A Maya King’s Common Touch

Now here’s a very cool concept of time.  Put away for a moment your iPhone clocks and Outlook calendars and imagine time as an endless series of year bundles, specifically 52-year bundles.  At the end of each bundle, imagine that you and your neighbors  climb someplace high–a rooftop say,  or the top story of the Empire State Building–and stay up all night.  Then,  as you see the pink glow of the rising sun and the renewal of the world’s 52-year-long lease on life, you celebrate like crazy;  go home and ritually cleanse your house; and find all new stuff to put in it.

That’s pretty much what the Aztecs did.   And according to a cool new study by University of Illinois archaeologist Lisa Luceros,  that’s exactly what ordinary illiterate Maya men and women did–recording great cycles of time  in their housefloors for nearly 700 years,  from AD 450 to 1150.   “Commoners,”  says Lucero in a public statement, ” had their own way of recording their own history,  not only their history as a family,  but their place in the cosmos.”

I’ve followed Lucero’s work for sometime now.  She’s a perceptive and observant archaeologist,  with interesting things to say about the Maya.   But I found this new work of hers in the small Maya center now known as Saturday Creek in central Belize particularly fascinating.   Here’s why.

Lucero and her team excavated two houses in Saturday Creek,  carefully peeling back the layers.   What they found was a lamination of burnt house floors,  each containing careful arrangements of broken pottery and complete vessels;  human skeletal remains (frequently missing spinal and pelvic bones); and pieces of obsidian and chert.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.  The occupants buried the humans in the same spot each time.   And they placed ritually significant objects on top of the bodies and around them–objects that Lucero and her colleagues began to decode.  You might expect,  for example, to find bits of black pottery scattered around the bodies,  for the Maya associated black with death and Xibalba,  the feared underworld.  Instead,  Lucero’s team found sherds of red pottery–red being the color of life and rebirth–and chunks of stone linked in story to the Maya equivalent of paradise.   In other words,  the ritualized burning of the house was an act of rebirth–both for the living and the dead.  And evidence showed that  it took place every 40 to 50 years.

Archaeologists have long known that Maya upper classes paid close attention to calendrical time,  for royal stelae and palace walls abound in such references.  And this knowledge was likely ” a source of great power,” notes Robert Sharer and Loa P. Traxler in their  book, The Ancient Maya.  “The complexities of calendrical calculations demonstrated that king and priests held close communion with the supernatural forces that governed the cosmos.”   What’s new in Lucero’s work,  though, is the evidence that ordinary people recorded these great cycles of time in their own way.

Moreover,   Lucero takes this one intriguing step further.   She proposes that rulers of the Classic Maya city states took age-old domestic practices–like celebrating year bundles–and performed them on a grand scale,  a kind of theater that brought an entire community together.  “Nearly everything royal,” she concludes in a formal statement,  “emerged or developed or evolved from domestic practices.”

It’s a fascinating thought.  Even the mightiest Maya king is a commoner at heart.

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