Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Maya News Updates 2013, No. 1

Removal of Traditional Maya Elements from Altarpiece at the Iglesia de Santiago Atitlán?

In the last week of 2012 I received an email which informed me that the central altarpiece in the sixteenth century Colonial church of Santiago Atitlan is in imminent danger of being dismantled by the local priest who objects to certain traditional Maya components. This email continues with: "As many of you know, the altarpiece is unique in its sensitive blending of traditional Maya and orthodox Roman Catholic elements. Originally constructed at an unknown date during the early Colonial era, the altarpiece underwent extensive reconstruction after it collapsed during a series of severe earthquakes in the mid-twentieth century. The reconstruction effort took place from 1970 to 1981 under the direction of various parish priests, beginning with Fathers Ramon Carlin and Jude Pancini and ending with Father Stanley Rother who died just as the altarpiece was being completed. To support craftsmanship within the community, these priests commissioned a local Tz’utujil Maya sculptor, Diego Chávez Petzey, and his younger brother, Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, to reerect the monument and to carve replacement panels for those sections that were too damaged for reuse. Both of these artists are still alive and continue to sculpt. Rather than strictly follow the original arrangement of the altarpiece, the Chávez brothers were encouraged to replace damaged panels with entirely new compositions based in part on traditional Maya religious beliefs and rituals familiar to the community."
The email is written by Allen Christenson, who first saw the altarpiece in 1977, at the very time the Chávez brothers were reconstructing it and carving new panels along its base. The altarpiece struck him with its masterful blending of Roman Catholic and traditional Maya motifs and his interest resulted in his Ph.D. dissertation, subsequently followed by the publication of his 2001 book "Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community: The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán". His dissertation centered on the altarpiece and how it is intimately connected with the life of the community, while his book focused on the altarpiece and associated ceremonies. As he wrote in his email, "(t)o see indigenous beliefs and rituals expressed sculpturally by living Maya artists is extremely rare. Never before or since, has such a sculptural project been undertaken on so grand a scale. In my opinion it is the most significant work of sacred art by living Maya in Guatemala in the last 100 years, if not since the Spanish Conquest."

Christenson furthermore writes that "(t)he relationship between the artists and the parish priests was a collaborative one in which all were active participants. The Chávez brothers carried out the project with the intention of asserting the legitimacy of traditional Tz’utujil-Maya faith as a complement to Roman Catholicism. It was meant to be a unifying gesture within the community and it has done just that over the past 40 years. The altarpiece presents an invaluable visual display of important Tz’utujil Maya rituals and beliefs that is cherished by the community of Santiago Atitlan as a significant expression of their cultural identity. In traditional Maya faith, such sacred carved objects are living entities and the altarpiece is the focus of veneration by both traditional Maya and orthodox Roman Catholic members of the community alike."
At the end of his email Christensen makes it very clear that is "(i)t is the furthest thing from my mind to interfere with local community affairs in Guatemala. If it were the will of the community as a whole to dismantle the altarpiece it would be heartbreaking but it would be entirely their concern. But in this case it is most certainly not the desire of the community as a whole but rather the current parish priest and a relatively small number of like-minded individuals in the community. There will be a planning meeting at the town hall in Santiago Atitlan to determine the fate of the altarpiece in mid-January. My understanding is that not only is the altarpiece in danger of being dismantled in order to remove the traditional Maya elements, but that those panels would also be destroyed so that they could not be used again in any way. Hopefully this is just a preliminary meeting but one never knows. The Chávez family and others have asked if I could draw up an official letter in support of the altarpiece because the priest has tried to promulgate the idea that it is of little cultural or historical value outside a few local Maya traditionalists. They also expressed hope that others might be contacted to help. This letter is in response to their wishes."
I was struck by Christenson's email and the sensitivity with which he described the distressing news regarding the altarpiece at the Iglesia de Santiago Atitlán. His sensitivity works, in my opinion, both ways and those who are willing to help are requested to do the following:
"What would help would be if any of you could write a letter of support, however brief, that could be brought forward at this and subsequent meetings to show that there is international concern. This might forestall any immediate action. The letters would preferably be in Spanish, but any language would help if only symbolically. It is not my intention to criticize the priest, nor should anyone else. [NB: Underlining in original] I am certain that he is sincere in his beliefs and is only acting according to his own conscience, which I entirely respect. I haven’t included his name because he should not be the focus of any of the letters in support of the altarpiece. It is only my desire to make it clear that the altarpiece is of historical and cultural value to a large portion of the local community as well as to the outside world. Official looking letters (printed on letterhead and scanned would be fine I’m sure) might hold greater weight but anything would help."
The letters can be send as an attachment to Allen Christenson (allen_christenson@byu.edu). He will pass the letters on to the appropriate people advocating the preservation of the altarpiece.
NB: This text is based on the email I received from Allen on December 29, 2012; it has been edited and posted by me on Maya News Updates with the permission and approval of Allen, including his email address. Both photographs of the altarpiece were graciously put at the disposal of Maya News Updates by Allen as well.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Maya News Updates 2012, No. 2

Some of the Major Discoveries in Maya Archaeology of 2012: Tak'alik Ab'aj, Tobacco, Xultun, La Corona, El Zotz, Uxul, El Peru, and Dzibanche
The second, and last, posting for 2012 is my short illustrated overview of some of the major discoveries in Maya archaeology made in or reported on this year.

In January of 2012 archaeologists Christa Schieber de Lavarreda and Miguel Orrego Corzo reported on the 2011 excavation of a special offering deep inside Structure 6 at the site of Tak'alik Ab'aj, Retalhuleu, Guatemala. Among the objects that composed this offering was an impressive necklace. According to the archaeologists the necklace, part of the objects associated with a (re)burial of an infant, was probably deposited in a period of circa 190BC-AD10 (based on a C14 date, generated from the contents of a vessel excavated within the same context).

In January of 2012 as well an important article that was to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry (Volume 26, Issue 4, pages 403–411, issue date of February 29, 2012) was brought to the public's attention. It reported on recent trace element research by Dmitri Zagorevski, director of the Proteomics Core in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer, and Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman, at that time a doctoral candidate at the University at Albany (now Ph.D.). In their research (executed in 2011) they discovered the first physical evidence of tobacco (more precisely, the detection of nicotine as being indicative of tobacco) in a Maya ceramic container. Even more, the container that contained the tobacco residue is marked with the short text yotoot[il] umay "(it is) the home of his/the tobacco" (the small ceramic flask was considered to be the "home" of the tobacco product; a variety of ceramic vessels is marked as otoot "home" [for instance see below, the small alabaster container found at El Peru]. The image above shows the side of the small flask with umay spelling [Kislak Collection, Library of Congress, Washington]).

In May of 2012 a most important archaeological discovery was reported from the site of Xultun: a small room that contained elaborately painted walls portraying various human protagonists and a series of small hieroglyphic captions. Among these captions were arrays of numbers, one being a portion of a lunar table. Especially the arrays of numbers (associated with various important cycles and multiples of well-known calendrical base numbers) sparked a host of comments and ideas at various websites, but the basic article on the discovery and workings of these numbers was published in Science (Vol. 336, No. 6082, pp. 714–717 [May 11, 2012]), entitled Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala and written by William A. Saturno, David Stuart, Anthony F. Aveni, and Franco Rossi. One of the numbers gained great popularity as it recorded an amount of days (in Maya: totaling 6,708 years of 365 days (thus adding fuel, in many senses, to the 2012 Maya calendar debate and the "actual" duration of the Maya calendar). (The first, severely eroded, portion of these murals was discovered in 2010 by Franco Rossi; some of the results of the 2010-2011 excavations were reported by William Saturno in July of 2011 in Paris at an international symposium on Maya archaeology. Saturno is of course well-known from the discovery and subsequent excavations of the murals at nearby San Bartolo.)

At the end of June of 2012 archaeologists Tomas Barrientos and Michael Canuto reported on the discovery and subsequent excavation of a significant portion of La Corona Hieroglyphic Stairway 2. This portion of the stairway, luckily missed by looters in previous years, brought a wealth of new information on the La Corona, anciently known as Saknikte', ruling court (as several of the blocks were inscribed), including a stone block (HS 2, Block V) that contained a reference to the Calendar Round 4 Ajaw 3 K'ank'in (Uniiw), the date associated with the completion of the thirteenth bak'tun, the well-known 2012 date. This text became the second now known reference to 2012 in the corpus of Maya hieroglyphic texts. The surviving inscribed blocks of HS 2 (all re-set, in no particular or apparent order, and coming from different contexts) provide many more interesting feats, for instance (in my opinion) two additional portraits (Blocks VII and VIII) of Calakmul/Kanu'l king Yu'kno'm Ch'e'n.

In July of 2012 the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia de Guatemala (IDEAH) held a press conference in which the latest discoveries at the site of El Zotz were made public. At the building dubbed El Diablo (by Andrews in 1986, not by the present project) archaeologists, this year under the direction of Edwin Román and Thomas Garrison, continued their research (earlier at this building the important tomb of a king had been found in 2009). At the press conference the IDEAH announced the discovery of a series of stucco masks which portrayed the Sun God in different manifestations. The stucco masks and facade belong to a building probably erected circa AD350-400, which covered the earlier tomb and may have been part of a commemorative building program in honor of the occupant of the tomb. Based on dozens of photographs and measurements derived from the excavations it was Stephen Houston, Brown University, who prepared the first partial reconstruction of the Sun God facade.

Also in July of 2012 the archaeologists working at Uxul, Campeche, Mexico, reported the discovery of a finely furnished tomb in one of the southern rooms of Structure K2. The tomb contained the remains of a young person, who may have died at the beginning of the eight century AD (one of the vessels recovered from the tomb may contain a date in AD711). During a major part of the florescence of Uxul it was under the influence of the supreme royal court of Kanu'l at Calakmul. However, the tomb dates from after that period.

In October of 2012 the archaeologists David Freidel and Juan Carlos Pérez working at the site of El Peru (anciently known as Waka') announced that they had found the tomb of a well-known queen of the site. El Peru's Stelae 33 and 34 are now in public collections in the US (looted in the 1960s); Stela 33 (looted in the 1960s, appeared on the US art market in 1969, acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum in 1970; inv. AP1970.02) portrays king K'inich Bahlam II, while Stela 34 (looted in the 1960s, appeared on the US art market in the middle 1960s, acquired by the Wade Fund for the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1967; inv. 1967.29) portrays his wife and queen, nick-named Ix K'abel by some epigraphers (based on the HAND-le spelling). As the archaeologists noted, a small alabaster vessel (shaped as a shell from which an anthropomorphic head emerges and functionally identified as a yotoot[il] "the home ..."; see above, yotoot[il] umay) in the recently excavated tomb contained a short text that mentions her name, K'abel (I prefer "Lady Waterlily Hand", only paraphrasing the majority of the constituent parts of her name), who was also entitled Ix Kanu'l Ajaw "Lady King of Kanu'l (court at Calakmul)". The small container and name caption (as well as other objects inside and outside the tomb) may thus identify the occupant of the tomb, as the archaeologists suggest. (Both stelae were looted from El Peru at some time in the 1960s; it was Ian Graham who found the sawn off sides of both stela still in situ at the site in the 1980s.)

In November of 2012 the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) announced that information derived from the most recent excavations at Dzibanche, Quintana Roo, Mexico, indicated that the site was occupied well into the thirteenth century AD, two centuries later than previous thought. Additionally the INAH announced the discovery of several important cultural artifacts, among them an impressive stucco mural, made in this and previous years at the site. (The INAH bulletin also discusses in short the "Maya collapse" and uses the new discoveries at Dzibanche to modify the occurrence and timing of that collapse. "Collapse" as a cultural/societal phenomenon is not easily defined, but it never seems to have a single cause nor does it seem to happen overnight. The "Maya collapse" was, as I see it, multi-causal and depending on the region within the Maya area, "it" happened earlier or later, or seemingly even never happened, and had a duration spanning either a short or a long period with intermittent periods of resilience and re-establishment of populations ... "collapse" is thus not a simple singular event with an easy detectable and straightforward time and/or event line.)

These are the eight major Maya archaeological discoveries that I have chosen to include in my overview of 2012. There were many more small and big discoveries, confiscations or repatriations of looted objects (among them three small panels from La Corona; the return of six additional panels, now in Italy, is being negotiated), etc, etc. I hope that 2013 (and beyond) will bring me the time to report on all the things, old and/or new, yet to be discovered in the Maya area.

Maya News Updates 2012, No. 1

Exhibit "Maya III - Life, Death, Time" at the Didrichsen Museum, Helsinki, Finland

On September 8, 2012 the exhibit "Maya III - Life, Death, Time" opened at the Didrichsen Museum in Helsinki, Finland. During the recent 17th EMC in Helsinki (December 9-16, 2012) an evening visit to this exhibit was planned by the organisers and I had the pleasure of seeing this wonderful exhibit. The exhibit has been layed out in five rooms at the Didrichsen Art Museum (Didrichsen Taidemuseo). Three rooms are dedicated to archaeological artifacts, one room to photographs by Jon Kaplan of Guatemala's Maya children, and one room is used for showing a documentary on the Maya.
A total of 121 archaeological artifacts are shown, a significant number of which has unfortunately no known provenience. The objects illustrate the three subjects of the exhibit: life, death, and time. The exhibit includes various objects of the Didrichsen collection (e.g., a Chochola ballplayer vessel; a polychrome vase; a small Jaina statuette; a K'iche' urn lid with armed warrior). Short explanatory texts accompany the objects, each associated with their catalog number. Most impressive among these objects is the lidded stone box (measuring 38 x 22 x 14 cm.) that was found in situ (containing the fossilized femur of a tapir) in the Hun Nal Ye Cave, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. Discovered in early 2005 by Leonidas Javier (the owner of the land on which the cave is located), the stone box was stolen in 2005 or early 2006, but ultimately recovered (on May 31, 2006). The accompanying catalog is a hefty tome edited by Maria Didrichsen and Harri Kettunen. The catalog contains a variety of introductory and in-depth articles written by Arthur Demarest, Christophe Helmke, Harri Kettunen, Jon Kaplan, and Lindsay Renaud. Each article is lavishly illustrated and represents the current state-of-the-art in Maya studies. After the articles a complete catalog can be found, illustrating and describing all archaeological objects and the 23 photographs taken at for instance Chajul and Quetzaltenango. The catalog is trilingual (Finnish, Swedish, and English).
Below are my photographs of ten of the archaeological objects shown at the Didrichsen Museum exhibit (in no particular order). The exhibit opened on September 8, 2012, and runs until April 28, 2013. The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, its opening hours are 11-18 (on Wednesdays 11-20). The museum can be reached by car and taxi, but also by local bus transportation (bus lines 194 and 195 for instance, which leave from the Central Train Station).
Didrichsen Taidemuseo/Konstmuseum/Art Museum
Kuusilahdenkuja 1, 00340 Helsinki
+358 (0)9 4778 330

Short description of the ten objects:
IM001: Naranjo, Altar 1 (replica), which opens with a date close to 24,000 years in the past and mentions an important but still enigmatic entity nicknamed "Square-nosed Beastie".
IM002: Dos Pilas, throne arm rest, portraying the Sun God K'inich Ajaw, set against a Solar Disk with centipedes at the corners. In his left hand he holds the head of a deer, possibly with a foot print on its forehead. Deer and peccary are associated with the Sun God as they carry the Sun on its path through the sky (in different seasons) (n.b., this is not a mutually exclusive association).
IM003: Didrichsen Collection: unknown provenience, Chochola-style vessel depicting a ballplayer (hieroglyphic caption mentions a title associated with Oxkintok).
IM004: Didrichsen Collection: Polychrome vessel of unknown provenience (probably central Peten).
IM005: Didrichsen Collection: Armed warrior on lid of urn, of unknown provenience (Highland Guatemala, probably K'iche' area).
IM006: Tikal, Basal Flanged Early Classic Polychrome Bowl, modeled as a turtle with water bird on lid.
IM007: Tikal, Basal Flanged Early Classic Polychrome Bowl, lid modeled as Maize God head.
IM008: Unknown provenience, polychrome vessel portraying Old God in Feathered Turtle Shell (formerly private collection, now at the Museo Nacional in Guatemala).
IM009: Hun Nal Ye Cave, central image on lid of the stone box, showing Maize God holding rabbit, which looks at the Moon (in which the number "30" has been placed, indicative of a lunation of 30 days).
IM010: Kaminaljuyu, part of a stone column found at Structure C-IV-8, shown is a detail of the head of an avian deity.