Bonus Post

I can’t even lie when I say that I’ve always been obsessed with the mystery that is the Mayan civilization. Ever since I can remember, the idea of ancient Mayan sites has captured my imagination and I have always dreamed about visiting the site of Tikal or Palenque. Mayan culture fascinates me in every way- from their architecture to their religion- and so I was more than excited to learn more about my favorite ancient society. Needless to say I was not disappointed, especially when I got to write my archaeological site project on a Mayan site that I was not very knowledgeable about in the beginning.

One of my favorite parts about attending class during the Mayan lecture days was the fact that the slides were filled with beautiful, up close shots of the sites that I had never had the opportunity to see before. Of course I have seen the shows on the ancient sites and have seen pictures, but none so fascinating and detailed as the ones on the lecture slides. It was amazing to get a closer look, because it provided me with greater knowledge of the architecture and helped to give a greater insight into the culture.

The ancient Mayans are my favorite because their society was so complex, from social structure to political and trade organization. It was interesting for me to learn the real purpose of playing on the ball courts- it wasn’t for sport most of the time but instead a high stakes game used to settle political or personal disputes. My previous knowledge of the subject was that it was a difficult game to play due to the fact that almost no body parts could be used and the ball was so heavy, but I was not aware of the underlying reasons for playing the game. Maybe that’s why it was so difficult? So that whoever won the game really was winning based on skill and not just luck, because I highly doubt you could win that just by being lucky.

To me, Mayan civilization is always going to be the one that fascinates me until the very end. The breathtaking architecture, complex and intriguing social structure, and religious beliefs coupled with the fact that there is still so much information to take from the Mayans will always make me eager to learn more. This was definitely my favorite aspect of class and I wish we could have spent more time on it!

Diego de Landa

Diego de Landa is a person who changed the course of Mayan history forever, and as most of these stories, go the outcome was not a positive one. Diego de Landa was a Spanish priest who was given the task of converting the Mayan people to Catholicism, and in the process almost singlehandedly destroyed the Mayan language.

How did one person wipe away a whole ancient civilization’s language, making deciphering the carved symbols on discovered artifacts so difficult? De Landa accomplished this through burning books and religious idols that would have helped to give insight to the language and other aspects of Mayan life. This was not to say that he was an evil person, he was just very passionate about converting other people to Catholicism and so anything disputing his religion needed to change. While he felt sympathy for the Mayans who were facing disease and societal collapse, the matter of religion took precedent as he believed that by converting the people they could be saved. De Landa was fervently against the practice of human sacrifice, something that the late Mayans performed as a form of appeasement to the gods. He felt he needed to rid Mayan society of this barbaric practice and so attempted to destroy all text, art, statue or physical manifestation of the idea of sacrifice altogether. In doing so, he burned many books in an effort to rid Mayan society of their “evils”, including the idea of sacrifice and their other pagan rituals. Performing somewhat of his own inquisition in the Yucatan, he rid the Mayans of their texts and stripped them of their beliefs and practices, something that did not bode well with the people.

After what he believed to be a successful conversion, it did not take de Landa very long to discover that the people were not pleased with him and that things were not going as smoothly as he originally believed. Upon discovering that some members of society were still worshipping old gods, retaining their original beliefs, and still performing religious ceremonies, de Landa devised a brutal plan. He decided to jail and torture many people, in some cases murdering them if he found them suspicious or guilty of going against the Catholic church. In doing so, he angered the church, who declared his actions to be too harsh and unwarranted. His actions were investigated but were cleared by the church, and he then went on to be appointed to bishop of Yucatan.

After realizing the error of his ways, de Landa decided to write a book on Mayan history, called Relación de las cosas de Yucatán in 1566. After destroying much of the Mayan language and culture, de Landa’s choice of chronicling the civilization is odd. It can be noted that de Landa actually felt remorse later for the way he treated the Mayan people while he was investigating their outlawed religious practices, and felt this was a way to correct his errors. The book was important in helping to decode the hieroglyphics that were written all over Mayan sites and in the discovered texts and artwork, because it provided the full Mayan alphabet as well as ways to sound out the words phonetically. However this deciphering did not happen until the late 1800s to early 1900s because the book was not published until then. With the addition of de Landa’s information, roughly 1/3 of all Mayan hieroglyphs were able to be decoded, a number that is much higher today.

While de Landa was a detrimental person to the fate of the Mayans, he did contribute sufficiently to the understanding of the language and culture with the detailed descriptions in his book. With that being said, there really is nothing to admire about the man. The fact that he treated the Mayans so poorly, tried to get them to abandon their own beliefs and practices with the use of violence and fear, along with the fact that he attempted to destroy one of the most major pieces of their civilization demonstrates his true character. While he tried to make up for it in the end, his whole plan was extremely counterintuitive. De Landa could have saved himself a whole lot of time, effort, and work if he would have left the Mayans in peace in the first place.

 

 

The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

While learning about the Mississippians, one of my favorite topics of discussion was their religion. To me, studying the religious interactions of a society and its people are some of my favorite aspects of learning about a culture, as it gives a much deeper context of who they really were and what attitudes they had about the world around them. I decided to build upon the information we learned in class and do some additional research on my own, discovering a few new things I thought I’d share.

Among the many symbols and motifs that the Mississippians believed held significance, one of the more intriguing pieces of the belief system is the idea of the sacred fire. While it was not mentioned in class as a focal point of the religion, I found that the concept behind it was very important. The basic premise behind the idea of the sacred fire is that there would be a fire lit (fire was important because it was representative of the sun) and it would have to stay lit with the exception of one time each year. There was symbolic meaning behind this- the fire being extinguished and then re-lit would represent a new beginning, or the beginning of the first corn harvest, which was a time for much celebration (also known as Thanksgiving). If the fire were to go out at any point during the time when it was designated to be lit, there were many concerns and fears in the community at the reasoning behind it and if it was human error or a sign from the gods. The extinguishing of a fire at an improper time was considered to be a threat, as the protection given to the people and the surrounding land from the fire had been lost.

Another fascinating aspect of the Mississippian belief system is the burial objects representing religious ideas and icons. Just like many other cultures, the Mississippians had very distinct beliefs about afterlife and the importance of religious objects being buried with the dead. When people died, they were buried with copper plates, various pottery items, bowls, pots, cups, clay figurines, etc., all featuring religious pictures or inscriptions. Common themes that were painted or engraved onto the items were usually representative of the above or below world (snakes, insects, birds) or the middle world (humans, animals). Most of the drawings included in the burial were those of a combination of both factors of the above and below world, as that combination was seen to join the powers of both worlds to best benefit the humans in the middle world. I found this combination symbol a very powerful idea, as I was under the impression that the main goal and desire was to avoid the below world and focus on the above world. Combining the powers of both worlds is an interesting concept to think about and makes me want to delve deeper into more of the reasoning behind this and the beliefs about these combinations.

 

The Sudanese Necropolis

As I was perusing the internet the other day, I stumbled across an article recently published by Scientific American discussing an archaeological find in Sudan: pyramids. 35 of them to be exact, filling an area a bit bigger than an NBA basketball court. Instantly intrigued, I decided to read more about this discovery at a site referred to as Sedeinga, and discovered that there were some links to what we have previously discussed in class.

The pyramids, built around 2,000 years ago, were built in the time when the kingdom of Kush existed in Sudan (which bordered Egypt), and were thus influenced by the pyramids and the mortuary temples of Egypt. These pyramids, which took hundreds of years to complete, were not as grand as the great pyramids of Egypt. In Egypt, pyramids were built on an ornate scale no matter which royal was to be buried, whereas in Sudan the pyramids found were of varying sizes, suggesting that for different ages of people needing to be buried their pyramids were sized accordingly. The archaeological evidence supports this: a few of the largest pyramids were around 22 feet wide and were found next to the graves of adults, and one of the smallest pyramids was only 30 inches long and was found next to a grave of a child. I found this contrast between the two societies to be very interesting and can’t help but wonder if this was due to either financial concerns related to the costs of building large pyramids or a different belief system regarding the importance of the afterlife.

Another difference between the pyramids in Egypt and the pyramids in Sudan is that in Egypt, the pharaohs and queens were buried directly inside of their pyramids, while in the necropolis in Sudan, individuals were buried next to their pyramids. The reasoning behind this has not been confirmed, although it is inferred that the purpose behind this was to trick looters into thinking there was nothing there of value. Eventually this backfired, because the graves were discovered and heavily pillaged. However, this is not to say that nothing was left, as archaeologists did find some artifacts depicting ancient gods as well as some skeletal remains.

Finally, the last difference of interest to me was the fact that in the Sedeinga site, all of the pyramids were literally squeezed in next to each other, and the architects continued to build this way until the space was exhausted. In contrast, Egypt’s pyramids may have been built in the same area as others, but unlike the Sudanese pyramids, the architects in Egypt planned for the pyramids to have their own separate area to create distinction. The necropolis in Sudan was so crowded with pyramids and graves that eventually the older graves had to be reused for new burials, and in Egypt this would be unheard of.

For being so close geographically, the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan are vastly different. I hope that further research is done to try to understand the context of the Sudanese necropolis that could be compared to that of Egypt, which might answer some questions about the new discovery that is the pyramids of Sedeinga.

 

If you would like to read the article for yourself:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=35-ancient-pyramids-discovered

The Great and Mysterious Sphinx

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The Sphinx is possibly one of the most easily recognizable ancient statues in the world, but how many people truly know about its history or why it was built? After watching the movie on Egypt in class the other day, which discussed the Sphinx, I decided to delve deeper into its origins to discover more about this ancient wonder.

Built as a monument to King Khafre in Giza, the Sphinx commands attention partly because of its size. Possibly the largest stone monument ever made by human hands, this giant limestone statue is about 260 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 65 feet tall, making it something to marvel at. Behind the Sphinx sits a temple and the second largest pyramid in Egypt, Khafre’s final resting place. Imposing because of its sheer enormity, the Sphinx was built as a symbol of strength and power: the bigger the statue, the more awe it inspired. A Sphinx statue is usually composed of a man’s head on top of the body of a lion, which most often symbolizes an incarnation of Rah, the sun god. Interestingly enough, the Sphinx was built to face the rising sun, which would lead one to the conclusion that this is the effect that Khafre was going for during construction.

One of the great mysteries regarding the Sphinx that I find so intriguing is the idea that after construction, the face of the statue was altered. Looking at the statue, it is easy to discern that the head is actually smaller than the body, evoking a question in my mind. Is the difference in size due to natural or human causes? There are a few theories researchers have for each. One is the idea that natural elements (wind, water, and heat) have slowly been eroding away the defining features of the Sphinx over time. Another idea is that the stone the statue was built with was of poor quality and has been eroding since the day it was erected, which would account for how it looks now. The last and most interesting theory to me is the idea that the Sphinx was altered by humans, who carved a human head from the larger head of the lion, as this would account for the size difference. But then many questions arise. Who carved it and why? Was it Khafre, attempting to make himself look more powerful? Did he change his mind after construction was complete and wish to have his face remembered for centuries to come instead of a lion’s? After all, the rest of the body is that of a lion, would it be too difficult to presume the original face was that of a lion also? Contradictory to these ideas is the original concept of the Sphinx, which is that of a human head on a lion’s body, so this statue would be following traditional ideals and might make other speculations false.

Whether or not you buy into the idea that humans altered the Sphinx or not, it is definitely a topic for discussion. There are many questions that arise when looking at pictures and the placement of features of the Sphinx that could honestly be argued either way. In my opinion, the Sphinx will always be an intriguing feature that is shrouded in mystery.