Assignment Reading: Maya-The Yaxchilan Lintels
The lintels above the doorways of Yaxchilan in Mexico reveal a great deal about life in the region during the Classical Period within the Mayan civilization. Many of the carved lintels date from about the mid-eighth century CE and were commissioned by the city’s leaders. Carved from limestone, each lintel varies in size and the abstracted figures are rendered in low- or mid-relief sculptures. The images in the reading depict rituals including royal blood-letting or blood sacrifice and interactions with captives. On lintel 16, for example, Bird Jaguar IV stands over a captive. Lintel 24, meanwhile, depicts a blood sacrifice which scholars have connected to the Mayan account of creation. The lintels also include glyphic text which reveal imperial records.
5a: Pyramid and Chacmool at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
The stepped pyramid and Chacmool sculpture at Chichen Itza are Mayan works that date from the Postclassical period, in the ninth century CE. The 98-foot-tall pyramid is composed of rubble and stone. It is a stacked, tapered structure which features 9 platforms and 365 steps which lead to a pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the god of life, wind, and rain cloud. The precise geometry and symmetry of the structure are features of Classical Mayan architectural style. The number of platforms and stairs symbolize the levels of the underworld and the importance of the calendar, respectively, in Mayan culture. The pyramid at Chichen Itza is part of a greater temple complex and served as the setting of ritual sacrifice. The stone sculpture of the Chacmool, or fallen warrior, serves as a vessel the remains of those sacrificed.
5b: Shield Jaguar and Lady Xoc at Yaxchilan, Mexico
This piece formed one of the lintels at the Yaxchilan complex. It dates from the eighth century CE and is an example of Classical Mayan sculpture. The particularly deep relief depicts the king, Shield Jaguar, and queen, Lady Xoc, in the process of a bloodletting ritual following the birth of their sun. The figures are abstracted, not anatomically correct, and communicate ethnic identity through their narrow heads (a result of natal head binding). The purpose of the ritual was to induce visions through blood loss. The glyphic text on the top and left side of the carving specifies the names and actions of the figures as well as the date of the occasion. In addition to providing information about ritual bloodletting, the elaborate garments depicted reveal imperial style conventions.
This tunic is alpaca and vicuna wool garment that dates from the 700s CE and is attributed to the indigenous Wari people in Peru. The tunic was likely woven by women using looms in a state-run artisanal workshop. The garment features complex geometric patterns on four panels that are divided by strips of red and yellow fabric. The patterns are nonrepresentational, repetitive, but often irregular. The irregularity and variation among the shapes suggests a sort of transformation that is also communicated in the garment’s use. Many other such tunics were utilized in burial rituals and the transformation of shapes might be symbolic of the transformation between life and death.
5d: Machu Picchu and the Temple of the Sun
Machu Picchu and the Temple of the Sun are both nestled high in the Andes Mountains in present-day Peru. Dating to the fifteenth century CE, they are examples of Incan architecture. Machu Picchu was the home of an Incan rule and likely housed a population of around 1200. Instead of leveling the ground, the architects terraced the structures to fit within the topography of the site. This speaks to both their engineering skills and desire to incorporate nature within their designs. The buildings utilized adobe, mortar, and stones (all locally found material) while the temple would have featured interior decorations composed of gold, silver, and precious minerals. The parallel windows and largely-asymmetrical stonework that survives is testament to both durability and preferred Incan decorative detail.