buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Month: May 2007

Interactive Copan Map

copan interactive map

PAPAC, the Proyecto Arqueologico para la Planificacion de la Antigua Copan (Copan Urban Planning Project) has announced a new interactive map of the ruins. In truth there isn’t much up yet, but it’s an exciting concept and shows promise of being nicely executed. Click the map to visit the site.

Alto in Antigua

alto en antigua

Rudy Giron at Antigua Daily Photo posted the photo above of a wall in Antigua. He makes the point that “the flavor in life is found in the little details.” The stop (alto) signs in Antigua are made of ceramic tiles in metal frames.

Below is a photo I took in Antigua near the church of La Merced.

stop sign in antigua

Processual and Postprocessual, Emic and Etic

These are words you might encounter if you read archaeological writing about Mesoamerica — or anywhere else for that matter. Since the meanings aren’t transparent, I asked a friend at Cornell for clarification. His answer follows.

  • Processual: Binford, Colin Renfrew, Flannery in Mesoamerica, and compatriots. All about making global statements about human behavior derived from middle-range theory (ethnoarchaeological rules) combined with “knowable” data about the past (environment, tools, diet). Largely focused on making archaeology a science, and on making statements about the ways in which culture is all a human adaptation to the environment. Came up with some good methods, but largely dehumanizing and Eurocentric theory.
  • Postprocessual: Ian Hodder, Shanks, Tilley, compatriots. I can’t think of anyone in Mesoamerica. Comes at archaeology from a variety of perspectives (e.g. Marxist, feminist, cognitive) and all about how processual theory ignores most of human existence and thought. Also disagrees with the progressivist and environmentally deterministic aspects of processualism, and focuses instead on things like agency and choice and labor and all that culture stuff that isn’t directlyrelated to the environment. Some folks have gone all the way to “there is no truth,” but mostly people are just arguing that the past can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on your cultural context,the questions you ask, the data you recover, your methods, etc.
  • Emic: Words natural to the actor. So when I make cookies, I describe the process to myself as “stirring.” In contrast to etic, which islanguage natural to the observer, which might be stuff like “whip until nearly stiff.” In anthropology, largely used to differentiate the “native” view (as in, the view native to the actor) and the “observer” view, as in the view alien to the actor. So an etic ethnography would use structuring terms unfamilar to, and not necessarily meaningful to, the people it described. (Like the way dudes used to go out and describe hunter-gatherer groups as, like, partially matrilocal but with descriptive kinship terminology only.)


xolosA hairless breed of Mexican dog known as Xoloitzcuintles (show-low-eets-KWEENT-les, commonly called Itzcuintles in Mexic and Xolos elsewhere) is growing in popularity. The dog’s history is said to “date back to the Aztecs” (whatever that means). Near extinction, it was rescued by a group who rounded up enough dogs from remote mountain villages to launch a breeding program.

Being hairless, the dogs aren’t suited for very cold or hot weather. But they would be good for asthmatics and people with allergies.

Okay, they’re hairless, but are they barkless? The conquistadors were fascinated by a native American dog that did not bark. As far as I know, those dogs are extinct. I assume this is a different species — if anyone knows, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo owned a Xolos. You can get your own for up to $2500 for a show dog.

More information at the Cool Dog Hall of Fame. The image is a detail from an image from a page called Itzcuintlan Xoloitzcuintlis — such a cool name, I’d change mine to that if it weren’t already taken. Sure I would. Surprisingly, for some reason the site’s url is not www.itzcuintlanxoloitzcuintlis.com but www.xolos-mexico.com.

Ancient Offerings Found at Nevado de Toluca

An AP article announces the find by scuba divers of what may be Aztec offerings deep in a volcanic crater lake west of Mexico City. The snow-capped volcano lies at 13,800 feet above sea level.

Research is being led by Stanislaw Iwaniszewski of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico. Among the finds are lightning bolt-shaped scepters, copal incense, obsidian knives, and maguey cactus spines.

The lightning bolt scepter indicate offerings to the rain god Tlaloc (Chac is the Maya equivalent). Obsidan knives were traded through Mesoamerica. The cactus spines would have been used in blood letting.

Some of the materials are said to date to 100 BCE, which of course is more than a millennium before the appearance of the Aztecs (who headline the AP article).

Bagel Barn in Antigua

bagel barn, antigua

At Antigua Guatemala Daily Photo, Rudy Giron has posted about the Bagel Barn, which offers coffee, bagels, and free WiFi.

How times have changed. When I was teaching in Guate — there was no internet, so don’t even think about WiFi — we once got so desperate for bagels (nowhere to be found in the entire country) that we tried cooking our own. As I recall you have to drop the dough into boiling water. My colleague Marvin Schwartz pronounced the result decent. “But,” he concluded, “they aren’t bagels.”

Mayan Languages and the Origin of the Maya

I’ve reformatted and added a bit more information to my page about Mayan languages. It remains a confusing subject, since there are a large number of languages that are more often than not mostly mutually unintellible, yet at the same time “with the exception of Waxtek, these Mayan languages have been in contact with one another for many centuries and often grade into one another” (Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya).

In general, the timeline probably looks like this. The Huastecans (or Waxtekans) split away from the other language groups in the fourth millennium BCE (they are now a Mexicanized group centered around Veracruz). Later in the same millennium, Yucatek split away from the others. Next to split were the Cholan-Tzeltalan languages, and thereafter things get so complicated that it really requires a Mayan specialist to sort it all out.

If Proto-Mayan dates to around the first quarter of the third millennium as linguistic reconstructions suggest (although this is far from certain), that would make it contemporaneous with predynastic Egypt, the earliest civilizations of Sumeria, the first year of the Jewish calendar (3760 BCE) and the appearance of phonetic writing in the West (ca. 3500 BCE). It would long predate the semi-legendary Xia dynasty, the “First Dynasty” of China.

Based on reconstructions of the Proto-Mayan vocabulary, it appears that Mayan probably originated in the Guatemalan highlands. Some of the areas in which Proto-Mayan is rich are words related to maize agriculture (“with separate words for generic maize, the green ear, the mature ear, the cob, maize flour, maize dough, the tortilla, a toasted maize drink, the rindstone, and three terms for the increasingly fine grindings of maize,” again according to Sharer), ashes, weaving, and writing (implying that the Maya developed some form of writing quite early on).

Other Proto-Mayan words further suggest how ancient many aspects of present-day Maya culture may be. They include words for hammocks, beans, chili peppers, sharpening stones, mats, sandals, combs, and other features still commonly encountered by travelers in the Maya world.

Xeni’s notes from the road

Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing is on the road in Guatemala. Her post from yesterday is a good summing up of the current tone there.

Old School Maya Archaeology

sylvanus g. morley at copan, honduras, 1912I’ve posted a look back at the work of two great Mayanists of the early and mid twentieth century, Sylvanus Morley (shown at left) and Eric Thompson. The piece is slightly long for my taste as a blog post, so I did it as a html page, here.

These guys invested a lot of energy and passion into researching the Maya. They came to dominate the field, and more or less enforced their point of view on it. That’s why it’s sad that they were so far wrong on so many things, and in some respects impeded the progress of work in the area.

Old School Mayanists: Sylvanus G. Morley and J. Eric S. Thompson

Cumbia del Mole

Here’s another music video from contemporary Mesoamerica. The singer, Lila Downs, is of Mixteca descent on her mother’s side (Mixtecs are a people of Oaxaca).


Supposedly 45 million people have voted on a new list of the seven wonders of the world, and currently Chichen Itza is ranking number two.

Someone explain to me why anyone cares. Why would 45 million people vote on this?

Chichen Itza is wonderful, but even among Maya ruins whether it is more wonderful than Uxmal, Palenque, Tikal, or Copan is questionable, to say the least.

UPDATE: Actually, on reflection I think I do care about this. It would be better if Chichen Itza did not make the list, as it’s already suffering from heavy tourist traffic. So, if you’re the sort of person who is likely to vote, please vote for whatever is currently below it in the results.

UPDATE2, 7/7/07: Results are in. Whatever.

Ancient Maya Tomb Found in Copan

maya tomb

The tomb is dated to 650, placing it near the beginning of the Late Classic period. With typical journalistic hype, the National Geographic article announcing the find states that “until now, much about the political makeup and cultural range of the city—famous for its funerary slabs—has been poorly understood.” As if this discovery suddenly makes everything clear.

In fact, the discovery raises more questions than it answers. Why was this individual buried far from the Acropolis, the main Copan center, where other burials have been found? Why is he seated in a cross-legged position that is not typical of Maya burials? Why was he buried with ceramics, apparently from the region of present-day El Savador, that bear non-Maya heiroglyphs?

The find reminds us that the tropical forests of the lowland Maya hide many secrets, and despite astonishing advances by Mayanists over the past several decades there is still much we don’t understand. It will be some time until we make sense of this find.

The image is taken from the National Geographic article.

Penguins in Bed

The Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona is accompanied by Angentian model Chenoa in this video version of his hit Pinguinos en la cama.

Maya Architecture and the Golden Mean

the golden mean at copan honduras

Mathematicians define the golden section as a relation in which the smaller unit is to te larger unit as the larger is to the sum. In other words, a:b = b:(a+b). The name for this relation is phi. Its numeric value is 1.618034. Phi is an interesting number. If you add 1 to it you get its square. If you subtract 1 from it, you get its reciprocal (1/phi). If you keep multiplying it by itself you get an infinite series that retains the phi proportion.

The thirteen-century Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci discovered that the phi proportion often manifests itself in nature as a spiral of increase found in snails, seashells, pinecones, and so forth. And so, it is said, did Maya mathematicians.

One element contributing to the beauty of Maya architecture may be its use of the golden section. (In the image above, I have drawn an approximate golden section over the opening atop the east court at the Maya ruins of Copan in Honduras.) Of course, we must beware of what a professor of mine called “the blueberry principle” — if you are out gathering blueberries you tend not to notice anything else, and you tend to see blueberries wherever you look. If we go looking for the golden section, we are likely to find it. But does this mean the Maya consciously employed it?

A researcher named Christopher Powell concluded that the answer to this question is “yes.” He says that the fundamental shape of Maya geometry is the golden section, and that the Maya composed such sections using a procedure that is brilliant in its simplicity. Using a cord, it is easy to construct a square. If the cord is doubled back on itself it obviously becomes half the length, and that halved cord can be used to find the midpoint of one of the sides of the square. Next, if the cord is placed on the midpoint and extended to one of the opposite corners, it can be swung like a compass in an arc that will define the length of a golden section, from which the final rectangle can be constructed.

Powell observed modern Yucatec Maya using this very technique. He was told that the use of the cord makes houses that are like flowers because of the relations of their proportions. His theory appears to have been confirmed by red marks that remain on some structures at Copan and Tikal and suggest sizing via this cord method.

In the Popul Vuh it is written that gods used the following method to lay out the cosmos:

Its four sides
Its four cornerings
Its measurings
Its four stakings

Its doubling-over cord measurement
Its stretching cord measurement
Its womb sky
Its womb earth
Four sides
Four corners as it is said


  • Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings (Scribner)
  • Alan Christenson, tr., The Popul Vuh, translation adapted by Schele and Mathews
  • See also the Dennis Tedlock version of the Popul Vuh with his comment on this section in which he says that it is based on the cord approach to layout, and he reports that a source informed him that the passage “describes the measuring out of the sky and earth as if a cornfield were being laid out for cultivation.”
  • Christopher Powell

The Great Collapse of the Classic Maya

For centuries travelers through the Maya world have encountered majestic ruins of a civilization that appears to have completely disappeared. Still today people ask what caused such a monumental collapse. While the relative importance of the various factors remains disputed, the general outlines of the collapse are now generally known. I’ve posted a new page on this topic here.

The Maya Region

I’ve learned that some people are confused about the location of the Maya world, so I’ve put up a new overview page about the region here.

Maya Symbology: Turtle

house of turtles, uxmal

Like the parrot I discussed previously, this turtle is located at the Puuc Maya site of Uxmal in the Yucatan. It’s one of the many turtles decorating the building known, not surprisingly, as the House of the Turtles, which is located at the northeast corner of the enormous platform housing the large structure known as the Governor’s Palace. The turtles decorate the cornice at the top of the building at more or less regular intervals. The turtles are realistically rendered, though their shells are decorated with decortive reliefs.

The function of the House of the Turtles is unclear, but it is clearly an integral structure in the Uxmal complex — its central doorways on the north and south are aligned with the archway and central doorway of the major building called the Nunnery. Although a rather small building (about 30 by 11 meters), the House of the Turtles is beautifully proportioned and has been hailed as a superb example of the Puuc style.

For the Maya the turtle was associated with water and with the earth. Not only are turtles found in aquatic habitats but their shells seem to have been associated with thunder because of their use as components of musical instruments such as drums. An image in the Codex Borgia depicts a turtle playing a drum.

The Atlaslike Maya deity (Pauahtun) who supported the world on his shoulders is sometimes depicted wearing a turtle shell on his head. Turtles shells are also associated with altars in some contexts, and the Maize God is sometimes shown emerging from a turtle shell.

Some of this information is drawn from The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993). In dictionary format, this is a useful resource on Maya and Mesoamerican symbology.

Click image for larger view with a different crop.

Maya Symbology: Parrot

parrot atop the great pyramid at uxmal in the yucatan

This parrot (click for a larger view) is carved in a stone near the top of the Great Pyramid at the classic Maya site of Uxmal in the Yucatan. “Uxmal” means thrice-built, but archaeologists have uncovered at least five stages of construction. The Maya often constructed new pyramids on top of existing ones, and it is speculated that this pyramid, located in the southern part of the site, was being prepared for such a treatment when it was abandonned.

Parrots — especially macaws, the largest members of the parrot family, which are native to Mexico and Central and South America — were associated with fire, and the sun, by the Maya because of their bright colors. Images of macaws appear in the Dresden and Madrid codices, in both cases bearing torches. The hero twins of the Popul Vuh trick the death gods by placing macaw feathers at the end of cigars to make them appear to be burning.

In general in Mesocamerica fire represented the principle of change. For the Maya fire was a vehicle for for communicating with the gods. Offerings of bloody paper were burnt, the rising smoke viewed as carrying the people’s supplications heavenward.

The Spanish word for the macaw — guacamaya –is more euphonious and suits him better. When we lived in Mixco in Guatemala a large, very bright-colored guacamaya appeared in our yard and spent several months with us. It was a long time before I realized this was the same bird called macaw in English

The Hand of Time

handprint at kabah

What better way to begin than with this poignant sign of an unknown Maya reaching out through the centuries to touch our world. (I say to begin because earlier posts below were transfered from my site rightreading.com to this new domain, and this post marks the beginning of buriedmirror.com as a new domain.)

This is a photo I took in February of a red handprint on the interior of the arch at the Maya ruins of Kabah in the Puuc region of the Yucatan. Most Maya structures were brightly painted, and this handprint was left in red paint. The handprint was originally obscured by a stucco surface, which has peeled away. Similar handprints in blue paint can be seen at Uxmal, about 20 kilometers northeast.

The arch was the opening to a sacbe, a grand road or walkway, seven kilometers wide at the north and ten kilometers wide here, which connected the great cities of Uxmal and Kabah. A similar arch marks the Uxmal end of the sacbe. A photo of the Kabah arch is below.

As it happens, the name “Kabah” includes the Maya word for “hand,” “kab” (pronounced “kah” by Maya today). The combination “kab-ah” has given Mayanists trouble, and its meaning is disputed. Some say it should be translated as “strong hand,” others as “skilled hand,” others as “sculpting hand,” others as “snake hand” or “mole hand.”

Did the ancient Maya painter imagine that the print of his hand would reach out to distant generations? If so, how might he have imagined us?

the arch at kabah

click images for larger views

in process

I’m in the process of moving my Maya materials over here to www.buriedmirror.com from the Maya World section of www.rightreading.com where they had resided. I don’t think this will take too long, but there could be a few goofy issues with links, images, etc. while I’m setting up my 301 redirects and doing the other things involved in making this sort of change.

I’m trying to leave links to the old files until the new ones are in place, so you may find yourself bouncing back and forth between rightreading and buriedmirror — this shouldn’t be too distracting as it just means some of the framing/navigation elements on the sidebar and head will be different.

I’ll backdate old blog posts to match the original dates.

Some rights reserved 2017 buried mirror: latest reflections. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via rightreading.com/contact.htm.