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Gentle Flutes and Blaring Horns: An Analysis of Ancient Maya Music and Musical Instruments in Daily and Ceremonial Activities


This dissertation examines how the consideration of music complicates our understanding of the experiences ancient Maya people would have encountered in their daily and ceremonial activities. This research engages with artistic depictions of musicians as well as musical artifacts. Throughout the duration of this research 396 ancient Maya musical instruments were photographed, 170 instruments were 3D scanned, 116 instruments were played and recorded, and 102 spectrograms were generated. Typological analysis of these artifacts allowed for the identification of previously unclassified types of instruments, and led to the discovery that there were complex musical scales replicated across the Maya area.

Drawing from phenomenological theory, notions of experience (often discussed in household archaeology), ideas of space and place, and the archaeology of the senses, this dissertation analyzes the impact of music on ancient Maya people as a social art form. The artistic depictions of musicians and the contextual information of excavated musical artifacts are used to explore how factors such as gender, class, and age impacted people’s access to different instruments and types of music. There is, for example, a disjuncture between the instruments depicted in artwork and the instruments that have been found in excavation. This suggests that ancient Maya people relied on different instruments, and therefore genres of music, depending on the context of the performance. Emphasis is placed on understanding the music performed in both state sponsored ceremonial settings as well as in household contexts in order to provide a more holistic interpretation of ancient Maya music.

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