Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great for Maya-philes My husband and I have traveled extensively in the Yucatan, and have always been interested in Maya civilization. Then covid struck. What to do? Learn more about the Maya, of course. This course filled the bill. We at first were befuddled about Ed's sartorial splendor (one reviewer found this to be a drawback, but we enjoyed it) .... we wound up betting on what color shirt he would wear in the next lecture....the pumpkin one was our favorite. I should say that for this course, Edwin dressed more "formally" with jacket. In another course of his, Ancient Civilizations of North America, he dons more casual attire. Think Indiana Jones ... Harrison Ford is the "actor" version, but this guy is the REAL Indiana Jones. We hated to see the last of the 40-plus lectures end. So we bought another of his courses, "Ancient Civilizations of North America," AND Edwin's "Maya Travelogue." Both became the highlight of our evening TV.
Date published: 2020-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed I have had the good fortune to visit 3 Mayan Ruins. The information learned was just enough to want to learn more. This course was fantastic! It covered so much! I had no idea about the time span and the extent and number of city-states there were. I am 80 years old, and will probably not get to see more ruins. I was happy to have some of them well covered in these lectures.
Date published: 2020-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect Balance between fact, fun, and speculation Professor Barnhart is able to transmit a vast diverse knowledge, in context. He is able to humorously, with a straight face, give us a feel about what the time must have been like Very interestingly, he is happy to go "off script" about the existing knowledge, and surmise what may be proven in the future, but remains careful to point out if it is not yet proven fact. Loved watching.
Date published: 2020-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating course expertly delivered! This was the first course that I have taken online with Great Courses. As a former online and studio teacher, I was curious as to how the lecturer would capture my attention, deliver the course, and present the supporting material. WOW! I was pleasantly surprised that all three components of a quality online course far exceeded my expectations. Dr. Ed Barnhardt is a master of the teaching format who expertly creates a curriculum that captivated my interest through 48 fascinating lectures. It is an overwhelming task to deliver the history of Mesoamerica, its people and culture, and be inclusive…but not boring. Dr. Barnhardt expertly interconnects the rise and fall of numerous civilizations with such issues as community structure, religion, family roles, warfare, mythology, gods, architecture, food, transportation, and socio-economic well-being through centuries of change. He successfully does so with his amazing knowledge of the subject, fascinating pictorial and sound images, and his masterful storytelling ability. Dr. Barnhardt not only shares highly annotated knowledge of the subject, he also weaves into each 30-minute lecture various theories on why scholars postulate certain perspectives of the topic as well as his personal and extensive hands-on experience of the subject through archeological on-site studies, digs, and research. Although the course is certainly scholarly, he delivers this curriculum in a manner in which any novice would quickly become fascinated by the subject…and any scholar would salute his meticulous and interdisciplinary approach to academic inquiry. I thoroughly enjoyed learning of the Olmec, Mayan, Toltec, and Aztec people and their magnificent cities and culture. As a result of taking this course, my interest in Mesoamerican civilizations has led me to visit several sites that Dr. Barnhardt overviewed in the course. I also plan to join him soon on one of his tours that originates out of his Mayan Exploration Center in Austin. The course absolutely captivated my interest as Dr. Barnhardt expertly delivered the content in a most entertaining and thought-provoking manner. I give it my highest recommendation!
Date published: 2020-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course inspired me I took this course because it looked interesting and I knew almost nothing of ancient mesoamerica that wasn't immediately connected to the Spanish conquest. I was completely blown away. Dr. Barnhart is a wonderful presenter and draws on good research as well as his own unique personal experience working in the field. He doesn't just talk about the history and archaeology, which are incredible in their own right, but talks about achievements in mathematics, calendrics, writing and astronomy which are fascinating topics. When I first did this course, I listened to it but was so captivated I later rewatched it so I could see the visuals, which are excellent. Since this course, I've done a lot of my own reading and research on ancient mesoamerica, gone down the rabbit hole and fallen in love with ancient mesoamerica and it is thanks to this course. This is without a doubt one of my favorite courses and this is coming from someone who has drunk deeply from the cup of the teaching company. I hope you enjoy this as much I have.
Date published: 2020-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great resource for writers! I write alternative history novels set in the 11th century. My third novel takes place in the northern Yucatan Peninsula. Dr. Barnhart's course is/was invaluable in getting my facts/descriptions correct of life in that area/time. And this course was entertaining!
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Is Fun While I think that Americans in general would enjoy this course, I think that those interested in the classics of Greece and Rome would be particularly interested in this course due to the contrasts. As the title suggests, this is about the civilizations of the Maya and the Aztec in Mexico and Central America. The insights are profound and surprising. In particular, unlike the classics of Greece and Rome, this is a rapidly changing field with new developments constantly popping up. I particularly enjoyed the astronomical aspects of archeology. Dr. Barnhart is clearly knowledgeable in his field and quite excited by it. This excitement carries over to the lectures. He’s fun to listen to. I used the audio version and I think that was a mistake. I think that the video would add significantly to the presentations.
Date published: 2020-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A brilliant insight into the Mesoamerican culture I have gone through many Great Courses and this was the best so far. An expert in the field who communicates his awe and insight into the Mayan world.
Date published: 2020-08-04
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Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed
Course Trailer
The Maya, Aztecs, and Mesoamerica
1: The Maya, Aztecs, and Mesoamerica

Survey the geography, cultures, and time span covered in these 48 lectures. Dr. Barnhart discusses the organization of the course and key concepts. Then he takes you on a whirlwind tour of important places, civilizations, and events in Mesoamerica.

31 min
Olmec Civilization Emerges
2: Olmec Civilization Emerges

Begin with the Olmecs at the dawn of Mesoamerican civilization. Flourishing from about 1700 BC to 300 BC, the Olmecs represent one of only six cradles of early civilization in world history. Hear how they were discovered, and investigate three sites where they lived....

32 min
Olmec Art as the Mother Culture
3: Olmec Art as the Mother Culture

Delve into Olmec art, searching for clues to who the Olmec were and what preoccupied these builders of Mesoamerica's first great civilization. Explore the mysteries of giant sculpted heads, jaguar carvings, and full-bearded figures depicting men who some think were foreigners from afar....

28 min
Olmec Contemporaries
4: Olmec Contemporaries

Investigate other cultures that thrived in Mesoamerica at the time of the Olmecs, such as the Zapotecs in the Valley of Oaxaca. Probe intriguing archeological evidence, including artifacts similar to those from Olmec culture, which raise the question of who influenced whom....

33 min
Mesoamerican Plants, Cuisine, and Medicine
5: Mesoamerican Plants, Cuisine, and Medicine

Learn about the botany of Mesoamerica and how it benefited not just the people of the region but eventually the entire world. From corn and chocolate to vanilla, chili peppers, rubber trees, and other products, the native vegetation has had a profound impact on global diet and culture....

34 min
Early Highland Maya-Izapa to Kaminaljuyu
6: Early Highland Maya-Izapa to Kaminaljuyu

Trace the origin of Maya civilization to a dramatic change in the nature of public monuments. Dr. Barnhart takes you to early Maya highland cities such as Izapa, with its amazing religious carvings, and Kaminaljuyu, which heralded the dawn of the Classic Maya period....

30 min
Preclassic Maya Lowlands-El Mirador
7: Preclassic Maya Lowlands-El Mirador

Travel to the Peten rainforest in northern Guatemala, where hundreds of Maya settlements lie hidden, including some of the oldest Maya cities ever built. Among the spectacular sites, hear about the discovery and excavation of El Mirador, called the "cradle of Maya civilization." ...

30 min
The Popol Vuh-Creation and Hero Twins
8: The Popol Vuh-Creation and Hero Twins

In 1701 a Spanish priest fluent in Mayan translated a secret copy of the ancient Maya story of creation, the Popol Vuh. The original has long since disappeared, but the translation survives. Hear this magical story in captivating detail....

33 min
The Great City of Teotihuacan
9: The Great City of Teotihuacan

At its height around 400 AD, Teotihuacan was the most populous city in the western hemisphere. Explore this vibrant metropolis, focusing on its still-extant pyramids of the Sun and Moon and the role they played in the violent ritual life of the Classic Maya period....

28 min
How the Maya Mastered Mathematics
10: How the Maya Mastered Mathematics

Study the power of Maya mathematics, which was a positional, base-twenty system that lent itself easily to calculation and the expression of very large numbers. Learn about its use of the zero placeholder, and test your skills solving problems the way the Maya did....

31 min
The World's Most Elaborate Calendar
11: The World's Most Elaborate Calendar

Unlock the secrets of the Maya calendar, which was unlike any other in the world-with nested cycles of time keyed to human, seasonal, and astronomical patterns. Look back to their year zero and the special importance of the number 1,195,640....

33 min
Tikal-Aspiring Capital of the Maya World
12: Tikal-Aspiring Capital of the Maya World

Chart the rise and fall of Tikal, one of the great Maya cities until it was mysteriously abandoned around 900 AD. Overgrown by jungle, it sat forgotten for a thousand years. Hear about Tikal's tumultuous history and its dramatic rediscovery....

31 min
Maya Hieroglyphs-Breaking the Code
13: Maya Hieroglyphs-Breaking the Code

Maya hieroglyphs are a beautiful and elaborate writing system, bearing messages that were almost a complete mystery until recent decades. Dr. Barnhart describes the detective work that went into deciphering the script and his own studies with pioneer code-breaker Linda Schele....

32 min
Maya Astronomy and Building Orientations
14: Maya Astronomy and Building Orientations

The Maya were expert sky observers. Discover that many of their buildings are oriented to view the rising and setting of celestial bodies, and still others are designed to interact with sunlight, creating tricks of light and shadows. Consider what these alignments may have signified....

32 min
The Dresden Codex
15: The Dresden Codex

Only four ancient Maya books have survived to modern times. Study the most fascinating of these: the Dresden Codex. Focus on its complex calculations of the motions of Venus and the timing of solar eclipses. Also turn to its pages on divination, which defied understanding until Dr. Barnhart contributed a key insight....

31 min
Palenque-Jewel in the West
16: Palenque-Jewel in the West

Descend down the secret steps of a Maya pyramid to discover the tomb of Pakal the Great, the most renowned ruler of the city of Palenque. Trace the history of Palenque, which during the 7th century AD excelled in architectural sophistication, hieroglyphic inscriptions, and astronomical knowledge....

31 min
Sacred Geometry in Art and Architecture
17: Sacred Geometry in Art and Architecture

The Maya had no known unit of linear measure, yet their art and architecture reflect a sophisticated understanding of geometry. Investigate the geometric ratios that the Maya used over and over. Discover how these relate to nature and the practices of other ancient civilizations....

31 min
Illuminating Works of Maya Art
18: Illuminating Works of Maya Art

Learn about Maya life through their art, studying such works as the fantastic painted murals at Bonampak and the famous sarcophagus lid on the tomb of Pakal. According to a best-selling book, the latter depicts an ancient astronaut on a rocket ship, but Dr. Barnhart decodes its real meaning....

29 min
Copan-Jungle Dynasty of the East
19: Copan-Jungle Dynasty of the East

Visit Copan, a beautifully preserved city on the edge of the Maya world. This illustrious site has been continuously excavated since the 19th century, and Dr. Barnhart himself did fieldwork helping to unearth tombs of the city's most notable rulers....

33 min
Calakmul-The Mighty Snake Kingdom
20: Calakmul-The Mighty Snake Kingdom

Maya hieroglyphs tell of a mysterious Snake Kingdom, which long eluded archaeologists. We now know that this powerful city was Calakmul, located in the Peten rainforest of southern Mexico. Learn its long history of warfare with its militant neighbors....

31 min
The Mesoamerican Ball Game
21: The Mesoamerican Ball Game

Created 3,500 years ago and still played today, the Mesoamerican ball game was the New World's first organized team sport. More than just a game, it reenacted mythology, symbolized war, and pleased the gods. Investigate where it was played, along with its rules and variations....

29 min
Enigmatic West Mexico and Shaft Tombs
22: Enigmatic West Mexico and Shaft Tombs

Survey the cultures that flourished in west Mexico at the time of the Maya. Their distinctive shaft tombs, pottery, metalwork, and other artifacts have intriguing links to South America. Also see how today's Voladores "flying" traditional dance originated centuries ago in this region....

31 min
Classic Maya Collapse-Cities Abandoned!
23: Classic Maya Collapse-Cities Abandoned!

One of history's unsolved mysteries is why many Maya cities were abandoned in the 9th century AD, bringing an end to the Classic period. Examine theories that trace this collapse to war, drought, environmental damage, or volcanic eruption. Then hear Dr. Barnhart's solution to the puzzle....

28 min
New Cities of the Terminal Classic-Uxmal
24: New Cities of the Terminal Classic-Uxmal

From 800 to 1000 AD, the Maya region went through a transitional phase known as the Terminal Classic. Study the changes that emerged in new Maya cities, which saw innovations in government, religion, art, and architecture. Focus on the remarkable city of Uxmal....

28 min
Monte Alban and Zapotec Rule over Oaxaca
25: Monte Alban and Zapotec Rule over Oaxaca

Journey to Oaxaca to explore Monte Alban, one of the most beautiful ruins in all of Mesoamerica. Chart the city plan, monuments, and art of this hilltop center of Zapotec civilization, which dominated the Valley of Oaxaca for over a thousand years....

30 min
The Mixtec Rise-Gold and Epic Stories
26: The Mixtec Rise-Gold and Epic Stories

Tomb 7 at Monte Alban is a New World version of Tutankhamun's burial chamber, containing an extraordinary number of gold artifacts. Learn about the Mixtec culture that produced these treasures along with many other impressive objects, including illustrated codices of their history and mythology....

29 min
The Great Pyramid of Cholula and El Tajin
27: The Great Pyramid of Cholula and El Tajin

More massive than the largest Egyptian pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Cholula was one of the astonishing feats of the Veracruz civilization, which flourished in the modern state of Veracruz during the Terminal Classic period. Focus on two prominent cities of this culture: Cholula and El Tajin....

28 min
Cacaxtla Murals and Xochicalco
28: Cacaxtla Murals and Xochicalco

View the fantastic murals at Cacaxtla in central Mexico, arguably the finest in Mesoamerica. Then look at the famous Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Xochicalco, which, like the Cacaxtla murals, represents the influence of the vanished Teotihuacan and classic Maya cultures....

30 min
The Toltecs-Role Models or Myth?
29: The Toltecs-Role Models or Myth?

The Aztecs claimed that their civilization descended from the mighty Toltecs. But were the Toltecs as magnificent as the Aztecs believed? Join the hunt for this elusive empire, which was headquartered at the modest town of Tula and spread influential ideas such as the legend of Quetzalcoatl....

32 min
Chichen Itza-Maya Capital of the Yucatan
30: Chichen Itza-Maya Capital of the Yucatan

Travel to the best known of all ancient Maya cities: Chichen Itza. Focus on its Toltec-Maya phase, from 1000 to 1200 AD, and the city's striking similarities to Tula. What do these connections imply about the history of Chichen Itza? Dr. Barnhart presents an intriguing theory....

32 min
League of Mayapan-Maya New World Order
31: League of Mayapan-Maya New World Order

As Chichen Itza declined, a city named Mayapan rose to power. Mayapan deliberately copied Chichen Itza's monumental buildings and experimented with a more representative form of government. Examine the architecture, social structure, and daily life of this new regional capital....

28 min
Mesoamerican Religion
32: Mesoamerican Religion

Delve into Mesoamerican religion, tracing the evolution of gods and religious practices from the Olmecs to the Maya and finally to the Aztecs, who are featured in the next section of the course. Learn the names, roles, and origins of the principal deities....

32 min
Aztec Origins-Arrival and Rise of the Mexica
33: Aztec Origins-Arrival and Rise of the Mexica

How did a vagabond group of wanderers become the most powerful civilization in North America? Survey the history of the Aztecs, looking behind their idealized self-image to discover their likely beginnings and the secret of their political, economic, and military success....

28 min
The Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan
34: The Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan

See the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan through the eyes of a visitor during the height of Aztec power, when the city's quality of life was unrivaled virtually anywhere in the world. Modern Mexico City, which is built atop Tenochtitlan, preserves isolated ruins of this grandeur....

30 min
Life in the Aztec World
35: Life in the Aztec World

Drawing on contemporary accounts by Spanish soldiers, priests, and literate Aztecs, enter the daily life of a typical Aztec, discovering the culture's social organization, marriage customs, public festivals, and shockingly commonplace rituals of human sacrifice....

32 min
How the Aztecs Expanded Their Empire
36: How the Aztecs Expanded Their Empire

By the time of European contact, the Aztec empire was the most extensive in Mesoamerican history. Study the Aztecs' methodical approach to conquest and the structure of their empire, which was more like Alexander the Great's than imperial Rome's....

29 min
Independent Tarascans-Desert Warriors
37: Independent Tarascans-Desert Warriors

Second only to the Aztecs in the extent of their realm were the neighboring Tarascans. Compare their empire and culture to Aztec civilization, and sift through conflicting clues that point to the origin of the Tarascans, who considered themselves newcomers to Mesoamerica....

30 min
Paquime-Northernmost Mesoamerican City?
38: Paquime-Northernmost Mesoamerican City?

On the frontier between Mesoamerica and the American Southwest stands a mysterious ruin: Paquime, also called Casas Grandes. Was it connected with the Pueblo culture to the north, or with the Aztecs and Tarascans to the south? Dr. Barnhart offers a fascinating hypothesis....

31 min
Illuminating Works of Aztec Art
39: Illuminating Works of Aztec Art

Tour some of the masterpieces of Aztec art, including the Calendar Stone and Stone of Tizoc, which were likely platforms for human sacrifices. Then behold the terrifying Statue of Coatlicue, and pore over the Codex Mendoza, which is a beautifully illustrated history of the Aztec nation....

28 min
Tulum-Aztecs at the Ancient Maya Port City
40: Tulum-Aztecs at the Ancient Maya Port City

Archaeologists call the last phase of pre-Columbian culture before the arrival of the Spanish the Late Post-Classic period. Get a snapshot of this waning era by visiting the ruins of Tulum, a Maya seaport that hints at a final Aztec incursion into the region....

30 min
First Contact with Europe in Mesoamerica
41: First Contact with Europe in Mesoamerica

Review the events that brought an improbable expedition led by Christopher Columbus to the New World in search of Japan. Trace Columbus's later contact with Mesoamerica, and follow the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, including Vasco Núñez de Balboa and Hernan Cortes....

28 min
The Siege of Tenochtitlan
42: The Siege of Tenochtitlan

Cortes's defeat of the Aztec empire was one of the greatest military victories in history. Analyze how the enterprising conquistador managed this coup with just a few hundred Spanish troops, aided by native allies and a secret weapon that even he did not know he had: infectious diseases....

34 min
Conquest of the Maya and Landa's Legacy
43: Conquest of the Maya and Landa's Legacy

Once the Aztecs were defeated, the Spanish turned their eyes to the rest of Mesoamerica. Follow the decades of military campaigns needed to subdue the Maya. This conquest included the wholesale destruction of Maya books and ritual objects by the Franciscan monk Diego de Landa....

31 min
The Fall of the Last Maya Kingdom-The Itza
44: The Fall of the Last Maya Kingdom-The Itza

Study the fortunes of the last independent Maya kingdom: the Itza. Isolated in the Peten rainforest between two Spanish-dominated areas, the Itza fiercely defended their domain for almost two centuries after the initial Spanish contact. Discover the stratagem that finally vanquished them in 1697....

29 min
The Caste Wars of Yucatan
45: The Caste Wars of Yucatan

Trace the resistance of the Maya to foreign domination, culminating in the Caste Wars of Yucatan, which pitted native Maya people against the Mexican army and lasted for over half a century, ending in the early 1900s. Although Mexico prevailed, the resistance continues to this day....

31 min
Echoes of the Past in Mexico
46: Echoes of the Past in Mexico

Explore the many areas where native culture still survives in modern Mexico. Focus on the Zapotec, Huichol, and Nahua peoples (descendants of the Aztecs). Learn that traditions which have survived for thousands of years are now threatened by technologies such as the internet and cable television....

29 min
Maya Survival and Revival
47: Maya Survival and Revival

Despite centuries of assimilation and persecution, Maya culture still thrives. Investigate its survival in Guatemala, where 80 percent of the population is Maya, living largely in traditional ways. Dr. Barnhart describes his own observations from extensive visits to the country....

29 min
Frontiers of Mesoamerican Archeology
48: Frontiers of Mesoamerican Archeology

Explore the current frontiers of Mesoamerican archaeology, looking ahead to the most promising avenues for future research. Many major cities are known but have yet to be excavated, and countless others are waiting to be discovered. Dr. Barnhart closes by discussing the top three projects on his wish list....

35 min
Edwin Barnhart

In my own experience as an explorer, it's almost always the case that the locals knew where lost places were all along. The discoverer is just the first person to ask the right questions.


University of Texas, Austin


Maya Exploration Center

About Edwin Barnhart

Dr. Edwin Barnhart is director of the Maya Exploration Center. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and has over 20 years of experience in North, Central, and South America as an archaeologist, explorer, and instructor. In 1994, Professor Barnhart discovered the ancient city of Maax Na (Spider-Monkey House), a major center of the Classic Maya period in northwestern Belize. In 1998 he was invited by the Mexican government to direct the Palenque Mapping Project, a three-year effort to survey and map the unknown sections of Palenque's ruins. The resultant map has been celebrated as one of the most detailed and accurate ever made of a Maya ruin. In 2003, he became the director of Maya Exploration Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of ancient Maya civilization. The center leads study-abroad courses for college students and tours for the general public in the ruins of the ancient Americas, among its other research and educational activities. Professor Barnhart has taught archaeology and anthropology at Southwest Texas State University, and currently teaches University of Texas travel courses for college professors on ancient Andean and Mesoamerican astronomy, mathematics, and culture. Over the last 10 years, he has appeared multiple times on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Japanese NHK Public Television. He has published over a dozen papers and given presentations at eight international conferences.

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