Stories tagged Maya

Apr
01
2014

Maya ball game: When disputes arose during Maya ball games, players would reenact the play in slow motion for officials to determine if they made the correct call.
Maya ball game: When disputes arose during Maya ball games, players would reenact the play in slow motion for officials to determine if they made the correct call.Courtesy anth2589
The new Major League Baseball season is underway with lots of hoopla about the expanded use by umpires of using instant replay to reconsider close or controversial calls during the course of a game. It’s all overshadowed some amazing archaeological findings in Central America, where stele art and cave paintings have confirmed that the Maya ball game was governed by its own set of replay rulings.

Independent teams of archaeologists from the University of Michigan and Stanford have found evidence that disputes in games were resolved by an elaborate replay system. First working independently, they’ve now combined their research into this extensive report, co-published in Science and Sports Illustrated this month.

Of course, video technology was many centuries away in the future. But Maya ingenuity figured out a way to get around that hurdle in a creative fashion. Former Maya ball game players would position themselves around the field observing the actions of their contemporaries. If a controversial play occurred and a coach threw out his challenge marker, the former players would rely on their keen observation and game skills to reenact the play at a slower motion for officials to take a second or third look. According to limited data collected in the findings, officials’ calls were overturned about 36 percent of the time.

Key clue: Heiroglyphs and art on this pot helped researchers figure out that instant replay was a key part of Maya ball game officiating.
Key clue: Heiroglyphs and art on this pot helped researchers figure out that instant replay was a key part of Maya ball game officiating.Courtesy Loryn Leonard
Heiroglyphs explaining the process were careful to note how critical it was to get the calls correct in games, especially those at the highest level where the losing teams would be sacrificed. After three consecutive years of bad calls in championship games leading to the deaths of what should have been victorious players, the replay system was implemented.

Further causing the move to replay rulings was the large amount of wagers gamblers placed on the games each year at Chichen Itza, the Las Vegas of Maya cities. After that run of poor officiating, gambling leaders who had taken huge financial losses on the altered outcomes threatened ball game leaders with execution if they didn’t come up with a more just system of deciding calls.

Ha!
Ha!Courtesy Wikipedia
And looking at the infamous Maya calendar, the new replay system was put into effect on the Gregorian Calendar equivalent of April 1, 1414 BCE, exactly 1600 years ago today, April Fool’s Day 2014.!

Maya frieze discovery: Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli looks at the frieze discovered at the Holmul Archaeological Project.
Maya frieze discovery: Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli looks at the frieze discovered at the Holmul Archaeological Project.Courtesy Francisco Estrada-Belli
One of the largest and most vibrant archaeological discoveries of the Maya culture was announced yesterday.

Archaeologists have uncovered a 30-foot by 6-foot frieze inside the base of a pyramid depicting deified Maya rulers. Much of the frieze's red, blue and yellow paint has been preserved by debris that had fallen over the frieze. Here's a link to the full report of the finding by archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli’s team at the Holmul Archaeological Project in Guatemala.

“This is a unique find. It is a beautiful work of art and it tells us so much about the function and meaning of the building, which was what we were looking for,” said Estrada-Belli. The carving depicts human figures in a mythological setting, suggesting these may be deified rulers. The team had hoped to find clues to the function of this building, since the unearthing of an undisturbed tomb last year. The burial contained an individual accompanied by 28 ceramic vessels and a wooden funerary mask.

The full frieze: Here's a panoramic view of the full frieze found in Guatemala.
The full frieze: Here's a panoramic view of the full frieze found in Guatemala.Courtesy Francisco Estrada-Belli

Maya mask: Maya is making the news everywhere, from Minnesota to Mexico
Maya mask: Maya is making the news everywhere, from Minnesota to MexicoCourtesy Wolfgang Sauber
You've likely seen the promotional announcements that the Science Museum of Minnesota today opens a huge, new exhibit on the Maya culture – Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed. And coincidentally, archeologists today announced the discovery of another hidden Maya city buried in jungle undergrowth in southern Mexico, including a 75-foot-tall pyramid and housing to hold up to 40,000 people.

Want to learn more about SMM's new Maya exhibit? Here's a link to coverage in the Star-Tribune and also a piece by Minnesota Public Radio.

Work with bulldozers and backhoes to collect materials for a road building project has destroyed an ancient Maya pyramid in Belize. You can read all the details here. And then you can wipe away your tears.

Nov
16
2009

Calakmul: I'm not sure if this is the spaceport or the Institute for Marketable Prophesies.
Calakmul: I'm not sure if this is the spaceport or the Institute for Marketable Prophesies.Courtesy J&P Voelkel
The ancient Maya: keepers of arcane knowledge, masters of the celestial spheres, 7th century astronauts… prophesiers of DOOM!

Yes, how the Maya knew what they knew remains a mystery to the arrogant forces of modern “science,” but we know that what they knew was totally awesome and sinister. Because, like, they carved it in stone and painted it on walls, and we all know that anything carved or painted on a wall is pretty much a sure thing. That’s how I know that for a good time I will call 555-5646, and why I’m certain that one day this will surely come to pass. And it’s why I’m sure that the world will end in 2012.

I mean, sure, there are people who still follow many of the traditions of their Mayan ancestors, and they say that 2012 doomsday predictions are nonsense, and that they’re based on the willful misinterpretations of another culture’s beliefs and calendar system, but… those people are obviously ignoring the wisdom of the ancients. You know, the wisdom of the ancients?

Recently excavated murals at the Mayan site of Calakmul are further enhancing our vision of these ancient, mystical people. The colorful murals, preserved on the covered wall of a built-over structure (the Maya sometimes added layers to older pyramids, creating a larger structure with a new face) apparently depict scenes of everyday Mayan life. It’s a unique discovery, because most of the imagery archaeologists uncover shows much grander stuff—royalty, and scenes from mythology. But this one just seems to show normal Mayan people doing normal stuff.

Of course, the above statement has to be understood within the context of the popular understanding of the Maya. I mean, “normal stuff”? What’s normal for people who flew around in spaceships, predicting the end of the world?

Let’s take a look, hmm?

This part of the mural, at first glance, seems to show a man in a wide, sombrero-like hat dishing out ul, a traditional maize gruel, to another man, who is drinking it. Obviously things aren’t so simple as this. The wide hat? It’s no hat. That man is wearing a satellite dish, so that he can stay in contact with teams of Mayan astronaut-priests, as they divine the future from high orbit. And the drinking guy—yes, he’s drinking, but it’s not corn gruel. He’s drinking magic potion. The mural does have a hieroglyphic caption that says “maize-gruel person,” but that must be a type. The lords of destiny don’t eat. And they especially don’t eat corn.

Here, we see the color version of the above image, as well as several other scenes of ancient Mayan life, including a man labeled “tobacco person,” who is holding a vessel full of what may be tobacco, or possibly Tobacco-brand ancient Mayan rocket fuel. There’s also the woman labeled “clay vessel person,” who may be holding a stack of clay vessels, or perhaps a stack of crystal balls, still in their brown paper wrappers. The murals also seem to show a woman making tamales, and a man eating them. But that’s just one interpretation. Another way to look at it might be, like, she’s making little pieces of the future. And he’s eating them. He could be eating the 2012 piece right there. The expression on his face may hold key information for us.

It just shows to go you. Some people are going to look at this and think, “Hey, look, normal ancient Maya people doing normal stuff and wearing normal clothes. What a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a seldom-depicted portion of a long-passed society.” And they’re free to think this way, but they’ll have no excuse for acting all surprised in three years.

Apr
23
2008

The British Crystal Skull: Look--you can just see the flying saucer.
The British Crystal Skull: Look--you can just see the flying saucer.Courtesy seriykotik1970
First thing’s first: I’m not sure I can recommend that you see the new Indiana Jones movie. Have I seen it? As a matter of fact, I haven’t. Am I up on Hollywood buzz? Possibly, but only because I’m not sure what “Hollywood buzz” is exactly. I’m certainly not up on anything Indiana Jones 4 related.

This is a science blog, so is my issue with the archaeology? Is it bad archaeology? Absolutely it’s bad archaeology (more on that in a moment), but no, that’s not it. As it happens, I love bad archaeology most of all.

No, here’s why I don’t think you should see the new Indiana Jones: dude’s old.

Consider this: Do any of you remember seeing the “Young Indiana Jones” tv series? Remember how it ironically featured the occasional old Indiana Jones? Was that fun seeing Indy as a staggering octogenarian? Answer: no, not fun. Don’t believe me? See for yourselves. Guy’s old. How are you supposed to punch Nazis and outrun boulders like that? Also—a side note—couldn’t he save a bunch of money if he just bought monocles?

No, Indiana Jones 4 is just the prequel to old Indiana Jones. It’s going to be all about arthritis and staying regular. If I wanted to see a movie about “I’m too old for this spit,” I’d watch the Lethal Weapon trilogy, and maybe Lethal Weapon 4. In fact, maybe I will watch the Lethal Weapon trilogy (but not Lethal Weapon 4) tonight. But only for detective Martin Riggs, not for the gray hair and male girdle jokes.

Wait a second. Did I say that this was a science blog? I did—here’s the citation “This is a science blog.” So onto something like science!

Indiana Jones is all about bad archaeology. I’ll say again, however, that bad archaeology is totally fun, but it shouldn’t be confused with real archaeology. Did you ever notice how pretty much every site Indy visits, he destroys? The temple of the Hovitos, the Well of Souls, the Thuggee mine and shrine to Kali, the catacombs under Venice, the resting place of the grail in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon? All crush, collapsed, burned, or flooded.

To be clear, archaeological excavation constitutes, in many respects, the destruction of the site itself. It’s like dissecting a frog—it never works out well for the frog itself, but you can learn a lot about him by doing it. And archaeology is done very slowly. Notes and drawings are made, samples are taken, and it’s all followed up by hundreds of hours in a lab, looking at everything again. Very rarely does the destruction of a site involve sprinting through an ancient temple, clutching a creepy fertility idol.

Not only that, but recent studies take issue with the authenticity of the upcoming film’s subject, namely a certain crystal skull. Or crystal skulls.

Crystal skulls pop up now and again in archaeology, or at least in the antiquities trade. And there are about a dozen of them, in particular, that have been the subject of considerable interest and skepticism. In the late 19th century, a handful of crystal skulls turned up on the antiquities scene, reputedly coming from Aztec/Olmec/Toltec/Maya temples (distinct Central American cultures, but, for the purposes of modern-day occult fixations, probably interchangeable). The smaller of the skulls are generally agreed to be large beads, probably used in Mexican catholic practice at one point. On the other hand, the larger skulls, ranging a couple of inches on either side of life size, are magic.

That’s right, the skulls, carved of solid quartz, and scattered across the world in museums and the hands of private collectors, are freakin’ magic. Used properly, they can grant health and luck to the bearer, and death to his or her enemies. Also, UFO’s—held at a certain angle, in a certain light, it is said that the crystal depths of the skulls will reveal the unmistakable image of a flying saucer. Because we all know what a flying saucer looks like so well, we would know if we were being shown a fake. And—most importantly—some say that the 12 skulls (and a missing 13th skull) must be united before the end of the Mayan calendar (12/21/2012), or the Earth will fly off its axis. You totally know that this would suck, so start skull questing.

Anyway, all this stands to reason, right? You’ve got your skulls, your crystal skulls. You’ve got you’re mysterious, vanished people (who, you know, aren’t actually gone). Logically there are going to be some magical powers in there.

E. Boban: delving into the dark arts. At his knick-knack stand.
E. Boban: delving into the dark arts. At his knick-knack stand.Courtesy Public domain
Not so, say scientists across Europe. The authenticity of the skulls has been under question for some time, with jewelers and museum archaeologists pointing out that they were detailed with a jeweler’s drill, and polished by a wheeled machine. The wheel thing is problematic, seeing as how the Mayans never did a whole lot with the wheel, at least not mechanically. The obvious answer is that aliens gave the skulls to the Mayans (or Aztecs, or Olmecs, or Teotihuacán, take your pick), and aliens are, of course, swimming in diamond drills and wheels. Unafraid of forces they could never hope to understand, though, researchers from the French national museum service have subjected the “Paris Skull” to particle induced x-ray emission and Raman spectroscopy. And what did those spoil sports find? In addition to the clear evidence of modern tools being used to shape the skull, the quartz it’s made of comes from the Alps, not Central America. The crystal skull belonging to the British Museum is made of Brazilian quartz, although it likewise sports modern tool makes, and the Mayans aren’t known to have had any cultural connections to Brazil. Specifically, both skulls are thought to have come from a village in Southern Germany that specialized in carving just that sort of thing for crucifix bases, which might explain the identical holes on the top and bottom of the French skull. What’s more, there’s documentation that most of the skulls out there came from a Eugene Boban, a dealer of pre-Columbian artifacts, known to have slipped a few fakes in now and again.

Another skull, the “Skull of Doom,” turned up a little later than the other crystal skulls. It was supposedly dug from a temple in Belize by a British explorer, who claimed that it was at least 3,600 years old, and “used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites. It is said that, when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed.” The power of the Skull of Doom has apparently diminished to reports of emitting blue light, and causing the deaths of computer hard drives. And it’s also probably a fake. Or a fake of a fake even—it was probably bought by the explorer for 400 pounds from Sotheby’s in 1943.

Don’t let all this keep you from your skull quest, though. They are skulls made of crystal, after all. What more evidence do you need for their ability to keep us from spinning hopelessly into outer space in 2012?