Sunday, May 13, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 9: Mérida's Museum of Anthropology and History

The gaping mouth of a large plumed serpent confronts museum visitors near the entrance. The first visit Carole and I made to the Paseo de Montejo (see previous posting) was to visit the Museum of Anthropology and History, located in the Palacio Cantón. The plumed serpent is a recurrent symbol in Mesoamerica, and is very old, possibly originating with the Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC), known as the "Mother of Cultures". The source of the stone sculpture above was not identified, but it probably comes from Post Classic era (900 AD - 1500 AD). During this period, the "Mexicanized Maya" invaded and conquered the Yucatan. One of these groups was the Itza tribe, which came from the Maya enclaves on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, eventually founding Chichen Itza (Well of the Itza) in Yucatan. The Itza were thoroughly imbued with the military tactics and organization of Central Mexico's Toltec culture, including their fierce culture of death.  Many architectural elements of Chichen Itza closely resemble the architecture of Tollan, the capital of the Toltec Empire, located in the modern city of Tula in Hidalgo State.

Palacio Cantón, site of the Museum of Anthropology and History

Palacio Cantón was finished in 1911, just as the Revolution was beginning. Its owner was General Francisco Cantón, a wealthy owner of haciendas and railroads and a political supporter of dictator Porfirio Diaz. It is one of the best examples of the magnificent palacios that hacienda owners built along Paseo de Montejo. The Revolution and its aftermath swept away the genteel culture of wealthy sisal producers like General Cantón. In 1966, the Palacio Cantón was converted into a museum to house an outstanding collection of Maya artifacts and to help promote knowledge and understanding about the ancient culture.

How the Maya made a living

Unusual limestone sculpture showing two hunters with a slain deer. The limestone sculpture is carved in a ring with three dimensional figures. Hunting was an important source of protein for the Maya. The great jungles of Yucatan were and are full of animals, including deer, jaguar, armadillo, coatimundi, and many birds and smaller animals. Animals such as deer could be used not only for food but for leather products such as sandals and belts and to bind stone and wood together into tools and weapons. Leather goods could be used locally, or for trade. In addition to hunting, the Maya raised domesticated animals such as dogs, birds, and bees. The dogs were used for hunting, and sometimes for food. Turkeys were the primary avian animal domesticated for food. Other birds, such as parrots, were raised for their feathers. The Maya raised bees in hives made from hollow wooden logs. The resulting honey and wax were used not only for domestic consumption but for trade. Ah Mucen Cab was the god of honey.

Tools and building materials. The Maya crafted stone axes and other tools from materials such as obsidian, flint, granite, limestone, quartzite, and basalt. Above, a typical Maya hand axe is shown along with other tools. Materials used in construction include limestone (both for building blocks and ground up for plaster), wood, leaves and palm fronds, and yucca fibre. Until very late in their history, the Maya had no access to metal tools, so they used harder stone like  basalt to work softer materials such as limestone. It is remarkable to me that the Maya could raise fabulous temples, pyramids, and palaces using such limited tools. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had access to metal tools, as well as draft animals and the wheel. Maya accomplishments are all the more impressive for the lack of all these.

Cutting tools could be used for peaceful or warlike activities. Above are arrowheads and knife blades along with some unidentified tools at the bottom. Cutting tools were made from materials that could easily be flaked into sharp edges such as flint and chert. Use of obsidian was more rare because it had to be imported and was therefore expensive. Archaeologists have demonstrated that flaked tools can be created in short order if the proper materials are at hand. Access to such raw materials assisted the rise of important city-states and was often the cause of warfare. Because they were so highly valued, as well as relatively small and light, finished cutting tools were traded throughout the Maya area, and also with the rest of Mesoamerica. Ek Chuab was the patron god of traders and merchants, who were often members of the upper class. The traders, known as P'polom, often burned copal incense to ask for their patron god's protection while on the road. However, the traders also carried arms to defend themselves and their goods should Ek Chuab prove inattentive. While doing business in a town, they could stay at public houses provided for that purpose. A mural at the ancient city of Cacaxtla, north of Puebla, shows a merchant/trader standing next to his backpack full of goods.

Many other materials were also used. These included bone and shell for awls, needles, hooks, and arrow or spear heads. Various fibres were used to weave belts and fish nets. Bone and shell were also used for decorative purposes. Recent discoveries in the Petén region of Guatemala, just south of the Yucatan, indicate that Classic-era elites, up to and including the family of the king, were involved in the production of bone implements. Archaeologists had previously assumed that such activities would have been delegated to artisans employed by the elites. However, the evidence seems clear that the nobility themselves were directly and intimately involved, with noble women doing the initial preparation work and their men putting on the finishing touches.

Cotton was used extensively. Above are some of the tools used for spinning cotton fibre into thread. From woven cotton cloth, the Maya made robes and cloaks and a variety of other garments. These were often embroidered and beautifully decorated with feathers incorporated into the weave. The little clay statue standing guard over the tools wears a cloak and skirt typical of what might be created from thread like this. The best of the garments were created for the nobility, or for trade, and sometimes for the tribute demanded by powerful city states from their weaker neighbors. I was particularly interested by the spinning device shown above because I had seen a nearly identical tool in northern Puebla State. A Nahuatl woman I met there was using the same 1500 year old technology to create garments for her family. Ixchel was the goddess of weaving, and it was an activity often carried out by elite groups. Unfortunately, very little of the beautiful cloth we see in ancient wall paintings or sculptures survived centuries of the moist Yucatan climate.

In the Post-Classic period, tools and other objects made of copper began to appear. Above are a selection of axe heads. At the top of the photo are small copper bells. In addition to use as clothing decorations, bells like these were also used as a medium of exchange since the Maya had no metal coins. The manufacture of copper tools and other objects was still in its infancy and the copper would have been relatively soft and unable to hold an edge as well as obsidian. Had the Spanish not arrived when they did, the Maya may eventually have discovered the advantages of adding tin to copper to make bronze, a much harder material. One fact that may have inhibited this development was that copper was not produced locally, but had to be imported from Western Mesoamerica. Since the transport of copper ore was not feasible, due to the lack of draft animals, traders could only bring finished objects like those shown above.

Household containers

Maya pottery was used for a variety of purposes. These included food storage and preparation, eating, ceremonial activities, and grave goods. The potters used a variety of different clays and techniques to produce different colors and tones. For painted images, they used many natural materials. Lime, from Yucatan's abundant limestone,  produced white paint when mixed with resins. The famous "Maya Blue" was produced using indigo mixed with a mineral called attapulguita. From the logwood tree, they produced black, purple, dark grey, bluish and greenish tones. Limonite (an oxide found in caves) was used to produce yellow. Some red coloring came from crushing cochineal insects found on the nopal cactus. An even more vivid red came from cinnabar, which had to be imported to the Yucatan Peninsula through the trade networks.

A warrior stands ready for combat on this pottery piece. Until I looked closely at the ferociously grinning monster on the side of the vase, I didn't realize that it was actually the head dress of a warrior, whose face can be seen peering from the monster's mouth. The muscular shoulder and arm convey great physical power. On his chest he appears to be wearing an interlocking garment, possibly some form of ancient Maya armor. I am always impressed by the skill of Maya artists.

A carved stone bowl shows a fierce struggle. Two figures on the side of the bowl appear to be struggling over the body of a third. The figure on the right has human features, but the one on the left has the beak of a bird. The one they are struggling over looks a bit like the space alien from the movie "E.T." Unlike the rigid compositions of other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Toltecs, the Maya are noted for their portrayals of fluid movement and natural postures.

The anthropomorphic figure of a bird-man makes up this pot's decoration. the bird's feathers, wings, and legs are etched into the sides of the pot, while a human face with a rather sinister grin gazes upward. Maya artists created many works with anthropomorphic (human-animal) or zoomorphic (mixture of different animals) features.

Portrayals of human figures

A statue of an elite Maya woman stands near a zoomorphic pot. The woman, whose hair is done up in a bun on the back of her head, wears large earrings and a long strand of beads. The earrings and beads would probably have been made of jade in real life. She is dressed in a loose, full-length robe or dress that hangs to the ground. I found this a bit odd, given the warm climate. In her hands, she carries a spindle, wound with spun cotton. The elaborateness of her costume marks her as a member of the elite. From the side of the pot to the right, the face of a rabbit extends, its nose almost twitching with life.

Statue of a ruler, from the Court of 1000 Columns, Chichen Itza. Here you can see the rigid posture which shows the influence of the Toltecs of Central Mexico. The statue came from the structure called the Court of the 1000 columns, across the plaza from the famous Castillo (Temple of Kulkulcan). Striking similarities between Chichen Itza and the Toltec capital of Tollan are apparent, but the reason for this is a matter of considerable dispute.

Head of a nobleman from the ancient city of Kabah. The city of Kabah lies to the south of Mérida, in the Puuc region, an area with a large number of beautiful Classic Era Maya ruins including the famous city of Uxmal. The figure above wears an elaborate head dress with a large emblem on the front showing the face of a warrior peering from between the jaws of a creature. The face of the stern-looking nobleman carries ritual scars and what appears to be a "handlebar" mustache. The long strands extending down from the head dress may be part of the apparel, or may possibly represent long hair.

Ping pong, anyone? There were a couple of these arms on display from two different statues. In both cases, they held what appeared be ancient ping pong paddles. More likely, the object was a fan, useful in the hot muggy climate.

Personal adornment

An artist's conception of a Maya nobleman. He stands pointing at the viewer, a bit like the old "Uncle Sam Wants You" posters from World Wars I & II. His hair is done up so that it sprouts from tubes. He wears jade earrings and a large jade necklace with a pendant, as well as thick jade bracelets. While his upper body is naked except for jewelry, wrapped around his lower torso is a sarong-like, cotton garment held up by an embroidered belt. From the belt on the front of his sarong hangs a long, elaborately embroidered piece of fabric.  On his feet are leather sandals.

Below a plaster mask is displayed a collection of jade, coral, and bone jewelry. Earrings can be seen to the left and right of the mask. Below is a complicated jade and coral necklace and intricately-carved pendant not unlike the one in the artist's picture. Surrounding the necklace is a collection of small objects that may be buttons or other clothing decorations.

Coral and jade necklace. The long necklace is comprised of small pieces of red and white coral strung together. At the ends of the string are large round beads of jade. Something like this would only have been worn by a person of high status.

A bone button shows off Maya skill at carving jewelry. This button is not much more than 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) in diameter. Some Maya craftsman spent a lot of time and effort to achieve this intricate carving. It is startling to think he very likely managed this with no metal tools.

Feathers were an important component of a well-dressed Maya's wardrobe. Above are displayed feathers from a variety of different birds. The Yucatan is home to a huge variety of birdlife, providing great scope to the sartorial aspirations of Maya of both sexes. Feathers were also important items for trade. Those of the macaw, a large multicolored parrot, have been found in the Anasazi ruins of Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. In return, the Anasazi sent down turquoise for jewelry. The chemical composition of the turquoise has allowed scientists to identify the exact place of origin of  particular pieces of jewelry. The distances the feathers and turquoise traveled in their opposite directions are breathtaking. For example, from Tucson, Arizona to Mérida, Yucatan, the distance is 2463.1kilometers (1530.5 miles). Keep in mind, also, that the ancient Maya region extended as far south as Honduras and El Salvador.

Music and dancing

Gettin' down in the old days. This bas relief shows a couple of Maya energetically dancing. Once the Maya glyph ak'ot (dance) was finally deciphered, it became apparent that dancing was extremely important in Maya society. All levels of society participated, from the king and his court down to the lowliest commoners. It is believed that dancing was enhanced by the use of hallucinogenic drugs so that the person performing could be transformed into their wayob, or soul mate. The wayob were depicted through the masks and costumes the dancers wore. The purposes of dancing could include celebrating victories in war, the creation of sacred space, or achieving the release of the souls of the dead from the rulers of Xibalba (the underworld). While much of the dancing was for Maya ceremonies and religious rituals, I suspect that they also had a good time with it.

Dancers were accompanied by musicians such as these flutists. The plate above shows two musicians who appear to be blowing long flutes while they dance. Other instruments typically used included whistles and conch trumpets, as well as drums of various kinds. The slim, lithe flutists above are depicted in black, possibly from body paint, with animal figures attached to their hips and elaborate head dresses. The ends of the flutes are surrounded by circles with lines extending out from them, possibly indicating sound.

Representations of animals

Bas relief of a jaguar procession. This sculpture came from Chichen Itza and is nearly identical to another found on a wall behind the Temple of the Warriors at the Toltec capital of Tollan. Jaguars are the largest predator in the jungles of Mexico and Central America and are only exceeded in size by African lions and Indian tigers. They are very powerful and hunt at night, which to the Maya indicated a connection with the underworld of Xibalba. Jaguars had been important symbols in Mesoamerica since the Olmec times. The Jaguar and Eagle military orders were very important both at Tollan and Chichen Itza, and in both places are depicted eating human hearts.

An anthropomorphic frog serves as a small container. This little fellow is adorned with a necklace, bracelets and anklets. Frog images were important to the Maya because the amphibians are closely associated with water, and will suddenly appear when the rains come and their mating cycle is triggered. Every society based on agriculture pays great attention to the rain cycle, but Yucatan's ancient Maya were especially conscious of its importance. There are no above-ground rivers in the Yucatan Peninsula. The limestone just under the soil is very porous and rainwater passes quickly through to underground lakes and rivers. In ancient times, these could only be accessed through caves and cenotes (sinkholes) found in certain areas. Lacking these, the Maya of the Puuc region developed ingenious water collection channels and constructed large underground storage chambers called chaltúnes. They also used whatever supernatural resources they had, including the frog totems.

Limestone head of a plumed serpent, located outside the museum. Yucatan abounds with snakes. So far, 71 species have been identified, 12 of them venomous. During our visit to the ruins in the Puuc region, our guide cautioned us to be very careful as we moved around, and told us that nobody in his right mind walks around much at night there. Snakes, therefore, are obviously important to the Maya, and have been since far back into pre-hispanic times. It should be no surprise that the Maya readily adopted the plumed serpent, known to the civilizations of Central Mesoamerica as Quetzalcoatl, as a major god, renaming him Kulkulkan. In fact, the Maya already worshiped a war god named Waxaklahun Ubah Kan (War Serpent), so the transition was probably not difficult to make.

This completes Part 9 of my NW Yucatan series. In Part 10, we will continue at the museum with artifacts demonstrating other aspects of the ancient Maya culture. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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