Category Archives: Maya

Pacal’s Shiny-Jewel Tree

This story begins in darkness—darkness both literal and metaphorical. On a dripping wet day in 1952, an archaeologist stood in a small dank corridor deep inside a pyramid known as Temple of the Inscriptions, in the old Maya city of Palenque. In the shadows ahead, a massive triangular stone door blocked his way. For four field seasons, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier and his Maya crew had cleared tons of rubble and fill from steep steps leading down inside the pyramid. The archaeologist had no idea where the steps would take them, only a persistent thought that it could be somewhere important.

The crew struggled another two days with the door, finally shifting it enough for a man to squeeze sideways past. As Ruz moved beyond it, he shone a flashlight into the void. “It was a moment,” he later wrote, “of indescribable emotion.”  Read more.

Photo: Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque by tato grasso

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.

Somebody Stop Mel Gibson, Please

Oh, no.  Not again!  Yahoo News is reporting that Mel Gibson is planning yet another of his nightmarish historical blockbusters.  The man who brought us Braveheart andApocalypto is planning to unleash his filmmaker talents yet again on another unsuspecting ancient culture with a reputation for extreme violence–the Vikings.   “I’m going to give it to you real, man,” Gibson reportedly told a Yahoo News writer.  “I want a Viking to scare you.”

Actually what scares me is Gibson.  The man is a menace.  He loves decking out his projects with all the trappings of historical accuracy, while merrily jettisoning any real fidelity to history and truth.   Take Apocalypto,  his ghoulish, blood-spattered epic on the Maya.  His cast all spoke Yucatec Maya like natives.  His Maya nobles and priests wore exquisite costumes and headdresses.  And he even threw in a real honest to goodness environmental crisis that plagued the Classic Maya–the deforestation of Maya lands to provide timber for fueling lime kilns.   (All the lime went into plaster for the buildings.)

But was Apocalypto true in any way to what we know about the Maya? Not by a longshot.  It depicted the Maya almost en masse as ghoulish blood-thirsty club-wielding savages — what Mayan archaeologist David Friedel once wryly described  as “orcs in loinclothes.”    It depicted little if anything of the beauty and richness of Maya art, science, and religion,  pretty much rendering an entire culture into a historical horror show.

Sure it’s entertainment,  and it wouldn’t matter so much except for two things.  One is that his films are huge box-office hits,  seen by millions of people, particularly impressionable teenagers.   And secondly his version of past looks and sounds so historically authentic that many people are conned into believing that they are witnessing something truthful.

And there’s one other aspect that disturbs me.  Gibson is already talking about how he will apply his techniques of verisimilitude to the Vikings.  “I think it’s going to be in English,  an English that would have been spoken back then and Old Norse,” he told the reporter.   “I want to see somebody who I’ve never seen before speaking low, guttural German who scares the living **** out of you.”  Some critics applauded Gibson for filming in foreign languages in The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto,  but if Gibson was quoted correctly,  I’d say that he sees the act of speaking in such a language as something that will  increase both the fright factor and brutality of scenes.   What kind of a message is that to send to kids?  How about xenophobic.

I know one film that I won’t be rushing out the door to see.

Frank Lloyd Wright and His Desert Camp

A few weeks back,  I had the great pleasure of touring Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s school and winter camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was a surprisingly raw, blustery day, and I joined one of the tours that wend frequently through the sprawling desert complex.  As I am sure you know, Frank Lloyd Wright, was one of America’s greatest architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,  a genius of concrete and glass and light,  and his winter camp, though roughhewn and experimental looking,  did not disappoint.

Wright died in 1959,  but his spirit was  still very much alive at Taliesin West.  At one point in the tour,  for example,  I briefly spied,  through the glass windows of a room off-limits to the public, a stooped, elderly figure swiftly fleeing like a startled bird into some hidden room.   I later learned that he was a member of The Fellowship,  one of Wright’s aged former students who resides at Taliesin West.   Like the British aristocrats who open their castles and estates to the public in order to pay the upkeep,   the Fellowship does not care much for tourists.  But the steep entrance fees provide Wright’s fellows with one of the most beautiful and elite retirement homes in North America.

I found many things about Taliesin West fascinating.  Wright’s students, for example, had to be a hardy,  self-sufficient lot.   When the newest students arrived at the camp, their first assignment was to design and build a shelter in the nearby desert,  where they would live while attending Wright’s school.   Some of these shelters grew quite elaborate over time,  as their builders added more space,  but none possessed much in the way of creature comforts.  I can imagine that some future archaeologists will have a great deal of fun digging what remains of these imaginative shelters.

When Wright purchased the land for Taliesin West in the 1930s,  it possessed an unparalleled view of a desert wilderness,  precisely what he was looking for.  So he designed the complex so that it would face out into the sweeping desert below. Civilization soon caught up with Taliesin West,  however:   someone built a home in its sightlines,  and the residential lights at night apparently threw Wright into a state of despair.

But he was not easily defeated. He did not want to pick up and start afresh somewhere else, so he reoriented the entire complex so that it would look out upon a mountain that rose in the opposite direction.

I’m posting below a wonderful little YouTube video taken in 1933 of the Taliesin Fellowship. It was filmed by a former student in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright and his proteges spent their summer.