Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Codex-Style Vessels

The scene in this vessel shows different gods. Two of them are a god of rain and the god of corn -- the god of rain has broken part of a building, and this is letting the god of corn become alive again. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Codex-style vessels are ceramic vessels that come in different shapes and were painted in the same style as the four known ancient Maya codices, which were made in the Postclassic Period. (The term "codex-style" for the vessels comes from Michael D. Coe.) The vessels were made in the part of the Classic Period called the Late Classic. So far, most of the codex-style vessels archaeologists have found come from Guatemala’s Petén region, in the north-central part of it.

The gods that were painted on this codex-style
may be images of K'awiil (god K.) From the
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Within the Late Classic, codex-style vessels were made around the start of the 700s AD – between 672 AD and 731 AD or 670 AD and 740 AD. They weren’t made for very long though – possibly around 50 years. They were made mostly or entirely in the Mirador Basin. The vessels may even have been made only at one site, Nakbé-- though there is another view that they were made in the area in and around Calakmul.

How many codex-style vessels have archaeologists come across? This seems to depend on the source. In her 2015 dissertation, Sacrificing the Jaguar Baby: Understanding a Classic Maya Myth on Codex-style Pottery, Penny Steinbach says that 350 to 400 of vessels with no missing parts have been found. This seems to be backed up by the site MayaVase, a site that shows, among other things, photographs of ancient Maya pottery. The site gives over 50 pages of results for codex-style pottery. (Archaeologists have found a lot of shards of codex-style vessels as well.)

This codex-style vessel has
a fluted outside. From LACMA
There is something to consider when it comes to codex-style vessels: a lot of them are unprovenanced. The term “unprovenanced” means that they were not found at a site. Because these vessels pass through sellers, it is common for the paint to have been touched up (or even modified) – done in the hope they will be easier to sell.

General Design
Normally, codex-style vessels have glyphs and images painted in black on a cream, yellow, or beige background with a red line around the edge of the base and a red line around the rim. Thin gray paint was used to add shading. The painters liked to use a lot of curves for the images and glyphs they painted -- you may see their painting style described as being a type of calligraphy.

What the Maya Painted on the Vessels
A variety of images and glyphs were drawn on codex-style vessels. For example, one scene the Maya would paint is a scene of magic being used to make an old, male god appear. Another scene they would paint shows a sacrifice of a supernatural being called the Baby Jaguar. (There’s a theory that scenes on these vessels together make one myth. It’s also been theorized that some vessels show parts of the story also found in the Popol Vuh.)

Other than different kinds of images with glyphs, the ancient Maya who made codex-style vessels would paint large inscriptions about a line of rulers.

The scene painted here shows the scene of the Baby Jaguar being sacrificed. The right shows the death god (god A) or a death spirit, and the left shows either the or a rain god. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Consideration: The Glyphs
Speaking of glyphs, inscriptions on codex-style vessels have some strange features. It is common for glyphs on codex-style vessels to be “pseudo-glyphs,” which are glyphs that don’t mean anything. And when there is real writing, it’s only in the passive tense. (A comparison of passive and active in English: I threw the ball (active.) The ball was thrown by me (passive.)) Also, some less common glyphs are used.

Then, the dates. They don't make sense with the Maya calendar system. There are theories that try to explain this. One theory says that it’s because the dates are meant to be set in mythological times. Another says that a lot of codex-style vessels are probably just fakes.

There are a number of theories about what codex-style vessels were used for. One theory says that they were tools for teaching ancient Maya boys about to become adults. Another of the theories says that they were political gifts sent from the ruler Calakmul – they were sent to less powerful rulers as part of making them loyal to Calakmul.

But what archaeologists have found for sure is that codex-style cylinder vessels were put in burials. They, like other types of pottery put in burials, may have been used before they were buried.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Constellations and the Ancient Maya

Composite image put together by the author. The
skybands come from part of a skyband in the
series of possible constellation images in
the Paris Codex. Full source list in the
Image Credits section.

Did the ancient Maya have constellations? It is believed they did – and the constellations may have been on the ecliptic, the “path” of the sun in the sky. However, archaeologists still haven’t been able to figure out what ancient Maya constellations were exactly.

Constellation Evidence
One example of evidence that the ancient Maya had constellations is in their structures. Archaeologists have found that the Maya would build structures so that they lined up with a constellation during its cycle through the sky. For example, at Utatlan, they have found buildings that are lined up with Orion when it is “setting.” But evidence for ancient Maya constellations also seems to show up in ancient Maya art as well.

One example of what’s thought to be evidence for ancient Maya constellations is in the codices. For example, in the Paris codex, page 23 and 24 have drawings of animals, each biting an eclipse glyph. These are possible constellations. Each drawing has the number 168 next to it. ("168" might mean 168 days.) And it’s not just in the codices – images of groups of animals thought to be drawings of constellations have been found in buildings.

Examples of structures where you can find images groups of animals thought to represent constellations include the East Wing of the Nunnery at Chichen Itza, the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, and at Acanceh’s Palace of the Stuccoes.

These groups of animals don’t all show the same animals, or the same number of animals. And, at least with the Paris Codex, there is some disagreement about which animals the ancient Maya were drawing.

Possible Identities
Two people who study ancient Maya astronomy, Victoria and Harvey Bricker, created a list of possible constellations, using the list in the Paris Codex’s animals. In this list they thought the constellations the ancient Maya may have had were:

  • The Pleiades, drawn as a rattlesnake
  • Aries, drawn as an ocelot
  • Gemini, drawn as a bird they called a cox bird or bird 2
  • Pisces, drawn as a skeleton
  • Scorpio, drawn as a scorpion
  • Aquarius, drawn as a bat
  • Libra, drawn as an animal they called bird 1
  • Sagittarius, drawn as a fish-snake
  • Capricorn, drawn as an animal they called bird 3
  • Virgo, drawn as an animal they couldn’t identify
  • Orion, drawn as a turtle
  • Leo:
    • eastern stars: a peccary
    • western stars: a frog

Outside this list, you'll find sources that say the ancient Maya saw the stars of Orion’s belt as a constellation. It seems there was more than one idea about this group of stars. It looks like one idea they had – at least at Quirigua and Palenque -- was that it was a group of hearthstones connected to creation. (They called it the “three-stone place.) Another idea was that it was a turtle.

Speaking of turtles, there’s another view about what constellation the ancient Maya saw in Gemini: a turtle. And that’s not the only other view: there’s another idea that says when the ancient Maya looked at Gemini, they saw a peccary.

As for the Pleiades, you may see it theorized that a rattlesnake's rattle was a symbol of the these stars. (On a related note, Diego de Landa's writings say that that's what the Maya he spoke with saw in the Pleiades. He also says that along with Gemini, the Pleiades was a constellation that the Maya he spoke with liked to keep track of the most.)

The ancient Maya may have had a zodiac as well as constellations. One theory says the Maya had a zodiac that had 13 constellations. This theory also says that each constellation was connected to a period of 28 days.

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

Mesoweb: "The PARI Journal" Volume XV; Winter 2015

Google Books: "Exploring Ancient Skies: A Survey of Ancient and Cultural Astronomy" second edition; David H. Kelley, Eugene F. Milone; 2011

Google Books: "2000 Years of Mayan Literature"; Dennis Tedlock; 2010

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

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

Google Books: "The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives"; Heather McKillop; 2004

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

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

The Free Dictionary: Ecliptic

The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices: Paris Codex: 23-24 Frame: 1 

Image Credits:
Source photos for composite image: NPS/William Pedro; CIA World Factbook (13/24); Famsi 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Atole -- Ancient Maya Drinks

The glyphs for ul ("u" and "lu.") A picture glyph for ul
hasn't been found yet.

Atole (ah-TOE-lay) is one of the varieties of drinks that we know the ancient Maya (and the Maya today) drank.) The two ingredients you absolutely need to make it are cooked corn that's been ground up and water – but other ingredients can also be put into it. (The True History of Chocolate says it is made with corn that is "young.") You may see it called gruel.

The Basic Name
Our name for the drink, “atole,” does not come from any Mayan language. Atole (ah-TOH-lay) comes from an Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) word ātolli (which is an altered form of ātl, which means “water.”) This is the word that the Spanish used when they saw the ancient Maya's versions of corn drinks.

What did the Maya, or at least the elite Maya, call atole? Well, there are vessels that were used for atole, and from these archaeologists have found two words: ul (which you may see spelled ‘ul, with a glottal stop) and sa’. One theory thinks it’s possible that sa’ was a word for all types of atole. It’s also possible that ul was a word used for the special kinds of atole that elites drank for special times.

On something of a related note, atole shows up on the captioned murals at Calakmul’s North Plaza. A woman pouring a cup of atole for a customer has a caption: aj ul. This phrase has been translated as “atole person” and seems to be a title for an atole seller.

The glyphs for sakha'.
One type of atole that has been found is kakawal ul, a translation of which is “chocolatey atole.” Some other types that have been found include k'an atole or "ripe atole" and ch'aj ul or "bitter atole." Ch'aj ul may be a drink where parched corn that's been powdered has been mixed with water. There’s also sa’al kakaw, which may be a cacao drink that some basic atole mixed into it or a cacao drink that had a texture like atole – or both. 

Yet another of the different types of atole the ancient Maya had was used for religious purposes. This type of atole had the name sak ha’ (also spelled sakha,) which means “white water.” According to The True History of Chocolate, the ancient Maya made it by mixing together water and fully ripe corn that had been cooked and ground -- but hadn't been treated with the mineral lime. (The treatment is called nixtamalization.) 

Consideration: Atole Vessels
Archaeologists have found a lot of bowls that have inscriptions that include the ul word for atole. These bowls are not deep, and they have walls that are first straight then lean outwards a little bit higher up. This isn’t the only type of atole vessel, but it is a common one.


Image Credits:
Author's drawings based off of: