Synopsis of Sites by Historical Period
* Early Classic (200 - 600 A.D.)
Because the Maya built new buildings on top of older collapsed structures, archaeologists almost always end up uncovering Pre-Classic or Early Classic construction layers as they dig down. For example, visitors can explore archaeologist's tunnels under Copan's acropolis or see early construction at Tikal because archaeologists removed later ruined layers.
Some sites, however, are known mainly for their Pre-Classic substructures. Uaxactun Structure E-VII-sub was excavated to reveal a complex that functioned as an astronomical and calendrical observatory from 100 B.C. to about 250 A.D., and the term "E-group" was generalized from E-VII-sub to describe similar structures elsewhere.
Kohunlich's Temple of the Masks was first uncovered by looters, but local authorities quickly took steps to protect and develop the site. Kohunlich is characterized by huge humanized stucco masks dating to around 500 A.D.
* Old Kingdom Classic Maya (600 - 900 A.D.)
The five richest, most powerful, and most populous city states in the classic period were Tikal, Calakmul, Copan, Yaxchilan, and Palenque, all located in jungle areas of the southern Maya lowlands. There is some reason to believe their power and wealth stemmed at least in part from control of major trade routes for elite luxury goods like pottery, jade, obsidian, cacao, and feathers, and for necessities like salt and tools.
Tikal and Calakmul engaged in perpetually shifting alliances and intermittent warfare as they juggled for control of trade routes in the central lowlands. Copan and its vassel state Quirigua controlled the Motagua River basin in the extreme southeast, which was important as a jade trade route and as a point of entry for salt arriving by sea from the north. Yaxchilan and its vassel state Bonampak of the famous murals, as well as beautiful Palenque, were located along the Usumacinta and Pasion river basin trade routes.
About 900 A.D., some sort of catastrophe befell these old jungle kingdoms. Cities stopped raising stone monuments, went silent, and were abandoned. Whether this was the result of ecological disaster, the toll of constant warfare, disruption of trade routes, or a combination of these, the result was that the Maya population shifted northward and, along with it, the locus of power.
* Rio Bec: (650 - 850 A.D.)
The Rio Bec sites are located north of the Old Kingdom Classic sites and are characterized by fake temples and false stairways imitating on a small scale the giant roof-comb temples of Tikal to the south. Because they generally lack inscribed stelae with longcount dates, it is hard to date Rio Bec sites other than to say they generally date from the Late and Terminal Classic periods. These sites include Rio Bec, Xpujil, and Becan.
* Chenes: (650 - 850 A.D.)
There are a lot of similarities and overlap of Chenes and Rio Bec sites, and it is likewise difficult to date them other than to place them in the Late and Terminal Classic periods. Chenes sites, characterized by low Indiana Jones style "Monster Mouth" temples, include Chicanna, Hochob, Hormiguero and Dzibilnocac. And even though it is far to the northeast of the Chennes area, Ek Balam has a Chenes-style tomb decorated with amazingly intact stucco work. Some have speculated that the ruler who constructed the Acropolis there was a foreigner and wanted to explicitly connect with his home further southwest in the Chennes/Rio Bec area.
* Puuc & Late Classic: (600 - 900 A.D.)
Puuc sites located further to the north flourished in the Late Classic Period (600 -- 900 AD). Uxmal is the quintessential example of Puuc architecture: elegant palace-like structures with smooth limestone veneer walls topped with intricate mosaic friezes. Uxmal is surrounded by satellite sites of Sayil, Kabah, Labna, Xlapak, and Chacmultun. A little more distant, Edzna is also classified as a Puuc site. The Puuc style can also be seen in certain older parts of Chichen Itza.
Xunantunich is another Late Classic site which was probably a regional center. It includes a spectacular stucco frieze constructed about 800 AD.
* Post Classic: (1000 - 1500 A.D.)
Izamal was almost continuously occupied from the pre-classic into today, and shows a Spanish overlay on an ancient and partially dismantled Maya base.
Lamanai had a extremely long life until about 1675 A.D., probably because it sat on a major trade route and had important and widespread economic influence. There is evidence that ceramic offerings continued to be made at Temple N9-56, now in ruins, well into the 14th and 15th centuries.