Ancient Maya bookmakers get paged in Guatemala

Discoveries peg ritual specialists as central to bark-paper tomes and wall murals

Taaj mural

RITUAL LINEUP  In this reconstruction of a mural at the Maya site of Xultun, ritual specialists called taaj sit in a row at a royal ceremony. Researchers say the painting shows a high-ranking taaj (far right) who was buried next to the mural room.

Illustration by Heather Hurst (© 2014), courtesy of San Bartolo-Xultun Archaeological Project

Excavations at a more than 1,200-year-old Maya settlement in Guatemala suggest that ritual specialists made sacred books in a room where they also painted murals and astronomical tables on the walls. The new findings offer a rare glimpse of the people who created and wrote Maya books.

At least two men buried near the mural room, located in a residential sector of an ancient Maya city called Xultun, took part in making bark-paper, stucco-coated codex books, say Boston University archaeology doctoral candidate Franco Rossi and his colleagues. One man was interred in an addition to the mural room constructed when the original chamber was filled in with limestone and mud, closing it down, Rossi’s group reports January 5 in American Anthropologist.

“The mural room was sealed off and turned into this individual’s mausoleum,” Rossi says.

Two pendants found with the man’s skeleton identify him as an important ritual specialist depicted in the murals, the researchers propose. On one painted wall, the man — wearing one of the pendants hanging from his neck and the other attached to his headdress — sits below hieroglyphics that dub him a senior taaj. Two smaller men sitting next to him bear the title of junior taaj. Only those designated as taaj would have had the knowledge to calculate and write the calendrical tables in the mural room and, presumably, in codex books, Rossi says.

BOOK MAN Researchers suspect that this ancient Maya man, buried in a crypt with pottery and two pendants, was a high-ranking ritual specialist involved in making codex books and painting murals in an adjacent room. He is shown in reversed positions in the photograph and the drawing. Aviva Cormier (photo), H. Hurst, L. Hammon, F. Rossi (art), courtesy of San Bartolo-Xultun Archaeological Project

Several other Maya sites from the same time contain written references to ritual specialists known as taaj, but their duties are poorly understood, Rossi says. The word taaj means obsidian, possibly a reference to the involvement of these ritual specialists in royal sacrificial rites that included bloodletting with obsidian blades.

In a related paper in the February Antiquity, Boston University archaeologist William Saturno, Rossi and other team members describe who and what was portrayed in the Xultun murals. Images painted on the room’s stucco walls show members of a taaj order celebrating a new year’s ritual with their ruler, the researchers say. Artists and ritual specialists collaborated to create the murals, Saturno and colleagues suspect.

Saturno’s group previously reported that writing and numbers painted on the mural room’s walls referred to lunar and planetary cycles known from Maya codex books (SN: 6/16/12, p. 10). One wall includes a section with three sets of inscriptions repainted over added layers of stucco, suggesting walls were used as scratch pads to construct astronomical tables.

New analyses find that astronomical writing in the mural room corresponds to passages from three of four surviving codex books. Those books were created at least 400 years after Maya civilization fragmented around A.D. 900. Other bark-paper books dating to before A.D. 900 were destroyed by Spanish conquerors in the 16th century.

Another clue that codex production occurred in the mural room lay beneath the structure’s floor, where researchers found a tool that was used to pound fig-tree bark into paper. Known as a bark beater, this item was apparently placed beneath the floor as a ceremonial offering.

A grave excavated in an adjoining patio contained a man’s skeleton holding another bark beater and a round tool needed for smoothing plaster, such as that used to coat the mural room’s walls and the pages of codex books. This man was an artisan but not a taaj, Rossi says.

New findings from Xultun strengthen suspicions that eighth century Maya writing and bookmaking were primarily male pursuits, says archaeologist Patricia McAnany of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It’s unclear why the two Xultun graves contain no paint pots, since Maya hieroglyphics depict scribes with these tools of their trade, remarks anthropologist David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis. Some Maya rulers were buried with paint pots, raising the possibility that royals claimed sole status as scribes, perhaps to enhance their status, Freidel says.

ANCIENT CEREMONY In this reconstruction of mural at the Maya site of Xultun, a man labeled with hieroglyphics as a “junior taaj” kneels before Xultun’s ruler during a ritual that probably concerned the Maya new year. An attendant pokes out from behind the ruler’s throne. Illustration by Heather Hurst (© 2014), courtesy of San Bartolo-Xultun Archaeological Project

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on February 2, 2015, to correct the issue date for the study published in Antiquity, and on February 3 to correct the shape of the tool used for smoothing plaster. 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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