Monday, September 24, 2012

Chac (God B)

Author's Notes: For an overview of ancient Maya gods and goddesses, go to this post here. Also, as mentioned before on other subjects within the topic of the ancient Maya, sources do not always add up; in this post I have combined things from various sources.

Labeled God B in the Schellhas classification system, Chac (or Chaac) is the Maya god most commonly known as the god of rain. He is also known by other names including Ah Tzenul, which translates as "he who gives food to others". Of the different deities, the ancient Maya depicted Chac the most often.

The appearance of Chac varies. Variable characteristics include scales, a big and curving nose, fangs or catfish whiskers. Some depictions have tears going down his face. Another version is of a blue man holding lightning or an axe. In some depictions, he is shown with symbols connected to the planet Venus or of God H.

It is currently understood that the ancient Maya thought Chac had four aspects, like the Pauahtuns (the gods who held up the sky at a cardinal point). Each aspect was connected to a cardinal direction and to a color.

Sac Xib Chac was the Chac of the north, whose color was white. The Chac of the east was Chac Xib Chac, and his color was red. Kan Xib Chac was the Chac of the south. Ek Xib Chac was the Chac of the west -- his color was black. Each of these Chacs were depicted as a man whose skin color was his designated color.

What exactly Chac controlled and how he controlled it tends to vary by source. Chac is thought to have been the god who controlled thunder, rain, lightning and wind. He was also thought to control fertility and was the patron of the number 13 -- a lucky number to the ancient Maya.

The ancient Maya thought that lightning and thunder occurred when Chac threw stone axes, which sources such as The Ancient Maya  and Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World describe as smoky or fiery. Rain occurred when Chac poured out a gourd filled with water -- though another source states they thought that he poked his nose into clouds to cause rain to fall.

Power over rain was delegated: each of the four aspects of Chac had the power of bringing rain from their particular cardinal direction.

In relation to Chac being a god of rain, he was associated with frogs, who were his friends. Frogs were understood to croak before a storm started.


 "South and Meso-American Mythology A to Z"; Ann Bingham, Jeremy Roberts; 2010

"Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars"; Susan Milbrath; 2000

"Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies"; Struik Publishers, Janet Parker, Alice Mills, Julie Stanton; 2007

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Chert -- A Commonly Used Stone

Author's note: This post was last updated 11/25/17.

A Belizean eccentric flint that dates to around 500 AD. From Yale University Art Gallery.

Like jade and obsidian, chert was one of the multitude of minerals archaeologists know the ancient Maya made part of their lives. It was a part of their religious views, including the belief as they thought it was made from lightning strikes. (Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya says that they thought Chac (God B) caused the lightning.) But it was more than just their beliefs -- the Maya saw chert as a source for making useful items. A type of quartz called microcrystalline quartz, chert (and flint, a dark type of chert) seems to have been used both for everyday uses and for ritual uses.

A Belizean blade with a point 
on each end that dates to 
550 AD to 675 AD. 
From Yale University
Art Gallery.
One way the ancient Maya incorporated chert into their lives was to make tools, such as the ax or hatchet that the ancient Maya used for farming, knives (some of which were used for ritual blood-letting,) and points for spears. When a tool lost its usefulness, the ancient Maya reshaped the chert to use for another tool. Chert tools used for heavy work like axes and hoes don't work as well as steel tools.

Then there were eccentric flints. These were pieces of chert (or one of several other kinds of stones) shaped into designs like the god K'awiil (God K.) They may have been used for rituals, and there's an idea out there that they could have been painted.

The ancient Maya, at least at the site of Piedras Negras during the Classic Period,  made something similar to eccentric flints. These were painted, but not shaped into different shapes like eccentric flints. Archaeologists didn't realize at first they were painted. They used to think these flakes were just that, flakes of chert. When organizing artifacts, they disrupted the surface of the flakes so they could write numbers on them.

Sourcing and Working It
An eccentric flint that
comes from 600 AD to
900 AD. It was either
made in Mexico or
Guatemala. From Yale
University Art Gallery.
A place with definite success potential when looking for chert in the Maya area is the lowlands, near bajos or swamps/wetlands that dry up in the dry season. To get chert out of the ground, the ancient Maya used pit mines that weren't that deep. (And when used up, the Maya would turn their chert mines into a place to store water -- these places are called aguadas, though there's also another kind of aguada that forms naturally. Limestone mines also would be turned into aguadas.)

To work chert, the ancient Maya used two types of methods. These methods were pressure flaking and  percussion flaking. Chert that wasn't the best for shaping got heat treated first. (Pressure flaking and percussion flaking were also the methods they used for obsidian.)

A site of note when it comes to chert and chert tools is Colhá, located in the north of Belize. This site had a centuries long history of being a place where chert came from -- a history that started in the Late Preclassic.

Consideration: The Chert-Free Zone
There is a part of the northern Yucatán Peninsula where archaeologists have not found much when it comes to chert tools. Technology of Maya Civilization says a possibly good name for this part of the peninsula is the Chert-Free Zone. The book also includes different ideas out there about how the ancient Maya in the Chert-Free Zone were able to not use tools made of chert.

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

Google Books: "The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence"; Stephen Houston; 2014

Google Books: "Technology of Maya Civilization: Political Economy and Beyond in Lithic Studies"; Geoffrey E. Braswell, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos (editors); 2011

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

 Mesoweb: Maya Archaeology Reports: "Painted Lithic Artifacts from Piedras Negras, Guatemala"; Zachary X. Hruby, Gene Ware; 2009 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Obsidian -- A Sharp and Useful Material

Author's note: this post was last updated on 12/21/2017.

A piece of obsidian. From the USGS.

It begins with volcanoes: obsidian is a substance created when magma not only has a lot of silica in it but cools down so fast that it can't crystallize. (Depending on the definition, obsidian is either a rock or glass.) It is usually black and, though strong, it is also brittle. With the right skill, this igneous substance can be worked so that its edges are incredibly sharp. The ancient Maya thought very highly of obsidian, and -- though it seems that elites controlled it somewhat -- everyone used it.

Where They Got It
The information with this image (again from
the Y.U. Art Gallery) states that this 9 inch long
blade may or may not be from the Maya area.
The information also says that it was made
anywhere from the 300 AD to 900 AD.
When it comes to where they got their obsidian, archaeologists have found the Maya had more than one source. One source was special: the obsidian was green, and came from north of the Maya area, in the Valley of Mexico. (Archaeologists call the source area for this kind obsidian Cerro de las Navajas ("Hill of the Knives,") and they call the obsidian Green Pachuca.)

All of the known sources of ancient Maya obsidian are in Guatemala. One is in the Motagua Valley and today, it is called El Chayal. Another source is in the Southern Highlands and now has two names, Río Pixcaya and San Martín Jílotepeque. A third known source is in southeast Guatemala and is called Ixtepeque.

Shaping It: Pressure Flaking and Percussion Flaking
When obsidian breaks, it breaks conchoidally. (You may also read descriptions that say it has a conchoidal fracture.) This means that when a piece breaks off, that piece will look not entirely unlike a clam shell. Because of this physical feature, the Maya -- and other peoples -- used two methods for creating objects out of obsidian. These methods were pressure flaking and percussion flaking. (The ancient Maya shaped shaped their chert/flint tools this way too.)

With pressure flaking, a person uses a sharpened piece of something like hardwood or antler to sort of press and lift pieces off of the stone. With percussion flaking, a person can use either a "soft hammer" or "hard hammer" -- though a soft hammer is the better choice for obsidian. (The difference between a soft hammer and a hard hammer is what they're made of. Soft hammers are made of things like certain types of hardwood and antler, and so get more of the force they send out sent back into them than hard hammers, which are made of certain substances like granite.)

According to the information posted
with this image (from the Yale University
Art Gallery,) this 6 inch blade may or may not
be Maya. It was made anywhere from 100 AD
to 1500 AD and may have been from the Classic
The ancient Maya obsidian trade actually went out into other parts of Mesoamerica. The first step in this trade were workshops (which were commonly near a source of obsidian.) At these workshops, obsidian workers turned pieces of obsidian into "cores." That is, the pieces were shaped but not into anything specific. The communities that got the obsidian had their own workshops to make what they wanted out of the cores.

What They Crafted with It
The ancient Maya created a host of items with obsidian, some of which involved cutting. For example, they made projectile points. For another, they made blades, including a type known as the prismatic blade.

The prismatic blade has two cutting sides and is thin as well as a little bit curved -- its style of make means that they don't need to have resharpening done. Prismatic blades were what the Maya liked to use whenever they cut themselves for religious bloodletting. (But they may also have used this kind of blade for non-religious, everyday things.)

The Maya also wore obsidian about their person. Which is to say, they would make a type of earring called an earflare -- or earspool -- with it. (They also would make earflares with other things, one of which was jade.)

Yet another variety of item that the ancient Maya created using obsidian (and chert/flint) was what's now called the eccentric flint. Eccentric flints are shaped pieces of stone that may have had a number of ritual uses.

Google Books: "Ancient Maya Commerce: Multidisciplinary Research at Chunchucmil"; Scott R. Hutson; 2017

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

Google Books: "Obsidian Reflections: Symbolic Dimensions of Obsidian in Mesoamerica"; Marc N. Levine, David N. Carballo (editors); 2014

Google Books: "The Technology of Maya Civilization: Political Economy and Beyond in Lithic Studies"; Zachary X. Hruby, Geoffrey E. Braswell, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos (editors); 2011

Wesleyan University: WesScholar: "Toward a “Full Biography of Obsidian”: Studies ofObsidian Use and Exchange in the Maya Area"; Laura Heath; April 2011

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: Living Maya Time: Glossary

The Free Dictionary: Obsidian

The University of Iowa: The Office of the State Archaeologist: Flintkapping

Yale University Art Gallery: Obsidian knife blade

Yale University Art Gallery: Blade, pointed both ends

Image Credits:
USGS: Obsidian

Yale University Art Gallery: Obsidian knife blade

Yale University Art Gallery: Blade, pointed both ends