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Teotihuacan – Empire of Enigma

Two pyramids at Teotihuacan,

Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan

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

Avenue of the Dead leading to Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan

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.

Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, Teotihuacan

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.

Photo of painted mural signs

Signs painted on mural at Teotihuacan

Map of major sites in central Mexico

Major Sites in Central Mexico

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

Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan

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

Photo of Yax K'uk Mo figure

Yax K’uk Mo figure with Tlaloc goggle-eye mask

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.

Photo of structures in talud-tablero style

Talud-tablero architecture at Teotihuacan

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.

Photo of author at Teotihuacan

Leonide Martin at Teotihuacan, October
2018

Resources

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

Maya Exhibit: Murals and Monuments

Balboa Park, San Diego Museum Complex

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.

San Bartolo Mural

San Bartolo Mural

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.

San Bartolo Mural Redrawn from Heather Hurst by National Geographic

San Bartolo Mural Redrawn from Heather Hurst by National Geographic

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

Maize God in Center of Scene

Maize God in Center of Scene

Woman Kneeling by Flower Mountain

Woman Kneeling by Flower Mountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Murals at Bonampak Procession of Lords

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.

Murals at Bonampak Ruler and Captives

Murals at Bonampak
Ruler and Captives

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

Murals at Bonampak Women Performing Self-Bloodletting

Murals at Bonampak
Women Performing Self-Bloodletting

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.”

Murals at Bonampak Maya Ruler

Murals at Bonampak
Maya Ruler

 

Murals at Bonampak Lord Wearing Solar Disk

Murals at Bonampak
Lord Wearing Solar Disk

Murals at Bonampak Royal Women

Murals at Bonampak
Royal Women

 

 

Cut-away Model of Three Chambers in Bonampak Murals

Cut-away Model of Three Chambers in Bonampak Murals

 

Monuments: A few large replicas of stelae, buildings, plazas and carved frescoes were on display.
Stela from Copan, Honduras

Stela from Copan, Honduras

Carved Fresco on Pyramid in Xunantunich, Belize

Carved Fresco on Pyramid in Xunantunich, Belize

Mask in Profile facing plaza

Mask in Profile facing plaza

 

 

 

 

Carved Lineage of Rulers of Copan Bench/Altar

Carved Lineage of Rulers of Copan
Bench/Altar

 

 

El Mirador Adventure

La Danta complex at El Mirador

La Danta complex at El Mirador

Most Maya enthusiasts harbor the desire to visit El Mirador, a Pre-Classic site in northern Guatemala. Few ever do it, however, because getting there is arduous. El Mirador is located in the heart of a large swath of undisturbed low-lying jungle called the Mirador Basin in the Mirador-Río Azul National Park. This large tract of sub-tropical jungle is full of bajos or low wetlands with surrounding marshes, and no roads give access to its interior. The nearest town, Carmelita, sits at the end of a long dirt road. It takes three days of travel on narrow paths by foot or mule to reach the site, braving rains, mud, mosquitoes, snakes and jaguars. Most visitors come by helicopter, a thirty-minute flight from the town of Flores on Lake Petén Itza. This remote region is within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, 8100 square miles of protected rain forests designated by the Guatemalan government and supported by many groups to prevent deforestation, destruction and looting of ancient Maya sites.

Prudently, our group of ten intrepid Maya enthusiasts opted for helicopters over mule train. Led by Dr. Edwin Barnhart of the Maya Exploration Center, we flew over the rolling canopy of trees including

Helicopters landing in small clearing

Helicopters landing in small clearing

ramón (breadnut), ceiba, mahogany, copal and sapodilla, some growing to 150 feet. Once beyond the reserve edge, cleared fields used for crops and cattle gave way to an unbroken sea of dense foliage, punctuated by what seemed to be hills, but were the tree-covered peaks of ancient pyramids. When we reached the tallest pyramids, whose stone tops protruded beyond the canopy, the helicopters circled for landings at the sites we were visiting: Nakbe, El Mirador and El Tintal. With military precision, the pilots hovered over small clearings nearly undetectable until you were right over them, and settled the helicopters down.

For most of us, this was the trip of a lifetime. All students of the ancient Mayas, we knew El Mirador was among the oldest Maya cities, possibly the largest, often called the “Cradle of Maya Civilization.” Although abandoned over 2000 years ago, there are tantalizing hints that the people of El Mirador may have migrated to the Caribbean coast then back inland to settle at Kalakmul, a powerful rival to Tikal in the sixth and seventh centuries. Mirador was known as the “Kan Kingdom” in the Pre-Classic, and the rulers of Kalakmul said they were Lords of Kan.

The Mirador Basin was home to numerous Pre-Classic Maya cities that might have supported a population close to a million people.(1) The oldest city, Nakbe, was likely occupied before 800 BCE, with clear evidence of occupation by 600 BCE. El Mirador, the largest city, flourished between 300 BCE and

Map of El Mirador

Map of El Mirador

150 CE with a peak population over 100,000. Its central area covers 10 square miles with several thousand structures, and its pyramids reach 180-230 feet high and include “La Danta,” among the largest pyramids in the world with its total volume of 99 million cubic feet. The second largest city, El Tintal, was occupied during this same time period. Its central area covers 3.5 square miles with nearly 1000 structures and several pyramids, the tallest 160 feet.

These three cities were linked by raised roadways called “sacbeob” built of stone and plaster, creating a network of white causeways through the jungle. Within each city, sacbeob led from one complex to another, providing a level walkway rising 18-20 feet above ground level and some 60-150 feet wide. The remnants of these causeways still provide level walking surfaces, now traversed by tree roots but cleared of brush by site workers.

The primary archeological work in Mirador Basin is conducted by Dr. Richard Hansen of Idaho State University. Beginning in 2003, his team initiated investigation, stabilization and conservation programs with a multi-disciplinary approach involving 52 universities and research institutes. The ruined city had been recorded and photographed in 1926-1930, but its remote and inaccessible location deterred much investigation, with Ian Graham making the first map in 1962 and Ray Matheny excavating the site center in the 1980s. The archeologists were surprised to find construction that was not contemporary with the

Pottery found at El Mirador

Pottery found at El Mirador

large Classic cities in the area, such as Tikal and Uaxactun, but from earlier centuries. Pottery fragments collected by Joyce Marcus in 1970 and others found by Richard Hansen in 1979 were identified as Chicanel style, a monochrome red, black or cream with turned-out rims and a waxy feel. This pottery had been dated to Late Pre-Classic (300 BCE – 150 CE).

Finding complex cities with immense platforms, tall pyramids and royal compounds that were dated to Pre-Classic times caused a shift in thinking about Maya civilization. The Mayas had a high culture and sophisticated social structure far earlier than was previously believed. Speculation about the source of Maya kingship systems that produced such monumental architecture include diffusion from Zoque-Olmec centers such as La Venta and Chiapa de Corzo, as well as cultural interaction with other Maya centers to the west. Multiple opportunities for cultural borrowing and lending raise the question of who borrowed what from whom.(2)

Walking on sacbe at El Mirador with archeologist Ed Barnhart (red shirt)

Walking on sacbe at El Mirador with archeologist Ed Barnhart (red shirt)

Sunset from top of El Tigre pyramid

Sunset from top of El Tigre pyramid

As our group walked the wide tree-shrouded paths, we saw tall mounds of tumbling rocks rising through the foliage, and were amazed at the size and number of structures. Several complexes in El Mirador were partially cleared and restored, giving provocative views into this ancient culture that left no writing yet discovered. A central complex held several tall pyramids including El Tigre and its two flanking pyramids forming a triad group, with the Monos and Leon pyramids farther away. We climbed rickety stairs to the stony top of El Tigre and watched a spectacular tropical sunset. A five-mile round trip trek from our camp brought us to La Danta, gradually ascending over several levels of plazas covering nearly 45 acres. The platform supporting La Danta is 980 feet wide and 2000 feet long. Although the actual pyramid summit did not seem dauntingly tall once we arrived at its final platform, we kept remembering all the previous levels we had ascended.  La Danta stands 230 feet, taller than Temple IV at Tikal. Though not as tall as the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt, it is larger in volume at 99 million cubic feet.

Climbing switchback wooden stairs with handrails, we ascended to the top of La Danta and gazed across miles of jungle stretching 360 degrees to all horizons. A light wind cooled our over-heated bodies as we rested thankfully on large square stones. Two geodesic markers gave coordinates for the summit. In the distance the mounds of Nakbe and La Tintal were visible as forested hills. It was heady to be standing atop the reputed largest pyramid in the world. A sense of the expanse and inter-connectedness of the ancient Maya world created feelings of awe.

Stairs to La Danta platform

Stairs to La Danta platform

La Danta summit view across jungle

La Danta summit view across jungle

Standing on La Danta summit

Standing on La Danta summit

The most important artwork found at El Mirador is the Central Acropolis frieze. In 2009 a student named J. Craig Argyle uncovered two 26-foot carved stucco panels that had been covered over by another structure. Their burial inside this structure, filled with dirt and crumbled stone, preserved this beautiful creation that depicts two young men in the “swimming god” posture. Above them are two bird figures, one a cormorant and the other a human-faced macaw. Richard Hansen believes the frieze relates Popol Vuh mythology, showing the Hero Twins, one wearing the jaguar headdress containing the head of his father. The Twins descended into Xibalba, the Underworld, to defeat the Death Lords and resurrect their father (Hun Hunahpu, First Father of the Mayas). The cormorant signifies rulership lineages and links to Great Mother Goddess Muwaan Mat (Duck-Hawk/Cormorant). The human-faced macaw represents the False Pole Star Wuqub Kaquix, an arrogant macaw who tried to become a god. The Hero Twins shot him from a tree with their blow-gun, unseating his lordship.(3)

Central Acropolis Frieze Composite View

Central Acropolis Frieze
Composite View

Finding this depiction of the Popol Vuh myth in a Pre-Classic site proves that the story has great antiquity and predates contact with Spanish Christianity by thousands of years. Contact-era renditions of the Popol Vuh were thought to be influenced by Christian imagery. Ed Barnhart questions whether the frieze actually depicts the Popol Vuh, because key elements that signify the Hero Twins, such as jaguar spots and catfish barbels, are missing. However, we know the Popol Vuh was well-established early in Maya mythology from murals discovered in San Bartolo, Guatemala, dated to 100 CE that also portray scenes from this story.(4)

Tent camp rigors

To see these fantastic carvings and other artifacts, to climb the pyramids that soared above the jungle canopy, to walk the pathways trod by ancient Mayan feet in times long past, required commitment and dedication. Conditions in our tent camp in El Mirador were primitive, without electricity or running water, and without showers. Our guide Ed Barnhart arranged for everything we needed to be brought by

Ocellated turkey

Ocellated turkey

mule train, a 5-hour trek along a jungle path from Carmelita. The mules packed in all our drinking and cooking water, food, drinks, tents, bedding and implements. A staff of two cooks, two local guides, and four carriers attended us. Our meals were surprisingly good, cooked over fires in primitive conditions. The Mayan woman cook made delicious traditional tortillas and provided meals of rice, chicken, vegetables, black beans, eggs, pancakes, fruit and cereal. We drank from water bottles, using iodine to purify the larger water tanks when we ran out of bottles. Refreshing limeade accompanied meals; at

Camp hand washing station

Camp hand washing station

times we resorted to luke-warm gatorade when the ice melted. A hand washing station with suspended dishrag and soap dispenser served well; we had several tarp-enclosed outhouses and a tarp-covered picnic table. In our tent area, three hammocks suspended from trees offered afternoon respite.

Hammocks and tent camp

Hammocks and tent camp

Unseasonal rains occurred before we arrived, so the first day was fresh and less hot. Hot is the operative word; the next several days were roasting and muggy. Everyone got very sweaty, especially as we wore long sleeve shirts and long pants with closed shoes to prevent bites. There were far fewer bugs than expected; our guides said “three mosquitoes per person” but an abundance of spiders, gnats, moths, ants, and crickets. Very large, black cicadas serenaded us dusk and dawn, making an ear-splitting high whine. A flock of ocellated turkeys hung around camp, their iridescent feathers shining. The male’s deep popping noises started at 4:00 am, along with the roars of howler monkeys that are often mistaken for jaguars, which actually make grunting noises. Though some folks were concerned about the deadly fer-de-lance snake (called yellow jaw) our guides said rattlesnakes are much more common. The only snake we saw was a small dead one, possibly a fer-de-lance.

Sleeping in tents on air or foam mattresses was far from comfortable, especially the last two nights that were oppressively hot. A generator provided light until 9:00 pm at the kitchen and meal area, and around our tent camp hammocks. Trips to the outhouse required using flashlights and keeping an eye out for snakes and bugs. We were up at dawn, thanks to the turkey and howlers, and eager for our first

About to climb Nakbe pyramid

About to climb Nakbe pyramid

cup of coffee – surprisingly good instant called “Inka-mundo.” Taking advantage of the morning for our first excursion, we hit the sacbeob early and were out around 2-3 hours, using lots of energy walking and climbing. We’d return for lunch and a siesta, then make another trip to the site late afternoon. At Nakbe and El Tintal, we spent about 2 hours while the helicopters waited. Upon returning to Flores, the first thing everyone did was take a long shower, do some email or texting, then get a cold margarita or beer!

Back in Flores enjoying margaritas

Back in Flores enjoying margaritas

Our group of adventurous souls was uncomplaining about creature discomforts and deeply appreciative of this great opportunity to visit a remote Maya site of vast significance. The impressive size and number of cities with their monumental and residential structures, located in a nutrient-rich swampy region, led our imaginations to picture the area at its height: people streaming along wide sacbeob, using sophisticated techniques to quarry huge limestone blocks without metal tools, move them to building sites without wheels and lift them to amazing heights, interacting in complex class societies with a cohesive ideology, performing splendid rituals, producing striking carved art and ceramics, collecting rainwater in cisterns, using body decoration such as inlaid jade in teeth and skull shaping, and using imported objects such as seashells, obsidian and basalt.

Between 100-200 CE, the cities of Mirador Basin were abandoned. The people apparently left quickly, leaving ceramics and working tools where they were used. Hansen believes the exodus was caused by destruction of the swamps that supported their agriculture. Massive deforestation in surrounding areas to provide wood for making lime plaster may be the underlying cause. In El Mirador they plastered everything from temples and plazas to sacbeob and house floors, making the plaster thicker over time. The reason, says Hansen, was “conspicuous consumption” by elites trying to sustain an image of wealth and progress. Clay drained from forests into the swamps and covered the rich soil. A portion of El Mirador was temporarily re-occupied in the Late Classic, around 700-900 CE, with small structures built among the ruins. Here the occupants, probably scribes

Maya Codex style ceramic

Maya Codex style ceramic

and artists from Kalakmul, produced unique “Codex-style” ceramics, fine polychrome ceramic consisting of black line drawings on a cream colored background.  This was beyond doubt the trip of a lifetime. It was not easy, but it was rich in learning and experiencing

Ed Barnahrt and Lennie Martin, La Danta summit

Ed Barnahrt and Lennie Martin, La Danta summit

the residuals of a once-great culture that flourished then declined, leaving many unanswered questions. For Maya enthusiasts, it stimulates further research into the mysteries of the Pre-Classic, seeking to understand how kingship structures and class societies came into being, the power and trade relationships among sites, the stories of the residents and their lives.

References

  1. Chip Brown. El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
  2. John E. Clark and Richard D. Hansen. The Architecture of Early Kingship: Comparative Perspectives on the Origins of the Maya Royal Court. Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Vol. 2. Edited by Takeshi Inomata and Stephen D. Houston. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2001.
  3. Dennis Tedlock. Popol Vuh. Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.
  4. William A. Saturno, David Stuart, Boris Beltrán. Early Maya Writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala. Sciencexpress Report, January 5, 2006.

Leonide (Lennie) Martin writes historical fiction about ancient Mayan civilization.  Visit website at Mists of Palenque.

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