Discovery of Painted Hieroglyphic Vase Gives Clues about Breakdown of Ancient Maya Civilization

April 15, 2019

Vessel bearing the longest pre-Columbian text found in Belize tells of war, politics and propaganda in an era of ‘godly kings,’ says Baylor University scholar who led excavation

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WACO, Texas (April 15, 2019) — The discovery of an ancient painted vase, which bears one of the longest hieroglyphic texts uncovered in the Central America lowlands, is offering new clues into the mysterious breakdown of ancient Maya civilization, says a Baylor University scholar who led the excavation.

The shattered vessel — found amid artifacts associated with the abandonment of the royal palace complex at the Maya site of Baking Pot in Belize — was discovered in excavations directed by Julie Hoggarth, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

When Hoggarth stumbled upon the first fragment, she spotted the emblem hieroglyph for “Yaxha” — an ancient Maya city and ceremonial center in Guatemala. She took a cellphone photo and sent it to Christophe Helmke, Ph.D., of the University of Copenhagen, archaeologist and scholar of Classic Maya hieroglyphic scripts.
“He emailed from Copenhagen within an hour,” Hoggarth said. “He said, ‘This is really important. Find more.’”

A recently published book, with photos, illustrations and detailed translation and analysis of the hieroglyphs and text, tells of political upheaval, alliances, warfare, rituals, Maya rulers’ genealogy — and “propaganda about royalty” — during an era of “godly kings,” Hoggarth said.

The multicolored ceramic vase, which includes a dedication date of A.D. 812, makes no mention of the weather, economy and the lives of commoners.

The publication — “A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize” — notes that the fragments were found in a corner near a palace entrance. The archaeology team also unearthed blades, pendants, ink pots, fragments of flutes — and human bones in burial sites, according to Hoggarth and co-authors Helmke and Jaime J. Awe, associate professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University.

“All the More Amazing”

The vase’s size — about nine inches — “makes it all the more amazing,” Hoggarth said. “At its full length, it would have had 202 hieroglyphic blocks, making it the longest Pre-Columbian text discovered in Belize and among the top 10 longest Classic Period (A.D. 250 to 1000) texts ever discovered in the Maya area.”
The characters on longer texts generally are much larger, often carved on monuments or staircases. The longest consists of some 2,200 hieroglyphs, Hoggarth said.
The 82 fragments of the Komkom Vase, named after the royal owner of the vase, were found in a large ritual deposit that had been covered with collapsed limestone blocks from adjacent structures after the site’s abandonment. Researchers painstakingly pieced them together and took a flat “rollout” photo — “kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle” — which was digitized for the book’s images, Hoggarth said.

Some pieces are missing, but scholars estimate it to be more than 60 percent of the original. Hoggarth, Awe and Helmke hope that the vase can be conserved, fully reconstructed and displayed in a Belize museum.

The vase would have been used as a ruler’s drinking vessel, Hoggarth said.

“On other vessels, they sometimes included a description of the use, like some say they were made as the frothy cacao drinking vessel for a particular ruler,” she said. “But in the case of this vase, it’s not telling us the use.”

Ceremonial centers like the one at Baking Pot generally included such structures as temples, shrines, ball courts and markets, as well as off-limits residences of royalty. One account is believed to tell of the torching of Yaxha and the flight of a ruler to a place “where mosquitoes/flies abound.”
The reason for abandonment of Baking Pot — named by English explorers who spotted the Maya boiling chicle in pots — still is being investigated, Hoggarth said.
“Some archaeologists have speculated warfare as a main cause, but we don’t have evidence of that,” she said.

The Ritual of Abandonment

Whatever the reason for leaving Baking Pot, the Maya smashed pottery, musical instruments and other items as part of an abandonment ritual.

“Many indigenous groups in the Americas believe that living spirits inhabit inanimate objects, and that putting a hole in a ceramic item or breaking the head off a figurine releases the spirit,” Hoggarth said.

Hoggarth was awarded a National Science Foundation grant in 2015 to conduct archaeological excavations and radiocarbon dating of sites in western Belize. She wants to determine whether the abandonment of Baking Pot, in a semi-tropical river valley, and other centers mentioned in the hieroglyphics might be related to droughts and the breakdown of the political systems of Maya civilization, known for its sophisticated writing system, art, architecture, math, accurate calendars and astronomy.

“There was existing political and social stress before the droughts — intra-elite rivalry for resources and territories — and the droughts likely made it worse,” she said. “Rulers were born — not elected — and viewed as intermediaries between the gods and the commoners. If the rulers weren’t bringing rain, people could have voted with their feet and left.”

Fortunately, the decline of the Classic period civilization and the arrival of Spanish explorers several hundred years later did not wipe out Maya history.
“The Spanish had the books gathered and burned because they contained religious information that wasn’t in line with Christianity,” Hoggarth said. “But information compiled by Bishop Diego de Landa provided some clues, because he had Maya scribes write out what he thought was an alphabet. That helped to crack the code, and scholars can use the languages of the descendants of the Maya to help decipher it.

“We find the artifacts and they tell us part of the story,” she said. “But the hieroglyphic texts offer a more personal viewpoint by the Maya themselves of what was occurring as sites were being abandoned.”

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