Each year millions of tourists
travel to Mexico’s Yucatán to visit the ruins of Chichén
Itzá. For many, Chichén Itzá offers a first
glimpse into the world of the Maya, the most advanced ancient civilization
on the American continent. The grandeur of its buildings and the
mysterious beauty of the hieroglyphic inscriptions that adorn them
inevitably stagger the visitor. And the treacherous climb to the
top of Chichén Itzá’s central pyramid offers
a view of the world that the Maya inhabited for thousands of years—dense
jungle populated by jaguars, iguanas and myriad birds, and scattered
with temples and religious structures.
The Temple of the Warriors and Group of the Thousand Columns
at Chichén Itzá reveal the impressive scale
of the ancient city.
More than 500 people will gather this month at The University of
Texas at Austin to expand their view of Chichén Itzá
and the Maya world at the annual Maya Meetings at Texas. The 10-day
conference is widely recognized as the most important such meeting
in the world, bringing the foremost scholars in Maya studies—archaeologists,
epigraphers, art historians, anthropologists and others—together
with students, contemporary Maya people from Mexico and Guatemala
and Maya enthusiasts of many backgrounds.
This year’s meetings run March 6 through March 15, and the
focus is on Chichén Itzá and its neighbors, including
the nearby site of Ek Balam, where important discoveries have been
made in the past five to 10 years. Participants will hear about
the latest findings in Maya studies, and they’ll also be treated
to the energetic, even chaotic atmosphere that has long made the
Maya Meetings so exciting.
Only here can a retired businessman with an interest in the Maya
pore over a hieroglyphic inscription with a key epigrapher in the
field. At the same time, experts in the late pre-classic period
may be seated around a table brainstorming together. Beginners may
be struggling through decoding their first hieroglyph. The Maya
Meetings are a place where anything can happen.
“It’s like making a soup, and you just start throwing
things in and heating it up, and it begins to boil and takes on
a flavor of its own,” says Peter Keeler, who directs the Maya
Meetings. “This is an important part of why we’ve had
so many important breakthroughs in understanding here, because everybody’s
welcome, and everybody’s ideas are welcome. It’s a full-fledged
The Maya Meetings are organized by the Center for the History of
Ancient American Art and Culture (CHAAAC, a name chosen because
of its similarity to the Maya rain god Chaak) in the College of
Fine Arts. They were created in 1977 as the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshops
by the late Linda Schele (pronounced SHEE-lee), a professor in the
Department of Art and Art History, who until her death in 1998 was
considered the greatest Maya scholar in the world.
This typical hieroglyph, carved in stone, shows the artistic
qualities of the Maya writing system.
Schele permanently changed the field of Maya studies by working
with others to decipher the hieroglyphic language that unlocked
the history of the Maya. Moreover, her warm personality, accessible
books and inclusive approach to scholarship inspired countless others
to study the Maya.
“She was the most down-to-earth and exuberant, natural person
you could meet,” says Dr. Julia Kappelman. “She was
also a genius.”
Schele approached her career with the sense of a quest. In 1970,
she was teaching art at the University of South Alabama and was
what she described as “a fair to middling painter” when
she and her husband took a Christmas trip to Mexico. What was meant
to be a two-hour visit to the ruins at Palenque in Chiapas turned
into a 12-day visit, which fueled a lifelong passion.
In the film “Edgewalker: A Conversation with Linda Schele,”
Schele explains that as an artist, she had “built up an anticipation
of what it would be like to see a society in which art is central
to its existence instead of peripheral as it is to us.”
“When I walked into Palenque I saw what I had anticipated,”
she says, “and I saw that kind of dream materialized into
a real place, and I became obsessed with trying to understand who
had done it and why.”
At the time that Schele visited Palenque, scholars still believed
that the cryptic hieroglyphic language decorating Maya buildings
had nothing to do with Maya history. But in 1973, at a small conference
dedicated to Maya art and culture at Palenque, Schele and scholar
Peter Mathews deciphered a major section of the Palenque king list.
They had rediscovered the history of the city that had been forgotten
for 1,000 years, and they had demonstrated that the hieroglyphs
were historic in nature. It was a stunning achievement.
Schele’s drawing of a tablet showing Janaab Pakal, Palenque’s
most famous king, receiving a headdress from his mother. He
sits on a double-headed jaguar bench. The hieroglyphs in the
tablet name both figures.
It was the first of many. For the next 25 years, Schele worked
with others to decode the hieroglyphs, and a new story of the Maya
emerged. Previously mythologized as a civilization of pacifists
and stargazers, the Maya were actually a people of great pageantry.
They relished bloodletting, be it in battle, sacrifice, or on the
playing field, and they were very much concerned with war. Their
world was organized into warring city-states, and their writing
speaks of dynastic struggle, marriage politics and the creation
of the universe.
In her many articles, essays and co-written books, Schele made
this world accessible to the public. She never forgot how when she
first fell in love with the Maya, she was welcomed into the fold
without any scholarly background, and she was committed to maintaining
that sense of inclusiveness. She also enthusiastically welcomed
“I cannot describe to you,” she wrote, “the sheer
joy of working with colleagues who follow different approaches…agreeing
about many things, combining ideas and data, debating, playing together
until a new kind of understanding emerges from the collaboration
that would never come from any one of us alone.”
Her spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness is very much alive
at the Maya Meetings, where the varied mix of people and expertise
is unlike anyplace else.
The meetings begin on March 6 with the two-day Texas Symposium
featuring scholarly talks for a general audience by key scholars
in the field of Maya studies. On the evening of March 7, Mathews
will give an introductory public lecture “Introducing Maya
Glyphs,” which will provide an introduction to the weekend
This year’s forum will consist of 12 hours of lectures, with
comment and discussion from the audience. The Long Workshops that
follow from March 10 to 15 are designed to provide an intensive
hands-on experience in deciphering real glyph texts. While beginners
may decode their first texts ever, scholars may be meeting in think-tanks
and breaking new ground in the field.
teaching contemporary Maya people how to read hieroglyphs,
Schele tried to “give back to them the tools they need
to recover their past.”
Photo: David Schele
When Schele died of pancreatic cancer in 1998 after teaching at
the university for 18 years, her work had made the Department of
Art and Art History the primary place in the world to study Mesoamerican
art and Maya hieroglyphic writing. To ensure the continuation of
what she had begun, Schele and her husband generously established
the financial groundwork for the Linda and David Schele Chair in
Mesoamerican Art and Writing in the College of Fine Arts. That position
is held today by CHAAAC Director Nikolai Grube.
CHAAAC itself was established in 2000 with a gift from William
and Bettye Nowlin, who also issued a challenge grant to encourage
others to support the program. CHAAAC is sponsoring the excavation
of several important temple-pyramids at the Maya site of Palenque,
a project being directed by University of Texas at Austin graduate
student Alfonso Morales. In addition, CHAAAC helps coordinate the
J.D. Sibley Family Conference on World Traditions of Art and Culture.
This year’s conference in November will focus on Peru’s
Moche civilization, an area of specialty for CHAAAC’s Dr.
As well as sponsoring the Maya Meetings that Schele pioneered in
1977, CHAAAC continues to support her other work, including her
goal of bringing discoveries about the Maya hieroglyphs to contemporary
Palace at Palenque, with a view of the courtyards and “houses”
that make up the complex.
Although people tend to think of the Maya as a lost civilization,
there are still more than 10 million people living in Mexico and
Guatemala who are ethnically Maya. While some are scholars, teachers,
lawyers or modern professionals of all sorts, many live in ways
little different from how their ancestors lived, in thatch-roofed
structures with walls of wood poles and mud. They often have corn,
the sacred grain and a staple in their diet, planted near the house,
and practice rituals descended directly from those practiced a few
thousand years ago.
But while they still speak Maya languages, contemporary Maya were
until recently unable to read Maya writing. At the invitation of
indigenous Maya academics in Guatemala, Schele and colleagues, including
Nikolai Grube, organized 13 Hieroglyphic Workshops in Guatemala
and Mexico between 1988 and 1997. For the first time in history,
Maya could read and ultimately write using the hieroglyphic inscriptions
of their ancestors. Through CHAAAC, Grube and others, including
university graduate students, continue that work.
Maya hieroglyphic writing is now part of the curriculum in Maya
schools. Maya newspapers and publications spell headlines and titles
in Maya hieroglyphics as well as roman letters, and children have
learned to write their names using the Maya writing system.
Most important, learning their writing system has given the Maya
the tools to recover and reclaim their history.
“The Maya are people who have had their history and mental
sovereignty ripped away from them and kept away from them for 500
years,” Schele said, “and it is a basic human right
to control your own history.”
Each year, CHAAAC brings a group of contemporary Maya to the Maya
Meetings, where they can interact with participants and be part
of the dialogue about their own ancestral culture. Friendships are
forged and world views are expanded.
Expanding our view of the world was one of Schele’s driving
forces and propels those at CHAAAC today. With their grand temples,
incredible art work and rich culture, it’s clear why the Maya
capture the imagination. But uncovering clues to the Maya also offers
us a chance to view the world from an alternative perspective. And
working through that perspective not only offers a better picture
of the Maya, but also of ourselves.
“To me history is not a fixed set of events,” Schele
said. “History is a changing relationship between events of
the past and living people. That’s why we have to write it
over and over and over again, because our relationship to the past
is under continual change. But without that past, we don’t
know who we are.”
[For more information about the 2003 Maya Meetings at The University
of Texas at Austin, visit the Maya
Meetings Web site or call 512-471-6292.]