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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)
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
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 126.96.36.199.0 (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!
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
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
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
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)
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.
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)
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
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
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.
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
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!
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
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
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.
- Chip Brown. El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
- 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.
- Dennis Tedlock. Popol Vuh. Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.
- 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.