Monday, November 13, 2017

Eccentric Flints

This eccentric flint of two beings, the smaller one looks like
it's getting a piggyback ride. It comes from Guatemala, and
was made in the 600s AD to 700s AD. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The ancient Maya (and other Mesoamericans) had a practice of working stones including chalcedony, chert/flint, and obsidian into items  that don't appear to have been tools. Possibly connected with lightning -- the Maya may have thought flint was made from lightning strikes -- these carved stones were sacred items. The stones -- called eccentric flints, eccentrics, and eccentric lithics -- seem to have been the most popular in both the central and southern lowlands, during the Classic Period

Types of Shapes
Also from the Met.
This eccentric flint
comes from Mexico,
sometime before contact
with the Spanish.
The ancient Maya shaped eccentric flints with pieces of stone bigger than what you would use for a tool. The Maya also chose to shape these images as though you were looking at them from the side.

Some of their eccentric flints look like their gods -- K'awiil, a god who seems to have a connection to lightning, was a preferred choice -- and others look like rulers; there are also ones that have more than one being. (One of the shape that the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology mentions is head-shaped eccentric flints. From their description, these seem to count as part of the ruler and god shapes.) There are also eccentric flints that look like animals, such as centipedes and scorpions. The Maya crafted eccentric flints that were just shapes as well.

There are some big eccentric flints that have a long piece that is called a stem -- which you might see called a tang -- coming straight down from the bottom of the part shaped to look like a god or ruler. (Though other sources this author has found don't say this, the SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology says that this kind of eccentric flint is leaf-shaped.)

The Maya put these carved stones in caches that archaeologists have found in elite graves and under stelae, among other locations. One theory says there were also certain eccentric flints that the ancient Maya used for bloodletting rituals.

There may have been a third use, at least for the big eccentric flints.The stems of big eccentric flints may have been for putting into a staff so that the part that looked like a god or ruler was on top of the staff. It's a possibility that the ancient Maya used this kind of scepter. A variation on this is that it may have been put into a staff and been a war-related item, like a battle standard -- or perhaps a weapon. 

Making Eccentric Flints
Making an eccentric flint was a very challenging project. No one is quite sure how the ancient Maya made them with the tools that they are known to have had. (Flaking off chips with a piece of something like a part of an antler or a piece of bone or limestone.) However they did it, the ancient Maya who knew how to make eccentric flints had some very special knowledge about stone working.


Sunday, November 12, 2017


Author's note: the images in this post come from the Project Gutenberg. The first one comes from the work titled "Queen Moo's Talisman" by Augustus Le Plongeon's wife Alice. The second image comes from "The Mayas, the Sources of Their History and Dr. Le Plongeon in Yucatan, His Account of Discoveries" by Stephen Salisbury, Jr.

Chacmools are statues carved in stone that look like man partly lying down. Peoples in Mesoamerica, including the ancient Maya -- at least in Guatemala's Quirigua and the state of Yucatan's Chichen Itza -- used these statues as part of their religion. You may find different spellings of the word chacmool when you look, such as chaacmol, chaac mool, chak mol, and chac mol.
Name Origin
Augustus Le Plongeon leaning
on the chacmool found on his

The name came from a man named Augustus Le Plongeon (1826 to 1908.) He and some others were excavating a platform on the site of Chichen Itza, and they came across a chacmool. Le Plongeon decided it was a statue was a statue of a prince and called it either "Chaac Mool" or "chaacmol." He thought this was the prince's name. (Or may have been told this name.) The source that says Le Plongeon chose "Chaac Mool" says it means "great/red jaguar paw." The source that says he chose "chaacmol" says Stephpen Salisbury Jr. changed it into chacmool when he wrote about Le Plongeon.
(Afterwards, a lot of people found out about the statue and were very happy about this statue being found -- it was an exciting find, culturally. Le Plongeon wanted to take the chacmool to an exposition called the Centennial Exposition (which was in Philadelphia.) However, the president he asked was replaced by Porfirio Diaz. Diaz sent some of the military to take it up to Mexico City's National Museum of Mexico.

The ancient Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula started to use chacmools in the Postclassic Period or the Terminal Classic, which was the last part of the Classic Period. A theory says that the ancient Maya were the first to start using chacmools. Another possibility is that another culture, the Toltecs, had come to the Yucatan Peninsula -- the cities are similar to each other in other ways too.

The idea was possibly to make them look like warriors that had been hurt or died. These carvings look like a man paused in the middle of a sit-up to watch something off to his side. Their arms are carved so it looks like they have knives tied to them, and their elbows are bent so it looks like they are holding themselves up with them. As for their heads, it was common for chacmools to be carved so it looked like they were wearing helmets or at least hats that look like helmets. And there's another important feature: they hold a disk/plate or bowl on their chests/stomachs.

Chacmools were -- or at least possibly were -- used as places to put offerings. (Human sacrifice may or may not have been a kind of offering connected to chacmools. No one knows for sure.) The ancient Maya who used chacmools put them in their temples, in a front room that led to another room that was bigger -- that is, their temples' antechambers.

Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey; 2016

"Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination 1820 - 1915"; R. Tripp Evans; 2004

"The A to Z of Ancient Mesoamerica" The A to Z Guide Series, No. 140; Joel W. Palka; 2000

Mesoweb Encyclopedia: chacmool

The Free Dictionary: Antechamber

"Augutus Le Plongeon (1826-1908): Early Mayanist, archaeologist, and photographer"; Lawrence G. Desmond, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Archaeology Mesoamerican Archive and Research Project Peabody Museum, Harvard University

"Cities of the Maya in Seven Epochs: 1250 B.C. to A.D. 1903"; Steve Glassman, Armando Anaya; 2011

Project Gutenberg: "The Mayas, the Sources of Their History and Dr. Le Plongeon in Yucatan, His Account of Discoveries"; Stephen Salisbury Jr.; 1877

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Wahys/Ways -- A Variety of Spirit Being

"Wahy" -- you say it like the question word "why"-- is a Classic Period word. (You may also come across places that spell it "way.") It is the name for a certain kind of demon or spirit being that it looks like ancient Maya believed in and thought some people could use. Other names you may come across for this being include alter ego, tona, co-essence, nagual, familiar, and spirit companion or even wahy demon and wahy creature.

When it came to appearance, wahys had a lot of diversity. For example, there were animals, skeletons and wahys made up of other animals -- this last type being a large part of the known images of wahys. Wahys' appearances seem to have limited the kinds of things they could do. Wahys whose form looked weak tended to be underlings. But wahys that looked strong got more impressive things to do.

So far, it looks like there were two types of wahy. One type was connected to dynasties. The second type may have been supernatural beings of diseases, with a different wahy for a each disease. (There's a variant on this that says the wahys represent diseases and other bad things.)

Who Owned Them
It looks like wahys were spirits that people like rulers, who had the right inborn ability, were able to keep inside their bodies and control. When asleep, wahys would come out of their owners -- using their mouths as a door -- to do things for them. And these people could get more than one wahy. 

It also looks like the Maya believed that if a wahy was hurt, the person who owned it died. Before dying, that person would become hurt just like the wahy had been.

Wahys in the first type mentioned in the last section could have been mascots for the dynasties that owned them. A different function they may have had was as a sort of protector of their dynasties. They may also have been used like the second type, the wahys who may be beings of diseases.

This second type of wahy was thought to hurt or kill their owners' enemies for them when their owners were sleeping. The ancient Maya may also have believed that if someone's wahy killed an enemy, then that wahy would become that person's wahy.

"Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: rituals of body and soul"; Andrew K. Scherer; 2015

Mesoweb: "The PARI Journal" Volume 14, No. 4: "Beans and Glyphs: A Possible IB Logogram in the Classic Maya Script"; Alexandre Tokovinine; 2014

"Lightning in the Andes and Mesoamerica: Pre-Columbian, Colonial, and Contemporary Perspectives"; John E. Staller, Brian Stross; 2013

Mesoweb: "The Updated Preliminary Classic Maya - English, English - Classic Maya Vocabulary of Hieroglyphic Readings"; Erik Boot; April 2009 (version 2009.01)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Collection: Vessel, Mythological Scene

Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography: Category Archives: "Maya Spooks"; David Stuart; October 26, 2012

Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography: "Excerpt from: David Stuart, 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics, Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings at Texas, Department of Art and Art History, UT-Austin, Austin.": "19. The Way Beings"

Monday, October 30, 2017

Natural Rubber -- An Ancient Resource

Centuries upon centuries before the invention of artificial rubber, ancient peoples in Mesoamerica learned how to make natural rubber using plants. While not the first to make rubber, as far as has been found, among these peoples was the ancient Maya, who used it in several ways.

The Tree They Used
So far, it looks like the ancient Maya, and the peoples in Mesoamerica generally, looked to Castilla elastica. You may also see it called other scientific names -- including C. lactiflua, Ficus gummifera, C. gummifera, and Castilla panamensis. However, a common name for it is the rubber tree.

The rubber tree grows around 33 or 65 to 100 or 164 feet tall, has gray-brown bark, flowers as well as fruits, and has very long leaves (around 8 to 18 inches long!) When the tree's trunk gets cut, a lot of white latex -- a kind of sap -- comes out, and it is this latex that is one of the most important ingredients for ancient Maya and Mesoamerican rubber.

Making Rubber
You make rubber tree latex solid just by cooking it down like you do for stew -- but that doesn't make very good rubber. So how did the ancient Maya make bouncy and strong rubber? They (and the peoples in Mesoamerica generally) may have made rubber by mixing juice from the vines of tropical white morning glories (Ipomoea alba.) The juice has sulfur in it, which affects how the latex's molecules are connected to each other.

One way the ancient Maya used their rubber was to make balls for the ballgame. The rubber balls the players used were as heavy as 6 to 10 pounds! (It's also understood there were lighter ones too. These balls had hollow interiors -- made by placing a skull in the middle.)

Vase from 600 AD to 900 AD that shows a ball game.
From this page on the Los Angeles
 County Museum of Art's site. 

But it wasn't just balls for the ballgame that the ancient Maya made rubber. They also burned it in incense burners/incensarios; and they burned it with copal, or copal and chicle tree latex too. They burned these substances as part of their religious rituals.

An incense burner made of ceramic.
It came from Guatemala and dates to the
400s AD to 500s AD. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The Ancient Maya of Mexico: Reinterpreting the Past of the Northern Maya Lowlands"; Geoffrey E. Braswell; 2012

"Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016

Trails of El Pilar: Rubber Tree

"Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Gillian P. Schultz; 2009

Swarthmore College: ENVS 02 Human Nature, Technology, and the Environment: "Advancements in Rubber Processing"; Michael J. Pieropan; February 28, 2006

The Free Dictionary: Vulcanize

"Encyclopedia Book of the Year 2011"; Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.; 2011

Michigan State University College of Social Science Department of Anthropology: Rise of Civilization:  Mayan Ball Game

USDA Plants Profile: Tropical White Morning-Glory

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute: Flora Barro Colorado Island: Castilla Elastica

"The Forest of the Lacandon Maya: An Ethnobotanical Guide"; Suzanne Cook; 2016

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Seated Figure (Incensario)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ancient Maya Beekeeping

Two copies of bee images -- one of which may be in front of a hive -- 
in the Madrid Codex,taken from "Animal Figures in the Maya 
Codices" (1910) with modification by the author.
That's right, the ancient Maya kept bees too! But they didn't keep honeybees, which belong to the genus Apis. Instead, the Maya back then raised one (or perhaps more)  bees from the Melipona genus -- made up of "stingless" bees, or bees without stingers that work. The history of this activity kept on even past the Conquest and into today -- its modern name is meliponiculture.

The Beginning
So far, it looks like the specific part of the Preclassic Period called the Late Preclassic is the oldest time that archaeologists know there were beekeepers among the ancient Maya. As to where it began in the Maya area, one possibility is a smaller area that included a part of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. Another source states that the first Maya keepers of stingless bees came from the Yucatan Peninsula.

As you read, the Maya kept at least one kind of stingless bee, these kinds of bees being species that cannot sting. The particular species that we know the ancient Maya kept from was Melipona beecheii. (They may have kept others species. In fact, one book used as a reference for this article said that they also raised species of the genus Trigona.)

Two common names and some spellings for M. beecheii are xunan kab/xunaan kaab/xunan cab and colelcab/kolil kab, which you may see translated as "royal lady bee," "lady bee," or other similar terms. For making hives, xunan kab only pick trees that have become hollow -- and the space in a tree has to be at least 12 inches or so across. They're known to be good pollinators of certain plants including vanilla, though they don't pollinate as many flowers when they're out and about as other bees in the same genus.

From what's understood, the ancient Maya kept their bees in hives that were hollowed out logs -- though some used other things, like limestone -- with the sides plugged up and with a hole on one long side as an entrance/exit. Archaeologists have found disks made of stone that they think were plugs for hives' short sides-- they've found this kind of disk in the Postclassic, Preclassic and Classic Periods. 

The ancient Maya took both honey and cerumen -- or wax -- from their bees. The ancient Maya used xunan kab wax as a sort of lighter fluid for their torches. However, this wax not only spits but smokes when you light it, so when it comes to burning solid pieces of wax, honeybee wax is better for burning.

As for the honey, it has a texture that is thinner than honey from honeybees (of which a popular variety is Apis mellifera.) Its color is also darker, and the flavor of it is not the same as honeybee honey. One way the ancient Maya used it was in their cooking, using it, for example, as an ingredient in chocolate drinks. Another way they used honey was for religious purposes: as an ingredient in a drink used in rituals called balche -- a fermented mixture of honey, balche/balché (Lonchocarpus longistylus) bark, and water -- and as an offering to gods. A third way they used honey was in medicinal practices -- like honeybee honey, xunan kab honey's chemical makeup includes hydrogen peroxide, which can kill bacteria.

It seems that the ancient Maya had more than one god of bees. But one that we know about is Ah Mucen Kab. (You may also see other spellings, such as "Mucen" given instead as "Mucan," "Musen," or "Muzen.")  the Madrid Codex, you can see pictures of bees, hives and gods next to beehives -- such as Itzamná (god D) -- in pages that you may see called the bee almanac. Archaeologists think they've found examples of beehives and an image of Ah Mucen Kab as parts of the design of an incense burner/icensario/censer (from Cozumel) that may have been made around 1450 AD.

On a related note, there's a theory that says the ancient Maya thought of one of the Hero Twins, Xbalanque (also known as Yax Balam) had a connection with bees.

Here's a 2011 video on the xunan kab (that I've also used as a reference) -- it includes some of what life is like for them and Maya beekeepers in modern times:


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ceiba: A Sacred Tree

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department
of Commerce. Taken by Maxfield Weiss, NOAA NMFS IA.
Two kinds of ceiba live where the Maya lived and live: Ceiba aesculifolia and Ceiba pentandra. Of the two, the species scientifically known as Ceiba pentandra is the one that it seems archaeologists think the ancient Maya held as a sacred tree. Let's look at the tree itself and what the ancient Maya may have believed about it.

This tree has a lot of names. For example, it has two other scientific names: Bombax pentandrum, Ceiba pentandra, and Eriodendron anfractuosum. And as for common names, it is also known as the white silk-cotton tree, bonga, ceibo, kapoctree, kapok tree, bongo and silk cotton tree.

Then there's the ancient Mayan name for the ceiba. It may be yáaxche' or ya'axche -- the first means "first tree," while the second one is "green/blue-green/blue tree." The common opinion, from the sources thus far found, seems to prefer the second name. (You may also see sources give the name/spelling of yaxche' as the ancient Mayan name for this tree.)
One way to draw what's thought to be the
ancient Maya name for ceiba. 

Ceibas rise around 65.6 and 131 feet to 164 feet tall -- some are even 200 feet tall! The tree has gray bark and has buttresses -- wedges around its base that help the tree keep from falling over. Its leaves are made up of stalks off of which smaller leaves grow -- the tree looses these leaves every year, starting in January and going until March.

Though not every year, when its loosing its leaves, the ceiba grows night-blooming flowers that are pollinated by creatures including bats and -- in the morning -- birds like hummingbirds. The flowers' color range includes beige, an extremely pale pink and white.

Another notable feature is inside the seed pods. There is a type of soft fiber in them -- which is called kapok silk -- in which are seeds. Kapok silk is like cotton, though not easy to spin, because it doesn't naturally stick to itself as well as cotton. For ceiba trees, the point of the silk is to have something that floats the seeds away from itself, so that ceibas may grow in other places. But for people -- possibly including the ancient Maya -- the silk is useful in other ways, such as for batting in cushions. (A little more on this substance in the next section.)

These trees also have a surprising feature -- spines shaped like cones can grow right out of their trunks. It's believed that these spines keep away animals that eat plants. More often, you'll find it easier to see these spines for yourself by looking for ceibas that aren't very old.

Possible Ancient Maya Uses
There are different ideas that talk about possible uses the ancient Maya may have had for  the ceiba. One idea is that the ancient Maya may have used ceiba wood to make canoes.

Other ideas, focus on kapok silk. One idea wonders if the Maya used the fiber to stuff cushions for thrones. Another wonders if they spun it along with cotton to help compensate its inability to stick to itself like other fibers used to make cloth.

Ancient Maya Cultural Connection
The ancient Maya thought this tree was the World Tree. They believed that there was a ceiba that touched all three of the worlds that they thought existed: the upper world, the world of humans and the underworld, where the tree's roots were. The ancient Maya also thought the ceiba kept these worlds as the separate levels. (However, it must be noted that there are images of the World Tree as a different being, such as a crocodile.)

Ceiba Trees in Art/Writing
Some examples of ancient Maya representations of the ceiba tree can be found at the site of Palenque, where they liked to draw it kind of like a cross. (Why a cross? An explanation is that when ceiba trees aren't very old, that's what they kind of look like.) You may have seen one of these already: it's part of the coffin of the famous ruler, Pakal. Very noticeable among the coffin top's carvings is an image thought to be a ceiba.

If you look through the Maya codices, you can find pictures and sentences involving the ceiba. Using the search engine in the site The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices, it looks like drawings of as well as references to ceibas can be found in the Dresden Codex and the Madrid Codex. (The Paris Codex has, at least now, only references to ceibas, and the Grolier Codex didn't show up in the results.)

And there are even more artifacts. Some ancient Maya incense burners or incensarios as well as funerary urns may also be connected to the ceiba. Why? Because the artists who made them used spikes as part of the design, which may have been meant to look like ceiba spines.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Plants Databas: Plants Profile: Ceiba pentandra (kapoctree)

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute: Bocas del Toro: Species Database: Ceiba pentandra

University of California, Santa Barbara: Institute of Social, Behavioral and Economic Research (ISBER): MesoAmerican Research Center: Trails of El Pilar: Plants of El Pilar: Ceiba

Integrated Taxonomic Information System: ITIS Report Page: Ceiba pentandra

USDA Forest Products Labratory: Center for Wood Anatomy Research: Technology Transfer Fact Sheet: Ceiba pentandra

"Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities"; Karen Bassie-Sweet; 2008

"Animals & Plants of the Ancient Maya: A Guide"; Victoria Schlesinger; 2001

"Space and Sculpture in the Classic Maya City"; Alexander Parmington; 2011

The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices: Search Results  (for ceiba)

"Beyond Kinship: Social and Material Reproduction in House Societies"; Rosemary A. Joyce, Susan D. Gillespie (editors); 2000

"Ancient Maya Commerce: Multidisciplinary Research at Chunchucmil"; Scott R. Hutson (editor); 2017

Florida State University: DigiNole: "Highland Maya Effigy Funerary Urns: A Study of Genre, Iconography, and Function"; Kathleen Garrett McCampbell; 2010

University ofAlbany SUNY: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies Occasional Publication No. 17"Postclassic Pottery Censers in the Lowlands: A Study of Form, Function and Symbolism"; Bradley W. Russell; 2017

Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing No. 54: "The Idol-Makers in the Madrid Codex"; Mary A. Ciaramella; 2004

FAMSI: Maya Codices: The Dresden Codex (pages 60 to 74)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ix Wak Chan Ajaw (Lady Six Sky)

Author's note: The names of places refer to specific cities that are now archaeological sites, but they also refer to city-states that existed at the time.

Guatemala colored in blue.
From the CIA World Factbook.

When you see her name in English, it's Lady Six Sky or Lady Six Sky Queen. When written down in its original form you'll see Ix Wak Chan Ajaw or Ix Wac Chanil Ahau -- and there's also the mixture of English and Mayan, Lady Wac-Kan Ahaw. A child of Lady B'ulu' and a ruler named B'alaj Chan K'awiil, she became part of Calakmul's desire to keep a hold on Naranjo.

How she helped achieve this goal makes her and the politics of the time something of a mystery. Though it seems she always kept her connection to her home, this royal lady is known for being one of Naranjo's rulers, her reign taking place in the Late Classic (around 600 AD to 800 AD.) Which wasn't that common for when she lived.

Ix Wak Chan Ajaw came from the family that ruled Dos Pilas, located in the south of the Peten region, in Guatemala. Calakmul controlled Dos Pilas and B'alaj Chan K'awiil -- Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's father -- seems to have been completely fine with this.

Meanwhile, Naranjo wasn't. It had also been under Calakmul's power, but two rulers (the 36th and 37th) had tried to rebel. However, neither of these two rulers won their wars.

Because of their actions, Ix Wak Chan Ajaw was sent all the nearly 94 miles to Naranjo. She was to bring it properly back into Calakmul's hands. This is the mystery of Ix Wak Chan Ajaw, because from what archaeologists understand, ancient Maya rulers following tradition wouldn't have sent her. They would have ordered their second sons to go, not their daughters.

To achieve the goal of making Naranjo's acceptance of Calakmul's authority permanent, Ix Wak Chan Ajaw may have married someone who belonged to a different branch of Naranjo's royalty. This would have made that branch more impressive -- and whoever agreed to marry her would, of course, be agreeing to do what Calakmul wanted. Either that or her status was enough to start a royal line with whoever she married.

Yet it wasn't simply as a wife that she went. Ix Wak Chan Ajaw ruled.

Though you won't find her name in Naranjo's list of rulers, Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's reign began in 682 AD. From what this author can tell, this date is thought to be the start of her reign because of an inscription that says she arrived at her destination that year, on August 27th. This record may or may not be literally true, due to nuances around the word "arrive." (Apparently, there's a nuance connected to this word about starting royal lines.) At any rate, five years after she "arrived" at Naranjo, the future ruler of Naranjo was born.

The name of this future ruler name was K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak, and he became Naranjo's ruler officially in 693 AD, even though he was five years old. K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak (who is also known today by a number of names including Smoking Squirrel) may or may not have been Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's son -- the likelihood of this depends on who you talk to. But just because Naranjo had a new "real" ruler, it doesn't mean that Ix Wak Chan Ajaw's power ended.

(On a side note, one possible piece of evidence that she was his mother involves monuments. K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak would always have a monument made for her each year -- each time he had a yearly monument made to mark his becoming Naranjo's ruler. These monuments seem to have been made to say that her lineage was the reason he deserved to be the ruler, which could mean he was her son.)

For instance, a stela at Naranjo called Stela 22 lists eight war-related events, starting in 693 AD -- these events seem like they must have been brought about through the orders of Ix Wak Chan Ajaw. (Though K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak was ruler in title and was the one given the credit, he would seem to be far too young, at five years old.) K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak seems to have eventually started ordering his own military actions, though.

Why did Ix Wak Chan Ajaw go to war so much? Some actions may have been for the sake of Calakmul. Others may have been because other nearby city-states thought they'd try their luck warring against Naranjo when a woman was ruler.

Death and Considerations
Ix Wak Chan Ajaw may have passed on in 741 AD, possibly on either February 11th or February 10th.  (A record of her passing was found at Dos Pilas.) No one knows whether or not K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak ruled Naranjo after that, because he may have died before she did.

If she did live longer than K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak, then she may have kept his successor from taking his place, continuing to rule Naranjo until she died too. You may even see 741 AD as the year listed for the end of her reign. However, since the death dates aren't nailed down, nothing is for sure. (On a related note, the successor, Yax Mayuy Chan Chaak, was taken in a war started by Tikal in 744 AD.)


Mesoweb Encyclopedia: Lady Six Sky

Mesoweb Encyclopedia: K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Chaak

"Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016

"Ancient Maya Women"; Traci Arden (editor); 2002

"The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities"; James D. Nation; 2006

Monday, October 16, 2017

Ancient Maya Weaving

From Yale University's Art Gallery Collections.

Much has been lost through the passage of time, but archaeologists do know some things about how the ancient Maya made cloth. They also have some ideas about what they did with it after it was made. Curious? Then keep reading!

The ancient Maya made cloth with a species called upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum.)(They also may have gotten cooking oil from the seeds of this plant.) Was this the only plant they used to make cloth from? No, it wasn't.

Upland cotton seeds. Some still have some cotton fibers.
Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
It seems like they would take fiber from the leaves of the century plant -- also called the maguey -- (Agave americana) to make cloth. (They also used thorns from the tips of maguey leaves to make needles.)

Agave americana. From the National Park Service's
Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

How They Made Thread
The ancient Maya spun their thread with what's called a spindle whorl. It's made with a disk called a whorl, which has a hole that a stick is stuck into. The spindle is spun, and the whorl's weight helps to keep the spindle moving -- this spinning motion twists fiber attached to the spindle into thread.

How They Wove
The Maya wove with a loom called the backstrap loom. One of this loom's ends has a strap whose middle rests against the back of the weaver's waist -- its sides pass under the weaver's arms. The other end of the backstrap loom gets tied to a tree. Weavers changed the tension on their weaving projects by changing the pressure they put on the strap -- aka leaning a different way.

Now, in weaving, there's the weft, which is what you weave with, and the warp, which you weave the weft through. For a making a weaving, the ancient Maya would use what's called a warping frame to get the right amount. After they'd got the right amount, they'd treat the warp thread to help keep it from snapping as they wove.

What They Wove
The Maya made cloth items including (but not limited to) curtains, clothes and wraps for items that held supernatural power that they used as part of their religious beliefs. Like other cultures, it's possible they used cloth as part of burying someone who had passed on. They also made cloth to be used for trade.

The climates in the Maya area tend to be too humid -- that is, there's too much water in the air -- for cloth to last. But archaeologists have found pieces of cloth (see the Significance: Cloth Artifacts section further on in this post.) They also study other ancient Maya artifacts, ones that show people. Here's a small gallery with some examples of artifacts that show people:

gallery image

Weaving and Gender
Was weaving women's work? So far, the answer looks like yes. Pre-Colonial art seems to say so. And, at times, archaeologists have also found weaving tools in burials of elite women. This connection was in ancient Maya religion as well -- there are images of beings thought to be creator goddesses who wear items in their hair connected to weaving.

Consideration: Decoration
One of the ways that the ancient Maya decorated their cloth was by dying it -- two sources of dye they used came from logwood or palo de tinte (Haematoxylum campechianum) and the females of different types of cochineal bugs (which belong to the genus Dactylopius.) They also used paint. And it wasn't just adding colorants.

There are two other ways the ancient Maya fancied up their cloth -- at least towards the end of the Postclassic Period. One was embroidery. The other was brocade. (This technique is when you weave a design into your cloth that is thicker than the rest of the cloth, making it stick up.)

Significance: Cloth Artifacts
One place archaeologists have found cloth is the Sacred Cenote, a cenote at the site of Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatan Peninsula. They dug up the bottom, and they found various types of cloth like twill, gauze and brocaded cloth. (They also found other artifacts.)

Another place archaeologists have discovered Maya cloth is Chiapas, a state in Mexico. One place they've found cloth in Chiapas is Chiptic Cave. However, while the pieces that came from there may date to the Postclassic period, they also may have been created after the Conquistadors showed up. This is because they date to around 1500 AD.


The Free Dictionary: Brocade

"Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey"; 2016

 Yale University Art Gallery Collections: Seated Female Weaver

"The Ancient Maya" sixth edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006

"The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities"; James. D. Nations; 2006

"Top 100 Exotic Food Plants"; Ernest Small; 2012

"Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization"; Arthur Demarest; 2004

"Ethnobotany: A Phytochemical Perspective"; B.M. Schmidt, D.M. Klaser Cheng; 2017

"Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia: An Encylopedia"; Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster (editors); 2001

"Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico an the American and Canadian Plains, 1880-1950"; Sterling Evans; 2007

The Free Dictionary: Humidity

Image Gallery Credits:
In chronological order: Images one through three -- Yale University Art Gallery; images four and five: Metropolitan Museum Museum of Art.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Moon and the Ancient Maya

The moon had lots of meanings for the ancient Maya. They studied its path. It was a part of their religious beliefs. They included their observations of its passage in the inscriptions of their monuments. The moon was even thought of as a deity. Let's learn more, shall we?

Tracking the Moon
To see the moon in the same phase twice, you need to wait about 29.53059 days -- or 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 seconds. This cycle is called the synodic month, and the ancient Maya studied it. (It's possible they also tracked how long it took for the moon to reach the same stars it had already passed -- this is called the sidereal cycle.) 

It seems that to get around having to use fractions, the Maya would calculate the synodic month using a cycle made of groups synodic months. Different places in the Maya area had their own way of tracking this cycle. For about 70 years though -- from 687 to 756 AD -- they tried to use the same method. (This period of time is called the Period of Uniformity, today.)

The first method is one you may see called the Palenque system. This cycle had 2392 days in it. When you divide 2392 by 81, you get an average of 29.53086 days for each synodic month. 

Time passed and the Maya started to use a new cycle, which looks like it started at Copán. The new cycle was made of 4,400 days. It had 149 synodic months. This makes about 29.5302 days for every synodic month -- even closer than the Palenque system.

Which phase of the moon did the ancient Maya see as being the beginning of the synodic month? It seems there was no standard starting point. One theory says it may have been the first night when they could see the moon again, which would have depended on a site's location.

Lunar Series
How did the ancient May use their knowledge of the moon? One way they used it was to help them calculate eclipses (which you can see in the Dresden Codex's pages 51 through 58). Another way they used their knowledge of the moon was to write the lunar series.

As you may know, there's been no evidence that the ancient Maya had a standalone lunar calendar. Starting in the Classic Period (around 250 AD/300 AD to 1000 AD), the Maya did start using a group of glyphs that people today call the lunar series. The Maya used the lunar series in the inscriptions on their monuments. In these inscriptions, the Maya tended to put the lunar series before the Haab' day of the date they were calculating.

The glyphs in the lunar series are known as glyph E, glyph D, glyph C, glyph B, glyph A and glyph X. Here's one view on what the glyphs mean:

•  The first two (glyph E and D) state the moon's phase from a starting point in the synodic month. When the moon was less than 20 days old, glyph D was used. When it was 20 days (or more) into its cycle, the Maya added glyph D to glyph E.

• The third (glyph C) is actually a cycle of numbered glyphs that ran from 1 through 6. Other than this number, the glyphs of glyph C were made a head -- of which there were three, which also cycled.  Each glyph C was a moon cycle, so altogether the cycle of glyph C lasted 177 days. Whether this cycle was used for a past or present moon depended on the site.

•  The fourth (glyph B) emphasizes what the sixth glyph (glyph X) said. One possible translation is "is its holy name." Another translation uses "youthful" instead of "holy."

•  The fifth (glyph A) says how long the particular "month" that the moon is in is (30 or 29 days.)

• The sixth (glyph X) is also a cycle of 6 glyphs. These glyphs might be names for whichever one of glyph C is being talked about in the inscription.

Buildings Connected to the Moon
The ancient Maya built different structures that were used to help them study the moon. Not all of the structures were built with exactly the same purpose -- here are some examples.
The Caracol.

One example of a structure made to study the moon is a pyramid at the site of Edzná, which you may see called La Vieja. La Vieja was (or at least possibly was) built as a marker for the farthest point the moon sets in its movement north within its cycle at Edzná.

A second example is a building (structure 10K-2) at the site of Xultun in Guatemala. It has murals on its walls, including glyphs that look like they were for charting the moon. These glyphs were made in the 800s AD.  It looks like the glyphs were for working on the math for the lunar series (specifically on glyph C.)

A third example is the structure known today as the Caracol (this is Spanish for "snail.") This structure might have been an observatory -- part of what the Maya may have used it for was to track the moon.

Moon Goddess
Detail of a Classic vase showing the moon
goddess and rabbit. From an image
in the gallery of LACMA.
Theories abound with figuring out the moon goddess of the ancient Maya. In the Classic Period, it looks like the Maya thought of the moon as a goddess (though there are also images of the moon as a man.) Symbols that she was connected with seem to be the moon and a hare or rabbit. However, it also looks like the Maya sort of blended the moon goddess and the corn god -- you can see images of the corn god with the symbols connected to the moon goddess.
Detail of a statue that
might be the moon goddess.
From an image in Yale's art gallery.

One view says the moon goddess in the Classic Period was also a goddess connected to corn as well as fertility -- and could turn into a rabbit. Another view says that the corn god and the moon goddess were seen as connected to each other.

In the Postclassic period, it looks like the moon is only shown as a goddess. Some sources say that two Postclassic beings, goddess I and goddess O, were moon goddesses. However, this theory has become questioned -- it may be that just goddess I was a moon goddess (or at least somehow connected to the moon, as well as fertility.) But it might also be that the only place that you can find evidence of the real moon goddess in the Postclassic Period so far is on page 49 of the Dresden Codex.

Consideration: Sun as the Moon?
In one structure at Palenque, the Temple of the Sun, it looks like there were Maya who believed in a god now called GIII by archaeologists. This god may have been the sun at night, turned into a jaguar -- the "night sun." However, there isn't a lot that archaeologists have found that proves this. (GIII may even actually be a god of fire or some type of sun god.)


University of Virginia: Astronomy 1210 (O'Connell): Introduction to Astonomy: Notes on the Maya

"Beyond the “Dresden Codex”: New Insights into the Evolution of Maya Eclipse Prediction"; Vincent H. Malmström

NASA: Eclipse and the Moon's Orbit

"The Role of Archaeoastronomy in the Maya World: the Case Study of the Island of Cozumel"; 2016

Archaeoastronomy and the Maya"; Gerardo Aldana y Villalobos, Edwin L. Barnhart (editors); 2014

"Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica"; Anne S. Dowd, Susan Milbrath (editors); 2015

Foundation Rituals and Mythology in the Postclassic Maya Codices"; Gabrielle Vail, Christine Hernández"; 2013

Maya Decipherment: Ideas on Ancient Maya Writing and Iconography: "Heavenly Bodies"; Stephen Houston; July 16, 2012

History Dictionary of Mesoamerica"; Walter R. T. Witschey, Clifford T. Brown; 2012

2010 The Rulers of Palenque. Fifth edition. Mesoweb:

"Daily Life in Maya Civilization" second edition; Robert J. Sharer; 2009

"Maya Eclipses: Modern Astronomical Data, The Triple Tritos and the Double-Tzolkin"; William E. Beck; 2007

Mesoweb: "Maya Creator Gods"; Karen Bassie; 2002

FAMSI: John Montgomery Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs: J

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Courtesy Nasa/SDO.

Eclipses are exciting events where either the moon passes between the earth -- creating a solar eclipse -- and the sun or the earth passes between the sun and the moon -- creating a lunar eclipse.  Let's take some time to explore the ancient Maya perspective on it.

Eclipse Names
Solar eclipse glyph on the left,lunar 
eclipse glyph on the right. 
In the Dresden Codex, the lunar glyph 
is never without the solar one
Archaeologists think they've found various ways the Maya wrote "eclipse," at least for in the Postclassic Period. For the most popular of these, two "wings" (one mostly dark and one light) go on either side of a smaller sun glyph for "solar eclipse" or moon glyph for "lunar eclipse." The picture on the right shows two examples (from a drawing in Cyrus Thomas's Aids to the Study of the Maya Codices.)
"Pa' k'in" from the Dresden Codex's page 54.
(You may see people call it pa'al k'in.)

The ancient Maya of this period also had phrases they used sometimes to mean an eclipse. Though they could be used to mean real ones, these phrases were more popular when they wanted to say a certain era/length of time had ended. One of the known phrases was "pa' k'in" (thought to be a short form for "pa'al k'in"), which means "broken sun." 

What The Maya Knew About Eclipses
Copy of the Dresden
Codex's page 51. 
There are points in the earth's and moon's orbits where either the sun or the moon go through an eclipse -- these points are called nodes. Eclipses run in a cycle (called the saros cycle that begins again after about 18 years, 11 days, 8 hours. Did the ancient Maya know about these important parts of eclipse math? So far it looks like the answer is no. But they did know how to get close to predicting eclipses.
This glyph may describe
darkness during a solar eclipse.

They'd figured out that about 177/178 days (which makes 6 lunar months) or 148 days (5 lunar months) after an eclipse -- lunar or solar -- an eclipse of the same type as before might happen. You can find examples of these numbers various places. One is the site of Xultun, which has them written on the inside of a building. Another example is the Dresden Codex. 

The Dresden Codex has eight pages (pages 51 through 58) on eclipses. (Which kind of eclipse hasn't been decided for sure.) Archaeologists have found both number 177 and 148 in these pages. There are years' worth of eclipses written down there -- either ones people had seen or ones that had been predicted -- a length of time lasting 11,960 days. People still wonder if it was a chart that could only be used one time, or if the Maya were somehow able to use it again and again, adjusting it when they had to do so.
Depiction of a solar eclipse.
From the Dresden Codex's
eclipse pages.

So if the ancient Maya were able to sort of predict eclipses, did they realize that they were watching planets and their shadows? It seems they didn't. Instead, it looks like they thought solar eclipses (and maybe lunar ones too) happened because a creature was biting the sun. Various old accounts after contact with the Spanish say the Maya -- depending on the community -- thought the creature was an ant, some kind of cat, or Venus. In the codices, there are images of serpent figures that look like they're trying to eat the sun. These serpents may actually be Venus.

How They Observed Eclipses
The ancient Maya may have used a y-shaped stick to help them look at the sky's objects. They May have used mirrors (made from stone they'd polished) to watch eclipses. Bowls filled with water may have been another eclipse watching tool.

What They Meant
The ancient Maya, from what archaeologists can tell, may have thought that eclipses, lunar and solar, were dangerous. It's also possible that they thought a solar eclipse could be the start of the end of the current world. (The Maya believed there had been worlds before this one.) However, it looks like eclipses weren't always seen as dangerous -- it's possible that eclipses were dangerous during certain "dangerous" times. 

To keep the sun from being swallowed, the ancient Maya thought they could stop an eclipse if they made lots of noise -- doing things like making their dogs howl and by beating drums. The noise was supposed to scare off the creature causing the eclipse.

Terminal Classic Record of An Eclipse 

Unless calculations are mistaken, on July 16, 790, the ancient Maya recorded a solar eclipse. The evidence is Stela 3 from the site of Santa Elena Poco Uinic or just Poco Uinic, a site in the highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The eclipse would have happened not long after noon there.


"Totality: The Great American Eclipses of 2017 and 2024"; Mark Littmann & Fred Espenak; 2017

"Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica"; Anne S. Dowd, Susan Milbrath (editors); 2015

"Beyond the “Dresden Codex”: New Insights into the Evolution of Maya Eclipse Prediction"; Vincent H. Malmström

"Daily Life in Maya Civilization" 2nd Edition; Robert J. Sharer; 2009

ASTRONOMY 1210 (O'Connell): INTRODUCTION TO THE SKY AND THE SOLAR SYSTEMMaya Astr 341 Class: Notes on the Maya

Arqueología Mexicana: El símbolo maya para eclipse

NASA: Glossary of Solar Eclipse Terms

Mesoweb: The PARI Journal 13(2), 2012, pp. 3-16: "Exploring the 584286 Correlation between the Maya and European Calendars"; Simon Martin, Joel Skidmore

"Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars'"; Susan Milbrath; 1999

Project Gutenberg: Project Gutenberg's Aids to the Study of the Maya Codices, by Cyrus Thomas

University of Victoria Astronomy: Arif Babul: WELCOME TO MY ASTROCOURSE WEBPAGES: Physics 303: The Mayan Civilization