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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
Mayan Queens and Kings were Shaman-Rulers charged to Maintain Balance between the Three Worlds of the Maya Cosmos.
Mayan Queens were powerful leaders in ancient Maya culture. Women rulers are well-documented during the mid to late Classic Period, 300-900 CE. Called K’uhul Ixik, Holy Lady in classic Mayan language, their role included entering shamanic states to access spirit domains and drawn upon the powers of deities and ancestors. The rituals rulers performed, and the sacred architecture of pyramids and temples in which rituals took place, were symbols of creation in the cosmos.
“They are all instruments for accessing spiritual power from the creative act . . . they are signposts on the Maya road to reality stretching across the landscape of history.” ̶ Maya Cosmos
Mayan queens and kings did rituals of sacrifice and sympathetic magic.
Accessing powers of Otherworld Gods and Ancestors was not easily achieved. Mayan queens or kings had to make appropriate offerings and know how to call the deities’ names properly. The most common sacrifice was self-bloodletting, because blood was ultimately sacred as itz, sticky fluid that was ch’ulul, the life force energy, life-essence and creative substance. The shaman-ruler let blood from tongue, earlobes or genitals to concentrate and channel this life force from the Otherworld.
“In a sense, the shamans were like modern engineers. But instead of nuclear power plants and electrical grids they used pyramids and Vision Serpent portals. Instead of electron flows they used itz. The spilling of blood, like the throwing of a giant breaker switch, brought life giving energy pouring into the universe from the underlying force fields of the Otherworld.” ̶ The Shaman’s Secret
Rituals for accessing spiritual powers propelled the shaman-ruler into altered states of consciousness, both by the act of self-bloodletting and use of mind-altering substances. The objective was to receive a tangible vision and an overwhelming experience of the deities; essentially a state of Divine Union or Communion. It is sympathetic magic through conjuring Divine beings, often intentional calling of a certain deity. Since all things mirror each other, in Mayan cosmology, when rituals re-enacted events from Creation Mythology, or conjured a warrior ancestor to guide a king through battle, these supernatural events were reactivated and manifested on earth.
Lady Kab’al Xoc Conjures an Ancestor Warrior
Lady Kab’al Xoc, first wife of Itzamnaaj Bahlam of Yaxchilan, was a famous Mayan queen. She is shown on carved lintels doing a bloodletting ritual, drawing a rope embedded with thorns through her tongue. As her blood fell on bark paper in a censer, it was set on fire and the rising smoke turned into the Vision Serpent. An ancestor warrior emerges from the snake’s open jaws, brandishing a shield and spear with Teotihuacan imagery (Tlaloc face mask, mosaic war helmet, double pointed spear). The ancestor brought important messages to guide the king during the upcoming battle.
Equinox Rituals Brought the Worlds Into Balance
An important responsibility of Mayan queens and kings was to perform rituals at key times according to their calendars. The Mayas had numerous calendars and many rituals were needed. Solar calendar events were especially potent: equinoxes, solstices, zenith, and eclipses. Each mid-fall and mid-spring, the sun reaches a point in its ecliptic when day and night come into balance. The concept of balance was critical to the Mayas; rulers were charged to keep the three worlds—Underworld, Middleworld, and Upperworld—in harmonious relationship. Only when the needs of deities of each realm were satisfied, and communion with deities was performed correctly, would humans enjoy lives of peace and abundance on earth.
Mayan solar priests, K’inob, used techniques to track the sun’s movement and predict accurately when the day of perfect balance arrived. On the equinoxes, rulers would undertake the prescribed rituals, making offerings to the Gods of the calendar periods and drawing their blessings into the world. Rulers conjured the Vision Serpent and sought prophesy for the coming calendar period.
There were dire consequences if balance was not maintained between the worlds. When balance was lost, the natural world was in danger. If this world, the Middleworld of earth , remained out of balance with the other two worlds long enough, it could bring destruction to a city, a region, or perhaps the entire Maya lands. Many experts believe that losing balance in the natural world is what led to the collapse of Maya civilization. The “Maya Collapse” is a complex phenomenon, not readily explained by any single factor, following different courses and timelines in various parts of the Maya lands. Beyond doubt environmental changes played a major role.
El Mirador Out of Balance
The collapse of El Mirador is reasonably well explained. It was a thriving Pre-Classic city of about 100,000, surrounded by satellite cities in northern Guatemala that flourished between 300 BCE and 150 CE. Perhaps the largest Maya city, its main pyramid sat on plazas covering 45 acres, on a platform 980×2000 feet, rising 230 feet tall. Toward the end of its occupation, extravagant building programs using inordinate amounts of plaster were carried out; some of the thickest plaster coatings ever found. To create lime plaster and cement, the Mayas burned massive amounts of wood, causing deforestation in surrounding areas. The swampy regions that supplied water and rich mud for agriculture were destroyed by clay runoff from damaged forest floors. With no close-by rivers, and perhaps a time of relative drought, the once great city faced declining water, food, and wood for fire. Between 100-200 CE, El Mirador and other cities of Mirador Basin were abandoned. Archeologist Richard Hanson, prime investigator of El Mirador, says the underlying reason for its decline was a loss of balance with the natural environment. The rulers and elite became immersed in “conspicuous consumption” through over-building using excessive resources, trying to sustain an image of wealth and progress. This lack of foresight and judgment—an imbalance between the worlds—led to the collapse of civilization in the region.
Mayan queens and kings were successful at keeping the worlds in balance for over a millennium. Thousands of large cities thrived in a difficult tropical jungle climate. The Mayas learned to adapt agriculture and conserve natural resources, and created the most brilliant, artistically and technologically advanced civilization in the Americas. While they upheld their expansive cosmology and properly honored the Gods and Ancestors, their culture succeeded. They lived an ongoing re-creation of their worlds by mutual Divine-human interaction; in essence, shaman-rulers became “mothers” of the Gods even as the Gods gave birth to humanity and the worlds.
Around 900-1000 CE that creative partnership dissolved. Not only environmental factors, but an internal spiritual dissonance led to abandonment of Maya cities. The Holy Lords and Ladies lost ability to fulfill their mandate, the deities were no longer satisfied, and the common people left for better livelihoods elsewhere. But this is yet another story.
Read about how Mayan queens kept worlds in balance in my book series about Mayan Queens in the ruling lineage of Palenque.
Click Links Below:
Chip Brown. El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
John Clark and Richard Hansen. The Architecture of Early Kingship. In Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Vol. 2 (Eds. Takeshi Inomata and Stephen Houston. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2001.
David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos. Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow and Co., New York, 1995.
Douglas Gillette. The Shaman’s Secret. Bantam Books, New York, 1997.
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…)
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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Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque
Early explorers: Del Rio, Armendariz, Dupaix, Waldeck, Walker-Caddy
In the 1780s, a couple of Spanish expeditions came to Palenque and made crude drawings of structures and art. The King of Spain was interested in the geography and history of his overseas colonies, and dispatched Artillery Captain Antonio del Rio from Guatemala to bring away samples. Del Rio removed stucco hieroglyphs, parts of figures and small panels that now reside in Madrid’s Museo de America.
Numerous drawings by artist Ignacio Armendariz from this expedition were the first reasonably accurate reproductions of Palenque’s huge array of art.
Another Spanish expedition in the early 1800s produced 27 drawings of panels and tablets, floor plans, and sketches of buildings, a bridge and aqueduct. Guillermo Dupaix, Dragoon Captain stationed in Mexico, and artist Jose Luciano Castaneda took a 50-mile trek from Ciudad Real (now San Cristobal de las Casas) to Palenque that required eight days on a trail winding through mountains that were “scarcely passable by any other animal than a bird.” Unfortunately, the work of these two Spanish artists got confounded and appeared in a book by Alexander von Humboldt in 1810 labeled as “Mexican reliefs found in Oaxaca,” a city nowhere near
The flamboyant artist, traveler and antiquarian, self-styled “count” Jean-Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck adapted Armendariz-Castaneda’s art with his own embellishments of musculature and costumes that gave a distinctly Roman look. Waldeck, like some other early explorers, believed the people who built these cities came from the “old world,” perhaps Rome, India or Egypt. This art appeared in an 1822 publication of the del Rio report, with many images copied into Lord Kingsborough’s sumptuous volume the Antiquities of Mexico in 1829. Waldeck resided at Palenque in 1832, building a pole-and-thatch house near the Temple of the Cross and recruiting a local Maya girl as his housekeeper. The structure called Temple of the Count is named for him. He made numerous drawings of reliefs and glyphs, some were careful reproductions but many were fanciful with evocative views of buildings and romantic landscapes used later for paintings and lithographs.
I can forgive Waldeck for many of his absurdities, such as including elephant heads and Hindu designs in renditions of Maya art. But I cannot forgive him for partially destroying one of Palenque’s loveliest stucco sculptures, the “Beau-relief” that once adorned the Temple of the Jaguar. It depicts a graceful figure with flowing headdress and geometric-patterned skirt, seated on layered cushions upon a double-headed jaguar throne. The figure’s arms and legs hold elegant, ballet-like poses. Waldeck did draw the figure first, as did Armendariz half-a-century earlier. Why he destroyed it is a mystery.
These drawings were reproduced in a number of books and magazines, and caught the attention of two men in the United States who really “put Palenque on the map;” John Lloyd Stephens, American popular travel writer and Frederick Catherwood, English architect and illustrator. Intrigued by the fantastic images and cities depicted, they determined to travel in search of Maya ruins and publish a book with illustrations about these wondrous things. They went first to Belize to visit Copan (now in Honduras), and then planned visits to Uxmal, Palenque and other sites.
Belize was under British control then, and some international competition got sparked. Patrick Walker, aide to the superintendent of British Honduras, and Lt. John Caddy of the Royal Artillery heard about Stephens and Catherwood’s plans to visit Palenque. Irked that the American expedition might reach Palenque before the British, Walker and Caddy quickly put together their own expedition. The Britons planned to reach Palenque first by going due west along the Belize River and across the Peten in Guatemala. They endured a grueling journey through swamps and jungles, arriving two months ahead of the American team.
Walker and Caddy made some quite accurate drawings of figures, panels and buildings and produced a report that remained unpublished for over 125 years. Their primary goal seemed to be winning the race
with the American team, and Walker’s greatest interest was hunting game along the way. Caddy’s report did make prophetic observations; saying that the massive buildings, elegant bas reliefs, and beautiful ornaments prove that in ancient times the city was inhabited by “a race both populous and civilized.” He also concluded that many more buildings once stood at the site that extended for several leagues. One entry remarked on a Spanish manuscript from around 1796, in which the local priest claimed that he “discovered the true origin” of these ancient people because of their “perfect knowledge of the Mythology of the Chaldeans.”
Excerpt taken from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque.
These excerpts taken 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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