First kings to rule the cosmic maize

Lords of Creation
March 3, 2006

For most eyes, it is the imagery of the Late Classic Maya, c AD600-850, that shines the brightest. Recent exhibitions such as The Court Art of the Ancient Maya highlight its kingly narratives and the quite recent integration of iconographic and textual breakthroughs. But underneath those achievements of the Yucat n peninsula and environs lies another span, the Preclassic and Early Classic periods, from the first millennium BC and even slightly before to the first 600 years of the common era. With this catalogue, of a show to be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Virginia Fields, Dorie Reents-Budet and a bevy of essayists offer a new glimpse at the "first Maya". Their task is to organise diverse objects into an account of how the early Maya devised their theological notions of proper order and governance. As with any exhibit that strives for coherence, the artefacts do not always fit the scholarly conceit of a tidy tale.

The average specialist in New World civilisations seldom controls a grin (or grimace) when Old World specialists speak of having to master a few centuries of cultural production. Our brief is millennia, over vast areas.

Such sweep can exhilarate but, as with this catalogue, mislead. Fields et al have found a way to encompass centuries of monumental masks, stelae and polished jade by embracing a thorough-going atemporalism.

The role of the king, from earliest times, was to define the cosmos through ritual acts such as creating a sacred space and its centre - usually himself! - to receive regalia, re-enact the central myths of maize growth and harvesting, and to explain social inequality in terms of varying responsibility for maintenance of the cosmos. The catalogue illustrates this inventory of tasks through treasure-studded sections on "cosmos and king", "supernatural patrons", "duties", "instruments of power", the "origins of writing", "international relations" and, at the end, "death and apotheosis".

The transit moves with a certain logic from the very grand ("cosmos") to the sharp elbows and low cunning that characterise courtly practice. A biographical beginning, the "first ajawo'ob" (a word nowhere attested in Maya script), finds its bookend in a crumpled looking jade mask, which also (dis)graces the cover, an out-of-focus print of a rolled-out Maya bowl, and more objects from tombs. Some of the objects in the catalogue are breathtaking, particularly the pieces from Early Classic Copan, Honduras, beautifully photographed by Jorge Peréz de Lara. Others are maddening and mislabelled, such as the misgendered "male" divination figure - clearly, as pointed out elsewhere by Elisabeth Wagner, an aged goddess of birth and destruction. The complex scene of a lidded bowl, said to be "unusual for its narrative scene", is not able to "narrate" with an acceptable image, nor are the smudged, murky bones from Chiapa de Corzo and Michoacán, Mexico. The glory of images is that they can be seen, and seen fully. In a different setting, Robert Bagley's catalogues of early Chinese objects stand as examples for Mayanists to follow. Entries and tabulated images allow readers to engage closely with pieces they cannot see in person.

The smooth arc of atemporal narrative is belied in Lords of Creation by the paper from epigraphers Federico Fashen and Nikolai Grube, who speak of "enormous transformations of Maya society during the end of the Late Preclassic period". Which is it? An atemporal civilisation or a set of societies riven by tumultuous change around AD100, perhaps, to be sure, stabilised by foundational truths? No one conversant with the evidence can ignore the consistent tropes of these peoples of southern Mexico and northern Central America: the use of quincunx shapes to signal centrality; an enduring obsession with the maize god; polished surfaces of precious geenstone; and visits by avian divinities. But the need to graft two dissimilar periods compels the authors to identify several maize gods as "rulers". An early stela from Nakbe, Guatemala, is said, without evidence, to portray "human figures". They must be since, by fixed assumption, the exhibit deals with "Maya kingship", a role far clearer during the Early Classic than the Preclassic. A closer analogy might be a blockbuster on "early Greece" that combines Mycenaean with Archaic finds. Artefacts from "Mycenae rich in gold" and "sandy Pylos" would appear beside kouroi (male youths) with six-pack abs. Pretty things on display, yet their mutual relation would be utterly unclear.

Maya studies can progress only if it shows what changed and what did not across the Preclassic-Early Classic divide so assiduously ignored in this book. The ghost of Mircea Eliade, with his fixation on unchanging, universal tropes, needs exorcism from Maya scholarship. Good analogies, such as patterns of cosmological ordering, should be distinguished from implausible ones, such as David Freidel's odd likening of a Maya pyramid to the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris. The many references to "creation" - not an event that can be firmly documented in Maya writing - reflect another influence as well. Fields, Reents-Budet and many of the essayists worked with or studied under the late Linda Schele. Lords of Creation is dedicated to this pioneering intellect and constitutes an implicit claim to status as a "school". That goal would be better served by a catalogue and essays that truly express the eddies of time, meaning and historical motive.

Stephen Houston is professor of anthropology, Brown University, Rhode Island, US.

Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship

Author - Virginia M. Fields and Dorie Reents-Budet
Publisher - Scala
Pages - 288
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 1 85759 386 3

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