ADVENTURES IN THE MAYAN RUINS OF MEXICO, GUATEMALA, AND HONDURAS
My first introduction to Mexico was when I was a freshman in college at San Diego State and majored in Spanish. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years my mother and I went to Mexico City and stayed a month visiting Teotihuacan, the great ancient city 30 miles to the north of Mexico City, and the Archeological Museum. When I graduated from Penn State I returned as a graduate assistant and met my husband Sanford Shepard. When we moved to Oberlin, where Sanford was a professor of Spanish and the Director of the Humanistic Interdisciplinary Studies, he was assigned to lead Oberlin's Summer Program to Mexico City and we made trips to many ancient places with our students, such as the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Toltec site of Tula. We also traveled as far south as Monte Alban near Oaxaca. But I had never been to the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. The Cleveland Museum of Art had an exhibit called The Blood of Kings, Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art from October 8 to December 14th 1986. The book on this exhibit was written by Linda Shele and Mary Ellen Miller and was a ground breaking and illuminating vision of Maya ritual. I took my students at LCCC to this exhibit one evening and read the book. This was so fascinating that I was determined to know more of the ancient Maya and their culture. In October 1987 Dr. Linda Schele, who was then Professor of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, came to Cleveland State to present a Maya Hieroglyph Weekend where we spent two days learning the fundamentals of hieroglyphic writing. During spring break at LCCC I took some of my students to Chichen Itza during the spring equinox. A crowd gathered in front of the pyramid called El Castillo to watch the triangles of sunlight and shadow form on the staircase descending to the serpent god Kukulcan at the exact moment the sun crossed the equator.
In December of 1989 I was again in the Yucatan at the sites of Uxmal and Kabah. In spite of the fact that what you see in the Yucatan is Maya, it is mostly Post Classic and the Yucatan Penninsula is filled with cenotes or limestone sink holes and scrub brush. There are forests but not the jungles we find in the Classic Mayan area of Tikal. When I found out that a group called Far Horizons was making a trip to Guatemala in December of 1991 with Linda Shele and Merle Green Robertson, I decided to go on this trip. We started with Merle in Guatemala City and went to the Highlands where the Maya still dress, live, and maintain their customs, unlike the Mexican Maya who mostly dress and live like their Spanish conquerers.
We flew by plane into Tikal, which is in a jungle area called the Peten. Linda Shele joined the group and led us through the various ruins reading hieroglyphs and doing her own research. Gillette Griffin, who is the curator of pre-Columbian art at Princeton's Art Museum, joined us with another man, Jeff Chouinard, who later published a book on the Maya called Mouths of Stone. I would like to add that I have met and traveled with many scholars and Mayanists and attended the 20 Katun Round table in 1993, which was held in Palenque, Mexico. This group started in 1973 with only about 20 Mayan scholars, but by 1993 over 400 people were in attendance. Many papers were given there and I was the only one in the audience who was using a camcorder. I later sent videos of the papers given to Merle Green Robertson who had organized the first Palenque Round Table of Mayan scholars in 1973. These Mayan scholars are very down to earth, humorous people and love to talk. They are very unpretentious and not in the least stuffy about their knowledge.
Merle Green Robertson took us to the ruin of Seibal on the Pasion River. Later we went to Tikal where I experienced the first real jungle city and we stayed there for three nights. Pre-Columbian civilization in Mesoamerica shared a 260 day calendar, religious beliefs, which included definitions of gods, and bloodletting as the central act of piety. They also shared the cultivation of maize, the use of cacao both as a drink and as money, a sacred ballgame played with a rubber ball, screen-fold books, a distinct architectural style, and a sense of common cultural identity. The worldview that was forged by the ancient peoples of that land is still a living and vibrant heritage for the millions of their descendents. To begin to describe the vast knowledge they had of astronomy and to discuss how Linda Shele and Peter Matthews began their breakthrough of cracking the hieroglyphs would take many pages of explanation and their calendrics would take many more.
In the winter of 1992 I was again on a Far Horizons trip with Linda Shele. This time it was to Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxilan. The greatest moment of all for me was when Linda and I alone went to the bottom of the staircase in the Temple of Inscriptions, the resting place of Pacal the great lord of Palenque. She read to me from the hieroglyphs surrounding his sarcophagus.
In 1995 I went on another trip to Honduras where we traveled to the Cave of the Glowing Skulls. Starting up the path to the cave I slipped on the muddy path and fell knocking my arm, twisting my foot and was only saved by wading through an icy underground river for nearly a kilometer. On that trip we went to Copan and saw one of the most beautiful of the Mayan ruins with a stela of the king called 18 Rabbit, which in Mayan is Waxaklahun U Ba K'awil. He stands inside the gaping jaws of a supernatural being called the Kawak monster or Chak, the god of lightning and thunderstorms.
Chouinard: Eric J. Thompson….portrayed the Maya as peaceful farmers, ruled by astronomer priests, isolated from outside influences by the forbidding jungle and obsessed by the mechanics of time. …he believed this because the numbers and calendar dates were deciphered in the late 1800s…however nobody could read the glyphs until Yuri Knorosov, a Russian linguistics expert, proposed in the early 1950s that the book by the friar Diego de Landa, who lived with the Maya (and who burned their most valuable astronomical books), was not an alphabet but a syllabary. Instead of A, B, C...etc., these were signs that represented syllables such as ba, la, ma. Ba la ma means jaguar in the Mayan language. Although ridiculed by Thompson this became the core of a new group of epigraphers who within a generation had cracked the Mayan hieroglyphs. Linda Shele, Peter Matthews were two of the first to begin this work in Palenque during the first Round Table of 1973. For more information read Michael Coe's book, a fascinating account called Breaking the Maya Code. Subsequently I have attended the Hieroglyhph Weekends at Cleveland State, the last was in October of 2004 led by Peter Matthews who came from Australia to present his latest findings.