On 18.104.22.168.14 13 Ix 12 Mac, which is the 1865054th day of the Mayan
calendar, I obtained my
For that occasion I wrote the following
"Our guide cleared a way with his machete, and we passed, as it lay half
buried in the earth, a large fragment of stone elaborately sculptured, and came
to the angle of a structure with steps on the sides, in form and appearance,
so far as the trees would enable us to make it out, like the sides of a
Diverging from the base, and working our way through the thick woods, we came
upon a square stone column, about fourteen feet high and three feet on each
side, sculptured in very bold relief, and on all four of the sides, from the
base to the top.
The front was the figure of a man curiously and richly dressed, and the face,
evidently a portrait, solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror.
The back was of a different design, unlike anything we had ever seen before,
and the sides were covered with hieroglyphics.
This our guide called an 'idol;' and before it, at a distance of three feet,
was a large block of stone, also sculptured with figures and emblematical
devices, which he called an altar.
The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our
minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities,
and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were
interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of
art, proving, like newly-discovered historical records, that the people who
once occupied the Continent of America were not savages."
Thus John L. Stephens describes his first live acquaintance with the remnants
of Maya civilization, at Copán, fall 1839,
in Incidents of Travel
in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan.
"It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these
The ground was entirely new; there were no books or guides; the whole was
a virgin soil. [...]
The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the woods,
disturbed only by the scrambling of monkeys and the chattering of parrots, the
desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an
interest higher, if possible, then I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old
was preparing to visit the remains of ancient art said to exist
in the dense tropical forests,
when the president of the USA sent him on a diplomatic
mission to the United States of Central America:
a federation of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras,
Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
He was accompanied by an English friend, Frederick Catherwood,
an architect and artist with extensive archaeological experience.
On their way into Central America, they visited
While Catherwood remained there,
making accurate drawings of the antiquities,
Stephens pursued his mission. But he found the country sliding into
civil war; the federal government had ceased to exist.
Under harsh conditions, trying to keep ahead of the war,
Stephens and Catherwood
travelled on to Mexico and visited, among others, the ruins
at Palenque and Uxmal.
Their journey came to a premature end when Catherwood fell ill in
In 1841 Stephens' book appeared, illustrated with (steel engravings
from) Catherwood's drawings.
Later that year, they embarked upon a
second journey and explored some two dozen ancient sites in Yucatan.
Incidents of travel in Yucatan, the illustrated account of their
second journey, was published in 1843.
Who built these cities?
Which fate has befallen the people who
once lived here?
Stephens, contemplating the sculptures and
hieroglyphic inscriptions in Copán,
believed that the history of the town was graven on
It took another 119 years to prove that his intuition,
rejected by generations of later Maya scientists, was right.
I came to visit the land of the Maya in February 1991,
for the first time attending an international gathering
of computational linguists, taking place at Cancun.
The workshop was certainly interesting, but the
no match for A Forest of Kings
by Linda Schele and David Freidel,
a recently published account of Maya history
that I had stumbled upon in a fortunate moment.
With one and a half week to spare, half a dozen ancient Maya
sites within a few days' reach, and Schele and Freidel as most qualified
guides, I got infected with the same
virus that has had such a grave effect upon Stephens, Schele,
and many others.
I have to confess that on my trip to the Yucatan peninsula
I learned much more
about Maya history than about computational linguistics.
But this book shows, I hope, that I have returned to the duties
for which the University of Twente has engaged me the last four years.
Most of the adventure and romantic appeal of travel
(and most of its hardship)
There is preciously little ``virgin soil'' left, if any at all.
But if one goes to the ruins of Cobá,
off the main tourist roads,
one can climb the 42 meter high
Nohoch Mul, the tallest ancient structure
in the Northern lowlands, and have a
magnificent view over the Cobá lake
and the surrounding country, perfectly
flat except for some steep and forest-covered elevations which,
surely, must cover yet unexplored remnants of these mysterious people.
[vi + 392 uninteresting pages deleted]
The Maya have fascinated many people.
Living in the stone age, in the midst of tropical rain forest,
these people achieved the highest indigenous culture in the Americas,
the only one with a complete script.
The classic Maya period, in which most of the art and all the inscriptions
are dated, lasted from 100 to 900 A.D.
As enigmatic as the rise of this culture is its
sudden downfall, in the 9th century.
Almost within a single life span, the Maya ceased to make inscriptions
all over the country, stretching From Tabasco in the West
to Belize and Honduras in the East.
For a long time, only fragments of Maya the script - the calendar system
and records of astronomic events - could be read, which added
much to the mystery.
Only in the last decades the script has been deciphered, and
considerable parts of their history can be reconstructed.
With the facts on the table, now, they appear to be a somewhat
more mundane lot then generations of Maya experts
would have liked them to be.
The sculptures and monuments do not depict scenes with gods,
but describe the deeds of kings and other ahau, members
of the ruling class. Some kings fancied themselves depicted as
gods, from which the ahau claimed to descend.
Public art primarily served purposes of personality cult
and political propaganda.
Like ancient Greece, the country was divided into independent
city states. Although there was a common culture, there has never
been a political unity.
These city states were constantly at war with
each other. The purpose of war was not so much to occupy
neighbouring cities (only after centuries it has
occurred to them that you could actually
impose your rule on other cities by implanting a vassal as king)
but to take captives. These were sacrificed to the gods.
The higher the captive, the higher the esteem of its captor.
Writing was a form of art, and with such a rather complex script,
it is supposed that only the ahau were literate.
When Maya society collapsed, the knowledge of the script
How the script functions, and how that knowledge has been
regained in our time,
is a fascinating story that
can not be summarized satisfactorily
in a few lines. The interested reader is referred to
A comprehensive history of the Maya as far as it can be reconstructed
from the inscriptions is given by Schele and Freidel .
A note on the illustrations
The illustrations are copied from [Stephens, 1841], after drawings made
on site in 1839 by
Frederick Catherwood in
(what is now known as) Copán, Honduras.
The first picture
displays the top of a sculptured stone,
six feet square and four feet high,
that is technically known as "Altar Q".
This monument was commissioned by Yax-Pac,
the sixteenth king of Copán, to celebrate his accession to
the throne on July 2nd, 763.
The four sides display the sixteen kings, in
clockwise order, each one seated on a glyph representing
his own name.
Yax-Pac is seated in right middle position on the
He faces Yax-Kuk-Mo', the first king.
The 3rd-6th, 7th-10th, and 11th-14th kings are displayed on the
North, East, and South
The inscription on the top starts to commemorate that
Yax-Kuk-Mo' displayed his divine scepter at
September 6, 426 A.D. (or, rather,
5 Caban 15 Yaxkin in the Maya calendar)
and became king three days later.
As much of the Maya art,
this monument had a clear political purpose.
Yax-Pac had good reasons to stress his direct descendance from
the legendary founder; there are indications that
the nobility of Copán questioned the sovereignty of the king.
But problems far greater than political rivalry overshadowed
the city. Copán had
With the most fertile part of the valley covered by an expanding city,
agriculture had been pushed onto the hill sides. Erosion, aggravated by
deforestation, depleted the usable soil at an ever faster rate.
Malnutrition and anaemia plagued the ahau as well as the
common man, while the community
was driven inexorably towards an ecological breakdown.
Yax-Pac reigned for no less than 56 years,
but the dynasty barely survived him.
In the days of his successor, U-Cit-Tok, seventeenth king in the line of
Yax-Kuk-Mo', the ravaged land regressed into prehistory
- or, rather, posthistory.
The last erected monument commemorates
the accession of U-Cit-Tok.
It has not been finished.
The recorded history of Copán ends
on the day
that the artists laid down their tools and left the job.
Michael D. Coe (1992).
Breaking the Maya Code.
Thames and Hudson, London.
Linda Schele and David Freidel (1990).
A Forest of Kings: the Untold Story of the Ancient Maya.
William Morrow, New York.
John L. Stephens (1841).
Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan.
Harper & Brothers, New York.
Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1969).
John L. Stephens (1843).
Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.
Harper & Brothers, New York.
Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1963).