Maya art produced before the European invasion should be viewed with a careful eye. These antquities cannot be legally exported from any country where they are likely to be found. Much of the ancient Maya art distributed around the world has a questionable background. This includes the 10,000 or so pieces dredged from the sacred cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico by the US consul and smuggled out via diplomatic pouch in the 1930's. Stevens (another US diplomat) and Catherwood made 2 trips to Central America and Mexico in 1839 and 1841. They visited 44 Maya cities in all, and stole something from every one of them. Forunately, Catherwood also created some powerful drawings that continue to inspire generations to explore the mystery of the Maya. Some include depictions of the Mayas. After 322 years of contiuous effort to wipe any trace from the face of the earth, a European drew a Maya before the deed was done. There is no earlier record of what the Maya looked like.
3 muraled rooms were found at Bomapak, Mexico by Giles Healy in 1946. They date from about 750 AD. In 2003 another was found at San Bartolo, Guatemala. It is about 750 years older. This pre-classic Sistine Chapel is a magnificent work whose graceful flowing lines depict scenes from the creation myth, and contain the 7 oldest known glyphs, arranged in a column in the lower left corner.
At Quirigua, Guatemala there is a carved stella that was tipped over shortly after it was carved and spent 1000 years or so lying face down in the mud, which posture protected it from erosion. It stands 35 feet tall and weighs 65 tons, making it the largest stone known to be quarried by the Maya. It was carved while in an upright position, and its details are in better condition than the carvings at Copan.
The plaza at Copan, Honduras with its beautfully carved three dimensional stellae leading up to the 2200 glyph stairway, contains the best of the classic period carved limestone. The stairway, poorly built with very weak mortar, suffered a restoration in the 19th century which left less than 10% of its stones in the correct location. Thereafter, it was left uncovered for many years while acid rain eroded its glyphs. It is thought to record the dynastic history of the city, but the restoration and poor care make it impossible to read the whole story. It is in deplorable condition, though now covered.
Also at Copan is the beautifully preseved Rosalita temple. Its carved stone and plaster ornamentation and its paint job are nearly in original condition. Buried beneath its threshold were 9 pieces of flint, thought to be left as offerings to the gods. The flint is almost as hard as jade and more brittle than glass, yet the sculptor was able to coax complex spiriling shapes of amazing delicacy without metal tools and without shattering his work. Today no one can duplicate this with any known tool.
Ancient Maya art is done in jade and obsidion. Pottery was shaped into perfectly round, thin walled shapes without a potter's wheel.
Today much of the best work is in textiles, particularly in the ladies huipils, or blouses.