Posted by: Mayan Musings | April 26, 2012

Case Studies of Famous Mayan Burials

In most present day cultures, it becomes almost undeniable that some sort of social stratification falls into place.  But with archaeology, it is difficult to judge the status of an individual based on their remains because everyone tries to honor the dead by burying them with goods and services that might not have been something available to them during life.  Thus, it becomes difficult for archaeologists to recognize when the corpse they are looking at was in fact royalty or was just a common folk whose family honored them by burying them well.  This post takes a look at some of the famous Maya burials and how these can be distinguished a bit from the other Maya burials we have studied.

One burial that has come up in recent discoveries was known for being the “proof of a Jester God”.  This burial was found in Guatemala and archaeologists concluded that the corpse being buried with the image of the Jester God was proof of the royalty.  The news article on this can be found here.

Red Queen: One of the most referenced individuals in our mortuary research of the Mayan Peoples has been the Red Queen of Palenque. In 1994 Arnoldo Gonzalez discovered the Royal tomb of a 45- to 50- year old woman to the west of Structure XIII, Palenque’s most famous pyramid (Gomez: 2000). The skeleton, which appeared to be about 5’4”, was stained red with cinnabar, and surrounded by bone needles, pearls, obsidian knives, jade, and shells (Gomez: 2000). The cinnabar and luxury items were not the only suggestions of elite status, the Red Queen was also buried with two individuals bearing skeletal markers of having been sacrificed (Cucina and Tiesler 2008: 2). While status is no question in the case of the Red Queen, her identity remained much more of a mystery. Analysis of the remains places her in the sixth to late sixth to early seventh centuries A.D. Initially, the identity of the Red Queen was believed to be Sak K’uk, mother of one of the most famous rulers of Palenque, Pacal (Pak-kal) (“Sak K’uk as the Red Queen” 2007). An analysis of the strontium isotopes of the skeleton proved that the skeleton was not that of Sak K’uk, however, as the results placed the individual as having grown up outside of Palenque, which Sak K’uk did not (Price et al 2007: 281). DNA analysis was also near impossible as the cinnabar on the skeleton had actually broken down much of the Red Queen’s DNA (“Red Queen’s DNA”: 2007). At the end of the day, the most likely candidate for the identity of the Red Queen is Queen Tzakbu Ajal, wife of Pacal the Great. This decision came from several factors. Her purported age at death is consistent with that of the Red Queen, as is the fact that she was born outside of Palenque. Also, facial reconstructions from the Red Queen’s skeleton are fairly similar to carvings of Tzakbu Ajal on various tombs in the city (“Queen Tzakbu Ajal: 2007). While her identity cannot be one hundred percent confirmed, the multiple lines of evidence seem solid enough for some researchers to accept them as fact.

For more information on the Red Queen, including videos, check out the Discovery Channel’s “Assignment Discovery” here!

Crystal Maiden: In the Mayan World, not all elite burials are created equal. Hidden away in the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave of Belize is a more mysterious and disturbing depiction of elite Mayan burial practices. Discovered recently in 1989, fourteen burials have been preserved almost exactly as they were left around one thousand years ago—decapitated, disarticulated, and left unburied. With modified foreheads and filed teeth, these individuals were once elite members of Mayan society, now calcified to the cave’s floor (Chládek, 2011).  In particular, the discovery of an eighteen to twenty year-old girl has been of interest in the archaeological community. Separated in a high alcove of the cave, her crystallized skeleton has two broken vertebrae, amputated hands and feet, and a disarticulated lower skull. Nearby sits a large ax head made from greenstone, a suspected means of her death (Chládek). The maiden’s sprawled position suggests she was thrown to the ground after her gory end, with no deliberate care of positioning taken and no funerary goods near her (Tiesler, 2008). As Mayans believed caves were the entrance to the underworld, The Crystal Maiden and her compatriots suggest elaborate and violent sacrificial rituals occurred in these caves, possibly to appease the Lords of Xibalba and the Rain God Tlaloc, as drought devastated the Mayan lands.

In conclusion, these case studies open up a window into classical Mayan culture for modern archaeologists. Case studies provide us with a huge amount of detail about specific happenings in the past.  However, we cannot gain much information on the common experience of all people from case studies – most of them tend to be more extravagant and representative of a higher class than an average burial.  However, case studies provide us with much detail and are quite sensational.  They provoke the interest of even the most novice archaeologist. The famous Mayans we have discussed here have rich, interesting histories and sensational stories attached, which is crucial for peaking interest in archaeology.

Works Cited

Chládek, Stanislav. Exploring Maya Ritual Caves: Dark Secrets from the Maya

Underworld. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2011. Print.

Cucina, Andrea and Vera Tiesler. “New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Postsacrificial Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society: An Introduction” New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Springer Science + Business Media. New York, 2008.

Gomez, David. “The Palenque Megaproject”. Maya Discovery. October 23, 2000. http://www.mayadiscovery.com/ing/archaeology/palenque/

http://bzpost.blogspot.com/2011/07/mayan-underworld-atm-cave-in-belize.html

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0018442X04000101

Price, Douglas, James Burton, Lori Wright, Christine White, and Fred Longstaffe. “Victims of Sacrifice: Isotopic Evidence for Places of Origin”. New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology, 2007.

“Queen Tzakbu Ajal”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. http://videos.howstuffworks.com/history/red-queen-videos-playlist.htm#video-30588

“Red Queen’s DNA”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. http://videos.howstuffworks.com/history/red-queen-videos- playlist.htm#video-30588

“Sak K’uk as the Red Queen”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. http://videos.howstuffworks.com/history/red-queen-videos- playlist.htm#video-30588

Tiesler, Vera. New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. New York, NY: Springer, 2008. Print.

Posted by: Mayan Musings | April 26, 2012

Famous Mayan Burials

I. Introduction   

In most present day cultures, it becomes almost undeniable that some sort of social stratification falls into place.  But with archaeology, it is difficult to judge the status of an individual based on their remains because everyone tries to honor the dead by burying them with goods and services that might not have been something available to them during life.  Thus, it becomes difficult for archaeologists to recognize when the corpse they are looking at was in fact royalty or was just a common folk whose family honored them by burying them well.  This post takes a look at some of the famous Maya burials and how these can be distinguished a bit from the other Maya burials we have studied.

One burial that has come up in recent discoveries was known for being the “proof of a Jester God”.  This burial was found in Guatemala and archaeologists concluded that the corpse being buried with the image of the Jester God was proof of the royalty.  The news article on this can be found here.

II. Red Queen

One of the most referenced individuals in our mortuary research of the Mayan Peoples has been the Red Queen of Palenque. In 1994 Arnoldo Gonzalez discovered the Royal tomb of a 45- to 50- year old woman to the west of Structure XIII, Palenque’s most famous pyramid (Gomez: 2000). The skeleton, which appeared to be about 5’4”, was stained red with cinnabar, and surrounded by bone needles, pearls, obsidian knives, jade, and shells (Gomez: 2000). The cinnabar and luxury items were not the only suggestions of elite status, the Red Queen was also buried with two individuals bearing skeletal markers of having been sacrificed (Cucina and Tiesler 2008: 2). While status is no question in the case of the Red Queen, her identity remained much more of a mystery. Analysis of the remains places her in the sixth to late sixth to early seventh centuries A.D. Initially, the identity of the Red Queen was believed to be Sak K’uk, mother of one of the most famous rulers of Palenque, Pacal (Pak-kal) (“Sak K’uk as the Red Queen” 2007). An analysis of the strontium isotopes of the skeleton proved that the skeleton was not that of Sak K’uk, however, as the results placed the individual as having grown up outside of Palenque, which Sak K’uk did not (Price et al 2007: 281). DNA analysis was also near impossible as the cinnabar on the skeleton had actually broken down much of the Red Queen’s DNA (“Red Queen’s DNA”: 2007). At the end of the day, the most likely candidate for the identity of the Red Queen is Queen Tzakbu Ajal, wife of Pacal the Great. This decision came from several factors. Her purported age at death is consistent with that of the Red Queen, as is the fact that she was born outside of Palenque. Also, facial reconstructions from the Red Queen’s skeleton are fairly similar to carvings of Tzakbu Ajal on various tombs in the city (“Queen Tzakbu Ajal: 2007). While her identity cannot be one hundred percent confirmed, the multiple lines of evidence seem solid enough for some researchers to accept them as fact.

For more information on the Red Queen, including videos, check out the Discovery Channel’s “Assignment Discovery” here!

III. Crystal Maiden

In the Mayan World, not all elite burials are created equal. Hidden away in the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave of Belize is a more mysterious and disturbing depiction of elite Mayan burial practices. Discovered recently in 1989, fourteen burials have been preserved almost exactly as they were left around one thousand years ago—decapitated, disarticulated, and left unburied. With modified foreheads and filed teeth, these individuals were once elite members of Mayan society, now calcified to the cave’s floor (Chládek, 2011).  In particular, the discovery of an eighteen to twenty year-old girl has been of interest in the archaeological community. Separated in a high alcove of the cave, her crystallized skeleton has two broken vertebrae, amputated hands and feet, and a disarticulated lower skull. Nearby sits a large ax head made from greenstone, a suspected means of her death (Chládek). The maiden’s sprawled position suggests she was thrown to the ground after her gory end, with no deliberate care of positioning taken and no funerary goods near her (Tiesler, 2008). As Mayans believed caves were the entrance to the underworld, The Crystal Maiden and her compatriots suggest elaborate and violent sacrificial rituals occurred in these caves, possibly to appease the Lords of Xibalba and the Rain God Tlaloc, as drought devastated the Mayan lands.

These case studies open up a window into classical Mayan culture for modern archaeologists. Case studies provide us with a huge amount of detail about specific happenings in the past.  However, we cannot gain much information on the common experience of all people from case studies – most of them tend to be more extravagant and representative of a higher class than an average burial.  However, case studies provide us with much detail and are quite sensational.  They provoke the interest of even the most novice archaeologist. The famous Mayans we have discussed here have rich, interesting histories and sensational stories attached, which is crucial for peaking interest in archaeology.

Works Cited

Chládek, Stanislav. Exploring Maya Ritual Caves: Dark Secrets from the Maya Underworld. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2011. Print.

Cucina, Andrea and Vera Tiesler. “New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Postsacrificial Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society: An Introduction” New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Springer Science + Business Media. New York, 2008.

Gomez, David. “The Palenque Megaproject”. Maya Discovery. October 23, 2000. http://www.mayadiscovery.com/ing/archaeology/palenque/

Price, Douglas, James Burton, Lori Wright, Christine White, and Fred Longstaffe. “Victims of Sacrifice: Isotopic Evidence for Places of Origin”. New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology, 2007.  

“Queen Tzakbu Ajal”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. http://videos.howstuffworks.com/history/red-queen-videos-playlist.htm#video-30588

“Red Queen’s DNA”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. http://videos.howstuffworks.com/history/red-queen-videos-    playlist.htm#video-30588

“Sak K’uk as the Red Queen”. Assignment Discovery. The Discovery Channel. October 27, 2007. http://videos.howstuffworks.com/history/red-queen-videos-    playlist.htm#video-30588

Tiesler, Vera. New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. New York, NY: Springer, 2008. Print.

Posted by: Mayan Musings | April 12, 2012

Symbology of Mayan Death and Deities

From cave art, to hieroglyphics, to modern gravestones, symbols have enabled humans to give life to, and immortalize cultural history, identity, and meaning, ever since they were first utilized. Broadly defined as “cultural representations” from which meaning can be interpreted properly within context, symbols can be found in every culture at some fundamental level (Mach 1993). The ancient Mayans are no exception to the practice of symbology. Particularly in their rituals during the Classic period, they immortalize their beliefs of death, resurrection, and deities. Discussed below are merely a few examples of the symbolism related to death in Mayan culture.

In many cultures, grave goods are a significant part of the mortuary practices.  Whether the goods symbolize some sort of spiritual strength or they are just there for support for the dead in their afterlife, they remain a huge part of the archaeological record.  These grave goods provide insight into the beliefs and customs of the once thriving society, which is the major reason why archaeologists spend so much time and money testing these materials.  For the Maya culture in particular, through the study of their artifacts, archaeologists have concluded that they focus on the themes of wealth, water, maize, and centrality (Fields 1991).  But the actual symbol found that represents these themes in death were jade.  According to Taube, “Jade is often related to rulership and authority”.  Jade also held more of a significance in terms of death because it was passed down in generations, but later used to communicate amongst ancestors (Taube 2005).  Also it can be hypothesized that because jade was such a durable material of Mesoamerica but also such a precious stone, its presence in grave goods could demonstrate some sort of social standing.  But overall as a death symbol, “jade was esteemed for its beauty and preciousness and as a rarefied embodiment of life essence…also as a physical manifestation of the breath spirit” (Taube 2005).

Mayan Jade Pendant depicting a deity.

Cacao was an important beverage, a form of currency, and even a symbol of transitions (including, birth, death, and marriage) in Classical Mayan culture. Specifically, cacao played a role in the rebirth of several deities and mythical beings, as well as the Mayan creation story (Grofe, 2007).  It was also ritual to for family members of the deceased to drink cacao during funerary rituals – archeologists know this because drinking vessels have been found in tombs (Prufer and Hurst, 2007).

No analysis of mortuary archaeology is complete without an inspection of the deities associated with death in the Mayan world. That being said, it is important to note that varying researchers and archaeologists have discovered countless examples of gods that deal with death, not all of which are interchangeable. Many of the references to Mayan death deities come from glyphs located on structures or in codices, and translations are not always perfect (Thompson 1958: 297). Gunckle (1897) discovered glyphs relating to two separate gods of death, neither of which were given proper names. Deity XI and Deity XVII were both associated with glyphs inscribed on structures in Palenque, Copan, and Chichen Itza; with the former being linked to God A (a purposed death god) and the latter being symbolically tied to maggots, and thus death (Gunckle 1897: 407, 409).  In the Maya Dresden and Madrid Codices, Thompson (1958: 299) relates glyphs of the moon goddess, Ixchel, with a god of death named Yum Cimil. The Maya Dresden and Madrid Codices were considered divinatory almanacs and the references to Yum Cimil were interpreted as relating to potential future deaths (299). Ah Puch is yet another deity related to death who is also known as Hunhau or Hunahau. Often represented with the head of an owl and either a skeleton or bloated corpse for a body, there are disagreements as to whether Ah Puch is the same as God A (Lindeman 1997). The references to many different death deities, with very little overlap, weaves a complicated picture regarding death and religion.

A depiction of Yum Cimil, the suspected Mayan god of death

The word “cham” was not the primary word for death in most Mayan languages, but it was often associated with mortuary practices.   It could also be used as a word for any other change of state, implying a sense of passing or transition (Fitzsimmons, 26).  This idea of death morphed into a tangible symbol, the death cham or death eye, during the classical period.  The death cham evoked symbolism of the breath escaping the body through the nostrils at the time of death (Fitzsimmons, 26).  The fact that breath escaped from the nostrils is thought to be eluding to flowers, and the fact that the soul is a breath of sweet air, rather than the stench of death and decay. Upon death, a person was thought to ‘exhale the perfume of the soul’ (Fitzsimmons, 27).

When studying ancient civilizations, it is impossible to fully reconstruct cultural identity, beliefs, and practices. However, through the practice of symbology, anthropologists and archeologists can attempt to partially understand complex beliefs and rituals of the time period. Without symbols, our knowledge of the past would be significantly limited. From jade, to cacao, to images of deities, the Mayans left their cultural mark through an elaborate array of death symbology—what traces will our civilization leave behind?

Works Cited

Fields, Virginia. “Sixth Palenque Round Table.” The Iconographic Heritage of the Maya Jester God. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1991. 167-74. Print.

Fitzsimmons, James L. Death and the Classic Maya Kings. 2009. Austin: University of Texas   Press.

Frufer, Keith M. and Jurst, W. Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.  Eurohistory. 54.2 (2007): 273-301. Web.

Gunckel, Lewis. “Analysis of the Deities of Mayan Inscriptions”. American Anthropologist. Vol. 10, No. 12 (Dec., 1897).

Grofe, Michael. The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya. 2007.

Lindemans, Micha. “Ah Puch.” Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online. March 3, 1997. <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/a/ah_puch.html>

Mach, Zdzisław. Symbols, Conflict, and Identity: Essays in Political Anthropology. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. Print.

Taube, Karl A. “Ancient Mesoamerica.” Cambridge Journal 16.1 (2005).

Thompson, Eric. “Symbols, Glyphs, and Divinatory Almanacs for Diseases in the Maya Dresden and Madrid Codices. American Antiquity. Vol. 23, No, 3 (Jan., 1958).

Posted by: Mayan Musings | March 29, 2012

Ethics and Unearthing the Ancient Mayan World

The academic world tends to forget that there are still indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica with Mayan ancestry, and in forgetting or ignoring they often make decisions that seems to put themselves at odds with local populations. Watkins (2005) draws attention to the plight of an indigenous Mayan group at Palenque, Mexico (436). Archaeologists working for the National Institute of Archaeology and History had discovered a “throne-altar-platform” and failed to report their findings to the government or indigenous groups for several months. Not only were the findings not disclosed, but portions of the site had actually been removed without any native approval (436). As Pearson (2000) mentions, archaeologists have often been found to dig at sites without any reference to the indigenous groups in the vicinity of the site (173).

The scholarly pursuit of Indigenous Archaeology has been seen as a decolonizing practice instituted by native peoples in an effort to take back some autonomy over their heritage (Atalay 2006: 283). At the 2002 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, entitled “Toward a More Ethical Mayanist Archaeology” Lix Lopez, a Mayan Archaeologist, brought to light many of the issues he had with the terminology of modern archaeology in describing the history of his people. Words like “ruins”, “disappeared”, “vanished”, and “Mayan collapse” all make it seem as though his people no longer exist, as though there are no remaining descendants of the ancient Mayan peoples (Zimmerman 2007: 147). If archaeologists remove the link between indigenous populations and their ancestry, then indigenous groups lose rights over controversial issues (mortuary analysis, for example).

Image

Archeologists have to be mindful of ethical concerns during excavation and while presenting their findings. There are policies in place to protect the cultures being studied.

Archaeology ethics- Archaeologists have always had to face many challenges in their field of study.  But more recently, archaeologists have faced a new challenge; dealing with the ethics of studying human remains in general.  As Watkins states, when Americans think about history, they think about the study of their people, but when they think about archaeology they are studying ‘simpler people’ (2004).  This can show why there are often issues with they study of human remains, because some of the remains that are being studied are ancestors of people still alive today.  Thus, due to ethics, there is controversy rooted in the very occupation of archaeology.  There have been occasions where credit has not been given to the people who deserve it because like the ‘moundbuilders’, some people do not think that the ‘simpler’ people were capable of creating something so complex (Watkins, 2004).  So when studying the advanced Maya civilization, it is easy for archaeologists to not only overlook the abilities of the people living there, but they might also forget that there is a deeper connection to the people that still inhabit this land.  Furthermore, they have to consider that the research they are sharing with the public might affect the opinions and beliefs of the people still living. Thus we “highlight the need for scholars to think more carefully about the implications of their research and writings for living Maya peoples and the remarkable land they inhabit” (Fash, 1994).

It seems that every type of organization – economic, health, labor, archeological, and so on – have working definitions of what qualifies as an indigenous people, and how to effectively protect their rights.  Organizations feel the need to put these protective policies into place because these groups are seen as weak politically, having limited economic resources, and stigmatized culturally by the societies that have taken over their lands (Watkins, 2005).  Many archeologists are painfully aware of this, and take into account a strong sense of ethicswhile adhering to policies put in place to protect the peoples that they study.  Some scholars refuse to work with artifacts that were not acquired in a legal manner (Green, 2000).  Not only would this practice be unethical, stolen grave goods have been removed completely from the other features of the site, proving no context to examine.  In addition to the moral compass of archeologists, the UNESCO convention oncultural property is respected within the United States and throughout the United Nations.  This legislation, however, was relatively loose.  If a museum purchased a piece in good faith or possessed itfor a decade, it was exempt from the restrictions imposed by the convention (Green, 2000).  In recent years, those working to protect Mayan culture have had to make radical moves to help protect their heritage.  In the late 90’s, Guatemala’s Minister of Culture and Sports resorted to moving artifacts from tourist sites in order to protect them (Dobrzynski, 1998).  They had resorted to literally stationing guards at some sites, but there was no possible way to cover all 2,200 known sites.  The looting of sites is causing a huge problem in Mayan archeological sites, and there is little that can be done about it.

Another major ethical concern for contemporary Mayans is that their ancestral sites and artifacts have been misconstrued as a part of an overarching Guatemalan identity instead of purely Mayan. This generalization has created some commotion regarding the repatriation of archaeological remains. Instead of artifacts being returned through protective policies to their true indigenous people, archaeological remains are now returned to the ladino state rather than to the Mayan communities (Cojti, 1995). As a result, many Mayans feel as though they have been alienated from their past, as state governments will not grant them access to these cultural relics (Ren, 2006). This brings forth the essential question—who actually should own the past?

While many ethical tensions still abide in theMayan region however,  the questioning of unethical archaeological practices has brought forth a new era of archaeological practices that avoid native alienation and instead, attempt to support native people. At the Guatemalan excavation of Chocola, archaeologist Jonathan Kaplan is utilizing a new form of inclusive preservation called “community archaeology.” By working with natives, clean trash and water systems, eco-tourism opportunities, and a archaeological land swap program have been established to ensure the stability of the community during and after the research (Bawaya, 2005). This in turn, promotes preservation from locals who become more involvedand invested in the project.

Another example, The Cancuén Regional Development Project at Cancuén, has gathered more than $6 million in international support, which has enabled “30 Q’eqchi’ Maya villages to participate in their own excavations and develop community-designed guide, boat and inn services.” (Salisbury, 2004). These practices have been heralded by local leaders as a hopeful “modelo Cancuén”—a new standard for ethical archaeology in Guatemala. By involving indigenous communities in the archaeological process, an open dialogue between researchers and locals can enhance research, preservation, and progress ethical understandings in the field of archaeology.

Interested in reading more about the implication of looting and acquiring grave goods by means of unethical practices?  Check out this blog.  The author has done some great research and has insightful ideas!

Atalay, Sonya. “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice”.  American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 30, No. 3/4. pg 280- 310.  2006

Bawaya, M. “ARCHAEOLOGY: Maya Archaeologists Turn to the Living to Help Save the Dead.” Science 309.5739 (2005): 1317-318. Print.

Cojti Cuxil. 1995: Waqi’ Q’anil: Configuracion del Pensamiento Politico del Pueblo Maya: (2da. Parte). Guatemala: Iximulew.

Dobrzynski, Judith. To Save Mayan Artifacts From Looters, a Form of Protective Custody. March 31, 1998.  The New York Times.

Fash, William L. “Changing Perspectives on Maya Civilization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 23.1 (1994): 181-208.

Green, Laura.  Guatemala and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Law, Ethics and Cultural Patrimony. 2000.

Parker, Pearson Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2000. Print.

Ren, Avexnim Cojti. “Maya Archaeology and the Political and Cultural Identity of Contemporary Maya in Guatemala.” Archaeologies 2.1 (2006): 8-19. Print.

Salisbury, David. “Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Maya Masterpieces While Excavating a Sacred Ball Court in Guatemala.” News from Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt University, 23 Apr. 2004. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.  <http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/newspub/bjfTyg?id=11623>.

Watkins, Joe. “Becoming American or Becoming Indian?: NAGPRA, Kennewick and Cultural Affiliation.” Journal of Social Archaeology 4.1 (2004): 60-80.

Watkins, Joe. “Through Wary Eyes: Indigenous Perspectives on Archaeology”. Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 34. pg 429-449. 2205

Zimmerman, L.J. “Plains Indians and the Resistance to “Public” Heritage Commemoration of Their Pasts”. Cultural Heritage and Human Rights. 2007.

Posted by: Mayan Musings | March 15, 2012

Sexuality and Gender

Groups are never homogeneous – one cannot simply take in the big picture at an archaeological site and understand the fine details of a society.  In an article focusing on gender, Clayton tells us that we cannot analyze a society as a unit, or we would be unable to focus in on important details such as gender (2010).  Gender is a culturally constructed concept that sorts biologically male and female individuals into roles within the household and community, an important task for the construction of day-to-day life.  Here, we explore the roles and privileges experienced by women in Mayan cultures.  This theme of gender permeated throughout the Mayan culture, from beautification routines to access to nutrition.

While biological studies of skeletons can’t tell us everything about an individual, however, they can sometimes provide useful insight into cultural practices regarding gender. For example, ancient Mayan burial sites reveal evidence of cranial modification, a suggestion that appearance of an erect or oblique head was important socially (Romero-Vargas 2010).  While 88.65% of crania evaluated in a study of 94 Classic Mayan sites exhibited artificial shaping (Tiesler 1999), a specific study at Yaxuna indicated that female infants were twice as likely to be subjected to cranial modification than males (Arden, 2002). It is also believed that because this practice began in early infancy and women are frequently depicted in art as the performers of deformation, that females were responsible for maintaining this cultural tradition. This suggests that women were perhaps held to higher standards regarding personal aesthetics, and that they maintained a more domestic role in society through childcare (Tiesler). The styles of Classic Mayan tooth decorations also show differences in male and female treatment as well: while tooth adornment was more common in women who generally favored filings, males over the age of 15 would inlay gems such as hematite and jade into their teeth, indicating higher wealth (Tiesler). It is important to note though, that gender differences disappear once considering women of elite status. While some scholars  attempt to highlight that women had less access to food resources than men through anemia studies, these differences are mainly related to social class, as elite women skeletons were not found in ill health (Grauer, 1998). Physical difference between females and males are much more apparent among individuals of lower social status.

People that hold the feminist archaeology perspective could argue that many recent studies use the biases of Western norms to evaluate the site.  And up until recent research has been done, “Maya culture has been described by scholars as male-dominated” (Miller, 2012). But this recent research in the field of archaeology has started to show that Maya women once played a central role in the society.  According to Shankari Patel’s studies, many artifacts have been found that show that a lot of ritual spinning and weaving had been done.  Also, a lot of icons and figurines had been found which were used for funerary rituals, which further shows the importance of women in society (Miller, 2012).  Patel even commented that, “Our society is so patriarchal, and archaeologists often don’t realize how that affects the way we look at the past.” (2012).  Another issue regarding women in Maya society and in past cultures in general, is the fact that there is a lot less information out about them.  At the elite Copan Acropolis, there were two tombs that contained women’s remains and yet there was not even one reference to women in textual format (Ardren, 2002).  But the lack of information on women in texts should not lead us to assumptions on the importance of women because other women share information on their daily lives.  Ardren even argues that women might have had a smaller role, but it was still nevertheless significant and they played a role in both ritual activities and Mayan creation mythology (2002).

Archaeologists can observe gendered differences in a culture by examining human remains.  Skeletons can accurately show evidence of trauma from violence, disease and infection, and malnutrition (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).   Patterns of violence do not suggest a rampant issue of gendered violence within Mayan communities.  Most injuries are fractures, likely caused by falls and other occupational hazards, not domestic violence.

Evidence has shown that women in Mayan cultures show patterns of arthritis consistently.  These patterns suggest that repetitive motions from cooking cause this affliction (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).   This implies a structured understanding of gender roles within a community, suggesting a gender hierarchy.  Ideas of gendered labor within Mayan culture are further emphasized when one observes that women are much more likely to suffer from “village” diseases, or illnesses that sweep through closely quartered populations (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).  Women led a more sedentary lifestyle, meaning they left the villages less often than their male counterparts.

Grave goods are often considered one of the integral aspects of mortuary archaeology by those conducting the research, and these artifacts are no less important in terms of gender and mortuary analysis. Grave good gender and sex analysis by archaeologists must always be taken with a grain of salt. As Pearson states, “the principal methodological issue concerned with unexamined assumptions has probably been the ascription of biological sex on the basis of associated grave goods and dress” (2000: 97). As mentioned in our first post, The Red Queen is a prominent figure in mayan archaeology, few individual women have received as much attention as she has. Along with the face mask of cinnabar, the Red Queen was also buried with pearls, three small axes, and a belt of jade beads. These items do not tell much in the way of sex or gender, however, as most of them are consider manifestations of elite power (Tiesler et al 2004: 70). At a non-elite level, more gendered markers seem to come to the forefront. On a large number of juvenile females, a marine shell pendant seems to have been placed in the pelvic area, which, according to ethnohistoric evidence, symbolizes “purity”. Older females were not associated with this artifact (Ardren 2002: 76). The majority of the females at the Yaxuna site where Ardren conducted her research were buried with decorated ceramic vessels, at higher proportions than males buried with the ceramic vessels. These ceramics seem to have been made at the household level, thus connecting women to, at the very least, ceramic making in the home (Ardren 2002: 76).

It is interesting to note that Stockett has cited epigraphic and iconographic mortuary artifacts depicting what could be considered a third gender in Mayan culture (2005: 570). The evidence for this is inconclusive however and simply deserved mentioning.

We are what we eat – literally.  Examining nutrition in men and women shows a difference in foods that are available to men and women (White, 2005).  Bone density, height of the base of the cranium, and the diameter of the pelvic inlet all can suggest whether a person was malnourished or received a sufficient amount of calories and protein (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).  Bones also directly show whether individuals were deficient in a specific nutrient.  Women were more likely to be anemic, but this could have been due to natural iron loss through menstruation or less access to protein sources (Cohen and Bennett, 1998).  Remains from Lamanai and Pacbitun show that men consistently consumed more animal protein than women did (White, 2005).  This could have been the result of what foods men and women came into contact with during their day to day activities, what foods were regularly eaten during ritual practices, or because of social hierarchies more so than gender.

Women were thought to be the gatekeepers of food.  One would initially think that this status as the controller of food would give women power within the community, but food choice was ultimately based on availability and popular choice (White, 2005).  Women’s power and autonomy when it came to food further decreased because of Spanish colonialism.  Spanish influence altered Mayan rituals, allowing for more ritual consumption of animal protein.  The Spanish patriarchal attitude towards women also rubbed off on the community – equality within the Mayan populations decreased as Mayans began devaluing women’s work and status within society.
Works Cited

Ardren, Traci. Ancient Maya Women. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2002. Print.

Clayton, S.C. Gender and Mortuary Ritual at Ancient Teotihuacan, Mexico: a Study of   Intrasocietal Diversity.  Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21 (1):31-52

Cohen, M., and Bennett, S. Evidence for Sexual Roles and Gender Hierarchies in Prehistory. Rutledge, 1995. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

Grauer, Anne L. Sex and Gender in Paleopathological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Miller, Bettye. “Research Re-examines Role of Maya Women.” EurekAlert! AAAS, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.     <http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-02/uoc–rrr022912.php>.

Parker, Pearson Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2000. Print.

Romero-Vargas et al. “A Look at Mayan Artificial Cranial Deformation Practices:

Morphological and Cultural Aspects.” Neurosurgical FOCUS 29.6 (2010). Print.

Stockett, Miranda. “On the Importance of Difference: Re-Envisioning Sex and Gender in Ancient Mesoamerica” World Archaeology , Vol. 37, No. 4, Debates in “World Archaeology” (Dec., 2005), pp. 566-578

Tiesler, V, Cucina, A, and A. Romano Pacheco. “Who was the Red Queen? Identity of the female Maya dignitary from the sarcophagus tomb of Temple XIII, Palenque, Mexico.” Journal of Comparative Human Biology. Volume 55, Issue 1: Oct. 2004.

White, C. Gendered Food Behavior Among the Maya.  Journal of Social Archaeology. 2005. (5):356-382. Web. 13 Mar. 2012

 

Posted by: Mayan Musings | March 1, 2012

Looking at Land and Layout in Mortuary Ritual

 

Image

 

Mortuary space and placement are vital to an archaeological understanding of death and internment.  Body placement, what direction bodies face, and where bodies are interned in relation to the home and other monuments all reflect Mayan attitudes about gender, death, and the reoccurring concept of the axis mundi, or the connection between Heaven and Earth (Ashmore 2005, p. 87).  Here, we explore characteristic burial in Tikal, Caracol, and Copan, three Mayan sites that have provided archaeologists with many clues regarding the connection between internment position and social roles.

Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites of the Maya civilization.  The monumental architecture at this site shows some of the militaristic and political qualities of the Maya civilization, but the many burials found here reveal so much more.  Like every site, Tikal had issues of degradation and natural aggravations such as trees roots invading the shallow graves.  But according to Haviland, another reason why some of the bodies were not in prime conditions were because of the positioning of the bodies (1967, p. 316).  The bodies were sometimes in an extended position or often in a flexed position, such as lying or seated and the bones would thus become dismembered.  But the interests of the bodies’ positions is not in how those positions might or might not have dismembered the body, but rather like Metcalf and Huntington wonder, why were they positioned this way?  Does the manipulation of a corpse show anything significant about the status of that person during their life? Metcalf and Huntington explain the importance of the corpses’ positioning by saying, “it enables us to penetrate the meaning of mortuary rituals by paying attention to the details of the treatment of the corpse” (1991, p.84).  So the analysis of the mortuary rituals revealed that the people that were in “extended position seemed to be of greater stature than those interred in flexed position” (p.320).  And according to Haviland, the bodies found in the flexed position were presumably female.  So, even though Pearson states that while trying to pursue archaeology without a bias we often “impose our unacknowledged misconceptions”, in this situation it is hard not to see some sort of sexual dimorphism in regards to stature in Maya society (2000, p.104).  In addition the positioning of the bodies at Tikal led to hands-on work with the bones.  Haviland thought that the bones revealed that “Tikal was settled by people of medium stature…fairly stable, increasing only slightly , if at all” (1967, p.319).  He also said that the bones revealed the land to be at an agricultural level, but because of the increasing population at the time, there were issues with ‘nutritional stress’.

Like Tikal, spatial issues play into the mortuary archaeology of the large Mayan city of Caracol as well. Located in modern day Belize and spanning over 177 square kilometers with a population of over 115,000 people at its height, Caracol was made up of a series of causeways that linked outlying sites to the central point of the city (Chase 2002: 5). A major point of spatial interest in the mortuary analysis of Caracol comes in the form of burials associated with buildings. Chase and Chase study the pattern of spacial-chronological internment in reference to structures L3, 4P46, P64, and B34 (2002: 13). The first burial at each structure appears in the construction core as the structure was built, with all following internments being associated with whatever happened to be the newest renovation of the building. In essence, if stairway extensions were added to the structure, each new burial would be associated with each new extension. While no directionality is stated for the human remains, the authors do note that a mixture of articulated corpses and disarticulated remains were discovered (Chase 2002: 13-14). On a larger scale, the cardinal directionality of mortuary sites seemed to have been of some importance. Structures involving veneration of the dead seemed to have been placed, in many cases, on the eastern side of residential complexes (Chase 1998: 311).  Located on the eastern side of theses complexes were “single- and multiple-individual tombs, all other classes of burials, stalagmites, finger bowl caches, and “face” caches” (Chase 1998: 311).  As Ashmore and Geller stated, these sites associated with mortuary events become liminal spaces in both time (in the first example) and space (in the second example) (Ashmore and Geller 2005: 84).

Archaeological studies of spatial burial practices at Copán provide an even deeper understanding of the importance of Mayan directionality in internment. Because soil quality is more varied in this region than at other Mayan sites (Webster et. al 1990), and less acidic due to suggested cultural introduction of lime plaster at site 9N-8 (Person et. al 1990) a richer supply of skeletal remains here provides clues that are less prominent from studies at Tikal or Caracol. In particular, analysis at Copán 9N-8 suggests a relation between body placement and cardinal directions. A majority of Mayan burials at this site were found in a north-south orientation, with the most single burials exhibiting western facial orientation. Furthermore, most bodies were found flexed, just as they were at Tikal (Coones, 2007). Paired with concepts of Mayan art and cosmology from the Popul Voh, these orientations have been interpreted as appropriate, as the west represented death, darkness and the underworld, and the north either recognized elite social status or exalted the ancestors (Schele, 1986). By resting their dead in these positions, the living infuse these remains with their interpretations of the afterlife, and leave archaeologists eternal hints about Mayan ritual practices. While the findings at 9N-8 are interesting, however, it is important to note that much variation still exists beyond this specific burial site at Copán, so generalizations should not be extrapolated. Regardless, this relatively consistent site provides an exciting spatial dimension to the varying practices of burial throughout the Mayan Classic Period (250–900 AD).

 

Works Cited

Ashmore, W.  (2005) Social Dimensions of Mortuary Space.  In Interacting with the Dead:

Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium, edited by G.F.M.

Rakita, J.E. Buikstra, L.A. Beck, and S.R. Williams.  University Press of Florida, Gainesville.  pp. 81-92


Chase, Diane and Arlen Chase. “The Architectural Context of Caches, Burials, and Other

Ritual Activities for the Classic Period Maya (as Reflected at Caracol, Belize)”.

Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture. Dumbarton Oaks Research

Library and Collection, Washington D.C.: 1998.


Chase, Diane and Arlen Chase. “Patterns of Burial and Residential Cycles at Caracol, Belize”. Fourth Mesa Redonda de Palenque. University of Florida: June 2002.

Coones, Julie Dennis, M.A.. Cardinal directionality in Maya burials. University of Houston:

2007. 243 pages.


Haviland, William A. “Stature at Tikal, Guatemala: Implications for Ancient Maya Demography

and Social Organization.” American Antiquity 32.3 (1967): 316-25.


Metcalf, Peter, and Richard Huntington. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary

Ritual. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.


Parker, Pearson Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A & M

UP, 2000. Print.


Person, Donald A., Widmer, Randolph J., Taylor, William. Soil Chemistry and

Archaeological Preservation at Copan. Paper presented at the 55th Annual Meeting of

the Society for American Archaeology. Pittsburgh. 1990.


Schele, Linda, Miller, Mary. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth:

Kimbell Art Museum. 1986.


Webster, David and AnnCorinne Freter. (1990) “Demography of Late Classic Copan.” In T.

Patrick Culbert and Don S. Rice (Eds). Precolumbian Population History in the Maya

Lowlands. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 37-61.

Posted by: Mayan Musings | February 9, 2012

Sacrificial Blood Letting Ritual

A relief of a Mayan elite about to begin a sacrificial blood letting ritual.   

Posted by: Mayan Musings | February 9, 2012

Not All Deaths are Equal: An Overview of Mayan Mortuary Practices

This entry is meant to serve as an introduction to Mayan perceptions and actions involving death. We will briefly touch on a number of manners of death and the mortuary practices associated with them.

I. Ordinary burial practices (Adults and children)

     Death seemed to be an accepted aspect of human life during the Classic period of Mayan civilization.  Instead of fearing the end of life, dying Mayans would simply resign themselves to the inevitable and go off to their hammocks and wait (Steele, 1977).  After an individual passed, a religion-based ritual was followed.  This ensured that the deceased would travel into the afterlife safely, and provided an outlet for the grief of the living, who believed that inattention to the dead would cause illness in the family (Steele, 1977).  Throughout this process, the living members of the family engaged in fasting.

        The remains were washed and covered with a manta, or a shroud.  Next, a jade bead and a piece of maize was put into the mouths of the dead.  This was to ensure that the individual would not go hungry on his trip into the afterlife, nor would he be turned away for being unable to pay the fee to get inside.  The body was not usually buried alone; pet dogs were sacrificed to their masters for company and to ensure that they found their way through the afterlife without getting lost.  Also, many tools of the deceased’s trade were buried alongside them.  Huntsmen had there spears, cooks had their maize grinders, and so on.  Family members were buried in the mud floors of their homes.  Once a number of bodies were buried, the family would move and the dwelling would become a shrine to the ancestors (Steele, 1977).

II. Death and Disease

     In addition to their typical burials, Mayans also have strong beliefs related to deaths from disease.  The concept that death can stem from disease does not seem too obscure to a modern Western perspective.  However, Mayans believes that “evil winds bring on disease” (Steele 1977: 1063) and the movement of air was considered hostile.  In addition, taking part in an illegal act was also considered a way to bring on disease.  A shaman would be called to try to cure or even kill the patients.  But “when the time came to die, the Maya did not fight it” (Steele 1977: 1063) thus, showing the strong beliefs in an afterlife.  Mayans did have different views on death when it came to dying of a “good” illness or not.  For example if someone died from sadness or fatigue, “the soul itself did not die” and thus showing their beliefs on immortality.  If the death is caused by a “good” illness on the other hand, the soul will linger but then head to paradise (Steele 1977: 1064).  The fatally ill were often treated with medicinal herbs, but if the shaman foresaw death, the patient accepted it.  Overall, the Maya people held such a close tie with the environmental world, to the point where when death by disease faced them, they would accept it to become “compatible with the nature of their environment” (Steele 1977: 1065).


III. Sacrificial burials 


     Human sacrifice, hierarchy, and Mayan mortuary practices have long held a complicated position in the archaeological world. That being said, meeting death as a sacrifice was considered to be more honorable than a natural death because one’s life was being given in order to receive power or gifts from the gods. Life as the Mayans understood it could continue due to sacrifices (Zaccagnini 2003: 23). Death for the sacrifices involved public ceremonies of varying sizes and forms. Blood-letting, heart excision, decapitation, and body mutilation were just a few of the possible customs associated with the death of the sacrificed individuals (Zaccagnini 2003: 13-14).
As with the manner of death, there seems to be no single manner in which the disposal of corpses occurred. In the case of mass sacrificial graves in Late Pre-Classic Cuello, all social identity seems to have been stripped of the sacrifices as they were placed in individual “body bundles” in a mass grave (Hammond 1999: 59). Cucina and Tiesler (2008) detail a very different situation: two sacrificed individuals were laid next to the sarcophagus of a female dignitary of Chiapas labeled the “Red Queen” (Cucina and Tieser 2008: 2). While the manner in which the Red Queen’s companions were disposed of seems to carry higher status markers than those of the mass grave (tomb burial, burial near an elite, skeleton remaining articulated), there is not enough archaeological evidence available to make such a definitive claim. What can be gleaned from this situation is the plethora of sacrificial mortuary practices.

IV. Child Burials-

     This wide variation in burial rituals holds true for Mayan children as well. Younger members of the community were treated very differently in death according to their age, gender, and calendar time of death. Unlike adults, burial gifts were generally omitted from children who were younger than five years old (Ardren, 67). This is because the Mayans believed that the soul was not fully developed until after this age. Seen as fully pure and merely on the cusp of existence, babies were often sacrificed for rulers’ tombs, with their bones placed in elaborate vessels (Roach, 2010). For older children, power position within their family lineage would determine the amount of grave goods they received (Rathje, 1970).

     Other Mayan children did not experience a burial. As Mayans had a particular affinity for sacrificing young children during important events in their calendar, cenotes were a final resting place for many ancient children. Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado holds the remains of 127 individuals alone—over 80% of which are observed to be boys between the ages of 3 and 11 (Eastham, 2008). As the cenote is considered a holy entrance to the underworld, child sacrifice here was highly respected and meant to please the rain god, Chaac. At the ceremonies, children were burned, mutilated, or left untouched before being thrown off of the edge and into the watery depths (Eastham, 2008). Their bodies would never be recovered for second burial, as it was believed that they would enter the underworld immediately. Due to their status as pure and god-favored individuals, children play a unique and varied role in the funerary archaeology of the Classic Maya period.

This has just been the briefest overview of Mayan mortuary practices. The coming months will bring many more interesting topics and greater insight into Mayan death archaeology.

Bibliography

Ardren, Traci and Scott R. Hutson; (2006) The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica, University Press of Colorado

Cucina, Andrea and Vera Tiesler. “New Perspectives of Human Sacrifice and Postsacrificial Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society: An Introduction” New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society. Springer Science + Business Media. New York, 2008.

Eastham, Todd. “Ancient Maya Sacrificed Boys Not Virgin Girls: Study| Reuters.” Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News. Reuters, 23 Jan. 2008. Web. 08 Feb. 2012.<http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/01/23/us-mexico-sacrifice-idUSWRI32680820080123&gt;.

Hammond, Norman. “The Genesis of Hierarchy: Mortuary and Offeratory Ritual in the Pre-Classic at Cuello, Belize”. Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Washington D.C., 1999.

Rathje, William. “Socio-political Implications of Lowland Maya Burials: Methodology and Tentative Hypotheses.” World Archaeology 1.3 (1970): 359-74. Print.

Roach, John. “Bowls of Fingers, Baby Victims, More Found in Maya Tomb.” Daily Nature and Science News and Headlines. National Geographic, 21 July 2010. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/07/100721-maya-tomb-human-fingers-king-guatemala-science/&gt;.

Steele, Richard L. “Dying, Death, and Bereavement among the Maya Indians of Mesoamerica: A Study in Anthropological Psychology.” American Psychologist32.12 (1977): 1060-068

Zaccagnini, Jessica. “Maya Ritual and Myth: Human Sacrifice in the Context of the Ballgame and the Relationship to the Popol Vuh”. Honors Theses. Paper 336.

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