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Honoring Native American Heritage Day — Indigenous Mound-Pyramid Builders the Adena and Hopewell Cultures
Today, November 27, 2020 is Native American Heritage Day in the United States. It’s the day after Thanksgiving and offers a different perspective on the indigenous peoples living across the northern continent. Contrary to popular colonial myth, the continent was widely settled far in advance of the Pilgrim’s arrival in 1620, and the southeastern cultures were particularly advanced hundreds of years earlier. The Adena and Hopewell civilizations lasting from 800 BCE to 500 CE were the first to build large cities and impressive earthworks in areas spanning the current states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia. We do not know the names these indigenous peoples called themselves; Adena and Hopewell were given to them later based on local settlements in their regions.
At the same time as the height of Roman Empire (100-476 CE), there were thriving civilizations in North America. The extent of their trade network spans the eastern half of the United States, rivaling that of the Roman Empire. Massive earthwork enclosures built by these peoples are the largest collection on the planet, yet their construction still a mystery.
Adena. Existing for about 900-1000 years, the Adena began mound building in central and southern Ohio regions. This evolved from prior practice of burying dead in piles of shells alongside rivers, including pet dogs, then moving to burials in large mounds of earth along with funerary objects such as jewelry, art, and ceramics. The Adena were notable for an extensive trading network which supplied them with copper from the Great Lakes to shells from the Gulf Coast. They developed agricultural practices, pottery, and artistic works although still living semi-nomadic lives and relying on hunting and gathering. Some Adena mounds—actually pyramids—were very tall and conical in shape, the highest being 65 feet tall at Miamisburg, Ohio. These pyramids were smooth on top and capped with clay, beginning as mortuary buildings which were ceremonially burned, then layers of burials placed on top followed by a new mortuary structure, and the process kept repeating.
Adena people lived in small settlements of one to two structures; houses typically built in a circle ranging from 15 to 45 feet diameter. Walls were made of paired posts tilted outward, joined to other wood pieces to form a cone shaped roof covered with bark. The Adena had stone tools and axes, bone and antler tools, spoons and other implements. A few copper axes were found, but metal was generally hammered into jewelry such as bracelets, rings, and pendants.
Hopewell. Descendants of the Adena, Hopewell culture epicenter was Ohio starting at 100 BCE and lasting until 500 CE. Hopewell were masters of land survey and geometry, continuing the Adena custom of earthworks and mound-pyramids but vastly enlarging it. They extended the trade network from the Crystal River Indian Mounds in Florida to the northern shores of Lake Ontario, the Gulf Coast, and from the Mississippi River far to the east, but did not have much influence on the East Coast. From these regions they obtained mica, copper, shell, and soapstone. They produced beautiful artwork and made stone pipes in shapes of effigy animals, smoking tobacco and perhaps other substances.
The name Hopewell came from mounds excavated in 1891-92 by Warren Moorehead at the property of Mordecai Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio. The Hopewell built earthworks in clusters of 10-20 mounds or more in same area. Once there were tens of thousands, but Hopewell mounds now only number in the hundreds due to encroaching development, both farmlands and towns. Many remaining earthworks are now preserved in parks and historic sites.
The great Hopewell geometric earthworks are among the most impressive indigenous monuments in the U.S. They take various geometric shapes and rise to amazing heights, often shaped like animals, birds, or serpents. There are gigantic enclosures bounded by berms of earth that are 20 feet wide by 20 feet tall. These often covered 20 acres (15 football fields); and could hold 17 pyramids of Giza inside. Some reached 50 acres and the largest is 111 acres at the Hopewell site. Maps and drawings made in the 1840s document earthworks, many that are now destroyed, but some have been preserved at the Hopewell Cultural Historic Park.
Mystery of Massive Earthworks. An impressive level of coordination was needed to build all these earthworks, spread over a large region and using the same geometric principles and formulas. One repeated measurement is 1053 feet, appearing in different parts of structures—some square, rectangular, octagon. Many areas have enclosures of 20 acres, and squaring the circle or circling the square was used repeatedly. Hopewell structures were built so measurements of a square fit inside a circle and vice versa. Such repetition shows that there was clear intentionality in building. But who organized the labor forces to build massive geometric earthworks?
Hopewell villages were small and the people did not live near the earthworks. Villages were a few miles away, rarely had more than 100 people, houses were simple rectangular (occasionally circular) shapes made of wattle-and-daub with grass roofs, holding 1-2 families. Diet was simple, with small scale agriculture augmented by hunting and fishing. They did not have corn, cultivating native plants like pigweed, sunflowers, maygrass, and goosefoot. These were egalitarian settlements without large differences between houses denoting different social status. There is no evidence of a chief or ruling class. There was some class differentiation seen in burial placements inside mounds and amount/types of burial artifacts. The largest burial mound is at the Hopewell site, three interconnected structures 500×180 feet, and 30 feet tall at the base. Following Adena practices, these mounds started as mortuary structures, then were burned and burials put on top, taking place over years and decades. The most elaborate burials were in the center, the earliest phases. Multiple burials were interred at once; bodies must have been stored for a while before being interred. Group burials were not due to war and there is no evidence of violence or warfare in Hopewell archeology. Burial pyramids grew in size over time, then were capped with hard surface and temples built on top.
Hundreds of workers were needed, along with persuasive leaders to accomplish these works, but archeological evidence shows only small egalitarian villages. According to archeologist Edwin Barnhart‘s theory, these small, peaceful villages banded together to create the earthworks, probably as gathering places for celestial timed ceremonies. Building the earthworks in itself was the ceremonial event. They gathered together every decade or two, timed to lunar events, as a single people to create something great and enduring. Such shared effort in raising monuments is powerful builder of community. (ArchaeoEd Podcast Episode 3 – The Hopewell)
Astronomical Aspects of Hopewell Earthworks. Hopewell earthworks encode knowledge of astronomy focusing on solar system objects; known as “horizon based astronomy.” This takes note of the rise and set of the sun, moon, and planets, all visible to the naked eye. The Hopewell made solar and lunar observations, and several earthworks align to winter or summer solstice: Hopeton, Dunlap, Anderson, Mound City, and Hopewell site all have solar alignments through diagonals, not sides of the squares. At times they had to make adjustments for mountains; the Marietta site has mountain ridges so they used astronomical knowledge and land survey techniques to compensate in aligning with solstice.
Octagon sites at Newark and High Bank did not have solstice alignments, but instead followed movements of the moon. The many angles of the Newark octagon captured all lunar alignments. Lunar maximums (maximum excursion along the horizon) occur every 18.6 years at full moon. This moon cycle of lunar maximums and minimums was captured by Hopewell. It takes years to determine this; there are 4 such alignments in a full cycle, 2 maximum and 2 minimum. Different lunar alignments were used at the High Bank site octagon.
Lunar Aligned Earthworks at Newark Ohio. This spectacular lunar alignment at the Hopewell site in Newark, Ohio (built between 100 BCE – 300 CE) includes the 1200-foot-diameter Great Circle with its steep inner ditch and monumental framed gateway, plus the Octagon Earthworks, forming a perfect circle and adjoining octagon over a half-mile across. The perfectly formed, eye-level embankments align with all eight of the key rise- and set-points of the moon during its 18.6-year cycle, within a smaller margin of error than that at Stonehenge. World Heritage Ohio.
Cultural decline: Around 500 CE, the Hopewell stopped building mounds and earthworks, their trade exchange ended, and their art was no longer produced. Rising hostility is a possible cause, since villages at the end of the Hopewell period became larger communities that built defensive walls and ditches. Climate change with colder conditions probably drove game animals north or west, and had detrimental effects on plants, drastically reducing these food sources. The bow and arrow were introduced during this time, improving hunts but further depleting game. This effective weapon made warfare more deadly, driving people into larger fortified communities. With fewer people using trade routes, the network linking people to the Hopewell traditions diminished. Full-scale agriculture after introduction of corn might also have contributed to breakdown of social organization. Conclusive reasons for the dispersal of these prodigiously creative people have not yet been determined. (Wikipedia, Hopewell Tradition)
In the eastern parts of the United States, where the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, and Louisiana are now located, a large and advanced indigenous culture left their lasting legacy through impressive earthworks, commonly called “mounds.” Usually referred to as the Mound Builders, these structures actually are earthen pyramids. Many pyramids had several levels with platforms and buildings on top. Since these were not created out of stone, as were the Mayan and Aztec pyramids of Mexico and Central America, over centuries the earthen structures eroded and blended into softly curved hills covered by grass. Thousands upon thousands of these pyramids blanketed the region, built by successive civilizations, connected through networks of rivers and roads. These Native American cultures interacted and traded extensively, as shown by widespread presence of artifacts from coastal, Great Lakes, mountainous, and Gulf regions.
Why were they called Mound Builders and not Pyramid Builders? Archeologist Edwin Barnhart thinks there is residue of European superiority in selecting this term. To call the structures pyramids gives them an elevated status, implying a well-organized and advanced culture. The common European mythos about indigenous Americans held them to be an inferior race, little more than savages, whose widely dispersed villages and simpler lifestyles implied a primitive culture. This view made it easier to usurp their lands and disrupt their societies, opening the “frontier” to settlement by a more “developed” society. After all, it was the Manifest Destiny of European invaders to take over this New World that was barely settled with few primitive inhabitants.
Admitting that the Native Americans had advanced, complex cultures with ability to build immense structures, govern large populations, and maintain a widespread network would remove European excuses for ruthless confiscation and domination. Growing awareness of these advanced cultures is challenging long-held beliefs. Dr. Barnhart brings this into sharp relief in his excellent series for The Great Courses Plus, “Ancient Civilizations of North America.”
Since having to stay mostly at home due to coronavirus precautions, I’ve been participating in more webinars, zoom meetings and conferences, podcasts, and virtual on-line programs. Dr. Barnhart, head of the Maya Exploration Center, has recently created a series of podcasts through a platform called Patreon. As a member, I’ve listened to all 4 podcasts to date and find them totally fascinating. One podcast was about the Adena culture, one of the earlier pyramid builders of North America. I became so interested that I subscribed to his Great Courses program. Both my husband and I have spent many enjoyable and educational hours learning from Dr. Barnhart about the long, impressive history of advanced civilizations in what is now the U.S.
Why isn’t this perspective on pre-contact North American history taught in school? Even though a lifelong fan of history, especially ancient civilizations, I had only the slightest exposure to the indigenous cultures of my country. What I’ve learned in these programs vastly expanded my concept of the peoples and societies that came before European settlement. This is something that every American would benefit from knowing. It helps us appreciate our rich heritage and also acknowledge what has been lost in the dismantling of indigenous cultures.
My next several blogposts will cover some of the great civilizations of North America. This is also to honor Native American Heritage Day on November 27.
My blogposts will start with the Pyramid Builders, though Dr. Barnhart’s programs start by exploring the origins of North American peoples. The latest research verifies through DNA evidence that they came across the Bering Strait from Asia. The Great Courses Programs cover Clovis, the first paleolithic culture, and Archaic period information. The Pyramid Builders started the first coherent civilizations bringing together far-flung Archaic practices, evolving through several stages.
- Adena Culture – about 3,000 years ago the Adena culture built conical burial mounds in modern-day Ohio. They had a shared concept of an afterlife shown by their burial practices. It is thought they were the first habitual tobacco smokers, for ritual purposes. Their influence spread widely across the region.
- Hopewell Culture – following Adena was the Hopewell culture, known for building massive earthen pyramids and other huge structures. They spread the practice of burying important dead in earthen mounds, and influenced all the eastern North America peoples through their trade networks and art traditions. They had knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, using these to orient ceremonial structures to solar and lunar events. Their numerous complexes with geometric patterns are found all across Ohio.
- Mississippian Culture – about 1,200 years ago the Mississippian culture introduced use of bow and arrow and expanded reliance on farming. They build cities with defensive walls indicating increased warfare. Their influence spread with a large corpus of art and extensive trade networks. The mythological creation stories brought by this culture are still part of traditions among many current indigenous nations.
Poverty Point Culture
Even before these cultures, an intriguing structure was built 3,500 years ago at a location called Poverty Point, in the northeast corner of Louisiana. Dr. Barnhart calls this North America’s first city. It was a planned community built on 900 acres that once had up to 5,000 inhabitants, the largest settlement in North American at that time. Situated next to the Mississippi River, the houses were arranged in several rows forming a huge crescent. The ridges forming these rows were 4-6 feet high and 140-200 feet apart. In the central plaza were pyramid structures, including one of the oldest pyramids ever built anywhere. The largest pyramid was 50 feet high and 500 feet long, aligned east to west. A large bird effigy mound was also there, 70 feet high and 640 feet across. On the western side of the plaza were deep pits that once held huge wooden posts serving as calendar markers. Watching the sun’s shadows, residents could predict the changing of the seasons and the main solar stations such as solstice and equinox.
Poverty Point was occupied for 1,000 years, thriving from 1730 – 1350 BCE. People of this culture also occupied villages that extended for nearly 100 miles on either side of the Mississippi River, including over 100 sites. To build such great projects, a sustained investment of human labor was required, along with organizational skill, leadership, and dedication of the society. Archeologists have excavated numerous artifacts including pottery, tools, figurines, and cooking objects. There were stone cooking balls heated in bonfires and dropped into pits with food. Human figures and animal effigies were possibly used for religious purposes. Artifacts of flint, iron ore, slate, copper, quartz, and soapstone, some from over 600 miles away, attest to broad trading patterns. Uniquely, they used stone to make beads while other cultures used softer materials like bone and shell. Many beads depict animals commonly found nearby, such as owls, dogs, locusts, and turkey vultures.
Poverty Point especially interests me, since I’m originally from Louisiana. All those years growing up, and I was never aware of this huge ancient city! Visiting Poverty Point is definitely on my bucket list.
My next blogposts will give more details of the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures.
Teotihuacan: Central Mexico Empire With Wide Influence into Maya Regions.
A huge city was built in the Basin of Mexico, not far northeast of modern Mexico City. It flourished in these highlands between 150 BCE-650 CE, and for much of that time it was the largest city in pre-Columbian Americas. Population at its height was estimated at 125,000, making it among the world’s top 10 cities at the time. The architecture and layout were unique. There were multi-family residential compounds, apartments of several stories, towering pyramids, streets laid out in a grid pattern, and a 1.3 mile-long central avenue bordered by splendid elite residences. Today Teotihuacan is the most visited archeological site in Mexico. Over 4 million people from around the world come each year. Visitors marvel at the immense Pyramid of the Sun, the elaborate Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl), and the long straight avenue leading to the Pyramid of the Moon. They stroll into the past through chambers and patios of the partially reconstructed
Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, and ponder the vibrant murals and fine obsidian tools made by ancient artists and craftsmen. The site covers 32 square miles and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
The original name of the city is unknown. The Aztecs who came nearly 1,000 years later named it the Nahuatl word Teotihuacan, “place where gods were born.” They believed the gods created the universe at that location. The Classic Maya wrote its name in hieroglyphic texts, calling it puh,”Place of Reeds.” Such places were considered the locus of creation, which took place in swampy, reedy, and watery locations. These creation locations are also referred to as Tollan or Tula. Rich soils from swamps supported agriculture, and early settlers constructed raised beds called chinampas.
Who Were the Teotihuacanos?
The advanced culture that created Teotihuacan did not leave any writings in the strict sense. They used signs or symbols; 229 have been cataloged but their meanings are mostly unknown. Our understanding of their civilization comes from study of buildings and pottery, placed in context of what is known of regional settlements.
Around 500 BCE several urban centers arose in central Mexico. The most prominent was Cuicuilco, with a population of 20,000 located on the south shore of Lake Texcoco. A volcano called Xitle erupted around 400-200 BCE and covered this city in ashes, prompting mass emigration toward the north valley. Researchers think that other peoples joined this migration from 13 small regional villages. There was a huge eruption of the volcano Popocatepetl in 200-1 BCE, forcing survivors in the Amecameca-Chalco-Xochimilco regions to migrate. Maybe Teotihuacan leaders capitalized on the Volcano Gods’ sparing their area of the valley to entice more settlers. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacan date to around 200 BCE, and the Pyramid of the Sun was completed by 100 CE.
Teotihuacan expert George Cowgill reports that “the people who first built and occupied Teotihuacan were simply some of the people whose ancestors had already lived for millennia in Mesoamerica.” (Cowgill, Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico, 2015) He believes that asking who were the Teotihuacanos is a false issue; the better questions involve why and how the city and the state it ruled flourished so long, looking at its sociopolitical system, religion and ideology, environmental factors, and commercial enterprises. Teotihuacan built on the urban tradition already developed at Cuicuilco, stretching back to 500 BCE with Monte Alban in Oaxaca.
Teotihuacan Empire Lasted 800 Years
The city reached its zenith in 250-550 CE. Its population leveled off, the main structures were in place, and the city’s southern section filled in with about 2,300 residential compounds that housed people from all around its realm of influence. There were enclaves with foreign connections and craft specialists, including styles from highland Oaxaca, the Gulf Lowlands, the Maya area, and Michoacan to the west. There were distinct quarters occupied by Mixtec, Maya, Otomi, Zapotec, and Nahua people. The city’s influence continued to expand with growing political complexity. Early political institutions may have been collective, but the sheer scale of civic-ceremonial structures suggest talented and charismatic leaders responsible for the largest pyramids and increased human
sacrifice. They reached beyond the Basin of Mexico seeking resources, with outposts 124 miles to the west, and by 200 CE Teotihuacan had presences as far away as Pacific coastal Guatemala. Their tendrils reached far south to Maya preclassic sites such as Kaminaljuyu and Abak Takalik. Around 250 CE a burial in Altun Ha, Belize held 243 pieces of green obsidian from Teotihuacan’s mines in Pachuca. Altun Ha was a large-scale center for jade carving, obtained from mines in the Motugua Valley in southeastern Guatemala. Teotihuacan coveted jade and such elite trade goods underlay the empire’s expansion. This spurred greater incursion into Maya regions.
The Maya “Entrada.”
Just over 100 years later, in 378 CE, a group from Teotihuacan changed Maya history in the Peten region. A warlord named Siyaj K’ak (Fire is Born, Smoking Frog) led his warriors to overcome Maya cities of Uaxactun and El Peru. From there his warriors entered Tikal, a venerable city and major power, and the death of Tikal’s ruler Chak Tok Ich’aak on that same day was recorded. The next ruler was Yax Nuun Ayin, the son of a Teotihuacan lord or ruler called Spearthrower Owl (translated in Mayan as Jatz’om Kuh). It is thought Yax Nuun Ayin married into the local Tikal dynasty, perhaps a royal woman named Une Balam who may have been the Tikal ruler’s daughter. (Janice Van Cleve, “Who Was Queen Une Balam?”) Tikal Stela 31 records these events; shortly afterwards Teotihuacan imagery and building styles such as talud-tablero architecture appeared in Tikal.
Less than 50 years later Teotihuacan influence spread south to Copan, Honduras. Yax K’uk Mo’ (First Quetzal Macaw) was a warrior who spent his early years near Tikal, according to strontium isotope analysis of his bones. He became the “first” ruler of Copan in 426 CE, although there must have been a local dynasty since the city had existed for years. He is portrayed in typical
Teotihuacan battle dress wearing the “goggle-eye” mask typical for the god Tlaloc. He was buried in a rich grave inside Temple 16, and his image has first position in the carvings on Altar Q showing 16 rulers of Copan. His descendants attributed Teotihuacano heritage to their founding ruler. Yax K’uk Mo’ possibly accompanied Siyaj K’ak in the earlier invasion of Tikal as a youth, and continued to spread Teotihuacan’s reach to important jade sources in the Motagua River region. He installed a vassal who had traveled with him, named Tok Casper, at nearby Quirigua. Both these settlements lie on the river network leading from the Motagua Valley to the Caribbean Sea. This gave links for Teotihuacan to control the jade trade.
Variants of the Teotihuacan talud-tablero building style are found in Tikal, Kaminaljuyu, Copan, Becan, and Oxkintok, especially in the Peten Basin and central Guatemala highlands.
Reasons for Teotihuacan’s success appear to be built into their sociopolitical and religious systems. Some experts think they offered a new, attractive world view that blended religion and government in a unique way. The extensive urban planning and awe-inspiring monuments still observable today provide testimony to this well formed civic-spiritual ideal. The Teotihuacano fusion of extreme religious rituals that included human sacrifice, formalized social structure, and astute political organization formed a powerful matrix that controlled the lives of all who lived within it, and many in distant locales. How closely the ruling elite administered outposts is debated; more likely their agents influenced trade arrangements and local dynastic politics. Cultural diffusion led to adoption of Teotihuacan styles and traits to emulate the powerful empire.
Collapse of an Empire
The enigmatic leaders of Teotihuacan appear by the mid-500s to hold sway over much of Mesoamerica. They mainly accomplished this through political alliances and vassal rulers. By controlling trade networks, they kept the Teotihucano people well fed and living in comparative luxury in an advanced city with running water, sewers, brick homes, neighborhood communities, and multi-level residences. Public rituals with human sacrifice that played out before thousands of viewers maintained priesthood and elite power. Eventually the system did fail by 650 CE. As with collapse of other major civilizations, a number of factors were involved. Perhaps most insidious was internal competition between priests, elites, and leaders. Resources were siphoned off from central government, weakening the discipline and social control systems. A series of long droughts occurred around 535-536 CE, with evidence of famine and malnutrition. It is possible the eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador in 535 CE created climate changes. There was increased warfare and internal unrest. Popular rebellion led to burning elite dwellings and major civic structures along the Avenue of the Dead. Sculptures inside palaces were shattered. Population declined to 20,000 and Teotihuacan’s power diminished. Many of the elite may have fled the city, going on to create new cultural centers to the south. Other nearby centers such as Cholula, Xochicalco, and Cacaxtla competed to fill the power void. This led to rise of the Totonac, Toltec, and later Aztec peoples.
In October 2018 I visited Teotihuacan for the first time–it was on my bucket list! I went with archeologist Edwin Barnhart on his Maya Exploration Center tour of Basin of Mexico sites. No better way to experience and learn about ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Visit Maya Exploration Center for more information. Dr. Barnhart also made a video lecture series for Great Courses on Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed.
George Cowgill. Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Edwin Barnhart. Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed. The Great Courses, 2017.
Simon Martin & Nikolai Grube. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, 2000.
David Stuart. “The Arrival of Strangers.” Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. PARI Online Publications, Newsletter #25, July 1998.
Janice Van Cleve. “Who Was Queen Une Balam?” Research Paper published online, 2003. http://www.mayas.doodlekit.com
Leonide Martin. Facebook Page Photo Album, November 2018. https://www.facebook.com/leonide.martin
Silver Medal Winner of the 2016 Global Ebook Awards
The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque receives award in Fiction-Historical Literature-Ancient Worlds.
It was an exciting moment when I received the notice in August that my book won a Silver Medal in the Dan Poynter Global Ebook Awards for 2016!
Book awards mean a lot to authors. They validate our efforts and help bring our books to the attention of readers and booksellers. The Mayan Red Queen has been given favorable reviews in The Midwest Book Review (2016) and by Writer’s Digest (2016), but this is her first award. So, I am very happy and invite you to share the moment by recalling the story if you’ve read it, or reading the book if not.
“The Mayan world and its underlying influences come alive, making for a thriller highly recommended for readers who also enjoy stories of archaeological wonders.” The Midwest Book Review, Diane Donovan, Editor and Senior Reviewer.
“The quality of this novel is top notch . . . beautifully written. The plot was interesting and very unique. The author’s best skill is in crafting believable yet mythical characters that carry the story almost effortlessly. . . fans of complex world building will be absorbed by this one–with pleasure!” Writer’s Digest 3rd Annual Self-Published e-Book Awards
Balboa Park, San Diego Museum of Natural History.
While in San Diego for the holidays in December, 2016, I spent a mesmerizing afternoon in the Maya Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, Balboa Park. This wonderful display of Maya monuments, ceramics, and art had many original pieces on loan from other institutions, as well as reproductions of murals and larger monuments. In this blogpost, I’ll focus on ceramics, adornment and artwork.
The Mayas produced a wide variety of beautiful and intricately designed ceramics. Artists were allowed quite a free range of expression, their designs varying from one workshop to another. Artistic quality was more valued than adherence to standardized forms, and certain artists’ works were in high demand among elite. Some artists signed their works, or named the bowls for their owners and functions: “The cacao drinking vase of Ahau Ukib.” These vessels with detailed scenes were used in the form of straight-sided beakers for drinking chocolate mixed with chili peppers, or as bowls for food. Often they
were used as grave offerings in the tombs of their owners. Simpler and more utilitarian vessels were used by commoners.
To produce pottery, the Mayas used a device that rotated between the potters’ feet, called a kabal. An early ceramic style, called Amyan, appeared in the Guatemalan highlands around 1,000 BCE. It was monochrome with simple design. Originally the Mayas used gourds cut into cup and bowl shapes, and the first ceramics resembled gourds. These were decorated with rocker stamps and simple slips for color. By the Early Classic (250-550 CE) the ceramic style Tzakol developed with more complex jars, plates, bowls and vases having polychrome decorations. This style evolved into Tepeu of the Late Classic (550-700 CE) with more elaborate scenes and color variations. The polychrome slip paint was of various colors, made from plant and mineral sources. Predominant colors are red, orange, black, brown, yellow and cream. These two ceramic styles are considered the most beautiful made in ancient Mesoamerica, primarily depicting animal deities, grotesque monsters, nobles and priests, ceremonial activities, and scenes of sacrifice. New shapes were developed, including the lidded basal flange bowl, which usually had a knob on top in the form of an animal or human head. The painted body of this being often spreads across the pot. Many also had tetrapod legs for support, called “mammiform” since they resembled animal or human legs.
An especially valued polychrome called “Codex style” was produced during the late Classic re-occupation of the pre-Classic sites El Mirador and Nakbe in Guatemala. These ceramics are characterized by scenes and glyphic texts drawn in dark lines on cream-colored backgrounds, usually framed by red bands on the
edges of the vessels. This gives them a resemblance to the post-Classic Maya Codex texts. This fine painted Codex-style pottery depicts extraordinary mythological scenes, and is highly sought by antiquities collectors, accounting for extensive looting of house mound complexes in Peten. In ancient times, these ceramics were in demand by elites, and have been found throughout the Maya regions.
Figurines and Effigies
The Mayas created many small figurines, busts and effigies that represented deities, specific individuals, symbolic monsters or creatures, or roles in society. Materials used to create them include clay, limestone, sandstone, trachyte, wood, jade, bone, shell, and copper. Very few artifacts were made of gold. As these often depict typical activities of ancient Maya life, archaeologists have learned much about costumes, musical instruments, religious rituals, household customs, ballgames, warfare and sacrifice. Among the most well known figurines are those from Jaina, an island off the coast of Campeche, Mexico, used for elite burials.
Figurines were painted with the usual plant and mineral pigments. A unique shade of blue appears on some figurines, and in many murals and codices. Called “Maya blue,” it is the most durable Maya color and has only recently been reproduced. The ancient Mayas combined skills in organic chemistry and mineralogy in their technique for creating Maya blue. The pigment is a composite of organic and inorganic constituents, primarily indigo dyes derived from the leaves of the anil (Indigofera) plant, combined with palygorskite, a natural clay. The mix is cooked at low temperature (100 degrees C) until its color turns from blackish to this exquisite sky blue. Other trace elements are present, including copal incense, leading to the idea that producing Maya blue was a sacred process. Copal, resin of a native tree, is dried into incense and burned in symbolic “incensarios” during ceremonies. Using copal in making Maya blue produces the low heat necessary, and imbues the pigment with sacred qualities.
Jewelry and Body Decoration
Body adornment was very important to ancient Mayas. They dressed in lavish costumes, wore huge and heavy jewelry, wore complex headdresses with feathers and decorations, had earplugs that needed a balance weight behind, and often embedded gems in their teeth. Facial scarification was also used along with body painting. The Mayas excelled in working with jade, which was highly prized, as it represented the green vibrancy of new plants and the azure of water. Excavations of tombs have yielded large amounts of jade jewelry, mosaics, masks, effigies, plaques and small figures. Royal burials rich in these items have been found in several Maya sites, particularly Palenque, El Peru-Waka, and Tonina. Metal work did not make a significant appearance until after 900 CE, the Post-Classic Period. The Mayas mostly worked in copper, with a small amount of gold appearing as bowls, cups, rings, and effigies. Other items made from copper include bells, tweezers, axes, earplugs, rings, discs, and small masks.
Maya Exhibit: Murals and Monuments
Balboa Park, San Diego Museum of Natural History
In December, 2016, while spending holidays with family in San Diego, I was fortunate to find a Maya exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park. After warning my family that I would spend hours perusing the exhibit, camera in hand, I was not surprised that no one wanted to accompany me. Alone and mesmerized by the wonderful display of Maya monuments, ceramics and art, I spent a most enjoyable afternoon. Many original pieces were on exhibit, loaned from other institutions, as well as reproductions of murals and larger monuments. In this blogpost, I’ll focus on murals and monuments, with other posts to follow for ceramics and artwork.
The Murals at San Bartolo, Guatemala
In 2001 William Saturno, of the University of New Hampshire and Harvard’s Peabody Museum, found an entrance into buried chambers while seeking shade. He ducked into a looters’ trench in an unexcavated pyramid, and when he shone his flashlight on the walls, he saw an elaborate, finely-painted mural. Called “Las Pinturas,” the structure’s murals were dated from 100 BCE and showed mythological scenes related to the origin of kings. Later excavations revealed additional murals, called a masterpiece of ancient Maya art. The 30 x 3 foot mural on the west wall reveals the Maya story of creation, the mythology of kingship and divine right of kings, and depicts two coronation scenes—one mythological and the other an actual king’s coronation. Other discoveries at the site include the oldest known Maya royal burial, around 150 BCE, and significantly older painted polychrome murals in a deeper chamber with Maize God images, dated around 200—400 BCE. Glyphs within the murals date to centuries before most other Maya texts, and remain hard to read. David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin, leading Maya epigrapher, said one scene names a young god as “star man” and emphasizes his cosmological role within the larger creation myth represented.
The San Bartolo mural featured at Balboa Park is the scene of the Maya creation myth, the first known depiction in narrative form, according to Karl Taube, University of California, Riverside, an expert in ancient Mesoamerican history.
In this mythological story, the Maize God travels through the underworld and is eventually resurrected, giving birth to the Mayan people. From left to right, the mural begins with an unusual birth scene; four infants scattering from a gourd that may represent the four cardinal directions, while a fifth emerges in the cleft or center of creation. A supernatural being with a serpent headdress witnesses the birth scene, and to its right is a stylized Flower Mountain that offers passage from the underworld, place of ancestors, to the Earth’s surface. This represents the birth of the people from the mythic cave of origin, depicted as a small serpent emerging from a hole at the base of the mountain. A kneeling woman near the cave offers a ceramic pot of tamales, symbolic of the people being formed from corn. In front of her, a kneeling black-faced man offers water in a gourd, symbolizing the essentials (food and water) needed to sustain life. The pair present their offerings to a red-bodied Maize God, who looks over his shoulder at two stacked kneeling women, waiting to take the offerings from him. They are possibly aspects of the wind goddess. Next is the Maize God’s wife, the only standing woman who is wearing an elaborate bird headdress. Behind her are two black and red figures bearing burdens on their heads and carrying ritual
implements in loincloths. They carry sacred objects for the Maize God and his wife. The final figure is an immense serpent whose body underlies the entire scene. Its tail emerges from Flower Mountain and its upturned head with open mouth emits large red speech scrolls. Black footprints along the red part of the snake’s body indicate it is a path for supernatural travel. The snake-as-ground motif is found widely in Mesoamerica. The Maize God is the central figure in the scene, personification of cycles of life, death and rebirth. The woman may be dressing him for his journey to death and resurrection. Red spirals coming from his mouth indicate breath and speech. Two short columns of glyphs between the bearers are ancient, hundreds of years earlier than most known Maya glyphs.
The Murals at Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico
The Bonampak murals are perhaps the best known of all Maya wall paintings. Lying close to a tributary of the Usumacinta River, it was first seen by non-Mayans in 1946, but it’s unclear who first visited the site. Two American travelers were led to the ruins by a local Lacandon Maya; his people still visited the site to pray in ancient temples. The site itself is unimpressive, but a small structure on a low hill holds the famous murals. Structure 1 at Bonampak, which holds the murals, was dedicated on November 11, 791 CE. Bonampak had become a satellite community of nearby Yaxchilán, whose ruler Itzamnaaj Bahlam II (Shield Jaguar) appointed his nephew Chan Muwaan II to govern the city in 790 CE. Shield Jaguar hired Yaxchilán artisans to construct the Temple of Murals.
Structure 1 has three rooms containing murals. The paintings show the story of a single battle and its victorious outcome. Among the best preserved Maya murals, these are noted for their vivid depiction of battle scenes, captive torture, sacrifice, and royal rituals and processions. They also depict women doing self-bloodletting by piercing tongues and earlobes with stingray spines. The battle scenes contradicted early assumptions that the Maya were a peaceful culture of mystics, a position long-held by influential Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian and epigrapher from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson.
Colors on the mural are intense and bright, although covered by a film of dissolved limestone when first discovered. Musical Instruments, costumes, body adornment, and weapons are documented from the
period giving valuable information about Mayan culture. The vivid colored frescos of turquoise blues, yellows and rust colors are a treasure of data about royal life and ceremonies. Unfortunately the murals have deteriorated badly since their discovery. Early archeologists from the Carnegie Institution doused them in kerosene to remove the film and intensify the colors. This weakened the plaster, causing paint and plaster to flake and fall off.
Mary Miller of Yale University, who studied the murals extensively, wrote “Perhaps no single artifact from the ancient New World offers as complex a view of pre-Hispanic society as do the Bonampak paintings. No other work features so many Maya engaged in the life of the court and rendered in such great detail, making the Bonampak murals an unparalleled resource for understanding ancient society.”
Monuments: A few large replicas of stelae, buildings, plazas and carved frescoes were on display.
continued to be an enigma to archaeologists for nearly two decades after her tomb was discovered in Temple XIII at Palenque in 1994. Her skeleton and inside of her sarcophagus were coated with red cinnabar, a mercuric oxide preservative used in royal burials. This led archaeologists to nickname her “The Red Queen.” It also made analysis of her bones and teeth difficult, and many years passed until scientific techniques advanced enough to provide reliable data. The lack of inscriptions and the sparse ceramic evidence found inside her tomb further muddied the waters. Most Mayan royal tombs contained carved or painted hieroglyphs identifying who was interred. The adjacent pyramid tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal in Palenque was full of hieroglyphic records; his ancestors were carved on the sides of his sarcophagus, important gods and mythohistoric figures were painted on the crypt walls, and the sarcophagus lid clearly identified him. Numerous ceramic offerings allowed dating of the interment to the late 600s AD.
The situation of the Mayan Red Queen was quite different. Her sarcophagus contained no inscriptions, the crypt walls were bare, and ceramics few. The shape and characteristics of the censer, vases and plate found in her tomb corresponded to the Otolum ceramic complex, which has been placed between 600-700 AD. Her life overlapped with that of Pakal, and her pyramid tomb adjoined his, so it seemed evident that there was an important connection between them. Additional corollaries in their burials include a monolithic lidded sarcophagus inside a mortuary crypt, jade masks, diadems, jade beads, pearls and three small axes in a ceremonial belt. Both skeletons and insides of their sarcophagi were painted red with cinnabar. Two significant women in Pakal’s life died in that time period: his mother Sak K’uk and his wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau. Some archaeologists believed the Red Queen was his mother; others favored his wife. In 2012 the mystery was most probably solved when DNA studies revealed that The Red Queen and Pakal did not share common DNA. This was further supported by strontium isotopes studies conducted a few years earlier showing that the two grew up in different areas within the region. Now most agree that Pakal’s wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau, was interred in Temple XIII and she is The Mayan Red Queen.
What do we know of her life?
Unfortunately, very little evidence has been found so far. Palenque is famous for its high quality, graceful hieroglyphs and realistic carved figures. The Three Tablets of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Pakal’s burial pyramid) contain 617 glyphs, one of the longest Maya inscriptions known. The West Tablet, covering the later years of Pakal’s reign, contains two references to her:
“Seventeen days after the 3 Ahau 3 Uayeb (Period Ending), Lady Tz’aakb’u Ahau was married on 7 Caban 15 Pop.”
“Forty-seven years after she became queen, Lady Tz’aakb’u Ahau passed away on 5 Etznab 6 Kankin.”
These follow lengthy descriptions of actions taken by Pakal, and the dates are tied into the Long Count calendar by use of a Distance Number to the nearest Period Ending, which was 18.104.22.168.0 (3 Ahau 3 Uayab) or 626 AD. These later passages of the West Tablet were commissioned by their oldest son, K’inich Kan Bahlam II, after his father’s death. He recorded the marriage and deaths of his mother and father.
Tz’aakb’u Ahau is depicted in carvings on two tablets from Palenque. The Palace Tablet has carved relief figures showing her third son, K’inich Kan Joy Chitam II, seated on a double-headed serpent bar, receiving the headdress of royalty from his father Pakal, as his mother (Tz’aakb’u Ahau) offers him the god-figurine symbol of divine ancestry. This large tablet filled with rows of hieroglyphs originally adorned the rear wall of the Palace’s northern gallery, Houses A-D. The Dumbarton Oaks tablet shows a young K’inich Kan Joy Chitam II dancing in the guise of the rain god, flanked by his mother and father. This is the only surviving part of a larger composition that probably was surrounded by glyphs. The stone tablet was illicitly removed from an unknown temple in the mid-20th century; it now resides in Washington, DC.
Such fragments of evidence give a little knowledge of The Mayan Red Queen’s life: she came from a nearby city, married Pakal in 626 AD, bore him four sons, participated in accessions rituals symbolically after her death, and died in 672 AD, eleven years before Pakal’s death in 683 AD. She was buried regally in a smaller temple adjacent to Pakal’s.
Would you like to know more about what her life might have been? Her imagined story is told in my historical fiction book The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque.
Silver Medal Winner 2016 Global Ebook Award!