Studies of a cruel and beautiful civilisation

Maya Civilization

July 30, 1999

Although much about the ancient Maya civilisation remains unknown, a flurry of activity in archaeology and Maya studies in recent years has increased our store of knowledge. An international effort to publicise the great strides taken by researchers in the subject was long overdue. When it came, earlier this year in Venice with the Maya exhibition held in the Palazzo Grassi, it proved well worth waiting for.

It was the first time that such works have been assembled in one museum. Exceptional artefacts (many never seen in public before) were gathered from collections in museums from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, the United States, England, Germany and Holland. It offered a spectacular impression of the state of Maya research.

Maya Civilization is the book of the great exhibition on the art of the ancient Maya. It provides the reader with the most comprehensive view of the Maya legacy and tells the fascinating story of how the old cities in the jungles were discovered, first by the Spanish invaders in the 16th century, and later found again by other European explorers.

It contains detailed information about the geographical settings and the greatly varied ecological zones of the area. While this information is a must for anyone seriously interested in the Maya, it is not crucial for the layman to read the more academic sections in order thoroughly to enjoy this book, for the whole volume has been lavishly illustrated with maps, drawings and the most beautiful photographs. A reader may dig deep in this mine of a book or only to the levels at which he is most comfortable.

For more than 20 centuries before the unwelcome arrival of the Spaniards, the Maya had developed one of the most sophisticated cultures in Middle America. Their achievements spanned all aspects of human creativity and intellectual progress. This book lists some of these achievements: for example, it claims that the Maya was the first culture to use the zero as a mathematical concept (although some have argued that it was possibly adopted from the Olmec culture). An obsession with time-keeping led them to the formulation of extremely precise calendars that could predict not only earthly events but could also forecast eclipses and calculate the synodical cycles of other planets such as Mars and Venus.

Of all the peoples in the New World, the Maya were the only one to develop a complete script. To date, about 85 per cent of it has been deciphered, revealing that what the scribes wrote were histories of their rulers complete with genealogies. It is also a system that has great aesthetic beauty, particularly when carved in stone and combined with images, as can be seen in the many examples presented in this book.

Maya Civilisation includes essays written by experts in the field. Of particular interest is the section titled "A brief history of archaeological exploration". It tells how, for several centuries, rumours of great cities lost in the jungle fired the imagination of many in Europe, leading to a succession of expeditions to the area. Some were remarkably unsuccessful, such as that of Viscount Kingsborough (in the 1830s), who harboured an obsession that the seven tribes of Israel had populated the New World.

Others, however, had an impact that can still be felt today. Such an example is Alfred Maudslay's epic journey to the Yucatan peninsula and Central America at the end of the 19th century. Maudslay was not an archaeologist, but he had great awareness of the importance of the sites he explored. He meticulously recorded every detail of his travels. His methods were ground-breaking: he made hundreds of exquisite glass negatives, which remain some of the best photographs ever taken of the archaeological sites he visited.

Maudslay and his assistants produced plaster casts of more than 400 carved hieroglyphic inscriptions. Many of the originals have worn away or been looted, and it is due to these casts that we know what they looked like. They remain an invaluable source of information still very much in demand by epigraphers. The essay could not have been written by a more appropriate person. Ian Graham, on more than one occasion, has been called a "modern-day Maudslay". An eminent archaeologist and an explorer in the truest sense of the word, Graham's work spans four decades of exploration and adventure that have led to a most impressive catalogue of discoveries.

A crucial aspect of Maya research has been the study of hieroglyphs (epigraphy), which has revolutionised our understanding of the nature of Maya politics, particularly that of the Classic period (c. AD 250-900). David Stuart, a scholar from Washington's Dumbarton Oaks, gives an overview of what the glyphs have revealed about the Maya elite more than 1,000 years after they were carved. The carvings deal with historical events relating to real individuals (as well as mythical ones). The focus of research has been in the southern and central Maya lowlands (the Péten in Guatemala and the Lacandon rainforest in Mexico).

Archaeologists have determined chronological benchmarks that are useful for reference when discussing a particular aspect, be it stylistic or historical. The Classic begins with a transition period known as the Proto-Classic (c. AD 100-250). This was followed by the Early Classic (c. AD 250-600), which saw the emergence of major potentates in the region such as the mighty Tikal (Motul), who enjoyed a measure of political and economic supremacy over a vast area. By the Late Classic (c. AD 600-800), with the dramatic population increase and a diversification of elite lineages, a large number of smaller polities developed. Some well-known examples are Yaxchilan, Bonampak, Palenque and Piedras Negras, to mention only a few.

Some formed alliances that in many cases led to the temporary overthrow of older, greater kingdoms by economic monopolies, military expansionism or both. The Terminal Classic (c. AD 800-900) was characterised by increasing rivalry and competition for resources. Eventually this led to a crisis point - we cannot be sure of its exact nature - which, over a relatively short time, brought the culture to ruin and decay.

Other subjects that the essays cover include architecture, astronomy, cosmology and the modern Maya. This book is, however, first and foremost a showcase for the ancient art of these extraordinarily creative people whose works still challenge western understanding. It is difficult to comprehend how they achieved a balance between their astonishingly cruel and bloody rituals and their magnificent artistic skill and intellectual achievements. Maya art does not cater for our modern sensitivities. The Maya made art out of human suffering, as witnessed by a multitude of artefacts photographed for this publication. We are put in the uncomfortable position of admiring the fluidity, the energy and the composition of masterpieces in which, sometimes, at least one of the subjects is being tortured or sacrificed.

Mexican poet and Nobel prize-winner Octavio Paz once said that pre-Hispanic art forced us to change our perspective: "Passing from horror to fascination; from fascination to contemplation. It is art that once again becomes a mirror of the cosmos." In other words, Maya artists were not sadists; it is simply that they did not shy away from recording the violence and cruelty of their world.

Maya artists and scribes were held in high regard and were often members of elite lineages. It was their task to record the histories of their lords. The artists, however, do not give us a glimpse of only the elite. More mundane scenes were also depicted. Some of the most remarkable artefacts are representations of wildlife. Ranging from the mighty jaguar to little fat dogs, the artists display an exemplary skill and anatomical awareness of their subjects.

An outstanding example is a vessel in the shape of a jaguar's head. This finest of portraits is made of high-quality clay and stands out for its realism and detail. The artist, displaying a deep knowledge of his materials, gave the vessel a volcanic stone appearance that adds to its impact.

This obsession with accuracy is also evident in the Jaina Island figurines. Jaina is a small island off the coast of Campeche. It has vestiges from the Late Classic period. The statuettes are made of fine-textured orange clay and measure about 10-25cm in height. Often they bear a whitewash with traces of blue paint and other colours. These remarkable pieces, which are commonly found in graves, show warriors in full regalia, women weaving, hunchbacks, ball players in full swing, couples embracing and drunken old men laughing.

Ceramic clays were only one of the media employed by the Maya for their art. Gold, obsidian, jade, wood and even human bone was transformed into utilitarian and ritual artefacts of great beauty. The fact that no metal tools were available is further proof of the skill of the artisans. Jade was the most precious material. Magnificent objects made of this material have been excavated from royal tombs in particular. One famous example comes from Kalakmul, again in Campeche. It is a deathmask that covered the face of a dead ruler for over a millennium before Mexican archaeologists discovered it. It is composed of many individually shaped jadeite sections. The wide-open, staring eyes are made of mother of pearl and obsidian crystal. The mask's features are thought to represent the face of the person entombed.

A less well-known example of exquisite lapidary skill is a mask found in the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, Chiapas. It is part of "Offering 1" and consists of 13 jadeite pieces joined together to form the portrait of an elderly man, most surely Kinich Hanab Pakal himself, founder of the dynasty that made Palenque one of the most powerful centres of the Late Classic.

The book, containing work by the most respected scholars, more than 1,000 illustrations with detailed information, including four fold-out panoramas, nine maps and a timeline, is the result of a truly international collaboration. It is a great achievement and it sets the highest standard, towards which all such future collaborations should strive. For surely archaeology is nothing if not a means of learning and sharing man's cultural heritage, bringing us to a better understanding of our forebears and, ultimately, ourselves. This is a big book in every respect, and, while repeated handling could give you forearms like a dentist, the intellectual workout is also considerable.

Alan G. Robinson is an archaeologist and explorer, whose expedition in Mexico in 1998 uncovered a forgotten Maya city near Yaxchilan.

Maya Civilization

Editor - Peter Schmidt, Mercedes de la Garza and Enrique Nalda
ISBN - 0 500 018898
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £47.00
Pages - 697

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