Thursday, April 28, 2011

Guatemala Part 3: Sunday market at Chichicastenago

Abuela waits for a customer. Sitting with patience and great dignity, this abuela (grandmother) waited for market-day customers on the steps of Chichicastenango's main church. She is probably K'iche', one of 22 ethnic subgroups within Guatemala's Maya population, and wears the traditional embroidered huipil (blouse), along with a beautifully woven corte (skirt). On her head, she carries a folded cloth called a tzute that can function as a shawl, scarf, or baby sling as well as a hat. She probably needed the shawl, since mornings are cool in these mountains. Markets are held in the plaza area of Chichicastenango on Thursdays and Sundays.

Chichicastenago is in the mountains of the southern Guatemala highlands. Chichicastenango, situated at 1,965m (6,447 ft), has been famous for its market since ancient times. That was why it was our first stop, about 3 hours (140k or 87 mi) after leaving Guatemala City on our Caravan Tour. It is also about a 1 hour drive north of Lake Atitlan. Chichicastenango is the name of the municipality (similar to county) and the city of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango is the municipal seat. There are about 107,000 people who live in the overall municipality, and more than 45,000 of those live in the city itself. 95% of them are K'iche' (also called Quiche) and the rest are Ladino, or mixed blood. For a map of the town, click here

Loading the chicken bus. Many of the market-day vendors and customers arrived on these garishly painted vehicles. Some years back, enterprising Guatemalans went to the US and bought up obsolete school buses, drove them down, and turned them into intercity buses. The new owners painted them in multiple bright colors, layered on chrome wherever they could, and gave them fancy names. The bus above has a chrome luggage rack on the top where an assistant called a brocha (brush) sits while the bus does pickups. The brocha loads luggage, collects fares, and herds the passengers on when the bus is ready to leave. On the road, the drivers tend to be--how can I say it generously--overly daring. Once, while on a blind and precarious mountain curve, two chicken buses traveling bumper-to-bumper passed our tour bus going flat-out, obviously in a race. Jorge, our tour director, shook his head and mumbled under his breath. The wise put their affairs in order before spending much time on such buses. Why are they called chicken buses? Because, generally, no livestock is allowed in the passenger compartment, unless it is small enough to fit on one's lap. According to Jorge, the chicken buses will be phased out in the next few years in favor of a more modern transportation system.

The intra-city options. To get around in Chichicastenagno, and most other towns in Guatemala, 3 popular choices are walking, riding a motorbike, or using one of these little 3-wheeled taxis. Called tuk-tuks because of the sound of their motor, they are fast, cheap, reliable, and everywhere. Tuk-tuks originated in Bangkok and someone had the bright idea of bringing them to Guatemala. They were an instant hit. You should always make sure you have settled the fare amount before climbing aboard, however. While on foot, you should also always keep an eye out for tuk-tuks, because their drivers tend to dart for any open space in traffic.

Carole prepares to brave the market. The wise keep close track of their valuables in a market like this, because pick-pockets are a more-than-likely presence. Carole wears her daypack on the front for this reason. At such stops, Jorge urged his passengers to leave passports and other important documents on the bus, which was then locked and guarded by the driver. Money can be easily replaced, but a lost passport in a foreign country creates a serious problem. Either through luck or careful attention, we never had a theft, although there were 42 people in our tour and we made many stops.

The steps of Iglesia Santo Tomás are a favorite spot for flower sellers at the market. The church is more than 400 years old, and is built on top of an ancient Maya temple, a typical practice of the Spanish conquistadors. The 18 steps seen above were part of the original temple. Each step represents one month of the Maya calendar year. At the top of the steps in front of the entrance you can see smoke rising from burning copal incense. Since the use of incense was a sacred practice common to both the ancient Maya and the Catholic Church, the Spanish priests easily adapted copal into their rituals, one of many parts of Maya religion they attempted to coopt. In turn, priests of the Maya religion still use the church for some of their old rituals. The mixture of practice is fascinating. We weren't allowed to photograph the dim and mysterious inside of the church, but were able to view it and some of the rituals occurring there. As copal incense drifted in from the front steps, male members of the cofradia (brotherhood) moved about inside, dressed in traditional clothing and carrying emblems of their authority, long staffs with elaborate silver ornaments on top. Tiny Maya women moved up the aisles on their knees, an inch at a time, while they softly chanted. Carole was entranced, saying later that she felt she had wandered into the 16th Century.

Closing the deal. The Maya are some of the most enterprising people I have ever seen. Market day is a major economic opportunity for them, especially since Chichicastenango has been "discovered" in recent years. We were not the only tourists looking for an exotic experience and local crafts. Above, a young girl of about 7 years is deep in negotiation with a European man. She wears the traditional huipil and corte, although some of the children I saw were wearing more modern styles. Two Maya boys in the back ground were closely monitoring her progress.

A flower seller surveys her prospects. From the steps one could look over much of the market spread out below. The plaza was completely covered by booths crammed with goods and separated by narrow aisles mobbed with people. The flower seller wears a huipil embroidered with a striking, multi-colored zig zag design. The huipil is typically (but not always) tucked into the corte, which is wrapped about the waist somewhat like a Southeast Asian sarong. Sometimes a sash, called a cinta is worn around the waist. On her head she wears a flaming red tzute.

Some of Guatemala's world-famous textiles. Notice the zig zag patterns, similar to those worn by the flower seller. These fabrics may have been created on a back-strap loom, one of the most ancient techniques still used in the world. I have visited archaeological sites with pictures more than 1000 years old that show women using backstrap looms. Alternatively, the textiles above may have been woven on a foot-powered treadle loom, a 16th Century innovation of the Spanish. Such looms are often held together with wooden dowels and twine, with little or no metal in the machine. They are still widely used in Guatemala and Mexico.

Pots for sale. A Maya mother and her young daughter negotiate with a local shopper. How she manages to keep the crowds from trampling her wares on the old cobblestone street is a mystery to me. The Maya have been crafting beautiful pots for 3500 years or more. To make pots like those above, the potters will find the necessary clay in the river bottoms of highland mountain streams that have produced materials for similar wares since Olmec times. The metamorphic and igneous rock, as well as volcanic pumice, produce the temper which strengthens the pot. With 37 volcanoes, Guatemala produces a lot of tempering material. While modern Maya generally use a potter's wheel, in ancient times they used the coil and slab techniques. After forming, shaping, inscribing and painting, the pots are left to dry and then fired in open air kilns.

Maya have also been making and using masks from the earliest times. Masks were used for ceremonies and dances, as well as for burials and sometimes as ornamentation for buildings. The wealthier Maya, and the nobility, could afford much more elaborate masks. One of the most famous Maya masks is the one found in the tomb of Pakal, the great king of Palenque. Covering the dead king's face, the mask was made entirely of jade. The poorer classes used carved wood, or even pieces of bark with slits cut for eyeholes. The masks sometimes represented human faces, but more often were of animals including jaguar, deer, and birds. After the arrival of the Spanish, masks with pink faces and blonde beards appeared, as well as those with the faces of cattle. While in Chichicastenango, Carole added to our growing mask collection by purchasing one from the shop shown above. It has the wonderfully huge beak of a toucan bird.

The maker of Carole's new mask shows off another recent creation. He was an easy-going young guy who was happy to pose for a photo after his sale to us. The mask he holds has the face of a rather startled-looking cow. There were a large number of mask booths, so it was hard to make a choice for our collection. In fact, I got so many good photos of masks, it was hard to make choices for this posting.

The immoveable meets the irresistible. Stopping to examine the wares or listen to the pitch of a street seller meant an almost instant mob scene as many more appeared, all appealing for your attention. Jorge pointed out that if we didn't want to be mobbed, we should patronize those merchants who had a regular booth. Some tourists just liked to test their skills with the street sellers. In fact, Carole observed that many in our party were truly serious shoppers and were well matched with these determined sellers. At one point Jorge tried to separate the shoppers from the sellers so he could give instructions to the group. In moments, they were joined again in jovial combat. Jorge finally rolled his eyes, threw up his hands, and gave up.

An eye-catching combination. When passing this booth, my eye was caught first by the odd juxtaposition of two be-robed saints with a jaunty yellow giraffe. Then I noticed, even more incongruously, someone had left a glass soda bottle between them. I couldn't resist the shot, particularly with the richly colored background.

More gorgeous textiles. Booth after booth contained textiles of such rich color and design that it was almost overwhelming to the eye. Like the mask shops, I ended up with far more textile pictures than I could use and it was a tough choice to pick the ones for my blog.

More bargaining. Notice the contrast in dress. The young European girl is showing far more skin that you would ever see from a Maya woman. The seller, by contrast, is almost buried in the clothes she is wearing and the products she is carrying. Notice the seller's skirt. The embroidered cross indicates she is a married woman. A horizontal band without the vertical cross would indicate single status.

Huipils, ready to wear. A huipil (pronounced wee-peel) is a rectangular piece of cloth with a hole in the middle for the head. It is worn like a poncho, and falls to below the waist. Sometimes the sides are sewn up leaving space for the arms and sometimes they are left open. Usually Guatemalan huipils are richly embroidered like the ones above, although the embroidered part doesn't generally extend to below the waist since that part will be covered by the corte. I wondered if Guatemalan women only wore them for special occasions or even just to dress up for the tourists. Later, I looked out my bus window as we traveled through the countryside and saw women working with hoes on steeply terraced hillsides while wearing their beautiful huipils.

Closeup of marital cortes. Here, you can clearly see the crosses on a group of cortes that indicate the woman who will buy them is married. The underlying pattern appears to always be vertical with dark, muted colors, while the horizontal and vertical bands are always brightly colored, often with intricate designs.

A visit to the food market. While wandering about, I discovered this indoor food market, jammed with Maya women and a handful of men. And, of course, me--the lone gringo. I took the opportunity to get as many candid shots as I could, while trying to be inconspicuous. That is, as inconspicuous as someone can be when you are blonde, light-skinned, 12 inches taller than everyone else, and wearing clothes that are shockingly different than most people around you.

Chatting over vegetables. The woman on the right appears to be sharing a delicious secret, while the one on the left looks skeptical. By standing slightly behind a pillar and using my telephoto zoom, I caught this pair in a pose that wouldn't have been out of place in a US supermarket. Some things are universal. The fruits and vegetables looked scrumptious.

Not so likely in a US supermarket. Pigs feet, anyone? I delight in the unusual culinary choices one finds in traditional Latin American food markets. It would appear that the Maya use every part of the pig but the oink.

Hotel Santo Tomás provided a welcome respite from the glare of the mid-day sun. The Hotel Santo Tomás, only a couple of blocks from the center of the market, is a cool refuge of lush courtyards filled with climbing banks of flowering plants surrounding burbling fountains.

"Where's my pirate?" Brilliantly colored parrots fluttered around the hotel courtyard. Guatemala is home to 735 species of birds, including this gorgeous parrot. In ancient times, parrot feathers from Guatemala were traded for turquoise from the Anasazi civilization of the Southwest US.

The ancient and modern co-exist in Guatemala, at least for now. These three were sitting across the street from the Hotel Santo Tomás just before we boarded our bus. The women are dressed traditionally and carry textiles made from traditional designs. Modernity is creeping in however. The young girl wears a more modern outfit, and the woman on the left has a cell phone pressed to her ear. If the young people of Guatemala abandon traditional customs for the dubious benefits of modern styles, the gloriously complex and age-old traditions of Guatemala's Maya may fade and largely disappear in a generation or two. At this point, Guatemala is one of the most heavily penetrated societies by cell phones companies. More than 50% of the population owns one. Other modern ways are rapidly spreading.

This completes Part 3 of my Guatemala series. There is much more to come, so hold on to your hats. Our next stop will be the stunningly beautiful Lake Atitlan. I welcome feedback from my viewers. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Guatemala Part 2b: Ancient Maya Lifestyle

Sleeping dog pot displays artistic skill, an understanding of anatomy, and sly humor. I love the way ancient Maya artists portray animals in their work. Here, the Early Classic potter (250 AD - 600 AD) shows that s/he truly understands the anatomy and behavior of a dog. The curled-up sleeping posture is perfect. I couldn't help but smile as I instantly remembered every dog I had ever owned that slept in the exact same position. The pot was found at Kaminaljuyu within the limits of modern Guatemala City in the southern highlands. Kaminaljuyu was occupied for almost 2700 years (1500 BC -1200 AD), spanning the period from the early Olmecs to the Aztecs. While one learns about kingdoms and dynasties through the  remains of great monuments and buildings, the lives of the people of ancient times are best accessed through the day-to-day items they used to prepare food, carry out work, and with which they sometimes just amused themselves. In the previous posting on the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, I focused on Maya rulers and nobility. In this one, I will show you a small sampling of the museum's wonderful collection of ordinary objects from Guatemala's ancient past.

Household containers

A family compound set in the forests of the Petén jungle. This extended family lives in thatched huts called nah in the Maya language. Structures of this same design are still used in parts of Guatemala and in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Gulf Coast. The roof is thatched and the walls are constructed from upright poles plastered with mud. Both houses sit on low limestone platforms to keep them dry during the rainy season. At the lower right, a hunter returns with a deer over his shoulder. Children play in the patio area, while other adults work on various crafts or prepare food. On the roof of the nah to the right, a man repairs the thatching. In recent years, archaeologists have paid much more attention to such family compounds in order to get a more complete picture of Maya life at that time. Dynasties come and go, political alliances with other city-states are made or unmade, and wars rage and result sometimes in the sacrifice of a king. Over many centuries, the Maya farmer's life continued pretty much the same through it all.

Gorgeously decorated cuenca. This intricately painted cuenca (bowl) may have belonged to an artisan or merchant or some other member of one of the more well-to-do classes. In the base of the cuenca is the profile of a monster of some sort, or possibly the Rain God Chac. A long, thin tongue protrudes out of his fanged jaws. Underneath the head is a snake. Around the inside of the walls of the dish are Maya pictographs which probably recount the myth. A meal served in such a bowl might have included maize (corn), beans, squash, avocados, chili peppers, pineapples, and papayas. Of all of these, maize was undoubtedly the most important. Maize had its own god and various mythologies associated with it. In addition, being a farming people, gods of rain were very important to Maya farmers.

Small, beautifully sculpted bottles probably held valuable substances. These may have contained perfumes, oils, or unguents. Even small objects like these were crafted with marvelous skill. Clearly, the Maya civilization must have produced enough leisure time for a class of artisans to form who could create small, everyday containers such as these.

A face only a mother could love. Found at Kaminaljuyu, this pot was made during the late Preclassic period (250 BC - 250 AD). The pouting baby face again shows the humor of a Maya artist. A pot like this may have contained chocolate, made from the cacao bean, hot chiles, and water. Archaeologists found an ancient Maya pot 2600 years old with chocolate residue, the oldest on record. Another possibility is atole, a drink made from ground maize and water. Women were often the potters, making objects like this from coiled strands of clay.

Weapons and Tools:

Tools and weapons were nearly all a combination of stone and wood. Blades were generally of obsidian, an easily worked volcanic glass. See above are arrowheads, knife blades, spear points, and at the bottom are an axe and an adze. An obsidian blade can be extremely sharp and can hold that sharpness through heavy use. Obsidian deposits were a source of great economic power for those societies lucky enough to control them, much as oil is today. Trade in raw obsidian as well as finished products was extensive throughout Mesoamerica. Some of the tools seen above were used for hunting rabbits, deer, wild turkeys, or catching fish in the local rivers or on the Pacific or Carribean coasts. In addition, the Maya kept domesticated turkeys, ducks, and dogs for food. The blades were used not only to kill the animals, but to clean and prepare the meat, and process the skins. Some of the weapons above may also have been used for warfare.

Tool of an unknown use. This finely crafted stone tool is about 1m (3 ft) long, and is probably made from obsidian. There was no identifying sign in the museum. It looks oddly like a wrench of some sort, but that is clearly anachronistic. If any of my viewers have an idea of its purpose, I would be glad to hear about it. Some long-ago craftsman took a lot of time and energy to make it.

Sellos from the Classic period (250 AD - 925 AD). Sellos (stamps or seals) were used to decorate the surface of pottery, cloth, and to make temporary tattoos. Using a sello, the craftsman (or woman) could create a repeating design around a pot rim, for example. The museum contained many examples of sellos, some representing animals, or humans, and some abstract. The Maya never made the jump from sellos as tools for decoration to using them as moveable type to create books. That leap didn't occur in human history until Johannes Gutenberg created moveable type and the printing press in 1439 AD, not long before Columbus discovered the New World.

Sello rollers. These were apparently used by rolling them over the surface to be imprinted.

Personal adornment

Jade buckles. Even the most primitive societies favor personal adornment of some sort. In a society like the Maya, such adornment reached very sophisticated levels. The finely carved jade buckles above probably decorated the cotton and feather cloak of some wealthy merchant or noble. Notice the holes for thread to sew them onto the garment. The Maya valued jade above gold. Harder than steel, it is very difficult to carve without metal tools, of which the Maya possessed none. Nevertheless, they were able to create graceful pieces like those shown above. Some of the uses they found for jade, in addition to personal adornment, were for currency, tomb offerings, and treatment for kidney problems.

Shell buttons of various sizes. These buttons are from the late Classic period (600 AD - 925 AD). They were found at La Joyanca in the lowland area of Petén. La Joyanca was only recently discovered by archaeologists in 1994 and was immediately recognized as an important site. It is now believed that La Joyanca was occupied for over 1000 years, spanning the late Preclassic to the Postclassic eras. I found these buttons strangely modern in appearance. The shells to make the buttons probably came from the nearby Caribbean Coast, but given the existing trade routes, they could have come from much farther away.

Shell necklace. Shell jewelry has been found throughout the Maya world, even long distances from either coast. This indicates that trade networks were important from early Preclassic times through the late Postclassic. Trade even extended to the non-Maya metropolis of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, north of present-day Mexico City, and to the Zapotec's capital of Monte Alban in present-day Oaxaca. The networks extended southward as well, into Honduras and El Salvador and possibly even to Peru. Maya merchants were an elite group and their activity enabled the development of the artisan classes and the Maya middle classes in general. Shells may have been among the earliest currencies of the Maya world. In later centuries cacao beans functioned as currency.

Filed teeth were an expression of personal beauty among noble Maya women. Modern people might find it strange, even repugnant, that Maya women would undergo such a painful process to "beautify" themselves. However, present day women (and some men) undergo nose-jobs, liposuction, and other forms of plastic surgery. These are at least as painful and as dubious in benefit as filed teeth.

Maya men often had their teeth drilled and set with jade. This was, doubtless, another painful procedure. Jade was extremely valuable at the time, and this practice was probably confined to the elites. Another form of beautification used by both men and women was the deformation of the skull. Practiced exclusively by the ruling class and nobility, the parents strapped the heads of their children while still soft so that they grew into an elongated form with a flat forehead.

Human and animal representations

Market day in the plaza. There is little difference between this ancient scene and similar ones occurring  on market days in modern Maya villages. Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote of the Spaniards' astonishment at the rich variety of products available in indigenous markets. The fresh foods were probably produced locally, but others may have been brought from as far away as Central Mexico or Oaxaca. Markets were not only places of commerce, but were also used to socialize and gather news of the wider world.

"Don't happy!" When I happened upon this jolly and rather self-satisfied fellow, I immediately thought of the song popular in the late 1980s. Many times I have come across Maya art and sculpture that brought a smile to my face. It amazes me that an artist from such a different culture who lived perhaps 1500 years ago can still tickle the funny bone of a modern person like me.

Mushroom man. The mushroom cap on the head of this little fellow was intended to portray just that. Psychotropic mushrooms were used to produce visions as part of the Maya religious experience. Although there was no identifying sign with this little statue, many like it have been found at Kaminaljuyu in the southern highlands. Most were created in the early Preclassic era (1000 BC - 500 BC). They are absent from the Classic era, but came back into vogue during the Postclassic.

Pregnant woman in contemplative position. This figure is of medium size (approx. 1/3m or 12in) and was found at Kaminaljuyu. The artisan created her some time in the early Classic period (250 AD -600 AD). Her ears are pierced and she wears a necklace, as well as some kind of skull cap with a ridge down the center. She looks just about ready to "pop".

Early Classic warrior figure from the Pacific Coast area. This tapadera (lid for a pot or jug) was created sometime between 250 AD and 600 AD. The face of the warrior peeps out from within the gaping beak of an eagle's head. The warrior's body is covered by a variety of disks which may represent shields or armor. The rope-like spiral of a handle can be seen on the lower right side of the tapadera. Like the jaguar and the snake, the eagle was a powerful symbol among the Maya. In the Maya calendar, the eagle symbol is called Men. The Maya believed that the sun, which soared across the sky every day, was actually an eagle. An eagle warrior was a spiritual person, with a pure heart and full of quiet, humble wisdom.

Snarling dog was actually a whistle. According to its museum sign, this fierce-looking little fellow apparently functioned as a whistle. It was created in the southern highlands area sometime during the Classic era (250 AD -925 AD). Notice how the artist has curled back the dog's upper lips to show its snarl, a very realistic touch.

The coatimundi pot. One of my favorite pieces in the museum was this double pot, with a spout at one end and a coatimundi holding its snout at the other. The late Preclassic Kaminaljuyu (250 BC - 250 AD) artist must have had a lot of fun making this one. The coatimundi is a relative of the racoon, but with a much longer snout. They are charming little animals that swarm in packs along the jungle floors of southern Mexico and Guatemala. This one seems to be saying to himself "what have I done!?" In the mid-16th Century, Bishop Landa noted that Maya women raised an animal called chic (coatimundi) as a pet and that "they leave nothing which they do not root over and turn upside down." That sounds just like the coatimundi I have seen in action.

This completes my posting on the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. I hope I have given you a feel for the art and artistry of Guatemala's ancient Maya. In my next posting, I will show you the modern market town of Chichicastenango where you will see beautiful examples of present day Maya art and artistry. I always welcome feedback, and if you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, April 18, 2011

Guatemala Part 2a: Maya rulers & religion

Detail of Maya altar at Guatemala's Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología. We visited the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology during our brief stay in Guatemala City as part of our Caravan Tour of the country. This is a spectacular museum, with displays and artifacts representing all the major archaeological sites in Guatemala, and all of the stages of Maya civilization's development. In addition, there was a knockout display of textiles and Maya traditional clothing styles. The altar shown above, and also later in this posting, was one of my favorite pieces. The craft, realism, and sensitivity of the stone work was amazing. In this detail, you can see every fingernail, every stray wisp of hair, and the jewelry and finery of a noble figure of the time. The figure is carrying on an animated conversation with another different but equally detailed noble. Their expressions and gestures are lively and realistic. In addition, every available surface was covered with Maya hieroglyphic text, beautiful in itself. For a map of Guatemala City showing how to find the museum, click here.

Because the museum's displays were so extensive, I got a huge number of wonderful photos. After agonizing over choosing which to use, I decided to do two postings rather than one. The first will focus on the ruling class, religion, the Maya Codex, and artistic representations of the human face. The second will cover day-to-day life, with pottery, tools, objects of personal adornment, and artifacts which artfully use human and animal representations. Woven through both postings will be an italicized account of Pre-Columbian Maya history in Guatemala.

Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología

The National Museum is sparkling clean and very well arranged. Jorge, our tour director, gave us a walking tour through the main exhibits, then left us to wander on our own. I like the solo wandering best because it is difficult to take photos and follow a tour. Not only do I miss out on the tour monologue, but too many people get in the middle of my photos.

Archaeologists believe the first humans arrived in what is now Guatemala as early as 18,000 BC. The earliest settlements were by hunter-gatherers known as Paleo-Indians in about 6500 BC. Pollen samples of cultivated maize (corn) have been dated as early as 3500 BC. Ceramic pottery was in use as early as 2500 BC in lowland settlements on the Pacific Coast and the northern area known as Petén. Between 2000 BC and 400 BC, people in the mountain valley around present-day Antigua were using pottery showing that they had trade relations with people on the Pacific Coast.

Statue of a Maya warrior-noble. This piece was one of two guarding the main entrance of the museum. Although it was carved by a modern artist, it faithfully represents what such a Maya warrior-noble would have worn and how he would have carried himself. His headdress would have been made of multicolored feathers. The object in his right hand is a wood and jade hand-axe, a formidable weapon against anything but the steel armor worn by the conquistadors. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the young officer under Hernán Cortéz who wrote "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico" had great respect for the skill, discipline, and bravery of the indigenous warriors he fought. After the Conquest, Diaz del Castillo spent the last part of his life in Guatemala where he wrote his History and where the original is now kept.

Archaeologists have divided the time between these early settlements and the Spanish Conquest into three broad eras. The Preclassic (2000 BC-250 AD), Classic (250 AD-900 AD), and Postclassic (900-1520 AD). It is also worth noting that archaeology is a constantly developing field. New discoveries regularly change our understanding of different periods, and the cultures involved. The Olmecs have long been considered the "mother of Mesoamerican cultures". However, recent discoveries in Monte Alto (Pacific Coast of Guatemala) show a culture distinct from the Olmecs which may even pre-date them as the first complex culture of Mesoamerica. The Olmecs, great traders and travelers, definitely had an impact on the ancient Maya culture in a number of areas, and in Retalhuleu (southwest Guatemala) we find the only ancient city in the Americas with clearly Mayan and Olmec features.

Circular courtyard of the National Museum. The museum is itself architecturally beautiful. In the center is a round courtyard, open to the sky. Behind the pillars ringing the edge stand incredibly intricate stelae. Such sculpted stone shafts rise as high as 35 feet and weigh as much as 60 tons in sites like Quiriguá, but are smaller at the museum. They were used as historical monuments, and announcements of accessions to the throne and great victories. Stelae were closely associated with the concept of divine kingship.

Recent discoveries at a Preclassic site called El Mirador (600 BC-300 BC), on the northern border between Guatemala and Mexico, show a far greater level of civilization than anyone imagined existed in the Preclassic era. La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador contains a volume of over 2,800,000 cubic meters, making it one of the largest in the entire world. The vast number of structures at the site indicate the population of this city may have been greater than any other in the Americas. Archaeologists working at the site believe the Maya in this area organized the Kan Kingdom in 1500 BC, the first political state in the Americas. The kingdom included 26 cities connected by broad, raised, limestone and stucco highways called sacbeob that cut arrow-straight through the dense jungle.

Maya kingdoms and their rulers and religion

A Maya ruler arrives for a temple ceremony. The museum has a number of small displays like this to help visitors visualize life in ancient Maya times. Here, a ruler is borne by slaves carrying his litter into a small plaza. Awaiting him are a variety of feathered and jeweled nobles and servants. One blows a long horn in greeting. Waiting at the top of the temple steps sits the priest of the temple. Maya civilization was not an empire in the same way that Teotihuacan, or the Toltecs, or the Aztecs had empires. Maya power was dispersed among city-states, each ruled by a divinely-sanctioned dynasty of kings.

Classic era Maya civilization in Guatemala was centered in the Petén area in the northern pan-handle of the country. Petén is a huge, flat or gently-rolling lowland area, with a limestone base and covered by thick jungle. In the approximate center is Lago Petén Itza. Most of the western border with Mexico is set by the winding course of the Usumacinta River. The eastern border with Belize is simply a straight north-south line through the jungle, as is the east-west line of the northern border with Mexico. Of course, none of these borders would have meant anything to the ancient Maya. Numerous rivers cut through the Petén, in addition to the Usumacinta on the west, making it much better watered than the Yucatan Peninsula which is Petén's northern extension. Classic era Maya cities are thickly distributed throughout the Petén. Tikal, perhaps the largest and greatest of all Classic Maya cities is located about a 1 hour drive to the northeast from the modern city of Flores on the shore of  Lago Petén Itza.

El Cargador, an Olmec-style stela from the Preclassic era. Modern-day politicians habitually hark back to "the forefathers" to support their own legitimacy. The early Maya were no different. The stela above was created some time between 400 BC and 200 BC by an early Preclassic ruler. He ordered the sculptor to use a style that melded Olmec with Maya. The Olmec civilization had ended by 400 BC and was already looked upon as "the good old days". Then, about 150 AD, near the end of the Preclassic era, another ruler named Tak'alik Ab'aj unearthed the stela and reused it to connect himself to the ancient, almost-mythical-by-now, Olmec civilization. Talk about recycling!

The great city of El Mirador was overwhelmed by the military power of the newly ascendant Tikal right about this time. The Classic era of Maya civilization ran from about 200 AD to 800 AD. Art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, and literature flowered. The Classic era's geography centered on Tikal, the largest city, but extended from the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico to northern Honduras and from Guatemala's Pacific Coast to the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Politically, it was not an empire, but was more like ancient Greece, with competing city-states alternately warring and trading with one another.

Sitting in solitary splendor, a Maya king gazes out from centuries past. Wearing an elaborate headdress, and a richly embroidered cape thrown over his shoulders, this Maya ruler exudes power and confidence. Of course, that is exactly the image that stelae are supposed to present to the world, sort of a billboard for the Big Guy. Most billboards don't last 1,500 years, however.

In the Classic Maya world, Tikal was contemporaneous with Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, and Uxmal in Yucatan, Mexico, among others. The cities of the Classic Maya world would have been in contact with each other through trade and sometimes warfare. In addition, they were in contact with the other great civilizations outside the Maya world such as Monte Alban of the Zapotecs in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Teotihuacan, just north of present-day Mexico City. In fact, Teotihuacan artifacts such as censers (incense burners) found at Tikal were on display at the museum. There is also evidence that a Teotihuacan prince named K'ak'Sih ("Fire-born") became ruler of Tikal during the Classic period, and died there in 402 AD. 

Magnificent throne from the Maya city of Piedras Negras. The face on the left side of the back of the throne is the same as in the first picture in this posting. Aside from the gorgeous carving, the most interesting aspect of the throne is that the back of it is actually the large face of a supernatural being. The holes around the two small faces are the eyes and in between is the nose. The hieroglyphs that cover the front and legs tell the story of the enthronement and succession of various kings of Piedras Negras. The whole throne, beginning with the two nobles conversing so animatedly, is a masterwork of grace and technique.

The throne was created in the late Classic period at the western Petén city of Piedras Negras on the Usumacinta River. Piedras Negras was an important independent city state occupied from the mid-7th Century BC to 850 AD. Its position on the Usumacinta was strategically important both for trade and for warfare. Piedras Negras was allied with the city of Yaxchilan, about 40k (20 mi) up the river in what is now Chiapas, Mexico. Piedras Negras' greatest period was from 400 AD to about 810 AD. At its peak, 50,000 people may have lived in or around the city. One of the unique artistic aspects of Piedras Negras are the existence of "artists' signatures" on some monuments that have enabled the identification individual artists who did various work.

The king and his captives. Above, a ruler sits cross legged on a low stool while two men, bound at the wrists, kneel before him. From their headdresses and earrings, they appear to be captured nobles. Both men seem to be earnestly supplicating the ruler, while he points, rather disdainfully, at the captive on the left. The small dot just in front of the ruler's nose indicates speech. The men look anxious, and should, since their fate is almost certainly sacrifice. Among the variety of reasons a Maya ruler might go to war, the capture of nobles, or even a rival king, for sacrifice stood out. Decapitation was often the method used. Battles were fought twice, once for real, and once as a elaborate ceremony with the live captives paraded before their final act. 13 Rabbit, the king of the northern Honduras city of Copán, lost his life in just this way. His rival, the king of Quiriguá in nearby Guatemala, captured and executed him, a disaster for Copán.

Things began to fall apart in 600 AD, when all the temples and elite palaces in Teotihuacan were torched. The common people stuck around for another 150 years, but by 750 AD, the capital of that great empire stood empty. Monte Alban lasted a bit longer, but by 900 AD, its day was over too. Palenque and the other cities of the Chiapas highlands were ruins after 800 AD. Tikal and the great cities of the Maya heartland of Petén followed suit, and before long stood silent as the jungle enveloped them.

Playing "top dog" over a big cat. The stela above is a masterpiece of political propaganda. The ruler appears to be dancing, with one foot raised and his arms swaying. Underneath his feet lies a jaguar, looking up at the ruler with respectful awe. The jaguar is the largest and most powerful cat in the Western Hemisphere. In the world, only the African lion and Indian tiger are larger. To the ancient Maya he represented power, agility, hunting skill, bravery, and a connection with another world. Jaguars hunt at night and the Maya believed night and day are two different worlds. The day is the place of the earth and the living, the night is the world of the spirits and the ancestors.  By doing his "happy feet" jig above the supine--and obedient--jaguar, the ruler is portraying himself as all powerful. However, in the late Classic era, things were deteriorating, with droughts and failing crops caused in part by deforestation and overpopulation. Wars and uprisings were increasing. The common people were losing faith. As Shakespeare said, the ruler "doth protest too much".

 After about 800 AD, Mesoamerica entered a period called the Postclassic which was similar to the Dark Ages in Europe. Warfare between the remnants of great states raged over resources. A militarized state called the Toltec empire arose with a lust for war, barbarity, and human sacrifice that was almost Nazi-like. Maya who had adopted Toltec modes of warfare seized northern Yucatan cities like Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan. Archaeologists call them "Mexicanized Maya." This Postclassic period includes the Aztecs, who were a late part of the waves of Chichimec invaders from the north. The earlier waves had brought down even the Toltecs. The Aztecs, who greatly admired the Toltecs, went on to found a brilliant civilization of their own. The dark side of Aztec civilization was human sacrifice on an industrial scale. And then came the ultimate holocaust, the Spanish Conquest. By the time Hernán Cortés passed through Guatemala in the 1520s, the Classic era Maya cities had been lost deep in the jungle for 7 centuries.

Maya Religion

One of the supports for a late Classic altar at Piedras Negras. This huge, rather grumpy-looking stone monster head supported a temple altar at Piedras Negras about 790 AD. It would no doubt inspire the requisite degree of awe among those who approached. Maya societies were theocratic, that is to say the kings were also high priests and considered divine in themselves. The chief god was Hunab Ku, creator of the world. Another incarnation of Hunab Ku was Itzamna, lord of the heavens, and of day and night. He brought rain and was the patron of medicine and writing. Itzamna was worshiped by the priests and was the patron of royal dynasties. Two gods important to common people were Yum Kaax, god of maize (corn) and Chac who was actually four gods in one. Chac was responsible for rain and there was one Chac for each of the 4 cardinal directions. The rainbow god Ix Chel was responsible for healing, childbirth, and weaving, areas of special concern to women. There was even the god Ixtab, who saw to it that suicides went to a special heaven. In addition, each day, month, and year was controlled by special gods. All this was almost as complicated as Christianity, with its Trinity and pantheon of innumerable saints, angels, and Old Testament prophets.

Kneeling priest carries a censer in his left hand. He may be sprinkling something with his right. Every  important ritual involved burning copal incense in devices called censers. Some were small and relatively simple like the hand-held one above. Others were large and incredibly elaborate. They have been found everywhere from temple steps, to caves, to the insides of pyramids. Censers were often associated with rulers and rulership. Copal, or pom as the Maya call it, is a very aromatic tree resin that has been used from Olmec times until today. While visiting churches in remote Guatemalan villages, we found Maya women burning copal on the front steps. Other expressions of worship included feathered banners hung from doorways, and dances by men and women in the plaza wearing feathers and bells and accompanied by drums, whistles, rattles, flutes, and wood trumpets like that in the temple scene shown earlier in this posting. Participants often took hallucinogenic mushrooms, or smoked strong tobacco to produce similar effects. Such experiences were also produced through pain, by self-piercing the tongue or genitals with sharp spines. Myself, I'd go with the mushrooms.

Ball game marker from Kaminaljuyu, associated with a tomb. Made of volcanic basalt, it is similar to those found in Teotihuacan, a further demonstration of the influence of that far-away trading empire. The ball game had a religious significance throughout Mesoamerica. At least in some areas, the game was considered a re-enactment of the victory of the Hero Twins over the Lords of the Underworld, part of the Maya creation myth. The ball game was also associated with human sacrifice, but it is not clear whether the losers or the winners were sacrificed, nor what the actual rules of the game were. It is known that the players used a hard rubber ball, ranging in size from a grapefruit to smaller than a soccer ball. In some courts, there were stone rings set in the walls through which the ball must pass to score. Players wore helmets and leather padding around their waists and hips. Relief carvings at ball courts indicate that the use of hands or feet to move the ball was forbidden. Nearly every ancient Mesoamerican city we have visited, whether Maya or not, has possessed at least one ball court, and sometimes several.

Recreation of a Maya tomb. Archaeologists working with the museum created a display showing a Maya tomb they had found. The body is laid out full length on some sort of matting. Nearby are "grave goods", typically food and other small items to help the departed on his journey to the underworld. Covering the walls are paintings related to death and the underworld. The Maya deeply respected death and thought that certain forms of death were more noble, such as that occurring in battle, suicide, or childbirth. Such people would immediately be transported to heaven. Evil and guilty people suffered during their stay in Xibalba, the Underworld. The body in tombs often had maize in its mouth, both as food for the journey and because maize represents rebirth. Other favorites for placement in the mouth were jade or stone beads to be used as currency in the passage through Xilbalba. Often graves were located in or near caves, which were considered entrances to Xilbalba. Red was considered the color of death and the bodies were often covered by cinnabar, a reddish mineral.

The famous Maya Codex

A long section of an original Maya codex was on display. A codex is a folding book made from the bark of a wild fig or Amate tree. The Maya called the paper from the bark huun. The brown lines separating panels in the photo above are crease marks from the folds in the ancient and very fragile document. Huun was developed around the 5th Century AD, and was superior to the papyrus paper used by the Romans of the same era. The codices were written by special scribes under the sponsorship of the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey God. Their subjects included religion, astronomy, and Maya histories reaching back 800 years or more.

Detail of Maya codex: battling a serpent. In the panel above, a half-human, half-monster wrestles with a huge blue snake. The half-human figure wields a Maya battle ax with a jade blade as he prepares to smite the snake. He appears to be standing in a shower of water, and the snake is also associated with such showers in other panel. Four horizontal rows of Maya hieroglyphs cross the panel from left to right. Such hieroglyphs on codices and on stone monuments baffled European explorers and later archaeologists for hundreds of years. Some thought they were simply decorative elements. Others thought they were picture-writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs, and still others thought they might be purely phonetic. Many thought they could never be decyphered. Finally, beginning in the 1970s, the code was cracked by a team led by an archaeological artist named Linda Schele. They realized that the script was a combination of picture-writing and phonetics, and that there was still a connection with modern Maya languages. Suddenly a window swung open on the ancient world of the Maya. Many beliefs about them underwent drastic changes, including the one that they were non-violent mystics chiefly engaged in stargazing.

Codex detail: more snakes and monsters. In another panel, the snake on the right appears to wear a top hat while pursuing a couple of the monster figures. The monster figure in the middle is upside down, which usually represents someone dead or at least defeated. Score one for the snake. Both the defeated monster and the one on the left are carrying Maya battle axes. The snake is again shown under what appears to be a shower of water. There was no interpretation at the display so I am only reporting my observations and impressions. Tragically, almost all the Maya codices were seized and burned by Catholic priests shortly after the Conquest. One of the leading figures in this tragic episode was Bishop Diego de Landa who organized a huge bonfire in the Yucatan in 1562. The conversions of the Maya had not been going well, and many slipped back into the old religions. Landa felt that the existence of the codices encouraged these desertions. When the Spanish priests lit the bonfire, de Landa and the others were astonished to see the anguish of the Maya, as they watched their entire history and culture go up in flames. Only a few codices survived, including this one in the National Archaeological Museum.

Human faces in Maya art

Late Classic Stucco head from ancient Ceibal in the Petén. Moulded sometime between 600 AD and 900AD, this is one of the many unusual busts I found in the museum. It actually struck me as rather modern-looking. The Maya artists were members of the elite, sometimes minor sons of the ruler. They made stucco through mixing burned limestone with an organic adhesive from a local tree called Holol, adding another mineral called Sascab to complete the mix. Sometimes the human representations were of actual people, and this may have been one.

Stone fragment from a late Classic censer from La Joyanca in Petén. Dated between 600 AD - 925 AD, this face is unusual because it portrays a man with a very distinct goatee. Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere generally have less facial hair than Europeans or others of the Eastern Hemisphere. I once got a rather indignant comment from a person taking exception to my statement that some of the Olmec carvings show bearded men. The person was convinced that this was impossible. And yet, how do you argue with a sculptural fragment like that shown above? Clearly some Maya grew beards.

Stylized stone profile was associated with a tomb. The closed eye and relaxed face seem to indicate a person asleep, or perhaps dead. I have seen very similar profiles at Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico. In that case, the profile was associated with the ball game. Since the Zapotecs of Monte Alban and the Maya regularly traded, there may indeed be some connection. Of course, since there was no sign with this profile, the above is only my own educated speculation.

Stucco mask of the Classic era (250 AD - 925 AD) from Cancuen, in Petén. Again, a rather realistic stucco face. I believe this may be a mask, given the eye-holes. The Maya wore masks during important events, including everything from births to battle. The most elaborate masks tended to be used to cover the faces of the dead, such as the famous jade mask of Palenque ruler Pakal. Sometimes they showed the faces of ordinary people, such as the one above, in weddings and to commemorate births and deaths.

This concludes the first of two parts on Guatemala's National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the museum and of Guatemala's ancient Maya history. I always appreciate feedback, and if you'd like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim