiny white interior, seems to have been the most valuable and has been found in many burials and important offerings.

Stone
Jade and obsidian were used to decorate clothing and manufacture jewellery. Both were exotic stones that were traded over long distances throughout Mesoamerica. Obsidian was also used as a tool since it is very sharp and there are examples in ancient Maya art for its use in sacrifices and other rituals.

Pic 11: Spindle and spindle whorl. Photo taken at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
Pic 11: Spindle and spindle whorl. Photo taken at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (Click on image to enlarge)

How did they make their clothes?
Fabrics and Textiles
To make fabric from agave plants the Maya had to extract fibres from the leaves. To do this they had to soak or cook the leaves to tenderize them, which allowed fibres to be extracted and then dried in the sun. The fibres could be spun into threads of different thicknesses. Thicker threads may have been used to create a fabric that acted as a stiffener for belts or head ribbons. To make fabric from cotton plants, the cotton fibre has to be hand-picked from the plant and cleaned so it is clear and uniform. Then it must be prepared for spinning, in a process known as ginning, by beating the fibre to loosen it. Both cotton and agave fibres had to be spun into thread so that they could be woven into textiles. The ancient Maya used spindles and spindle whorls to do this (see pic 11). The spindle is a long stick that has a whorl attached to the end. Whorls could be made from clay, bone, or wood, and they are used to maintain or increase the speed of the spin. The spindle is turned with one hand while the other hand feeds the raw fibre to it with the supply over the shoulder or from a container on the ground.

Pic 12: Backstrap loom, San Juan Chamula, Mexico
Pic 12: Backstrap loom, San Juan Chamula, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Once spun, thread was woven into textiles using a backstrap loom like those that are still used by modern Maya today (see pic 12). The upper part of the loom can be tied to a stationary object such as a tree, and the lower part has a belt which is tied around the weaver’s waist. They are very light and portable and can be taken with the weaver wherever he/she travels. The looms are not very wide however so broad strips of cloth cannot be woven on them and several widths of cloth may have to be sewn together to create one piece of clothing. Similar to modern clothing worn by Maya women, ancient Maya textiles were not cut to shape and did not fit snugly to the body but were instead loosely draped around the body.

Pic 13: Extract of natural indigo applied to paper
Pic 13: Extract of natural indigo applied to paper (Click on image to enlarge)

Dyes and Colourants
The ancient Maya made colourful textiles from different coloured threads. Since the natural colour of agave and cotton fibre is white, yellow, or light brown, dyes were added to achieve other colours and were derived from plants, animals, and minerals. One of the most challenging natural dyes that the ancient Maya worked with was indigo. The blue colour lies in the leaves of the indigo plant and has to be extracted by composting the leaves for months or by soaking them in water. The resulting paste has to be processed further because it is not soluble in water and can only dye fibres after it has been converted to its colourless reduced form by special bacteria, achieved by placing the indigo into an alkaline solution with other bacteria that consume the oxygen—the alkaline solution can be urine, and the bacteria can be rotting meat. When fabric is submerged in this final solution it turns yellowish-green but transforms to blue when it is removed and exposed to oxygen.

Pic 14: Dyeing with one of the last ancestral Purpura (murex) dyers on the planet on the coast of Oaxaca
Pic 14: Dyeing with one of the last ancestral Purpura (murex) dyers on the planet on the coast of Oaxaca (Click on image to enlarge)

An easier natural dye that the ancient Maya worked with was that obtained from marine molluscs. Plicopurpura pansa were used to obtain a purple colour, by crushing, boiling, or milking the shells to extract the dye. To milk the shell, the mollusc is poked with a pin or other implement until it releases drops of thick liquid. The liquid is a whiteish colour but when it is applied to fibre and exposed to light and oxygen it turns to purple (see pic 14). Another dye that the ancient Maya obtained from a living organism was cochineal red. Female cochineal insects live on the leaves of cactus and they can be collected, dried, and crushed to produce dye ranging in colour from orange, red, to purple. This dye is still used today in food and cosmetics, such as Starbucks beverages!

Pic 15: Jaina figurine of woman weaving on backstrap loom
Pic 15: Jaina figurine of woman weaving on backstrap loom (Click on image to enlarge)

Who made Maya clothes?
We find evidence for textile manufacture from both elite and lower class areas of archaeological sites, so we can assume that most people were involved in the production of textiles. However, it is likely that the elite had access to finer fabrics such as cotton and lower classes relied on coarser fabrics such as that made from agave. We often see images of females involved in textile production (see pic 15), and many items associated with manufacture are found within, although not exclusively, female burials.
There were likely specialist dress manufacturers skilled in creating particular outfits, such as large, intricate, headdresses or backracks. The specialists would have developed ways to make these outfits light enough to wear yet appear very rich and heavy. Elites likely commissioned specialists to make outfits for important occasions.

Pic 16: Detail showing stacks of cloth - part of a tribute scene from a Maya ceramic vase (K8526)
Pic 16: Detail showing stacks of cloth - part of a tribute scene from a Maya ceramic vase (K8526) (Click on image to enlarge)

Were there other uses for clothes and jewellery?
The ancient Maya used cloth, likely cotton, as a tribute item and stacks of cloth are often seen in tribute scenes on ancient Maya vases (see pic 16). Therefore it was an important part of the economy and political transactions. It is also likely that beads made from precious stones such as jade were used as currency. Additionally, some pieces of jewellery such as necklaces or pendants may have been kept for several generations as heirloom pieces.

Pic 17: A dignitary from the Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque; illustration by Krystyna Deuss
Pic 17: A dignitary from the Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque; illustration by Krystyna Deuss (Click on image to enlarge)

Further Reading
• Anawalt, Patricia R. 2000: Three Thousand Years of Mesoamerica Clothing. In Chalchihuitl in Quetzalli. Precious Greenstone, Precious Quetzal Feather: Mesoamerican Studies in Honor of Doris Heyden, edited by E. Q. Keber, pp. 183-203. Labyrinthos, Lancaster, California.
• Holsbeke, Mireille and Julia Montoya (editors) 2003: With Their Hands and Their Eyes: Maya Textiles, Mirrors of a Worldview. Etnografisch Museum, Antwerp.
• Mahler, Joy. 1965: Garments and Textiles of the Maya Lowlands. In Handbook of Middle American
Indians Volume 3: Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica
(Part Two), edited by Gordon R. Willey, pp. 581-593. University of Texas Press, Austin.
• Mayer, Karl Herbert 1983: Dental Decoration among the Pre-Columbian Maya. Organorama 20(2):15-20.
• Morris, Walter F. 1985: Warped glyphs: A reading of Maya textiles. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, edited by E. P. Benson, pp. 317-324. Precolumbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.
• Reents-Budet, Dorie 1991: The “Homul Dancer” Theme in Maya Art. In Sixth Palenque Round Table, 1986, edited by M. G. Robertson, pp. 217-222. University of Oaklahoma Press, Norman.
• Robertson, Merle Greene 1985: “57 Varieties”: The Palenque Beauty Salon. In Fourth Palenque Round Table 1980, edited by M. G. R. a. E. P. Benson, pp. 29-44. Precolumbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco, California.
• Scheville, Margot Blue, Janet Catherine Berlo and Edward B. Dwyer (editors) 1991: Textile Traditions of Mesoamerica and the Andes: An Anthology. Garland, New
York.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 & 17: illustrations by and courtesy of Krystyna Deuss after Francis Robicsek
• Pix 2, 5, 11 & 12: Photos by and courtesy of the author
• Pix 3, 4 & 16: Images by © and courtesy of Justin Kerr, from the Mayavase Database
• Pic 6: Photo by and courtesy of Jim Dora Cash
• Pic 7: Photo by and courtesy of Karl Herbert Mayer
• Pic 8: Photo by and courtesy of Steve Bird/Birdseekers
• Pic 9: Photo by and courtesy of Toni Gonzalez
• Pic 10: Image from Wikipedia (Spondylus)
• Pic 13: Image from Wikipedia (Indigo)
• Pic 14: Photo by and courtesy of Eric Mindling/traditionsmexico.com
• Pic 15: Image from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/jaina-seated-figurines.htm.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 23rd 2014

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Mexicolore replies: There is a good, brief, illustrated passage on Stela 4 at Machaquila in the excellent book ‘Reading Maya Art’ by Andrea Stone and Mark Zender (Thames & Hudson, 2011). In it they look at the water-lily motif in the king’s headdress. The whole book is superb.