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Millenia-old artifacts at San Antonio Museum of Art reveal power dynamics among Maya communities

Jiawen Chen
for Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Museum of Art curator Bernadette Cap shows off Maya artifacts that she helped uncover in Buenavista del Cayo, Belize.

The past doesn’t always shout through words on pages. Sometimes it has to be pieced together bit by tedious bit with the hints concealed beneath our feet.

Such is the case with the current exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art entitled Nature, Power, and Maya Royals: Recent Discoveries from the Site of Buenavista del Cayo. Ending on Feb. 27, it displays artifacts of Maya royalty that were excavated by a team of archeologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio, led by professors Kathryn Brown and Jason Yaeger. (Maya is the term used for the culture and civilization both past and present, while Mayan is the term for the language, which is still spoken today.)

Found in Belize, these ornate ceramic vessels and intricately carved jewelry reveal how the Maya elite used certain symbols of nature in their art as a way to assert a high status. Bernadette Cap, Ph.D, is the curator of the exhibit and participated in the excavations. She explained just how much power these elites wielded.

“They are controlling writing, so they’re controlling the storytelling of the past. They control the art that we see,” Cap said.

And the art that museum visitors see from this excavation has contributed to the study of Maya civilization. Cap mentioned that Belize was once considered amongst scholars as a “backwater” for research, but this site at Buenavista del Cayo is now “adding to the political history of the region.”

It is doing so by revealing the important role that smaller communities played in Maya society overall.

“You have to have these other smaller communities supporting” the larger kingdoms for civilization to function, she explained.

The proof of just how much power these smaller communities possessed, of course, is in the artifacts. Despite being buried underground for well over 1,000 years — since the Maya Classic period — the artifacts have been restored to reveal their complex, detailed beauty.

Jiawen Chen
For Texas Public Radio
Diagram of the 2019 Buena Vista del Cayo archeological excavation with the locations of where the artifacts were found within the tomb.

Cap noted that the artifacts inside this tomb confirm that it contained the remains of a king who ruled over the kingdom of KomKom. Moreover, this was a king affiliated with the Underworld. Two main elements show why. One is the marine nature of the artifacts. Much of the jewelry found within was made of seashells, which symbolize the Maya’s watery Underworld. The other was the presence of monkey imagery (seen in the vessel lid below and the backside of the pendant below), an animal that, according to Maya legend, originated in the Underworld.

Jiawen Chen
For Texas Public Radio
Royal shell pendant, enlarged from diagram above.

Roughly the circumference of a softball, this intricately carved shell pendant is one of the highlights of the exhibit. Cap explained that it would have been worn like a necklace (hence the two pinholes where it would have been strung) as a symbol of authority, much like a European king’s crown.

The face on the right is that of an ancestor in the king’s royal lineage. Cap explained they know this because it is bookended by decorations that represent the sky realm, where Maya believed their ancestors dwelled. This takes up the right half of the pendant, while on the left half are five discrete glyphs, symbols that made up Maya’s writing system. When read together, the glyphs read, “This is the pendant of Naah Uti’ K’ab, king of Komkom.”

Jiawen Chen
For Texas Public Radio
Ceramic lid with monkey head handle

Cap said this lid was strategically placed in the king’s burial because it contained many markers of the king’s authority. Monkeys represented writing and art, which required privileged access to education. The lid also contains the “mat sign,” the braided incisions on the right side, “which is a distinct and exclusively used symbol of elite authority.” It is also an incense burner with holes in the mouth, ears, and nostrils for placing copal incense.

“You can look underneath and you can see the burning spots.”

Beneath the lid in the display case is a round vessel with which the lid was buried, and it too contains distinct symbols of his authority. Small circles representing cocoa beans form a band around the vessel’s bottom.

“Chocolate is something that is also exclusively used by elites,” Cap added.

Jiawen Chen
For Texas Public Radio
The two vases on the right were excavated from the Buenavista del Cayo site while the one on the left is from the museum’s permanent collection.

Painstakingly put back together by a restorer from Guatemala, these vessels are essential for understanding power dynamics within Maya society. Maya civilization didn’t operate as a centralized empire with only one ruler. Instead, it was a collection of independent kingdoms, and “these types of vessels were used as signaling devices between elites, rulers, nobles, as symbols of their authority” amongst each other.

On all three vessels, jaguar symbolism is salient. The opposite side of the vessel on the right portrays a king dressed in jaguar skin with a jaguar skin pennant sitting on a jaguar pelt throne. As the most powerful animal in their world, the revered jaguar was used as a symbol of authority. Elites had exclusive use of their imagery and pelts. The vessel in the middle shows an interaction between a jaguar (on the right) and a coatimundi (on the left), which Cap believes symbolizes the king with his advisers. Beneath them the mat sign of authority is evident.

Intriguingly, the vase on the left is labeled “enema jaguar.” “Maya kings gave themselves enemas,” it turns out. Cap didn’t seem to want to belabor this point.

This one-room exhibit reveals just how mighty Maya royalty could be through the elaborate artwork that they patroned. But visitors only have about one more month to see it.

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Daniel Ramirez writes about community connections and the local environment. Although he has lived throughout the contiguous U.S., he is a native San Antonian. He can be reached at danielramirez85@gmail.com.