Mayan culture is a complex mixture of cultural values and religious beliefs which can be seen in the architecture and archaeology we can see today. There are many examples in which Mayan culture can be seen through their buildings, such as their limestone platforms which are believed to have been used to perform religious rites in public. But the Mayans did not keep all their culture to the public sphere – there is evidence that the culture went right through into the home. The purpose of this paper is to explore the interment of family members beneath floors or within platforms found in their domestic spheres. The evidence supports the idea that the burial of family members within property is a way of strengthening the links that the family has to the property itself and a way of keeping the souls of these ancestors close to home for cultural continuity.
For the Maya, ancestors played a crucial role in culture. Ancestors were worshipped in several celebrations, including not only the physical remains of the individual but their names, souls and sacred bundles left behind (Carlsen & Prechtel, 1991). These ancestors are seen to be the patrons of the lineage, and as such are adorned with spiritual properties fitting of this title. The most important ancestors within Maya society are the royals, with the Yucatec kingship being particularly influential. Around the year 1500, the remains (from cremation) of male members of Yucatec households were incorporated into wooden idols which could then be placed on a domestic altar. These idols were then used in ritual feedings on important religious occasions (Pohl, 1981). However, the importance of ancestors is not limited to these “important” families – many structures associated with lay families also show evidence of ancestor worship.
This veneration for ancestors does not only seem to be linked to their spiritual properties, but can be viewed as a form of keeping continuity within the community. The family or the lineage is an important way of organizing society, as it designates individuals into neat kinship groups. These groups are associated with their houses (or domestic dwellings) as these were generally kept in one family group throughout the ages. It is believed that prehispanic Maya used the burial of ancestors within the structure as a way of keeping the property in these set kinship groups (Gillespie, 2000) – it could not be transferred outside of the family due to the importance of the ancestral remains found within. In this sense, the Maya kinship group can be seen as a corporate entity which has assets such as these ancestral remains and domestic dwellings (Gillespie, 2000).
Gillespie (2002) provides further insight into the reason for using ancestral remains as a way of strengthening rights to properties. By burying remains within the domestic dwelling, it is believed that Mayan families were able to keep close relationships with the non-physical elements of the individual. In this sense, the ancestors were kept around so that their spiritual properties would remain part of the family after their death. In Maya tradition, names and souls from the deceased were believed to be transferred to newborns within the family group as an “expression of group continuity” (Gillespie, 2002, p67). Again, this is further evidence that the physical structures of the Mayan groups were important expressions of their culture and a way of strengthening relationships with both property and the dead.
It is also posited that there may be a safeguarding role for these domestic burials. As the ancestors were so important to Maya families, it follows that their physical remains, spiritual elements and material possession would have been too (Smith, 1987). Indeed, some evidence suggests that many families did inter material possessions as part of these domestic mausoleums (Smith, 1987). In this sense, keeping ancestral remains close to the family is a way of safeguarding it from outsiders – the remains and the associated material goods are kept away from potential thieves or damage. Additionally, the spirits that are associated with these ancestors are also kept close because then they can be kept ready for reincarnation into later family members (Gillespie, 2002) – again, the purpose of keeping them within the family home is to keep them safe for later generations.
Evidently, Maya culture is incredibly complex and there are many elements to keeping ancestral remains within the household. However, keeping these ancestors as part of the family home structure is evidently linked to elements of Maya culture, such as veneration of ancestors, belief in reincarnation and cultural continuation. The main purpose of keeping these remains as part of the family dwelling is that it strengthens the relationship that the family has with the home, thus ensuring that they can lay claim to it belonging to the family. Additionally, burial of the ancestors within the home is also a way of ensuring that their spirits are also kept as part of the family, including their non-physical remains such as name, soul or spirit. A final cultural role for this practice is that it seems to be a way of protecting important ancestors and their components from outsiders. It allows the spirit to be kept safe for reincarnation into younger family members as well as keeping material possessions safe from thieves. Overall, it is evident that the private dwelling is an important part of Mayan culture and the use of the structure as a mausoleum or burial ground strengthens this importance within the social structures of the community.
- Carlsen, R. S., & Prechtel, M. (1991). The flowering of the dead: an interpretation of highland Maya Culture. Man, 23–42.
- Gillespie, S. D. (2000). Rethinking Ancient Maya Social Organization: Replacing “Lineage” with “House.” American Anthropologist, 102(3), 467–484.
- Gillespie, S. D. (2002). Chapter 4. Body and Soul among the Maya: Keeping the Spirits in Place. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 11(1), 67–78.
- Pohl, M. (1981). Ritual continuity and transformation in Mesoamerica: Reconstructing the ancient Maya cuch ritual. American Antiquity, 513–529.
- Smith, M. E. (1987). Household possessions and wealth in agrarian states: Implications for archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 6(4), 297–335.