As requested by tumblr user crabbadon.

There were essentially two tiers of craftsmanship in ancient Maya society (by “ancient Maya society” I mean here basically any of the time periods in which Maya society was divided into elite and nonelite classes, basically the pre-classic period to a century or so after initial Spanish colonization).

The first form was the basic level of craftsmanship exhibited by more or less all individual families. Both women and men in your average Maya household made some kinds of crafts, in addition to their subsistence activities, for both their own use and for trading with others: pottery, utensils, and textiles, mostly. In poorer families and more rural locations, they mostly would just make what their own family needed. In larger areas however, families might individually specialize. So you’d have the family that was known for their pottery, and another family that made really beautiful fabric, and people would trade their own goods for others. This kind of economy continues in a similar fashion in modern Maya communities.

There was also, however, a large amount of crafts produced specially for the Maya nobility and royalty. Some of this came in the form of tribute from commoners–pottery in particular would be made by peasant families, then sent off to be painted by more trained artisans. These skilled craftspeople, both men and women, constituted a kind of intermediate class in society, about at the same rank of merchants, being wealthier than the average commoner but not holding any special title. Such families often had an extra building that they used as a workshop in their housing compound.

Often, however, nobles and royals themselves would sponsor artists to come work in their own workshops to produce highly skilled luxury goods. These were often monuments that served as propaganda for the political leaders, or religiously significant items needed for major ceremonies. The nobility kept a tight control over religious artifacts in particular, so that commoners needed to participate in the system of tribute in order to live a successful religious life. The result of this was that Maya crafts tended to be very cohesive in style within particular cities or provinces, creating large regional blocs that could be easily distinguished.

Some examples of Maya craftsmanship:


ceramics from Tikal, 300-400 BC


stela 11 from Kaminaljuyu, 200-50 BC