An early Maya metropolis: El Mirador raises questions for archaeologists

Located in the Central Maya Lowlands in what is now northern Guatemala, the Preclassic city of El Mirador was a giant compared to most of its contemporaries. Its massive ruins still tower above the rainforest canopy. They are silent witnesses to Maya ingenuity and the Maya’s ability to sustain such a massive settlement so early in their history. Agriculture involving the cultivation of corn, beans and squash enabled its inhabitants to thrive.

Manmade plaster-lined catchment areas collected water, making up for the absence of rivers. Even in such apparently mundane aspects of city life, the Maya showed their artistic nature.

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisDr. Richard Hansen kneeling next to plastered panel at El Mirador.
(Image courtesy of Dr. Hansen).

In March 2009, archaeologists discovered a series of panels made of carved and modeled-lime plaster that lined a water collection system in an area of the city known as the Central Acropolis. The panels and water collection tanks date to the Late Preclassic period, from 300 B.C. to the beginning of our era. The panels, which flank the series of pools in this unique water control system, depict two “swimming” individuals that are framed by cosmic monsters of great importance in ancient Maya art.

According to Dr. Richard Hansen, who led the team of archaeologists at El Mirador: “[T]he ‘swimmers’ represent the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh.” He is referring to the Quiche Maya text of the Maya creation story, which was found in the highland town of Chichicastenango in A.D. 1700 and transcribed by a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximenez by about 1704 A.D.

Dr. Stephen Houston, who has worked at the neighboring site of El Zotz, says, “These figures represent god impersonators and bear no secure connection to twins in the Popol Vuh.” Instead, he argues,”Perhaps the artists commemorated a narrative of the first rainmakers and their watery assistants. In this way the rulers of El Mirador, through the mechanism of deity impersonation, presented themselves as supernatural agents who controlled the rain.”

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisReplica of the El Mirador panel on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

What we have here is one of the earliest representations to mythical characters we know from the Popol Vuh. The problem is that there is a huge time gap between this plaster panel and the earliest-known document referencing the Popol Vuh. The Newberry Library’s manuscript of this creation story is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. It was transcribed between 1700 and 1715 in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez. Father Brasseur de Bourbourg published a French translation of the text in1861. Images of the title page and first page of the text of the Ximenez manuscript are also on display. An original print of the latter, dating back to 1861, is currently also on display at our Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History exhibit.

An alternative interpretation of what we see in the panel is that it illustrates the role of Maya royalty.  As intermediaries between our physical world and the supernatural one, Maya rulers were called upon to ensure plentiful rains.

Proponents of either hypothesis have reasons to support their line of thinking. Because there are no inscriptions clearly identifying these characters in the water as either mythical heroes or historical rulers from El Mirador, I would favor a third interpretation: we just do not know who is represented here.

Visit Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History through March 31 and draw your own conclusions.

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Editor’s note: This promoted article was provided by the Viceroy Riviera Maya Resort in partnership with HMNS.

As the culture’s healers and spiritual deliverers, shamans have always been held in the highest esteem by the Maya. With their deep, time-honored knowledge of the healing and curative properties of plant life in the forests and seas of the Yucatan, people have traditionally turned to the shamans to cure illnesses and alleviate physical problems. Through rituals, practices, and their intimate connection to the divine, shamans interceded on behalf of the people to influence both malevolent and benevolent spirits.

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While the influence of shamans has receded in the modern world, they still play a significant role in Maya culture. Today, visitors to Cancun and the Riviera Maya can even interact with authentic shamans at local resorts, who value the opportunity to further educate guests about the Maya culture.

For example, the Viceroy Riviera Maya has a shaman on staff who hails from a local Yucatan village and whose grandfather and great-grandfather were village shamans. At Viceroy Riviera Maya, the shaman works at the resort’s spa, where he grows herbs used in treatments and tends the Melipona bees. The stingless Melipona bees were considered the goddesses of all bees by the Maya because they believed their honey had natural healing properties. The hive at the Viceroy Riviera Maya spa, which is in the hollow of a branch of an oak tree, is 70 years old and came from a local Maya village.  The honey is harvested for the Sweet Honey and Rain Massage and other treatments at the spa.

Arriving guests are greeted by the shaman and welcomed with a traditional Maya blessing using smoke from copal, the aromatic tree resin burned at religious ceremonies since ancient times by the Maya. He performs the “Good Wish Maya Ceremony” for couples, a reaffirmation of marital vows involving potent symbols, objects, and rituals from the ancient Maya in a communion with nature. Enacted on the beach, with the bride wearing a handmade Maya dress and the groom in a white linen guayabera (Yucatan shirt), there is a ceremonial exchange of flower bracelets, stirring drums, a conch-shell horn signaling the ritual’s transformations, and flower petals strewn across the waves to preserve the couple’s good wishes.

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Today, travelers come to Cancun and the Riviera Maya for the sun and sand, luxurious resorts and delicious food and drink. But many also look to absorb the lore and history of the Maya culture by visiting the impressive pyramids and archeological sites. By extending their reach to the tourist communities, shamans help to educate visitors about the important spiritual and healing roles they have traditionally performed.

You can travel to the homeland of the ancient and modern Maya and welcome 2013 — with the HMNS Go Out in Style Sweepstakes! Enter today through Dec. 31 for a chance to win two airfare tickets courtesy of Aeromexico and a three-night stay at Viceroy Riviera Maya in a luxury villa. Each villa has a private pool, patio and outdoor shower — not a bad way to start the new year! Click here for details.

Who were the Maya? Who would you have been in ancient Mexico?

Who were the Maya? I’ve become interested in Mayan civilization for various reasons. One, it’s 2012, and there are the obvious accompanying prophecies of the apocalypse. Two, I grew up listening to stories about the Maya as part of my culture.

The Maya people are widely regarded as a civilization ahead of their time — an ancient culture who built great pyramids, created a calendar using the stars, and continue to thrive in the cold, mountainous regions of Guatemala and Southern Mexico as well as in the rainforests of Northern Guatemala and Southern Belize.

2012 Mayan_30x402012: Mayan Prophecies is currently showing in the HMNS Planetarium

But who were the Maya, really? In the 1500s when the Conquistadores arrived in the New World, they came looking for gold, land, and other riches. After colonization they brought religion in the form of Roman Catholicism, and in time, there was a fusion of the old and new worlds. The Maya soon became immersed in the Spanish Empire.

Even though the Olmec are not considered Maya, they did influence the Maya people as they developed and perfected their spectacular architecture of step-pyramids and sacred buildings, beautiful artwork and pottery, and a complicated mathematical and astronomical numerical system.

IMG_1816A Mayan step pyramid

There are three different periods of the Maya culture: The Pre-Classic period (c.1700 BC-250 AD), the Classic period (250-900 AD) and the Post-Classic (900 AD-1546/1697 AD) period.

Pre-Classic Period Maya were modest farmers whose primary crops were corn, squash and beans grown in their gardens. Their houses were mud-covered with thatch roofs.

In the Classical Period, complex cities, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and timekeeping developed. The collapse of the Maya towards the 8th and 9th Century AD left many cities abandoned, while others continued. What incited the Maya’s downfall — and how some cities survived while others fell — remains a mystery. Some hypothesize drought, natural disasters, famine, plagues, disease or possibly war.

Tulum Temple of MuralsThe Tulum Temple of Murals

Post-Classical Period cities in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Highlands of Guatemala, like Chichen Itza, still flourish. It was also during this time that the Maya people started using a simpler timekeeping version of the Mayan Calendar.

Did you know how that the same ancient calendar that has us stockpiling for the apocalypse also helped Mayan babies get their names?

The day a baby was born on the Sacred Calendar would also be their first name. A child’s full name was a combination of the Sacred and Solar Calendar. If you are curious about what your name would have been, there is a kiosk located in our Hall of the Americas where you can enter your date of birth and discover your Mayan name.