JOHN HENDERSON: Archaeologists and art historians have come up with so many new interpretations of Maya text and images in the last couple of decades that it sometimes seems as though Maya archeology has been revolutionized. These new interpretations have certainly enriched our understanding of the ancient Maya, but they haven't changed it completely.
The claims that ancient lords made in their texts need to be looked at with a skeptical eye. They are the raw material of history, but we can't assume that they're factual. They contain biases, and those biases are very hard to understand clearly. They reflect the agendas of the aristocrats who commissioned the texts. In short, they're propaganda.
A good example is the Emblem Glyphs, which translate as "Holy Lord of such and such a city." Most of the lords who used that title in their texts were probably entitled to do that, but we can't always be certain that some of them weren't claiming statuses that they weren't entitled to. Ancient claims about history need the same kind of skeptical view. They're interpretations, not facts-- just like the history that we write. Ancient texts put the past in the light that's most favorable to ancient authors.
In a description that says its protagonist was nth in the succession of kings beginning with such and such an ancestor might very well be recording uncontested fact, but it might also be recording a fictional claim. A text that says the accession of such and such a king happened on a given Long Count date might be recording an event that actually took place then, or it might be a revisionist record that backdates the accession to legitimize some power grab.
The cliche that says "History is lies about the past written by people who weren't there" is equally true of ancient Maya history. Maya inscriptions probably include quite a lot of wishful thinking and maybe some outright lies, too. The Maya concept of history complicates interpreting Maya text even more.
Time with cyclical for the Maya. They didn't make sharp distinctions between the mythical past, the historical past, the present, and the future the way we do. The return of a particular date in the Maya calendar brought with it the same kinds of events that had happened the last time that date had appeared. History, for the Maya, gives a guide to current and future events.
And probably the best example of this is what happened at Tayasal when the Spaniards finally got there at the end of the 17th century. The Itza suggested they go away again until the beginning of the next calendar period because then they expected some kind of an upheaval, so then conversion to Christianity and acceptance of colonial rule were plausible. The Spaniards declined to go away. By the same token, current events gave clues to the past. So if the current situation were at odds with history, the Maya inclination would be to rewrite history.
Yet another complication is the shortage of early inscriptions. Most texts that we have reflect the perspectives of kings who lived late in the histories of their cities. Most early texts survive only because later lords found them useful.
Winners wrote their own history. And in the process, they suppressed whatever was not to their liking. We can rarely see the claims of rival factions, and it's good to remember that factions without the means to write texts, especially texts on stone, have no historical voice.
Maya inscriptions provide wonderful insights into ancient society and politics when we remember that they reflect the strategies of the lords who commissioned them. They're priceless compliments for the artifacts and the architecture that make up the archaeological record proper. The Maya have always been interested in their own history, and they've always looked at it in distinctively Maya ways. Some Maya are now beginning to use the tools and the findings of non-Maya scholarship, and that's going to affect their sense of cultural identity and their roles in the national lives of the countries in which they live in interesting ways. At the same time, it increases our obligation to do justice to the history of one of the world's great cultural traditions.
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Maya civilization is mysterious and fascinating, and probably the least familiar of the great civilizations of the ancient world. This part of CyberTower introduces the ancient Maya, puts them in the context of the larger cultural tradition of ancient Mesoamerica, and provides a point of entry to the sometimes daunting array of more detailed information on their cities, art, and writing.
This video is part 6 of 6 in the Maya Civilization series.