mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: archaeology

Detail of carved mirror back.

Carved Mirror-Back with Hieroglyphs

Carved Mirror-Back with Hieroglyphs, 200-600. Guatemala Lowlands, Early Classic Maya. Slate with cinnabar, 15.3 cm diam. Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Kislak PC 0132.

Carved Mirror-Back with Hieroglyphs, late sixth century CE. Guatemala Lowlands, Early Classic Maya. Slate with cinnabar, 15.3 cm diam. Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Kislak PC 0132.

This royal mirror belonged to a ruler of the Maya Snake dynasty. This powerful dynasty controlled much of lowland Mesoamerica, including parts of current Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico during what archaeologists call the Classic Maya period. The Snake (or Kaanul) Dynasty — roughly contemporaneous with the dynasties between the Han and the Tang in China — probably represents the closest thing to a true Maya empire. Its history has only recently come into focus.


Mesoamerican animal husbandry

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound. (Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). . Via

Illustration of stone rabbit sculpture from the Oztoyahualco 15B apartment compound.
(Manzanilla ed.1993; drawing by Fernando Botas). Via

A team of researchers led by Andrew Somerville of the University of California San Diego, as reported by Cynthia Graber in Scientific American, have produced new evidence that ancient Mesoamericans raised animals for food. Traditionally it was felt that they did not engage in such acitivites, evidentally because researchers were looking for large food animals such as the cattle and pigs introduced by Westerners.

Archaeologists had already noted ample rabbit remains at Teotihuacan, near modern Mexico City. The current research team, however, noted a few curious things:

  • Carbon isotope analysis provides evidence of the rabbit’s corn and cactus fruit diet, which is different from that of wild rabbits and suggests that they were raised domestically.
  • Ruins of what appears to be a dedicated rabbit pen have been discovered.
  • A rabbit statue was found at the site of the pen.

According to Mexconnect, domesticated rabbits are still a common feature of central Mexican cuisine:

The rabbit, still hunted but more often raised domestically, is popular in Central Mexico, where it is most often eaten adobado – marinated in a chile and spice rub – or estofado – stewed. The latter is a more suitable way of cooking larger rabbit, from three-and-a-half to four pounds. Smaller ones generally run from one-and-a-half to two pounds and can be prepared using shorter cooking methods such as frying or grilling. In either case, even domestically raised rabbit benefits a great deal from being marinated first.

Buen provecho!

Photo Wednesday: The Stone of the Sun

This image of the Aztec calendar wheel — also known as the Stone of the Sun — that was excavated in the Zócalo (main square) in Mexico City comes from Drogdon’s photostream. The basalt stone is about twelve feet in diameter. It is now in the collections of the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

It’s possible that this is a photo of a replica, as it doesn’t look sufficiently aged to be the real stone. (If anyone knows, please leave a comment.)

A new discovery at El Mirador

A pair of monumental (26-foot) stucco panels have been discovered at the important classic Maya site of El Mirador in the Peten by a team led by Richard Hansen of Idaho State University. The figures in the panels appear to represent the heros twins of the Maya creation myth.

This is clearly an important find. The panels can be dated to the Late Preclassic period, from about 300 BCE to a little after the beginning of the common era.


Video via MSNBC


A Maya suspension bridge?

maya suspension bridge

A fellow named James O’Kon claims that the Maya built the longest bridge span in the ancient world.

His theory is based on computer reconstructions derived from a 12-foot high and 35-foot diameter rock formation in the Usamacinta River near the site of Yaxchilan, which flourished between 500 and 700. A similar second structure was discovered in 1992.

O’Kon, who is former chairman of the forensic council of the American Society of Civil Engineers, enlisted the services of his Atlanta engineering firm to create a reconstruction of the bridge.

To my eye the bridge does not look consistent with known Maya architecture.

The full story is at the Georgia Tech Alumni website, which is also the source of the image shown above.


Ancient Maya produced high-quality textiles

girl with embroidered blouse in momostenango, guatemala

That the ancient Maya produced high-quality textiles will come as little surprise to anyone who has traveled through the modern Maya world. But because few textiles are preserved from ancient times, it has been difficult to confirm that this was the case. Now researchers at the University of Rhode Island have performed a lab analysis of forty-nine samples from a tomb at Copan. The analysis showed a high degree of sophistication in the textiles’ manufacture — one had a count of 100 yarns per inch, which would be high by modern technology and consequently “speaks to the technology they had at the time for making very fine fabrics” according to textiles conservator Margaret Ordoñez.

The story is at ScienceDaily. The article has a weird lead, which claims that “Very few textiles from the Mayan culture have survived.” When will people learn that the Maya culture is still very much alive? And that “Mayan” is the adjective for the language, not the culture?


Image of girl from Momostenango from DavidDennis’ photostream


Dazzling temples

rosalila temple repllica, copan museum, honduras

According to Queensland University researcher Rosemary Goodall and her colleagues who have been working at the well-studied ancient Maya site of Copan in Honduras, the temples must have dazzled, literally. Goodall used infared technology to analyze paint shards. She found that tiny bit of mica were mixed with the paint.

“I discovered a green pigment and a mica pigment that would have had a lustrous effect,” Goodall, who was concentrating her research on the Rosalila Temple, reported. “I’m sure that when the sun hit it, it must have sparkled. It must have had the most amazing appearance.”


SHOWN: Rosalila Temple replica at Copan Museum, taken December 1999.


LINK: Study determines why Mayan temples dazzle


Ancient pyramid found in Mexico City

The pyramid, about 36 feet high, was found in the central Tlatelolco area. The discovery pushes back the date of the founding of Tlatelolco by a couple of centuries, meaning the Aztec presence in central Mexico began earlier than previously supposed.

via Yahoo news

Aztec tomb discovered

Using radar equipment, archaeologists have located the tomb of the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl 15 feet below a ceremonial center in the heart of Mexico City. The tomb is large, consisting of several chambers.

Ahuizotl was the uncle of Moctezuma, who led the Aztec emperor at the time of the conquest by Hernán Cortés. He was cremated in 1502 according to a large monolith that was recently discovered, prompting the search for his tomb. From an article about plans to excavate the tomb:

Leonardo López Luján, the lead archaeologist, told Associated Press that his team hoped to be inside the chambers by October, staring at the ashes of Ahuizotl, as well as offerings befitting his status as the last Aztec ruler to die in power.

The team was moving slowly because the entrance is flooded and filled with rocks, forcing the need for pumps to keep the water level down as archaeologists excavate while hanging from slings, he said. He said the conditions may have helped preserve the tomb’s contents.

GroundReport | Archaeologists in Mexico City Find First Tomb of Aztec Ruler

Chiminos Island Lodge

Chiminos Island Lodge is located in the remote Petexbatun Region region of the Peten. It bills itself as an “eco-archaeological adventure.” I have never visited, but that seems fair enough based on the evidence of this video.

Lodge home page

Casa de Montejo, Merida

The Casa de Montejo is a historic building that faces the zócalo in Merida. It is considered a notable example of New World Plateresque architecture. The building is dated 1549 in an inscription. Commissioned by Francisco de Montejo the younger, the son of the conqueror of the Yucatan, it now houses a bank.

casa montejo, merida

The Casa de Montejo is a poignant memorial of the conquest. The two conquistadors shown above are standing on the heads of conquered Maya.

detail of the casa de montejo, merida, yucatan

Sites we like: La Casa Azteca

Casa Azteca is another of my favorite Mesoamerica-related sites. It is quite a thorough and up-to-date source of news and commentary, especially on archeaological subjects. As a bonus, Casa Azteca lists upcoming events in different sites around the country. In general I’m not that fond of Live Journal as a platform; nonetheless, but Casa Azteca is one of the premier sites for information about Mesoamerica and the Maya world. (Click the screenshot to visit the site.)

la casa azteca

The ruins of Santa Teresa, La Antigua, Guatemala

santa teresa, la antigua, guatemala

In 1677 three nuns arrived in Antigua from Peru. They had been sent to establish a Carmelite convent in the then Guatemalan capital. A few years later, building began on the church of Santa Teresa, where the foreign nuns and their new local sisters would be based; construction was completed in 1687. Unfortunately, thirty years later a major earthquake damaged the church. The nuns were terrified, and thereafter lived in thatched huts in the convent garden.

But that would not be the last earthquake to damage the building. Another hit in 1751. Then, in 1773, a catastrophic earthquake caused the building’s total destruction. These are the ruins that are visible today (which is remarkable, since most damaged buildings in Antigua are quickly rebuilt). Although the facade may appear fairly intact from the street view, the interior is in total ruins, and cluttered with rubble to this day.

The convent itself — which had been abandoned by the nuns in favor of the garden huts — actually faired considerably better than the church. It was used as a men’s prison well into the twentieth century

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.)

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

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