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The ancient Maya city Palenque (Lakam Ha) had a unique creation myth that linked the origins of their ruling dynasty to primordial goddesses and gods.
All the Maya regions in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras shared a common creation myth about the Hero Twins and how they outsmarted the Death Lords of Xibalba and resurrected their father, securing life on earth for their people. This legend is recorded in the Popol Vuh, an 18th century copy of the original codex rendition that has been lost. Palenque’s unique myth incorporates deities widely known in their region, but nowhere else honored in the same way. The Triad deities were the patron gods of ancient Lakam Ha, bringing the blessings of abundance and prosperity when properly attended and worshiped. The ruling dynasty was believed to be descended from these gods and their mother, Lady Cormorant (Muwaan Mat in the Mayan language). (more…)
The movements of the sun were particularly important to the ancient Mayas.
The sun god, represented as the K’in glyph in Classic times, had a Roman nose, central notched tooth, and crossed eyes with square pupils. Considered a male deity and addressed as Father Sun, he was ruler of time and space, and oversaw the seasonal agricultural cycles. K’inich Ahau—Sun-Faced Lord—was identified with ruling lineages and connected with the Maize God, bringer of fertility and renewal. In the late Classic many Maya rulers added K’inich to their names, signifying their oneness with the sun deity. To demonstrate this unity, rulers needed astronomical knowledge to predict exact timing of the sun’s annual cycle. Through this they directed farmers when planting and harvesting should take place. The sun’s arrival at important stations during the year was celebrated with rituals, and correct timing was essential. The ruler’s sacred duty required properly performing these rituals, offering the deities suitable gifts, and thus maintaining beneficent relations between Gods and humans. (more…)
Silver Medal Winner of the 2016 Global Ebook Awards
The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque receives award in Fiction-Historical Literature-Ancient Worlds.
It was an exciting moment when I received the notice in August that my book won a Silver Medal in the Dan Poynter Global Ebook Awards for 2016!
Book awards mean a lot to authors. They validate our efforts and help bring our books to the attention of readers and booksellers. The Mayan Red Queen has been given favorable reviews in The Midwest Book Review (2016) and by Writer’s Digest (2016), but this is her first award. So, I am very happy and invite you to share the moment by recalling the story if you’ve read it, or reading the book if not.
“The Mayan world and its underlying influences come alive, making for a thriller highly recommended for readers who also enjoy stories of archaeological wonders.” The Midwest Book Review, Diane Donovan, Editor and Senior Reviewer.
“The quality of this novel is top notch . . . beautifully written. The plot was interesting and very unique. The author’s best skill is in crafting believable yet mythical characters that carry the story almost effortlessly. . . fans of complex world building will be absorbed by this one–with pleasure!” Writer’s Digest 3rd Annual Self-Published e-Book Awards
Excerpts from the archeological field journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, fictional archeologist in the Mists of Palenque series. Early photography in Palenque by Desire de Charnay, Teobert Maler, and Alfred Maudslay is described by Francesca in The Controversial Mayan Queen: Sak K’uk of Palenque, Book 2 in the Mayan queens’ series.
Photography initiated a new era in documentation of Maya ruins.
Before the camera, on-site drawings or white paper cast molds were the best techniques available. Drawings depended on the skill and perseverance of the artist, and molds were subject to melting in the extremely wet and humid tropical climate. In 1839 Daguerre invented the first camera using a complicated “wet” chemical process. The enterprising French explorer Desiré de Charnay used this camera on his expedition to Palenque in 1860. He spent nine days there, using the cumbersome process to take the first photos of the ruins. (more…)
Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque
The Travel Writers of Their Time
Thanks to the remarkable four-volume books Incidents of Travel, by John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, we are given much insight into the hardships of travel and the impact of this splendid and high civilization on these explorers.
John Lloyd Stephens is a masterful storyteller and Frederick Catherwood a fine artist. Their first two-volume book, featuring Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, was published in 1841. It became an instant success, with publisher Harper and Brothers in New York making 11
printings of 20,000 copies each in only three months. I keep a copy with me to enjoy comparing their impressions with present-day Palenque. Although his prose is typical for that period, it’s richly descriptive and amusing. Stephens weaves details of their harrowing adventures, gives astute character profiles, evocative descriptions and levelheaded reasoning, spiced with wry humor. Catherwood provides distinctive drawings and quality architectural designs with floor plans, elevations and outside views of Palenque’s major structures. Thirty-one of his Palenque drawings were converted to engravings and published in the two Central American volumes.
You get a real sense of travel in the mid-1800s in the back-country of Mexico and Central America.
Stephens and Catherwood came from Guatemala to Ocosingo and followed the same route Dupaix took thirty years earlier, an ancient Indian path over mountains giving “one of the grandest, wildest, and most sublime scenes I ever beheld.” They made the trip in five days to reduce nights in the wild during the rainy season. Clambering along steep paths hovering over thousand-foot precipices, they mostly walked leading mules and occasionally risked being carried in a chair by an Indian using a tumpline across his forehead. The chair-bearer’s heavy breathing,
dripping sweat and trembling limbs failed to inspire confidence and made them feel guilty, so they used the chair very little. The descent was even more terrible than the ascent, and the sun was sinking. Dark clouds and thunder gave way to a violent rainstorm, men and mules slipping and sliding. Stephens admits “. . . it was the worst mountain I ever encountered in that or any other country, and, under our apprehension of the storm, I will venture to say that no travelers ever descended in less time.”
Once on the plains below and camped for the night, they suffered an onslaught of “moschetoes as we had not before experienced.” Even fire and cigars could not keep the vicious insects at bay. After a sleepless and much-bitten night, Stephens went before daylight to the nearby shallow river “and stretched myself out on the gravelly bottom, where the water was barely deep enough to run over my body. It was the first comfortable moment I had had.”
“Moschetoes” and rainstorms continued to plague the explorers after they arrived at the ruins of Palenque. They no sooner got their wood frame beds and stone slab dining table set up, with a meal of chicken, beans, rice and cold tortillas prepared proudly by their mozo Juan, than a loud thunderclap
heralded the afternoon storm. Though located on the upper terrace of the palace and covered by a roof, the fierce wind blasted through open doors followed instantly by a deluge that soaked everything. They moved to an inside corridor but still could not escape the rain, and slept with clothes and bedding thoroughly wet.
Rather, they tried to sleep but “suffered terribly from moschetoes, the noise and stings of which drove away sleep. In the middle of the night I took up my mat to escape from these murderers of rest.” Finding a low damp passage near the foot of the palace tower, Stephens crawled inside and spread his mat as bats whizzed through the passage. However, the bats drove away the mosquitoes, the damp passage was cooling and refreshing, and “with some twinging apprehensions of the snakes and reptiles, lizards and scorpions, which infest the ruins, I fell asleep.”
They solved the mosquito problem by bending sticks over their wood beds and sewing their sheets together, draping them over the sticks to form a mosquito net. Not all insects were odious. At night the darkness of the palace was lighted by huge fireflies of “extraordinary size and brilliance” that flew through corridors or clung to walls. Called locuyos, they were half an inch long and had luminescent spots by their eyes and under their wings. “Four of them together threw a brilliant light for several yards around” and one alone gave enough light to read a newspaper.
Exploring the Ruins
To explore the heavily forested ruins they hired a guide, the same man employed by Waldeck, Walker and Caddy. It’s hard now to imagine how dense the jungle was then, trees growing on top of every structure and filling plazas. Without the guide, they had no idea where other structures lay and “might have gone within a hundred feet of all the buildings without discovering one of them.” The palace was most visible and could be seen from the northeast path leading to the ruins. Stephens described its many rooms, stuccos, tablets, and ornaments while Catherwood rendered detailed floor plans and copied images. Stephens hoped their work would give an idea of the “profusion of its ornaments, of their unique and striking character, and of their mournful effect, shrouded by trees.” Perhaps readers could imagine the palace as it once was “perfect in its amplitude and rich decorations, and occupied by the strange people whose portraits and figures now adorn its walls.”
According to the guide, there were five other buildings that Stephens numbered, but none could be seen from the palace. The closest was Casa 1, a ruined pyramid that apparently had steps on all sides, now thrown down by trees that required them to “clamber over stones, aiding the feet by clinging to the branches.” From descriptions and drawings, this structure is the Pyramid of the Inscriptions. Bas-relief stuccos on the four piers of the upper temple were reasonably well preserved, depicting four standing figures holding infants. The famous hieroglyphic tablets covering the interior wall were also in good condition.
Casas 2, 3 and 5 are part of the Cross Group. Stephens and Catherwood were deeply impressed by the stuccos and tablets that we now know belong to the Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Foliated Cross. The fantastic tablets from the first temple were incomplete and only the left tablet containing glyphs was in place. The middle tablet with two figures facing a cross had been removed and carried down the side of the pyramid, but deposited near the stream bank below. A villager intended to take it home, but was stopped by government orders forbidding further removal from the ruins. The right tablet was broken and fragmented, but from remnants they saw it contained more glyphs.
The second temple contained another tablet in near-perfect condition. It had a central panel with two figures facing a large mask over two crossed batons, flanked on each side by panels of glyphs. The four piers of the temple’s entrance once contained sculptures; the outer two adorned with large medallions were still in place. The other two panels had been removed by villagers and set into the wall of a house. Copied earlier by Catherwood, these panels depicted two men facing each other. One was richly dressed and regal, the other an old man in jaguar pelt smoking a pipe. Later these famous sculptures were moved to the village church, and again later to the Palenque museum.
Casa 4 was farthest away, southwest of the palace. It sat on a pyramid 100 feet above the bank of the river with the front wall entirely collapsed. The large stucco tablet inside showed the bottom half of a figure sitting on a double-headed jaguar throne, the lovely Beau Relief partially destroyed by Waldeck. Stephens regretted this loss greatly (as do I) because it appeared to be “superior in execution to any other stucco relief in Palenque.” This small structure is now called Temple of the Jaguar.
This story is told in my post:
Difficult Working Conditions
Stephens complains that artists of former expeditions failed to reproduce the detailed glyphs in Casas 1 and 3, and omitted drawings of Casa 2 altogether. He believes these artists were “incapable of the labour, and the steady, determined perseverance required for drawing such complicated, unintelligible, and anomalous characters.” Catherwood used a camera lucida to project a light image of the glyphs and sculptures onto paper, and then drew the images to accurate scale and detail. He divided his paper into squares for copying glyphs to give accurate placement, reducing these large images and hand correcting the later engravings himself.
One must admire these two men, working under terrible conditions with limited equipment, yet providing such a thorough account of the Palenque structures they saw. They needed to scrape off green moss, dig out roots, clean away layers of dissolved limestone, use candles to light dark inner chambers, build scaffolds to access high places, and endure a plethora of climate and insect assaults. They paid the price of multiple mosquito bites, for both men contracted malaria and suffered repeated episodes of illness.
They left us a few astute conclusions. Stephens proved more insightful than later Mayanists by writing, “The hieroglyphics doubtless tell its history” and “The hieroglyphics are the same as were found at Copan and Quirigua . . . there is room for belief that the whole of this country was once occupied by the same race, speaking the same language . . .”
“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown . . . wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power.” John Lloyd Stephens
Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque
These excerpts from the Archeological Field Journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, a fictional archeologist in my books, describe the history of archeological exploration at Palenque. I’ll be doing several posts taken from her journal in the first 3 books in my “Mists of Palenque” series.
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The ancient Mayas built thousands of cities throughout their 125,000 square mile realm. Ruins of huge Maya cities have been dated back to 300-400 BCE. No doubt smaller cities were being built centuries before, but the fragile wood and thatch building materials degraded over time. By the Late Preclassic Period (400 BCE—250 CE) the technology for building stone structures had been perfected. This technology created tall pyramids, expansive palaces that reached five stories, and complex residences with interlocking passages and plazas. These strong and durable structures were able to withstand 3,000 years of harsh environment, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Even the encroachment of jungle roots and vines since the great cities were abandoned around 1,000 CE could not bring down most of these buildings. Hundreds of high-rise Maya cities remain standing today; a tribute to their building technology.
What substance was strong enough to “glue” the building stones together for so many centuries? The answer is found in Maya cement. Maya technicians invented a method for producing hydraulic cement from native limestone before 250 BCE. How they discovered this process is a mystery, since it requires extremely high temperatures in a type of “blast furnace” to convert limestone into cement. Archeologists surmise they used trial-and-error over many years, perhaps a millennium, to get the formula right. We can imagine ancient Mayas watching a huge conflagration from lightning strikes in forests, or set off by volcanic flow or cinders, that created super-heated fire. After the burning was reduced to coals and ashes, they saw peculiar round globules sitting on top, where before there were chunks of limestone. As rain moistened the globules, they puffed up into a grey-white powder. Curious, the Maya collected the powder and started experimenting with its properties. After mixing it with pebbles or clay or other substances, and adding water, they found that it made a very hard, durable bonding material. Claro que si! Cement was converted to concrete.
Maya cement was used for making cast-in-place concrete, the “glue” that held together their stone buildings and the base material for stucco that coated Maya structures, roads, cisterns, and plazas.
Hydraulic cement – the Mayas made true hydraulic cement, first used by the Romans. This cement reacts with water to form silicate hydrate crystals; these grow and interlock creating a bond between aggregate mixtures (pebbles, ground limestone, clay) to produce hard, durable construction material called concrete. The cement paste glues together the aggregate mixture, fills voids, and increases strength as it stiffens, called “setting up.” As the concrete hardens, it continues increasing in strength and durability. Maya cement is similar in chemical makeup to modern Portland cement, which is the current standard.
Maya cement kiln – the Maya cement firing kiln has similar thermodynamic and chemical properties to a blast furnace. Calcium is the essential chemical component for cement, and the Mayas had an abundant supply of limestone. When heated to 1450-1600 degrees C (2642-2912 F) the limestone melts, inducing a chemical reaction to form calcium silicate. These take the shape of globules called “clinkers.” Wood was the Maya fuel source, and generally it does not produce high enough temperatures, normally
reaching 300-400 degrees C (572-752 F). Learning that a higher temperature was needed, the Mayas invented a kiln. They stacked wood in a circular design set on an elevated platform of spaced rocks. The center of the circle was left open. The kiln diameter was around 6 meters (19.7 feet) across and 2 meters (6.6 ft) height. Logs were stacked horizontally in a radial pattern, larger logs filled in with smaller ones and chinked solid with chipped wood. A vertical shaft was left open up the center, 8 inches diameter, extending from ground level to the top of the pile. To keep the kiln burning the required 24-30 hours, the wood had to contain enough moisture. It was either green wood or it was moistened with water. Readily combustible material such as dry leaves and dry decayed or resinous wood was put at the shaft base to ignite the kiln.
Raw limestone was cut into small blocks and stacked on top of the wood pile, to a height of 0.75 meters (2.5 ft.). The dry tinder was set afire, and its rapid burning sucked in cool, oxygen-rich outside air through the elevated base of the platform. As this air entered it increased the temperature in the center core while reducing ambient pressure. In turn, the reduced pressure induced a rapid flow of cooler, oxygen-rich air which then increased the temperature even more. This super-heated air was exhausted upward into the limestone, in a chimney-like effect. This cycle kept raising temperature and burning the stacked wood at temperatures that reached 1600 C (2912 F). When the kiln was at peak operation, a narrow tongue of flame soared skyward to a height of 30 meters (98.4 ft.). As heat increased, the flame color changed from red to orange, then yellow and finally to blue, which indicates 1600 C.
When the burn was complete, a collection of clinkers sat upon a pile of cinders. These were allowed to cool. Exposure to dew and rain caused the clinkers to expand into a dome of fluffy grey-white powder, 5-6 times the bulk of the limestone. This powder was hydraulic cement, and could be ground finer as needed. The cement was combined with the aggregate mixture and water to make cast-in-place concrete: one part cement, 3 parts loosely ground limestone or other aggregate, and water. Five tons of wood were required to produce one ton of cement.
Weather conditions had to be just right to make cement: clear weather with zero chance of precipitation, and no wind. Wind would cause higher burn rates at the windward side leading to collapse of the kiln structure.
Rituals accompanied the kiln burning. Women were not permitted near the kiln during the burning, since the kiln, considered to be feminine, would become jealous and refuse to operate properly.
Studies have shown that Maya cement has almost the same chemical composition as Portland cement, meeting strict international standards for manufactured cement. Maya cast-in-place concrete has higher strength than needed by the loads superimposed on Maya structures. It has remarkable ability to resist severe environmental exposure. Its high compressive strength is greater than building materials of any other ancient American culture.
Conclusion: Maya cement is a true cement, a building material very similar to modern cement. Its properties produce concrete with a strong matrix, similar to modern concrete.
James A. O’Kon, PE. The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology. Career Press: New Page Books, Pompton Plains, NJ. 2012. In depth explanations of many types of Maya technological achievements, by an “archeoengineer” who spent 40 years investigating at over 50 remote Maya sites.