Maya visual identify was more than skin deep. Most Maya people in the classic period had their heads artificially shaped when they were babies. 90% of skulls found from the classic period were molded into one of 14 different forms. The population of a given community would all have the same shape and this was often based on the head form of their patron gods. For example, the Maize God’s corncob shape and the Merchant God’s more erect form were particular favorites. Within a given community there was no difference in shape between men and women, though the oblique corncob shape of the Maize God was often reserved for the most elite.
There were a number of methods used to achieve head shaping. These included straps, wraps and a wooden head press. The process usually began just after birth and continued for a couple of years until the desired shape was reached or, presumably, until the child simply refused to wear the apparatus.
The 16th century Spanish writer, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo asked the Maya why they shaped babies heads. The response he received was: “Because our ancestors were told by the gods that if our heads are thus formed, we should appear handsome and better able to bear burdens.”
Ancient Maya Beauty Secrets
– trained when she was a child to look inwards, emulating the Sun God.
False nose bridge made of clay, plaster or jade to streamline her profile.
Flamboyant headdress made of jade, wood, woven fabric, feathers, paper and animal hide.
Elaborate hairstyle adorned with shells, feathers, and beads.
- Maya nobility had their teeth filed into various shapes and inlaid with jewels.
tattoos. and body paint.
Pierced ears – with huge jade ear spools.
Heavy jewelry made of jade and precious stones.
when she was a baby to look like a corn cob.
This is Lady Kabal Xook or Earthly Shark, principal wife of Itzamnaaj Bahlam II (aka Shield Jaguar), king of Yaxchilan. She's power dressed for a bloodletting ceremony. Let's see what she's endured to look good the ancient Maya way.
Hand woven cotton textiles.
Maya dentists performed many of the procedures offered by modern dentists, such as filling cavities, scraping tartar and extracting teeth. They also performed a more unusual range of procedures such as decorative shaping and gemstone inlays.
Maya people from all levels of society had their teeth filed into points and various shapes. The elite went one step further and drilled holes into their teeth to display colorful gemstone inlays made of jadeite, hematite, turquoise, quartz, and cinnabar.
The result may have looked cool, but the process was extremely painful. The fact that they were able to do such fine work speaks to an amazing knowledge of tooth anatomy.
The Maya found slightly crossed eyes beautiful. To encourage this desirable feature, high status Maya women would hang a wax bead between their baby’s eyes to attract them to look inwards. It’s believed that this was done to emulate Kinich Ahaw the cross-eyed sun god.
How Do We Know All This?
Although no clothing or headdresses have survived from the Maya classic period, we still have a good idea of how the Maya elite dressed due to the many painted pots which depict palace scenes (see right). Moreover, Maya people were usually buried with their jewelry (ear spools, necklaces, etc) and as these are often made of stone or shells they have survived the humid rainforest conditions. As with the stone carving of Lady Kabal Xook above, kings and queens often had their portraits carved into stone monuments by highly skilled artists. These provide us with a detailed view of how they dressed and looked.
Archaeologists have studied thousands of skeletal remains of the ancient Maya to determine each individual’s gender, age, health, skull shape, and when they died.
In this scene from a Maya painted drinking vessel, a Maya ruler checks himself out in a mirror held by an attendant. Meanwhile, another attendant paints his body red.
Photo by Justin Kerr: K0764
The teeth in these skeletons are usually shaped into a range of designs, and the elite often have inlaid gem stones.
In his book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, Friar Diego de Landa provides a first hand account of how the Maya dressed at the time of the conquest. It's from here we get descriptions of the wooden cradle boards the Maya used to deform their babies’ heads, the process of hanging beads to get babies’ eyes to cross, and the pain the Maya endured to have their teeth filed.
A section of Yaxchilan lintel 25. This photograph has been colorized to bring out the details of the stone carving.
In the Maya world, a person’s identity was expressed by what they wore and how they adorned themselves. Their clothing, the designs in the fabric, their jewelry and headdresses, the colors and patterns of their body paint, and even the shapes they filed their teeth into, were carefully chosen and designed to communicate where they were from, their job, their social status and their gender. Who you were, and what you did, defined every aspect of your look.
Maya society, and nobles in particular, participated in a rigorous yearly schedule of religious ceremonies and rituals. For each ceremony, the participants had to dressed in the particular clothing and costumes appropriate for that event. The queen above is conducting a ritual blood letting and she dressed for the part.
You Are What You Wear
The Language of Headdresses
One of the most important elements of a Maya outfit was the headdress. They were like a personal mobile billboard advertising the identity and status of the wearer.
Ballplayers and warriors often rocked flamboyant animal headdresses to invest themselves with the spirit and characteristics of their chosen creature. The higher your status, the cooler the animals you were permitted to wear on your headdress. Jaguars and hummingbirds were reserved for the elite; the lower ranks might sport deer, vultures or peccaries.
Higher status also meant the headdresses were made from more luxurious materials like jaguar pelt, jade, and the highly-prized, iridescent blue-green tail feathers of the quetzal bird. The elements of the headdress were designed to communicate features of the individual and often expressed elements of the person’s name and titles. These massive headdresses were not designed for comfort. Elite skeletons have been found showing evidence of cranial deformations caused by the frequent wearing of heavy headdresses. Some headdresses were so heavy, they had to be supported by back racks.
For a king’s coronation, the headdress would not be the regal crown you might expect, but rather a simple headband made of bark paper with one solitary jade jewel. It might sound relatively humble, but it echoes the attire of the mythical Hero Twins, and was therefore imbued with huge symbolic power. Only royalty could dress up as a god and become one with them in rituals. The painting (above right) shows King Yajawte’ K’inich impersonating a solar deity, dressed in a costume made of jaguar pelts.
Maya kings and queens often project their power by depicting themselves on monuments standing over, or even on top of, war captives. These unfortunate victims, often a rival king or noble, are shown dressed in peasant loincloths. In their ears, strips of paper have been pulled through the holes where their jade ear spools would have hung. If dressing creates identity and projects power, then stripping an individual of their garb is designed to diminish and humiliate them. The appearance of the captives is a clear statement that their power and identity have been taken from them. You can read how we created a Maya king's costume .
King Yajawte’ K’inich - captor of Ik’ Bul dances a ritual in a jaguar costume. The text says he’s impersonating the solar deity Wuk Chapaht Tz’ikiin K’inich Ahaw.
Photograph by Justin Kerr K533
Wak Chan Ahaw (Lady Six Sky) of Tikal standing on a war captive. The only clue to the captive's identity is the name glyphs on his stomach.
drawing by L.Schele