Palenque’s Tomb “News”

A painted ancestor, perhaps Kan Bahlam, from the Temple XX tomb. Drawing by M. G. Robertson.
Many of the recent headlines about a new tomb discovery at Palenque are a bit misleading, to say the least. The painted tomb within Temple XX was first found and remotely photographed in 1999 by the PARI Proyecto de las Cruces Project, led by the late great Merle Greene Robertson. The recent small press frenzy was prompted by an post from INAH Noticias announcing the lowering of a video camera into the sealed chamber.

It will be very interesting to learn more about the tomb’s contents and occupant once the chamber is opened and carefully documented (that occasion will be newsworthy). As I mention in our book Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, there’s some circumstantial evidence that it dates to the middle years of the dynastic history, not quite so early as some have said. I believe Merle also thought such date a date, in the sixth century, was also most likely. The painted figures on the walls of the tomb are in a very curious and unusual style, but iconographically they are very similar to the ancestors depicted in stucco relief in the far more famous tomb of K’inich Janab Pakal.

A few on-line resources on the Temple XX tomb, long available:

Mesoweb’s reports on Temple XX tomb

Explorer’s Club report by Merle Greene Robertson, 2004

Mesoweb report on Temple XX architecture by Rudy Larios

Archaeology Magazine’s article on PARI work at Palenque

Q & A about 2012

Seems the whole “end of the world in 2012” brouhaha is stirring again with the upcoming release of the special effects disaster film, 2012. While topics on this blog are often meant to be pretty scholarly and technical, I thought it useful to offer a simple run-down of important points about what the ancient Maya really had to say — or not — about the “end” of their calendar.

Does the Maya calendar end in 2012?

No it doesn’t. What will happen is a recurrence, an anniversary of sorts, of a key mythological date in the distant past. The Maya wrote this as in their “Long Count” calendar (an abbreviation of a much bigger number), which fell on August 11, 3114 B.C. (some correlations of the two calendars say August 13, but I don’t really care). This “creation date” was not the beginning of everything, however. Maya mythological texts tell us that plenty was happening long, long before this starting point of the current era. On December 21, 2012 (some say December 23) we come again to a numerological recurrence of The Long Count calendar continues well beyond this date, too. In fact, the numerology of the calendar demands that there will be other similar recurrences of this same date in the far distant future, on a scale of octillions of years. The scale of Maya time reckoning dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many orders of magnitude.

What did the Maya say about 2012?

They actually said very little, if anything. Only one ancient inscription refers to the upcoming date in 2012, from a now destroyed site named Tortuguero. The question we scholars have struggled with is whether the final few hieroglyphs of that text describe anything about what will happen. A few years ago I put forward a very tentative and incomplete reading of these damaged glyphs, including a possible use of a verb meaning “descend” and a name of a god, Bolon Yokte’. Much of it was iffy and remains so; I’m not sure I believe much of what I wrote back then. More recently my colleague Steve Houston has pointed out the glyphs may not even pertain to that date anyway. So there’s considerable ambiguity just in the reading of the glyphs and the rhetorical structure of the Tortuguero passage. What we can say with confidence is that the ancient Maya left no clear or definite record about 2012 and its significance. There is certainly no ancient claim that the world or any part of it will come to an end.

Who came up with this crazy idea?

New Age hacks and, now, Hollywood producers. The idea can be traced largely back to the novelist and mystic named Frank Waters, who in the 1960s and 70s wrote a number of novels and cultural treatises on Native Americans of the American southwest, including his 1963 work, Book of the Hopi (he was not an anthropologist). One of Waters’ last works was Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth Age of Consciousness (1975), an odd pastiche of Aztec and Maya philosophies wherein he proposed that the “end” of the calendar would somehow involve a transformation of world spiritual awareness. Waters’ ideas got picked up and expanded upon by Jose Arguelles in his insanely misguided but influential book The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology (1987). Many different writers have followed with their own strange books and essays on the “meaning” of 2012, mostly contradicting one another.

What about the astronomy?

The Maya were fine astronomers, but the 2012 date has little if anything to do with astronomy. Despite claims about the appearance of a “galactic alignment” in late December three years from now, modern scientific astronomers reject this notion pretty much out of hand. Besides, no ancient Maya text or artwork makes reference to anything of the kind.

What do the present-day Maya have to say about 2012?

Although the 260-day round of the ancient calendar system survived in a few areas of highland Guatemala, the 2012 date has nothing to do with it. It’s only associated with the Long Count, which ceased being used well before the conquest. So, any mention of 2012 by modern Maya peoples is probably an example of media or New Age influence.

So, in sum, what’s been widely circulated in the popular imagination about 2012 has little to do about true ancient Maya belief or notions of prophecy.

My brief comments will probably instigate even more endless 2012 discussion and debate, but I respectfully request that such exchanges be taken elsewhere. What more I have to say on the subject, mostly on the nature of the ancient calendar as a whole, will appear in my upcoming book about Maya time, appearing sometime next year.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff Centennial

charsolomon_tproskouriakoff1January 23, 2009 will mark 100 years since the birth of the great Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985), best known for her discovery of the extensive historical content in Maya art and inscriptions. The upcoming anniversary will be a excellent time to reflect on Tania’s remarkable career and her contributions to Mesoamerican research.

What Will Not Happen in 2012

by Stephen Houston

Epigraphers await 2012 with trepidation. There will be ill-founded claims, bad Hollywood movies (one now in production), silly reportage, and much distortion of what 2012 meant for the ancient Maya. Every imaginable anxiety will apply to this key event in the Maya calendar. If we are candid, too, there will be renewed interest in our field, which scholars can shape to positive result…if the public ever bothers to listen. A rich ethnography of misunderstanding awaits those who wish to peruse the web.

Such an ethnography is not my purpose here. Rather, I present a mea culpa and a rectification. In 1996, Stuart and I discussed part of the text on Tortuguero Monument 6, suggesting that, on 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in, Julian Dec. 10, AD 2012, a god will “descend,” ye-ma or yemal, in what was held to be a nearly unique example of Classic-era prophecy. Why unique? …because when the Classic texts refer to the future, they typically encompass “impersonal temporal events that are safely predictable” (Houston and Stuart 1996:301, fn. 7). Stuart and I left a small escape chute, admitting that “there are some technical problems with this translation” (ibid.).

The relevant, final portions of Monument 6 record a Distance Number that counts from the principal event in the inscription (Fig. 1). The earlier event is the dedication (EL?-le-NAAH-ji-ja) of the building that doubtless housed this T-shaped panel (mentioned at E6-F6, []). The future events are described as tzuhtzjoom u 13 pih 4 Ajaw 3 Uniiw utoom, all “impersonal” and “safely predictable” insofar as they are straightforward references to the conclusion of a major cycle at a particular Calendar Round. What follows is the discourse marker ‘i-, an eroded glyph, and ye-? 9 YOOK-TE’ ta … By one reading of the text, whatever takes place after the ‘i– elaborates and extends this future sequence of events.

Or that is what we wrote in 1996. It happens that two others texts encapsulate a very similar pattern of dates. One comes from Naranjo, Guatemala, and is now in the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City (Fig. 2, Graham 1978:103). The second, recently found at La Corona, Guatemala, by Marcello Canuto of Yale, has been drawn in pencil by David Stuart. (Avid bibliophiles will discover that a recent coffee-table book published in Guatemala has full photographs of the La Corona texts as well.)

The final portion of the Naranjo text ends by counting forward to a future date, 7 Ajaw 18 Zip [Julian March 11, AD 830], with a rare future of a mediopassive verb, subfixed, apparently, by –[yi]mo. Thus, the inscription vaults into the future, many decades after the final contemporary date on the monument, and then, at the end, shifts back to that earlier date, (9.) 5 Ajaw 3 Ch’en [Julian Aug. 22, AD 593]. This is when the current ruler scattered incense, presumably at the dedication of the text and, according to Stela 38, the consecration of two other stones as well, probably Stelae 38 and 39, both found near Structure D-1 at Naranjo. The text accordingly situates itself in present time, leaps to a future presented in highly schematic terms, and then reverts to the present.

The final passages of the La Corona panel do much the same (Fig. 3). The base date is the dedication of the panels themselves, their last truly contemporary date: 4 K’an 7 Mak, Julian Oct. 24, AD 677. Almost in yo-yo effect, the inscription lurches forward to (Julian May 7, AD 682), then, from the 4 K’an base date, forward again to (Julian April 11, AD 687), and, in like manner, forward yet again from that base date to (Julian March 15, AD 692), one of the most vivid times for the Classic Maya because of its evocation of a 13th cycle. The relevant part of the text terminates the inscription: i-u-ti/tu? 4 K’an 7 Mak. The parallel with Tortuguero Monument 6 is clear, in that a future date jolts back to the present, as marked by a phrase beginning with i-.

Whatever Monument 6 has to tell us pertains to the dedication of the building associated with the sculpture. It has nothing to do with prophecy or the supposed, dread events that await us in AD 2012. About that the Maya are notably silent…or, truth be told, a bit boring.

Note – 9 Yookte’ (Bolon Yookte’) is an enigmatic expression. When postfixed by K’UH, it appears to identify some collective totality of gods. This is evident in the sequence of deities assembled or placed in order at the beginning of the last great cycle, as attested on the Ranieri “square” vessel and its counterpart, the so-called “Vase of the Seven Gods” (Coe 1973: pl. 49). Where understood, the other references to deities in this text signal the presence of pluralities, including the “Palenque Triad” (or its varying multitudes) and the “celestial” and “terrestrial gods.”

Fig. 1 Portion of Tortuguero Monument 6:pI5-pL5 (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer)


Fig. 2 Portion of Naranjo Altar 1:J5-J11 (drawing by Ian Graham)

Fig. 3 Portion of new La Corona, Panel 2:V5-V8 (drawing by David Stuart)


Coe, Michael
1973 The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: The Grolier Club.

Graham, Ian
1978 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 2, Part 2: Naranjo, Chunhuitz, Xunantunich. Cambridge MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Houston, Stephen D., and David Stuart
1996 Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity 70: 289-312.

An Old Unpublished Review of ‘Apocalypto’

Something a bit off-topic, but maybe interesting…

Nearly a year ago approached Steve Houston to pen a review of Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto. Steve was kind enough to bring me on board as co-author, since I had seen an rough-cut of the movie the previous September here in Austin, and even had the chance to chat a few minutes with the Director himself. Long story short, days and weeks passed and the movie became “old news,” so our review wasn’t published. The anniversary of the release approaches now, so here it is, a “new beginning” for an old review…

* * *

Life and Art

By Stephen Houston and David Stuart

The number one movie in America this week is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto—a lavish vision of ancient Maya civilization “destroyed from within,” as the theatrical trailers have it. Like The Passion of the Christ, Gibson’s take on the Crucifixion, Apocalypto offers viewers bloody sacrifices, impassioned crowds, authoritarian rulers, and the evocation of an ancient world gone wrong. And like The Passion, it uses an ancient language—in this case, Yucatec Mayan—to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings. But is the film an accurate portrayal of Maya culture?

Not quite.

Apocalypto is a dramatization of the Maya “collapse,” an enigmatic time in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. Yes when many cities and royal courts emptied of people. Archaeology tells us that over-population, deforestation, warfare, and disease all contributed to the fall of great ancient kingdoms. Gibson runs through this checklist of disaster in Apocalypto, and for good measure adds the strong suggestion that the Maya were doomed by sheer bloodlust and generally savage behavior.

Scholars now know that the collapse was not as complete as Gibson suggests. Some parts of the Yucatan peninsula continued much as before, with robust construction of buildings and active trade of luxury goods and basics for everyday life, including salt, textiles, ceramics, and stone tools. Today, speakers of dozens of Mayan languages number in the millions, living in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The surprising feature of the Maya is not the collapse of their Classic civilization, which Gibson highlights, but their astonishing tenacity after the Spanish conquest and, more recently, a bloody civil war in Guatemala during the 1970s and 1980s. American television has produced a version of the reality show Survivor in the jungles of northern Guatemala, but the real survivors are the Maya themselves, through centuries of tumult and abuse.

Gibson’s main vision of the Maya, as a people given to violence, fits squarely with a long-standing debate among scholars. Until forty years ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peace-loving worshippers of time, a view consistent with the New Agers who have appropriated the Maya as mirrors of modern-day astrology and mysticism. (The Maya date of 2012 looms large even in a recent Colbert Report, thus finding a secure target of ridicule.) Decipherments of Maya writing and fresh perspectives on their imagery confirm that the Maya were a lot like other ancient people: they fought, loathed, and loved, built mighty cities, and created a courtly civilization that left thousands of inscriptions and sculptures. Their aesthetic sensibility parallels what we see in warrior societies like pre-Modern Japan, which also paid eloquent attention to the interplay of life and death, honor and dishonor. Most Maya, of course, simply farmed and hunted, having relatively little contact with the intrigues and artistic commissions of royal courts.

As a work of creativity and boldness of vision, which Apocalypto certainly is, Gibson’s movie ought to have leeway for historical liberties. If Kirsten Dunst can play Marie-Antoinette, as in Sofia Coppola’s new film, why not fashion an impossible Maya city that looks both like Tikal, Guatemala, and Uxmal, Mexico? But Gibson goes overboard, with inaccuracy piled on inaccuracy. Epigraphic studies prove that the Maya of the great dynastic cities mostly spoke a Mayan language called Ch’olti’an, not the Yucatec Gibson chooses to use. No director of historical movies in Europe or the US would have Aristotle rub shoulders with Henry VIII. The set designers of Apocalypto seem to care little for such niceties. To cite one weird example, reproductions of the San Bartolo murals, from about 100 B.C., occur in a set supposedly meant to be 1600 years later. San Bartolo’s imagery not gory enough? Replace an animal sacrifice in the murals with a human body. The same in the Bonampak paintings of Chiapas, Mexico, perhaps the greatest set of images in the Pre-Columbian world, reproduced in part in Apocalypto. The ruler depicted in Gibson’s version of the murals holds a pulped human heart where none appears in the original.

Our concern is that, for the public, Apocalypto crafts an odd and warped view of Maya civilization that will take years to reshape and correct. Gibson offers disturbing, simplistic and, we fear, enduring views of the Maya. In this movie, the “good Maya” are humble and tranquil forest dwellers who live in the most rudimentary fashion imaginable, despite using badly mangled versions of royal names attested in Maya inscriptions. “Bad Maya” are, for Gibson, crazed and blood-thirsty city-dwellers, eager for cruel sacrifice by cynical kings. In other words, they belong to a civilization that deserves to die, soon to be reborn with the arrival of the Spanish and Christianity. (Gibson states that he chose the Greek word as his title because of its supposed meaning, “a new beginning.”)

Gibson’s compelling understanding of action may excite the audience, but his narrative, indeed, the very excellence of the cinematography in this electric “chase movie,” manage to dehumanize one of America’s most splendid civilizations of indigenous origin. Scenes of domestic family bliss, such as when the villager hero lovingly strokes his pregnant wife, serve mostly to contrast with an archaic view of Native American ritual as performed by mindless savages. Heads sliced from captives bounce down pyramid steps, their bodies still twitching in unpleasant fashion. The eager audiences for such spectacles seem to be doped up and disoriented. The hero escapes from the horrors of this dynastic city by clambering over bodies laid out in Auschwitz-like trenches. The scale and fury of the violence are unlike anything ever documented for this civilization. The Maya may not have worshipped time, as New Agers still believe, but nor were they such an embodiment of collective evil.

Some decades ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peaceful, and that was wrong. As in all human societies, violence was present and real but, in this case, operated within reverential systems of belief about the need to feed and tend gods and to test the honor of noble captives. Violence, a controlled, constrained violence, had purpose and meaning, however unpleasant those beliefs may seem today. But Gibson has transformed the ancient Maya, for decades to come, into a people given to capricious sadism and cruelty. The Maya past and present do not deserve this Apocalypto.