The Gold of the Maya

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The peoples of the pre-Columbian Americas were the best jewelers of the ancient and medieval world. In particular, the Maya made unique gold jewelry inlaid with precious stones.

Unfortunately, Spanish conquistadors were interested only in the metal itself, not in the sophisticated refinement of the pieces. They would simply melt down all the gold they captured to make gold bars to be transported to Europe.

Mayan gold jewelry is now very rare, and there are only a few museums in the world where you can see such pieces. Up until recently, there were just a few dozen bits known, until a unique treasure trove was discovered during underwater excavations in the 20th century. A sacred ancient well revealed a large number of artistic pieces made of gold and other materials.

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Mayas had a written language, created art, built unusual structures, and practiced mathematics and astronomy. Long before the arrival of Columbus, they built the most advanced structure in the New World. For example, the Maya began to use zero in their calculations long before the Europeans, and their astronomical calendar was far more precise than that of medieval Europe. The Yucatan peninsula and most of Central America were home to dozens of cities, hundreds of majestic temples, and thousands of monumental walls that were very unusual for the age. In terms of fantasy, Maya architects were even ahead of many in Europe, and now their creations attract thousands of tourists every year. Maya priests used a hieroglyphic form of writing.

The only Maya manuscript that can be viewed nowadays is known as the Dresden Codex and stored in the Dresden library. It was purchased from a private collection in 1739, though how it ended up in Europe in the first place is still a mystery.

German scholar Joachim Rittstieg spent 40 years studying the numerical codes and combinations of pictures and signs contained in the codex. Some years ago he finally managed to decipher the 'ancient message' and identify the location of the so-called 'golden library' of Maya wisdom. According to Rittstieg and the manuscript, eastern Guatemala was home to one of the most important Mayan cities, Atlan. There is a cache of 2,156 tablets of pure gold with wise sayings by priests and rulers inscribed on them. The knowledge was preserved on gold to pass it on to the future generations. Now, Joachim Rittstieg is looking for investors to organize a research expedition in Guatemala.

Most Maya manuscripts were destroyed by the invaders, and only a few have survived. Written on paper made of Ficus bark, they were mercilessly burned by the Spanish, led by a monk called Diego de Landa. He is the author of the Report of the Affairs of Yucatan – a document that describes the barbaric destruction of the cultural heritage, as well as the life, culture, and rituals of the Maya.

Landa's work – or, rather, a particular ritual described in it – attracted the interest of American scholar Edward H. Thompson. During times of drought, the Maya would sacrifice people to the angry gods by throwing them into a well, together with gold and precious stones. This ritual survived for centuries, leading Thompson to the hypothesis that gold jewelry and other items could be found at the bottom of such a well. He got a diving permit and bought a dredging machine with a 30-fee lever. In the well, Thompson found a large number of jewelry pieces and golden disks with reliefs featuring episodes from Mayan history.

According to legends, large hordes of Mayan gold that was hidden from the Spanish is still somewhere out there in Central America, waiting to be discovered.

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