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DISCOVERY MAGAZINE

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Nikolai K. Grube

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The Creation of Maya History


Only twenty-five years ago hardly anybody knew where to place the word Maya on a map of Latin America. Yet today the Maya are probably the best-known native civilization of the Americas. The enormous popularity of the Maya and Maya research goes back to the work of UT student and professor Linda Schele. Until her death in 1998, she was recognized around the world as the greatest scholar in the field of Maya studies. Her early death was not only a tragic loss for the field, but also for the University of Texas where she taught pre-Columbian art and writing. Through her legacy she continues to stimulate scholars and the public alike.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
Profile of a preclassic stucco portrait head of Tier 4 on the North Palace substructure. All photographs courtesy of the Linda Schele Archives at the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
Linda, a Tennessee-born artist, discovered her love for the Maya in 1970 when she and her husband David went for a vacation across the border, heading for the Maya ruins that cover the entire Yucatan peninsula. On their way they stopped in Palenque, one of the most beautiful Maya cities, embedded in the lush jungle of Chiapas and overlooking the tropical lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast.

At that time not much was known about the ruins of Palenque and their ancient population. Elegant temples with fragile roof ornaments stood on steep pyramids and one of these, named the Temple of the Inscriptions, had yielded just twenty years earlier the impressive tomb of an important lord. But no one was able to speak his name nor were the dates of his birth and death known when Linda and David were first enraptured by the mystery of this place.

The largest building of Palenque, known as the Palace, consists of a collection of vaulted rooms arranged around spacious courtyards. Many of its walls still carry their original stucco decoration—portraits of lords, images of gods and long hieroglyphic inscriptions masterfully modeled into the stucco and then painted in vivid colors by the ancient Maya artists.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
Drawing by Linda Schele
Stone panel from Tonina shows Palenque’s unfortunate king K’an Joy Chitam as a captive. His arms are bound and his precious jade earspools have been replaced by wooden sticks and paper. Another sign of his humiliation is the lack of shoes or sandals. The hieroglyphs provide not only the king’s name but also the date when he was captured by “Ruler 4” of Tonina on August 26, 711.
Linda and David Schele made it to the Yucatan peninsula only briefly. They returned to stay at Palenque enchanted by the splendor of this mysterious city with its strangely beautiful messages that nobody before had been able to decode. Because of Palenque Linda decided to become a Maya scholar. In 1973 Linda went back to Palenque, this time as a scholar who wanted to understand the messages written and carved in stone. A small group of passionate Mayanists had come together in the house of art historian Merle Greene Robertson who lived at Palenque and had spent many years recording the stone and stucco sculpture, wall paintings and architecture of this ancient Maya city.

Here Linda met a young Australian student, Peter Mathews, who also was driven by the desire to learn more about the history of the city. On a long afternoon Linda and Peter Mathews sat together over a collection of drawings of the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Palenque and, by careful comparison of the structure of the texts as well as the dates which earlier scholars had been able to read in them, they found the name glyphs and the dates for the birth, accession and death of rulers of Palenque. All of a sudden they rediscovered the history of the city that had been forgotten for more than 1,000 years.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
Arial view of Palace, Temple of the Inscriptions and Cross Group looking southeast with rainforest in the background.

This discovery made Linda famous among pre-Columbian scholars. The public breakthrough came more than ten years later. It was not Linda’s award-winning dissertation at the University of Texas on the difficult subject of verbal hieroglyphs in Maya inscriptions (a topic that still is one of the central issues of scholarly debate) that made her famous. It was the exhibition, “The Blood of Kings,” which she co-curated with Mary Miller at the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth. This was the first exhibition where Maya art was not simply displayed for its great aesthetic value, but where jade jewels, polychrome ceramics, stone stelae and lintels and many other objects were interpreted, their symbolism was translated, and their hieroglyphic inscriptions were read. The exhibition catalog still is regarded as one of the most beautiful books on Maya art and a masterpiece of scholarship.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
This is a typical “glyph” carved in stone showing some of the aesthetic qualities that make Maya writing an art form as well as a writing system.
The ability to communicate her research to a large interested public was one of Linda’s strengths. She became aware of the strong interest that had developed in Maya hieroglyphic writing and was stimulated by “The Blood of Kings” exhibition. In 1976, a few years before the University appointed her to the faculty, she started to teach an annual Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop. The first workshops began as small meetings of a few enthusiasts, but soon the meetings grew to incorporate a weeklong workshop and then finally a two-day conference. Scholars from around world came to Texas each spring to exchange their recent discoveries and insights and to learn to read the ancient messages of the Maya. Through Linda’s efforts UT Austin became the place to be for anybody who wanted to learn about Maya art and writing.

Linda was driven by a truly enormous creative energy. Working and writing all night and sleeping only for a few hours in the morning she wrote book after book. All her books were the fruit of cooperation between her and other scholars—a sign of her great collaborative skills. Apart from the exhibition catalogue The Blood of Kings, the most important books of her career include A Forest of Kings (1990) with David Freidel, Maya Cosmos (1993) with David Freidel and Joy Parker and her last great work, A Code of Kings (1998) with Peter Mathews.

These books successfully communicated new discoveries in the field to a growing American and European audience. This was not enough for Linda, however. She wanted to include the present Maya people, the legitimate heirs of the culture that she studied and admired so much, and encourage them to participate in the exciting developments that were taking place in the field.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
Palace at Palenque seen from the Temple of the Inscriptions show Palace tower with Tabasco plain in the background. This view shows the courtyards and “houses” that make up this complex.
In 1988 Linda was working at Copan, Honduras, recording the hieroglyphic inscriptions of this Classic Maya city, when a group of Maya from Guatemala visited her and asked her to translate the ancient texts. Explaining the history of Maya kings to real, living Maya was clearly a great challenge for Linda, and she explained the history with so much passion and understanding that the deeply impressed Maya asked her to return and to give a hieroglyphic workshop in Guatemala.Linda went the next year to Antigua, Guatemala where a workshop was organized by a group of Maya linguists who were interested not only in their language, but also in the culture and history of their ancestors. Many of those Maya who attended the workshop were active in the growing cultural revitalization movement in Guatemala, and this first workshop was such a great success that Linda was soon asked to conduct another workshop the next year. This time Linda asked me to help her. I met Linda for the first time at a Palenque Mesa Redonda Conference in June 1986 and since then we met annually at Copan, Honduras or in Antigua, Guatemala to discuss Maya hieroglyphs and teach Maya workshops.

I well remember my first Maya workshop. The workshop took place in the large vaulted space of an old and partially collapsed monastery. This was the monastery where 450 years ago Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a member of the Cortés expedition, had written his True History of the Conquest of Mexico. Ironically, it was in that very same place that we came together with a group of thirty modern Maya to rediscover Maya history.

The main topic of the workshop was the history of the city of Yaxchilan in Chiapas, and participants included a large group of Maya women from all over the Guatemalan Highlands. They were proudly dressed in their colorful huipiles, conspicuously displaying signs of their ethnic identity. The women discussed the political power of women in Classic Maya society, while most of the men were fascinated with the political strategies employed by Yaxchilan’s great king Yaxuun Balam IV to legitimize his power.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
Linda Schele

Linda and I, together with the greatest Guatemalan expert on Maya hieroglyphic writing, Federico Fahsen, spent many days and nights discussing with Maya intellectuals the impact of hieroglyphic decipherment, the rediscovery of Maya history and the historical connections between the highland Maya and the lowland Maya who built the great cities of Tikal, Palenque and Copan. Demetrio Cojti, a Kaqchikel who participated in the Yaxchilan workshop and now is Guatemala’s deputy minister of education, was convinced that the Maya needed to learn their history if they wanted to embrace the future. For him and many other Maya, the workshops were the only way by which they could learn about recent advances in hieroglyphic decipherment. Because of the great success of this first workshop we were asked to continue the workshops in Antigua annually and also give weekend workshops in remote villages in the highlands of Guatemala and Mexico.

As a consequence of these workshops, many Maya have developed a strong interest in archeology and hieroglyphic writing, and, even more important, Maya hieroglyphic writing has become part of the curriculum in Maya schools. Maya newspapers and publications now spell headlines and titles in Maya hieroglyphs as well as in roman letters, and children have learned to write their names using the Maya writing system.

The Maya Meeting at Texas, which Linda started, had become the largest meeting of specialists in Maya writing, art and archeology when she discovered she had terminal cancer in 1997. Concerned about the continuity of Mesoamerican studies at the University of Texas, she decided to give an endowment that would support the Linda and David Schele Chair for the Art and Writing of Mesoamerica. Many of her friends and colleagues contributed to the endowment to assure that Austin would remain a center for the study of Maya writing and art.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
Drawing by Linda Schele
The so-called "Tablet of the Slaves" for a long time was the only known portrait of K'inich Ahkal Mo' Naab. Here, the king is shown sitting on the backs of two miserable prisoners. He faces his father who presents him the royal headdress, while his mother presents a personified flint and a shield, emblems of warfare.
An additional endowment gift from Bettye and William Nowlin of Austin established the Center for the History of Ancient American Arts and Cultures (CHAAAC, a name that was chosen because of its similarity to that of the Maya rain god Chaak). This endowment is the umbrella for many future activities, conferences and publications, all of which will ultimately enhance the importance and attractiveness of pre-Columbian studies at the University of Texas. At the same time, it allows UT to continue the workshops in Guatemala and Mexico and to bring Maya students to Texas or take students from Texas to Guatemala where they can practice their teaching skills and their Spanish in cooperation with Maya people.

One of the first activities of CHAAAC was to sponsor the excavation of Temples 19 and 20 at Palenque. In 1999, Alfonso Morales, a Ph.D. student in Latin American studies and director of the archeological project, made one of the most important archeological finds at Palenque. Within Temple 19, situated in the jungle-covered south of the city, he found a low slab-sided platform. Two engraved slabs on the east and south sides of the bench show a gathering of ten seated figures from Palenque around the king K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Naab III. A superbly preserved hieroglyphic inscription of 220 hieroglyphs accompanied this scene, one of the most beautiful Maya texts ever found.

Photographs from the Linda Schele Archives
Drawing by David Stuart
The south side of the recently discovered Temple 19 Platform from Palenque shows K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Naab flanked by six noble lords. This detail depicts three lords dressed in long robes. The faces show signs of realistic portraiture—a rare feature in Maya art.
Until then hardly anything was known about K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Naab, who acceded onto the throne of Palenque after a ten-year interregnum caused by the capture of his predecessor, king K’an Joy Chitam in 711. The sixty-six year-old K’an Joy Chitam left no heir and caused a severe dynastic crisis. Before the excavation of Temple 19, we thought that the time following the capture was the beginning of the collapse of Palenque. Although we knew of later kings, they seemed to be less important, having left no major signs of artistic or architectural works.

These new discoveries within the narrow Otolum Valley in the south of Palenque, especially the excavations of Temples 18, 19 and 21, shed a completely different light on the late history of the site. The quality of the architecture and the refinement of the carving characterize this period as the pinnacle of Palenque’s artistic achievement. There is also evidence that Palenque enjoyed its greatest political power at this time. This work in Palenque will continue to shed new light on the history of the Maya. Each new inscription will be carefully recorded. The inscriptions will not only be discussed in the Maya hieroglyphic writing class, but they will also be the focus of wider scholarly attention during the Maya Meeting in 2002. This meeting will assemble a large group of international scholars and passionate enthusiasts to discuss the topic “Palenque and the Western Maya Region.”

Thus Linda Schele’s legacy will not only continue through the Maya meetings, the chair established in her name and a legion of publications and new ideas, but also in a shared passion for Palenque, the site where her love for the Maya began.

Nikolai K. Grube
Dr. Nikolai K. Grube is the first holder of the Linda and David Schele Chair in the Writing and Art of Mesoamerica. After receiving his Ph.D. in pre-Columbian studies at the University of Hamburg, he taught anthropology, Maya hieroglyphic writing, and archaeology in the Universities of Hamburg, Bonn, Freiburg and Leiden and has been director of the anthropology departments at the University of Bonn and Freiburg. His books include The Development of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing (1990), The Emergence of Lowland Maya Civilization (1993), The Maya—Divine Kings in the Rain Forest (2000) and, with Simon Martin, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2000) as well as more than 100 articles on Maya art and writing. Dr. Grube can be reached at 512-471-7757.

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May 14, 2002
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