The Ugly Writing
by Stephen Houston (Brown University)
In Western thought, much rests on Greek precedent. “Calligraphy” or “beautiful writing,” to give one example, descends from the condition of κάλλος “beauty” and -γραϕος “written” (“calligraph” and “calligraphy,” OED Online 2018). To notorious extent, “beauty” exists in the eye of the beholder. For the ancient Greeks, its meanings might slip and slide between “noble,” “well-done,” and “virtuous,” if with “the kind of appeal that inspires desire” (Konstan 2014:170). The aesthetic dimensions of “beauty” would await the Renaissance, for the Greeks of Classical times rarely applied the term to a work of art (Konstan 2014:179). When aesthetics took over, critics like Pierre Bourdieu came to see “beauty” and “taste” as “ascetic, empty…the renunciation of pleasure,” a withered husk of delight (Bourdieu 1984:493; see also Konstan 2014:186). Or, as a concept, “beauty” came to be a quality divorced from “sensual, practical, and ethical issues” (Nehamas 2007:3).
Calligraphy as “beautiful writing” makes sense on many levels, if couched within different traditions of practice. In China, the focus on brushstrokes led to joint evaluations of text and painting. A vast corpus of critical literature assisted that endeavor, including glosses added to the paintings themselves (Bush and Shih 1985; Cahill 1997:5–6). The Aztecs, for their part, thought of good scribes in terms of their internal properties (“honest, circumspect, far-sighted, pensive”) but above all as “judge[s] of colors” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28).
Finding the Founder: Old Notes on the Identification of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ of Copan
vonDavid StuartamMaya Decipherment
One of the most famous of ancient Maya rulers is K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM) (“Solar-Green-Quetzal-Macaw”), the Early Classic founder of the Copan dynasty (Figure 1). He was celebrated by ancient Copanecos throughout the site’s 400 year history, and his legend lives on today in the key sources on Copan’s archaeology (W. Fash 2001; B. Fash 2011:35-47). He was even the subject of a 2001 PBS documentary, The Lost King of the Maya. ....
How to Identify Real Fakes: A User’s Guide to Mayan “Codices”
by Michael Coe (Yale University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)
Forgeries have long been a scourge to archaeology and art history alike, rearing up whenever money mixes with “excessive desire and bad judgment” (Meyer 1973:103, see also Lapatin 2000:45). According to Ascanio Condivi, even Michelangelo got into the act by passing off one of his carvings as a valuable antiquity (Holroyd 1903:21–22). Yet fakes also serve as fascinating evidence in the history of crime, especially for that special con in which the cleverness of a forger matches wits with scholars.
Fakers may win for a time—think of the “Etruscan warriors” concocted by the brothers Pio and Alfonso Riccardi and later sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art ...
Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya
by Stephen Houston (Brown University)
The Romans and the Greeks before them cherished the taste of a particular resin. Tapped from silphium, a wild plant growing along the coast of North Africa, the flavoring went well with roast meat, brought savor to tripe, udder, and sow’s womb, partnered nicely with vegetables, salted tuna, and sea squirt (an invertebrate anchored to ocean floors), helped digestion, and even went into eye-drops (Dalby 2000:17–19). But its popularity and fussy conditions of growth undid the plant. Grazing sheep displaced its natural habitat, and the last root went down the gullet of the Emperor Nero (Dalby 2000:18).
Beloved foods come and go. How many Europeans still consume garum, that smelly fish sauce—Pliny the Elder called it a “secretion of putrefying matter”—traded throughout the Mediterranean and into the furthest reaches of the Roman empire (Curtis 1983:232)? Legionnaires in a British or German military camp doubtless grumbled if they failed to receive their ration or special issue of oil. In the United States, molasses, a viscous treacle resulting from cane refining, sweetened many foods in the 19th century, but gradually gave way to refined sugars. Boston’s Molasses Disaster of 1919, in which a burst tank released a brown tsunami 15 feet high, killing 21 people, would be unthinkable today, for a variety of reasons (Molasses Disaster; I am told that hot days still trigger a cloying odor in the neighborhood). Mostly, though, such quantities are not needed. Shoofly pie, of gooey molasses, is no longer much on the menu, although it was in my Pennsylvania childhood.
Consider, if one can, another unthinkable: forgetting chocolate or cacao, from a plant found wild and later cultivated in ancient America. Avid debate surrounds the pharmacological effects of this “chemical kaleidoscope”—whether it serves as an anti-depressive or libido enhancer cannot be easily shown ...
A Universe in a Maya Lintel IV: Seasonal Gods and Cosmic Kings
As a form of authority, sacred kingship is both ubiquitous and long-lived. It occurs most everywhere where complex societies exist, and it has endured, until its recent extinction or weakening, for many thousands of years (Oakley 2006:10–11). Yet there are almost as many variants as examples. This is not to deny parallels or traits in common. Typically, sacred rule fuses microcosms (structures at immediate, human scale) with macrocosms (those at vast levels beyond easy comprehension). It also mutes or disguises the vagaries of political life. To make such affairs seem smooth, logical, and predictable, there may be appeals to—or mergers with—eternal cycles, celestial phenomena, and exemplary beings of a supernatural sort. When it comes to kings, what better understanding can there be than Le Roi Soleil of France (Burke 1992), a Hellenistic ruler with radiate, solar crown (Stewart 1993:246) or Jayavarman VII of Khmer civilization, smiling out to us as the Buddha of compassion and mercy (Coe 2003:124)? ...
A Universe in a Maya Lintel III: Configuring Color
by James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Stephen Houston (Brown University), Beth Edelstein (Cleveland Museum of Art), and Brunella Santarelli (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When Teobert Maler arrived in the Usumacinta region, he marveled at the landscape, noting stark contrasts of color and texture while walking among the white limestone cliffs “crowned by towering trees,” with the “nantsin-trees [Byrsonima crassifolia] just unfolding the splendor of their yellow blossoms” (Maler 1901:41). The site of Piedras Negras, Maler observed, took its name from the “splendid sandbanks with blackish limestone rocks rising out of them” (Maler 1901:42)—a distinctive feature now known to result from quarrying for the city. The color world of black, white, yellow, and green that Maler encountered is aggressively evident in the Parque Nacional Sierra Lacandon today, where the site of Laxtunich lies undocumented scientifically, and where the sculptor Mayuy created Laxtunich Lintel 1, his magnum opus.
Color creation and its application to eighth-century Maya monuments reflected the aspirations of Maya artists “to reproduce the effects of prime colorants” in nature (Houston et al. 2009:58). Maya artists made paints, or solid inorganic or organic colored materials suspended in liquid, and lakes, in which organic dyes were combined with inert clays, such as the well-known Maya Blue from indigo. Commonly used pigments included black from carbonized materials, red from hematite, yellow ochre from goethite, and white calcium carbonate (Houston et al. 2009:61-63). Many if not all of these occur on the Laxtunich lintels (Maya Lintel II). ...
A Universe in a Maya Lintel I: The Lamb’s Journey and the “Lost City”
by Andrew Scherer (Brown University), Charles Golden (Brandeis University), Stephen Houston (Brown University), and James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The most complex images often require multiple sets of eyes (and minds) to probe their creation, meaning, and afterlives. Lavished with care at their making, they may, if excavated or looted, embark on journeys to far times and places, beyond any possible imagining by the patrons who commissioned them. This four-part series—on discovery, Classic-era history, color use, and cosmology—targets an enduring enigma in Maya archaeology: a set of two lintels, notable for their preservation and elaborate iconography, seen and photographed by a colorful adventurer, Dana Lamb, in 1950 (Lamb and Lamb 1951:332). The find was of sufficient interest to appear in Ian Graham’s memoir (Graham 2010:462–467), which commented tartly on Lamb’s elastic, even tenuous relation to fact: “[t]he tale [of their discovery] is, of course, ridiculous” (Graham 2010:463). Lamb compounded that absurdity with the map emblazoned on the endpapers of his book (Figure 1). The “Lost City Area” covers half of Peten, Guatemala, the northernmost slivers of the departments of Huehuetenango, Quiche, and the Alta Verapaz, and, with expansive generosity—why not throw them in too?—parts of Campeche, Chiapas, and Tabasco in Mexico. ...
How Maya Scribes Depicted a Solar Eclipses
The total solar eclipse will pass over the United States on August 21, 2017. Being I can't attend, I thought I would celebrate the celestial show by relating how ancient Maya Scribes depicted a similar event in their Classic art and inscriptions.
On the Maya date 188.8.131.52.16 5 Kib 14 Ch'en (15 July 790) a total solar eclipse appeared over Southern Mexico. The local ruler Yax Bahlam at the Chiapa site of Santa Elena/Poco Winik recorded the momentous occasion on Stela 3 using a hieroglyph that specifically depicts the dramatic moment when darkness cloaked the sun...
The Lizard King
The Lizard King
by Stephen Houston (Brown), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Marc Zender (Tulane)
The Maya region abounds in reptiles: by one count there are as many as 240 distinct species in Guatemala alone. It would not be surprising, then, if the Classic Maya took note of them and even mentioned some in their writing. The references could even be exalted, extending to royal names or to those of high nobles. At Bonampak and sites nearby, a ruler (or two) went by the name AJ-SAK-te-le-se/TELES, Aj Sak Teles, “He, the White Lizard” ...
Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty
... To conclude, the Dynastic Vase sequence, against the odds and despite all its errors and unexplained anomalies, has a basis in history and presents the first 19 kings of the Snake dynasty. The texts that seemed so deficient at one time, have begun to suggest that only our understanding of them is inadequate. The direct link between this sequence and a monument at Dzibanche gives us added confidence that this city was indeed the capital of the Early Classic Snake kings, in line with the evidence of names, titles, and a Snake toponym already uncovered there. Though other options have found favor, this is good evidence that the origins of this important dynasty were in modern-day Quintana Roo, Mexico. If we can fathom the puzzles that remain—rather than be bamboozled by numerous chak chay—we might yet cast some light on the structure of the Snake kingdom in its first incarnation. We must hope that future epigraphic finds, from Dzibanche and elsewhere, will ultimately unravel its secrets. If the history of research thus far is anything to go by, there will be more surprises ahead, and yet more opportunities to rethink the “Serpent State.”
A Note on the Sign for TZ’IHB, “Writing, Painting”
vonDavid StuartamMaya Decipherment
Many years ago I wrote on the decipherment of the word tz’ihb, “writing, painting,” in ancient Maya texts (Stuart 1987, 1990). This usually appears in the hieroglyphs as the syllabic sequences tz’i-bi or tz’i-ba, two spellings that probably reflect slight differences in pronunciation and morphology (Figure 1). “Painting” glyphs appear in a variety of settings, including the title for scribes and painters, aj tz’ihb, as well as in glyphs that introduce artists’ signatures (“it is the painting of…”). The most common appears of the term is in the Dedicatory Formula on vessels and other painted objects, where tz’ihbaal specifies the thing’s the mode of decoration (painted vs. carved).
On Dragons, Whales, and Wits’
The Classic Maya may have had their own miraculous versions of dragon skulls and unicorn horns. The presence of shark teeth, including fossilized ones of the immense Carcharocles megalodon, is attested at an Olmec site like La Venta, but also, in Classic contexts, at Palenque, El Zotz, and elsewhere (see a valuable review in Newman 2016; also Borhegyi 1961; Cuevas García 2008:670; Martos López 2009:65; for fossils in Mexico and their earlier interpretation, Mayor 2013). It is likely that these were associated with creatures the artists may never have seen, some from presumed mythic or primordial settings.
The Universe in a Maya Plate
One codex-style masterwork not included in the Kerr’s original study was the unusually large tripod plate studied by Linda Schele and Mary Miller in their landmark exhibition, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Plate” for its dense imagery, cosmogonic themes, and fineness of execution, it is a unique work, with few peers in terms of size, ambition, and care of painting (Figure 1, for a close competitor in quality, see, however, see Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII). In producing a new line drawing of the plate’s great Chahk representation from Justin Kerr’s photos, Doyle quickly realized that advances in knowledge allowed for a fresh study of this masterpiece.
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by Stephen Houston, Brown University
For Justin Kerr, with boundless admiration
Transparency is not always the aim of writing. Signs can also baffle and please by means of scribal ingenuity. Sometimes the puzzle relates to esoteric matters or “magical” diagrams, as in “Sator Squares” from the ancient world. These devices were four-directional palindromes, read left-right, right-left, up-down, down-up, invoking, perhaps, deities and Latin verbs for “work” and “wheels.” Examples exist in far-flung places like Pompeii, Dura-Europos in Syria, (Figure 1, Yale University Art Gallery), and Cirencester, England (Sator Squares). Decidedly pre-Christian, Sator Squares even infiltrated Christian settings of the Early Modern period (St. Barnabas, England). As symbol and puzzle, they clearly had “legs.” Their appeal carried them across millennia.
The Classic Maya seem to have had some fun too. The setting is not a slab or painted wall at Pompeii but a pot that is among the most finely painted to survive from the Classic period. Personally, I find it hopelessly subjective to speak of the “greatest Maya painting on a pot.” (It is an exercise in futility to engage in an aesthetic tournament between past and present standards of beauty.) But here, in this instance, the hyperbole fits (for an image, Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII; also Boot 2008, the first to acquire, study, and disseminate images of the ceramic). Dating to about AD 750, the vase has a named calligrapher, ‘RABBIT’-bu (T’ulub?). Such references are rare. Its presence here signals special esteem for the painter. The pot belonged, as do many of the most carefully executed pot paintings, to a youth. In this case, the boy or teenager was associated with the Peten Itza (‘i-IK’-‘a) region of northern Guatemala