Art, Text and Mayan Dismemberment

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t LIe

In the 19th and early 20th century, archaeologists had a bad habit of using texts and art as their primary source of evidence, and using the archaeological material as a way to further understand and support art. For the most part, it was felt that text and art from the past was directly reflective of what was occurring in that period- therefore archaeology would only serve to further demonstrate what was already known. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that archaeology began being used to disprove or contradict history, and was fully employed as an independent form of evidence.

Mayan art depicting heart removal

Mayan art depicting heart removal

A great example of this is the decline of Rome and rise of barbarian kingdoms in the early medieval period. Art and texts from around this period or reflecting on this period portray it as a time of destruction, decline of infrastructure and trading, and overall the loss of civilization. It is from art and text that this period became known as the Dark Ages, where barbarian hoards entered Western Europe and destroyed the Roman Civilization, plunging man into a period of squalor and misery that wasn’t rectified until the Renaissance. Archaeologists are now able to show that this isn’t quite true. In fact, trade continued throughout the period, many Roman institutions were maintained by the new Germanic elite, the empire was in decline prior to their migration in, and it really wasn’t all that ‘dark’. The art and texts showing this period as dark may have been more propaganda to show the glory of the present in light of the past, or in order to show the problems of the barbarians prior to conversion, a likely truth given that most texts were written by religious individuals.

Mayan art has been known to be fairly violent in its depiction of what happens to captives and sacrificial victims. Iconography shows clearly that heads were being taken as trophies and individuals were dismembered after battle, and ethnographic texts seem to support this image of violence, citing events where prisoners of war received a brutal end. Both text and art can be biased. The art may have been to scare off rivals and display power, and the ethnographic text was often elaborated by the colonial authors to display how barbaric the natives were. It is only recently that archaeologists are examining the actually evidence for this type of behavior. Excavations at Teotihuacan in the 1990s and 2000s recovered 200 individuals who appeared to be part of a mass sacrifice at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and more recently found caches of skulls and burials of headless bound males at the Temple of the Moon.

Dismembered skeletal remains from the Mayan cave, via Nicolaus Seefeld/Uni Bonn

Dismembered skeletal remains from the Mayan cave, via Nicolaus Seefeld/Uni Bonn

Most recently, researchers of the Department of Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn have discovered a 1,400 year old mass grave within the Mayan city of Uxul. Various signs of trauma and marks on the bones provide solid evidence that the individuals who were buried in there were decapitated and dismembered. In total, 24 individuals have been recovered. The bones of these individuals were spread throughout the cave, and while this could have meant that they were disarticulated following a burial and moved here later, the presence of some articulation and detailed excavation revealed they were dismembered. Many have hatchet marks on the neck bones indicating decapitation, and some have violent trauma unrelated to the dismemberment like blows to the front of the skull.

The identity of the individuals buried within is yet unknown, though they may have been war prisoners or sacrificial victims. The 24 individuals include 13 men and 2 women aged from 18-42 years, and the remaining 9 individuals were unable to be aged or sexed. Many were malnourished and had bad teeth, though some of the dentition had jade inserts indicative of high social status. With isotope analysis being done in the near future, more on these individuals will be revealed- especially whether they were high or low status, and if they were local or foreign.

In the case of the Mayans, art and text are proved by the archaeological evidence. However, even in cases where evidence supports, it is important to view each strand of evidence- text, art, ethnographic accounts, archaeology- as independent of one another, and then view them all as a whole to determine their meaning. They may support or contradict, either way, it is important to get a lot of independent evidence before drawing any conclusion.

Works Cited

Seefeld 2013. Maya dismembered their enemies. Eureka Alert.

Berryman 2007. Captive Sacrifice and Trophy Taking Among the Ancient Maya. In The taking and displaying of human body parts as trophies by Amerindians. pp 377-39

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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