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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.
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 184.108.40.206.0 (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!