The Maya and the British Museum

by Diana K. Moreiras Reynaga1 and Cara G. Tremain2
with Daniel Salinas3, Genner Llanes-Ortíz4, and Alejandro J. Figueroa5

1 Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia. dianakarina.moreiras@ubc.ca, Twitter: @dimorei
2 Instructor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Langara College. ctremain@langara.ca, Twitter: @DrCaraTremain
3 Independent Researcher and Writer. danielsalinas00@gmail.com, Twitter: @DanielSalinas00
4 Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies, Department of Sociology, Bishop’s University. genner.llanes-ortiz@ubishops.ca
5 Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Anthropology and Archaeometry Laboratory, University of Missouri. afigueroa@missouri.edu

The Maya are Indigenous to central America, having roots in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. Their cultural heritage has long been removed from archaeological sites and shipped overseas to museums and private collections. Two such items, now in the British Museum’s collection, are Lintel 24 from Mexico and a Maize god bust from Honduras. When these cultural pieces were featured in the History of the World in 100 Objects, the programmes in which they were discussed perpetuated stereotypical notions about the ancient Maya as bloodthirsty and obsessed with mythical deities. The incorrect term ‘Mayan’, which refers specifically to language and not to Maya culture or people, was also used throughout the programmes. We seek to correct such careless misrepresentation with this contribution, which features the efforts of a team of scholars who are involved in studying ancient and modern Maya culture in various ways.

The essay below explains what these cultural pieces are, how they made their way from their native homes to the British Museum, and how they relate to important Indigenous world views. This information acts to contextualize the broader discussion in the video interview and supplemental text, which considers how these cultural pieces are not just ‘artefacts’ from a distant Maya past; rather, they are important cultural resources that hold symbolic and cultural value for contemporary Maya communities today.

Lintel 24

Above left: Yaxchilán Lintel 24 (AM1923, Maud.4). © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum. Above right Yaxchilán Lintels in Room 27. Photograph by Cara Tremain

The Mexico Gallery (Room 27) at the British Museum is an intimate space in the museum’s northeast corner. Embedded along the vivid red wall of the gallery are five ornately carved limestone slabs from the archaeological site of Yaxchilán (“Yash-she-laan”) in Mexico, and are among the most famous examples of ancient Maya art.1

Lintel 24 is the first in the series of these slabs running along the northernmost wall of the Gallery, and one of the first cultural pieces visible as you enter from the adjacent North America Gallery. It features the ruler of Yaxchilán, Itzamnaaj Bahlam (also known as Shield Jaguar), standing at the left of the scene holding a flaming torch above his wife, Ix K’abal Xook (also known as Lady Xook), in the lower right.

The torch indicates that the scene is taking place at night, or inside a dark room. Interpreted as an act of religious piety, which would demonstrate her relationship to the deities, Ix K’abal Xook pulls a rope with sharp thorns or obsidian (a glassy volcanic stone) through her tongue to offer blood to the ancestors.2 Below the rope is a basket filled with paper, which will later become a cloud of smoke that can travel to the heavens when it is burned as an offering. The hieroglyphic text tells us that this event took place in 709 CE. The ruler and his wife wear elaborate ornamentation, indicative of their elite status in society. Traces of paint remind us that ancient Maya sculptures, and the building spaces that they decorated, were once painted with vivid colours such as blue and red.

Maize God Bust

Adjacent to the Mexico Gallery is the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1), a space that spans the entire length of the east side of the Great Court. In this gallery, perched on an unassuming shelf easily overlooked, sits a limestone bust of the Maize god from the archaeological site of Copán in Honduras.

The youthful face of the figure identifies it as the Maize god, the principal deity of fertility and agriculture for the ancient Maya. His headdress is an ear of maize and his hair the silk of the same grain. With the left arm raised and bent at the elbow, palm facing forward, and right arm facing towards the waist with fingers pointed downward, the bust appears to have an aura of movement.

Above left: Copán Maize God bust. Above right: Bust in the Enlightenment Gallery (Am1923, Maud.8). Both images © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

Journey of the Cultural Pieces

Lintel 24 was commissioned by Itzamnaaj Bahlam, along with two others, to decorate three entry points of a small building (known as structure 23) within Yaxchilán’s palace complex.3 The lintels were set horizontally above doorways, and their scenes could only be viewed by looking upwards upon entering the building.4 Archaeologists believe that the ruler commissioned the structure in 726 CE for Ix K’abal Xook, his principal wife, and the lintels were intended to communicate important messages about the symbolic and political importance of his reign.

Yaxchilán was likely encountered by Europeans during Spanish colonization of the Maya region, but the first documented evidence was in 1881 by German explorer Edwin Rockstroh. A professor of natural history and mathematics at a Guatemalan school, Rockstroh undertook expeditions to archaeological sites including Yaxchilán in 1881.5 It was due to Rockstroh that British explorer Alfred Maudslay became aware of the site and briefly visited the following year. In his writings we discover his intention to remove Lintel 24 from the site:

“In one of the half-ruined buildings we found a beautifully-carved lintel fallen from its place…this excellent example of Maya art I determined to carry home with me, and at once set my men to work to reduce the weight of the stone, which must have exceeded half a ton, by cutting off the undecorated ends of the slab and reducing it in thickness.”6                              

According to Maudslay’s notes, the front edge of the lintel, which featured hieroglyphic writing, was cut away on the orders of Rockstroh.7 The edge has since been lost.

The year prior to his visit to Yaxchilán, Maudslay explored Copán—which he was aware of from sixteenth century Spanish writings and the publication of John L. Stephens.8 Maudslay returned to the site in 1885 and was the first person to excavate the small temple (known as temple 22) from which the Maize god bust was originally located.9 The bust is one of twenty such sculptures from the richly decorated temple, commissioned in 715 CE by King ‘18 Rabbit’ of Copán to celebrate his reign.10

Maudslay believed that the bust represented a female, and that its posture indicated she was “about to clap hands when in the act of singing”.11 Analysis by later researchers corrected the bust’s identity, and subsequent archaeological research has demonstrated that such busts were likely originally paired with masks representing symbolic mountains.12 Thus, in their original context the busts represented the Maize god emerging from the mountain of Creation—a story told in the Popul Vuh (a sixteenth century text that recounts the Maya creation story).

Studies of the bust have identified that its torso is different in colour and texture to the head, which may indicate that the two were not originally intended to fit together but were paired in the nineteenth century.13 Whether as a complete piece, or a combination of disparate head and torso, Maudsley sent the bust with other items from Copán alongside those he previously collected from Yaxchilán to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1885. In 1893 they were transferred to the British Museum, where they have since remained.14

Illustration by John Short

Maize and Self-sacrifice in Mesoamerica and Ancient Maya Society

While these two cultural pieces share common traits of Maya world view or cosmovision, they originate from different archaeological contexts. We present them together here since these cultural pieces are kept in the same collection and are on display at the same museum. Ancestral stories and rituals were fundamental components of Mesoamerican cosmovision, and several societies in Mesoamerica such as the Maya and, later in time, the Mexica integrated their world views into sacred and secular life. Ritual acts re-created origin ancestral narratives that provided explanations for natural phenomena and the ‘unknown’, and were used as a way to pass on history and knowledge across generations. The benefit of integrating rituals in social and religious life allowed for everyone in the society to participate in them, as it was understood that through these ceremonial acts the deities would be pleased and human life would be allowed to persist.15 As such, many types of rituals involved ritual killing and self-sacrifice (in the form of blood-letting), and so these were common practices in Mesoamerican societies as early as 400 BCE and up to the Postclassic period (950–1521 CE). These ritual events served as offerings to the deities for a range of purposes and, more broadly, to sustain cosmic balance.

Blood-letting was a form of voluntarily offering blood to the deities by puncturing parts of the human body from where blood flowed more easily such as the tongue, cheeks, lips, and ears with sharp instruments such as bone needles, claws and fangs of predators, obsidian and flint blades, and sting-ray or maguey spines.16 This act has been interpreted as a form of tribute through which humans aimed to redeem their offenses to the divine realm, show gratitude for a gift received, or to request protection from something (individually or collectively).17

Blood was considered a divine substance which possessed life-giving virtues, and as such it was used to anoint the images of deities to receive their gifts.18 In Classic Maya society, blood-letting was a religious practice linked to the Maya deity ‘K’, who was associated with blood-letting and the patron of the ancestors and royal lineage.19 In this context, blood-letting was practiced by Maya rulers and their families in all kinds of public rituals and important life events to preserve cosmic balance and to communicate with the deities and their ancestors.20 Lintel 24 represents an important ritual event in the life of a Maya ruler and his wife at Yaxchilán, recorded in stone as part of their history. Only a select few would have gazed at it based on its original placement, and so it has been interpreted that it is possible that its carving may have been more important than the act of ‘looking at it’.21

Undoubtedly, the use of domesticated maize (corn) as food played a fundamental role across ancient Mesoamerica and it continues to be an important food staple in present-day Mexico and Central America.22 Maize was created, through domestication, by the Indigenous ancestors of Mesoamerican societies, and was incorporated as a staple food into Mesoamerican diets.23 As such, maize had a paramount role in Mesoamerican cosmovision. For the ancient Maya, ‘Hun Hunahpu’ was their maize god mentioned in the ancestral stories of the Popol Vuh and was depicted iconographically in different forms across time and space. For instance, a tablet in the Temple of the Foliated Cross at the site of Palenque (Chiapas) shows the cosmic tree with trunks and leaves sprouting maize deities who are linked to the Maya ancestors.24 The agricultural cycle was carefully followed by the Maya using their calendric system, so ritual ceremonies were performed throughout the year in connection to maize, agriculture, fertility, and rain. All in all, maize was integrated into Maya secular and ritual life—it was considered more than just food—and the Maize god bust represents these deep connections that developed between this crop and the ancient Maya people. Maize continues to be fundamental for contemporary Maya secular and ritual life (see the video below to learn more).

Contemporary Significance

Though Lintel 24 and the Maize god bust have remained in London for more than 130 years since they were removed from Mexico and Honduras, respectively, and can therefore be viewed as part of London’s history (an argument made in support of retention of other cultural pieces in the British Museum),25 they both remained among the buildings and spaces for which they were originally intended for more than 1000 years. Thus, only a fraction of their lives have been spent as objects of curiosity and aesthetics in a nation far removed from their own. The most significant, and long-lasting, part of their lives were spent as symbolically and politically important cultural pieces within ancient Maya society. These pieces still hold significance as cultural resources for Maya communities today, and in the video below we discuss this as part of our conversation with Daniel Salinas and Genner Llanes-Ortíz. The discussion also touches on the complex nature of repatriation, and the relationship between heritage and nationalism.26 The Q&A below with Honduran archaeologist, Alejandro Figueroa, also highlights the problematic relationship between cultural heritage, national identity, and the issue of “mayanization”.27

Conclusion

Not only are these cultural pieces important for their recorded histories (which is unusual considering that the majority of heritage items from the Maya region have been looted for the illicit antiquities market), they are significant because they represent contemporary Maya communities. They are not simply two objects in the British Museum: they are symbolic of Indigenous culture, the way in which museums in colonial countries have been (and continue to be) accumulated, and the manner in which colonized countries had (and continue to have) their heritage stripped from them. Creating spaces for diverse voices to talk about these cultural pieces, and increasing accessibility for more people to engage with them, is an important part of their future.


1 In order from left to right along the wall are Lintels 24, 25, 15, 16, and 17. The gallery opened in 1994, stimulated by funds raised by the-then Mexican President. See Kaye, Jeff. “Mexico’s Hidden Heritage: British Museum Will Put Its Stored Pre-Hispanic Treasures on View in ‘94.” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1993.

2 Under the floor of a room accessed via the doorway into which the lintel was set, archaeologists found obsidian blades and have suggested these might be associated with the sharp objects being pulled through Lady Xook’s tongue. See Moll, Roberto García. “Shield Jaguar and Structure 23 at Yaxchilan.” In Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, edited by Mary Miller and Simon Martin, 268–270. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

3 Lintels 25 is on view at the British Museum and Lintel 26 is on view in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. Like Lintel 24, both were also originally from Structure 23. See Tate, Carolyn E. Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

4 For an example of how the lintels were originally set, and a discussion of the problematic nature of their disassociation from Structure 23, see Brittenham, Claudia. “Architecture, Vision, and Ritual: Seeing Maya Lintels at Yaxchilan Structure 23”. The Art Bulletin 101, no. 3 (2019): 8–36.

5 Mazariegos, Oswaldo Chinchilla. “Just and Patriotic: Creating a National Museum in Guatemala (1831-1930).” Museum History Journal 9, no. 1 (2016): 60–76.

6 Maudslay, A. P. Biologia Centrali-Americana; or, Contributions to the Knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America, Volume II, p. 42. London: Dulau and Co., 1899-1902. In this publication we learn that the structure from which Lintel 24 originally came was “almost completely ruined” at the time of his visit (p. 45).

7 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions website (https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/cmhi/detail.php?num=24&site=Yaxchilan&type=Lintel)

8 Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841.

9 Maudslay, A. P. Biologia Centrali-Americana; or, Contributions to the Knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America, Volume I. London: Dulau and Co.,1899-1902.

10 The sculptures were attached to Temple 22, also known as Structure 10L-22. See von Schwerin, Jennifer. “The Sacred Mountain in Social Context. Symbolism and History in Maya Architecture: Temple 22 at Copan, Honduras.” Ancient Mesoamerica 22 (2011): 271–300.

11 See Maudslay 1899-1902, Volume I, page 29.

12 These are known as tuun (stone) witz (hill)masks. See von Schwerin 2011.

13 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am1923-Maud-8

14  https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am1923-Maud-4

15 Gossen, Gary H. “The Religious Traditions of Mesoamerica.” In The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization, edited by Robert M. Carmack, Janine L. Gasco, and G. H. Gossen, 505–533. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.

16 Aguirre Molina, Alejandra. “El Ritual del Autosacrificio en Mesoamerica.” Anales de Antropología 38 (2004): 85–109; Coe, Michael. The Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

17 Aguirre Molina, “El Ritual del Autosacrificio,” 88, 90.
Llanes-Ortíz, Genner. Grains of Resistance: Celebrating Rituals, Bodies, and food in the Yucatan and Belize. In Resistant Strategies, edited by Marcos Steuernagel and Diana Taylor, 2015. https://resistantstrategies.tome.press/grains-of-resistance/.
See also Nájera, Martha Ilia. El Don de la Sangre en el Equilibrio Cósmico: El Sacrificio y el Autosacrificio Sangriento entre los Antiguos Mayas. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas, Centro de Estudio, 2003.

18 López Luján, Leonardo. Las Ofrendas del Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlan. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1993.

19 Aguirre Molina, “El Ritual del Autosacrificio,” 89.

20 Aguirre Molina, “El Ritual del Autosacrificio,” 90; Coe, “The Maya,” 148; Gossen, “The Religious Traditions,” 510–511.

21 Brittenham, “Architecture, Vision, and Ritual,” 9.

22 For a nuanced history of the emergence, domestication, and use of maize in pre-Columbian times see Blake, Michael. Maize for the Gods: Unearthing the 9,000-year History of Corn. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

23 For example, see Rosenswig, Robert. M., Amber M. VanDerwarker, Brendan J. Culleton, Douglas J. Kennett. “Is it Agriculture Yet? Intensified Maize-use at 1000 cal. BC in the Soconusco and Mesoamerica.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 40 (2015): 89–108.

24 Gossen, “The Religious Traditions,” 510.

25 Jenkins, Tiffany. Keeping their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended up in Museums. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

26 See Salinas, Daniel. Guiding Heritage. Representations of Mexico’s National Heritage in Tourist Guidebooks, 1920-1994. Master’s Thesis, Leiden University, 2019.

27 See Figeroa, Alejandro J., Whitney Goodwin, E. Christian Wells. Mayanizing Tourism on Roatán Island, Honduras: Archaeological Perspectives on Heritage, Development, and Indigeneity. In Global Tourism: Cultural Heritage and Economic Encounters, edited by Sarah M. Lyon and E. Christian Wells, 43–60. Lanham: Altamira Press, 2012.

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