This city was never a lost or forgotten ruin, as it fell only one century before Spanish and Maya historical chronicles were written. Informants and some of the authors of these 16th century documents were descendants of the lords of Mayapan, and recalled much of its history. From these accounts we know that Mayapan was referred to by several names, including Zaclactun (or Zaclactun Mayapan). Zaclactun refers to either "the place where white pottery was made" or was a erroneously recorded from Zac Actun, "white cave" according to Ralph Roys in his 1933 analysis of the book of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel. Some of the fancier pottery at Mayapan has a cream or buff base slip color, so the first translation is plausible, although this type of pottery is more rare than the more common "Mama Red" vessels of the site. Mayapan has over 26 cenotes or caves, some of which were important water sources, so Roys' second alternative also makes sense. The name "Mayapan" translates as "the banner of the Maya." The site was also referred to retrospectively in the Colonial era as Ichpaa Mayapan (walled enclosure) and Tancah Mayapan.


Mayapan and Postclassic Period Maya society were traditionally viewed in a negative light by archaeologists. This era follows the Classic Period, when more major cities existed, larger public architecture was built, royal kings were buried in lavish tombs, and when durable hieroglyphic records (many carved in stone) were prolific. The Postclassic Period was originally known as the "Decadent" Period, as monumental buildings are smaller, political governance took the form of council rule, investment in royal burials ceased, AND most writing occurred in codex books that were burned by Spanish priests.

More recently, the accomplishments of the Postclassic Period have received more credit in their own right: 1) this was a complex network of secondary states, 2) commercial exchange and inter-regional market systems were maximally developed, 3) science, astronomy, writing, and religion (as exemplified by four codex books that survived the Spanish era) were sophisticated and carried on many past traditions, and 4) art and architecture was sometimes magnificent but was more poorly preserved than earlier works due to efficient construction choices (a reliance on perishable plaster and wood, mural traditions in lieu of carved stone). The town-dotted landscape of the Postclassic was home to thriving and populous agriculturalists, craft specialists, merchants, scribes, priests, and political officials who were deeply connected with one another through market trade, political affinity, and religious practice. This perspective is a long cry from the characterization of "refugee" or "squatter," terms used in the past to describe Maya peoples of this period.

Council Rule

Some have characterized the Classic to Postclassic transition as one from a more theocratic society (deeply rooted in religious power) to a more secular one with greater emphasis on commerce. This general evolutionary scenario is too simplistic. Postclassic Maya peoples had many similarities as well as differences with their Classic Period ancestors. They were a deeply religious society that venerated their ancestors and many Maya gods whose roots can be traced to the origins of society in the Preclassic, such as the rain god (Chac) and the maize god.