This is a sample from Chapter Five.
The team gathered back in the center of the camp. Tents were half built and Andrew could see the relief etched into the faces of the sweating students as they got to take a break from the hot, challenging work. They sat on the ground while the rest of the team had the luxury of sitting on green canvas chairs. Afi stood.
Andrew noticed his father’s face was aglow and alive, and it was clear the students and staff could feel excitement in the air. Although they were all well aware of the new tomb, Andrew could tell everyone was curious about all the murmurings and whisperings filling the air between himself, Baxter, and his father.
“Right,” John began, “let’s have a moment together. Settle down,” he said.
The crowd hushed.
“Well here we are, nestled in the highlandrain forest of Chiapas. Palenque is considered to be one of the most beautiful ancient cities in the entire Maya world.” John paced back and forth as he talked. “We have so much still to discover and find in the region and are blessed to have this opportunity to be a part of history.” He glanced over at Andrew.
Andrew nodded. He was proud to be one of the few archaeologists in the country that was permitted to peel back the layers of time and learn more about the Maya people.
Even in ruins, the city of Palenque was impressive and still guarded secrets yet to be unraveled by the archaeologist’s trowel. Alongside Andrew and his team, other archaeological and research teams were studying and excavating in the area to uncover more of the mysteries and enigmas surrounding the ancient civilization of the Maya. Large areas of the ancient city were roped off to visitors as teams worked to reveal hidden treasures.
“Tell the students more about the area will you, Andrew,” his father requested.
“Sure.” Andrew stood and spoke. “The vegetation is so thick here in the forest that Palenque town residents, and the local Maya Indians, lived in the area for almost two hundred and fifty years before discovering the ancient ruins. Around 1786 a man called Don Antonio delRio led a team and cut back the jungle, clearing the land. The site of Palenque covers fifteen square kilometers and contains hundreds of buildings, of which only forty have been uncovered or restored. The finding of a tomb and contents is a huge discovery.”
“Indeed a big discovery,” his father interrupted.
“We are going to be really busy the next few weeks now that we have a new tomb,” Andrew continued. “Some of the crew will work with you on our original dig site. You never know what else we might find.”
Andrew nodded at his father and sat back down.
“Thank you, Andrew,” his father said, looking at the students. “We will also find the time to take you on a tour of the Palenque ruins.”
The students all nodded enthusiastically.
John continued on. “Palenque shows us the highest point in the art of the late-classic period, between 600 to 800 AD. The Maya architecture and their artwork reached the zenith of expression at this site.”
Everybody listened intently.
“The Temple of Inscriptions is one of the best preserved Maya temples. We have learned so much from the hieroglyphic tablets and stelae. In 1952, what was found there?” he asked.
There was silence a moment before a student called out, “A tomb.”
“Yes,” John said. “Who found it?”
“Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier.”
“Excellent, yes,” John replied. “It was an incredible find. The texts indicated the tomb belonged to a leader called Pacal the Great. He ruled the land for sixty-eight years,” he paused, interlocking his fingers. “It took Alberto four years to clear the rubble from the stairway. He found an elaborately carved sarcophagus with the king’s human remains still lying inside it. His body was adorned with the richest offering of jade ever seen in a Maya tomb. He was wearing a jade mask over his face and a jade suit.” John began to walk around the students. “When did he rule?”
“615 to 683 AD, Sir.”
“Correct. When he was twelve years old, he assumed power. During his rule, he set in motion the vast rebuilding of Palenque, emphasizing the construction of grandiose buildings to reflect his power. One of his great structures was the Palace, covered with stucco carvings of rulers, gods, and ceremonies.”
Andrew listened intently. He knew all this information, but loved watching his father’s teaching style, passionate and knowledgeable.
“Who can tell me about the ancient Maya writings?” John asked the students.
After a few seconds three hands shot up.
“Martin,” John said, pointing to the youth.
“They wrote in hieroglyphic writing. It was very complex and they had hundreds of signs in the form of abstract designs.”
“Yes, excellent reply! The Maya writing system had an extensive set of phonetic signs that represented individual sounds like in alphabetic systems. The earliest examples of Maya writing were created during the pre-classic period. The unit of the writing system is the glyphic cartouche, which is equivalent to the words and sentences of our modern language.” John scratched his chin then sat himself back down on a chair. “Now,” he continued the lesson. “What did they write about? Mary.” He pointed at the teenage girl.
“They documented historical and social events. Like birth and death and that….” Mary trailed off.
“Astronomical events,” another voice piped up.
“Yes, yes, good. What else?”
“Torture and death.”
“Yes, important later in time. Initially, the Maya recorded lines of succession, important dates, genealogy too; but in later years they documented the capture of enemies, torture, and death. Right, next question, what did they use to write on?”
Hands shot up, including Baxter’s. Ignoring his wild humorous gesturing, his father pointed to a student.
“Carved in stone, Sir.”
“What else?” John asked.
“Ceramics and pottery.”
“Walls? Made of Stucco?” another student added.
“Yes, well done. Our newly discovered tomb appears to have that construction material, but we will have to wait until that’s confirmed….” John paused, as if pondering his next question. “Anyway, what is stucco made of?”
“Stucco is made from sand, lime, and water, Sir.”
“Good, yes. What else did they write on?” John asked, raising himself off his chair and walking around again.
Typical teacher. Andrew thought.
The students sat, some eyes were cast downward, others looking around at each other.
“Books,” Leanne, the other female student in the group said, “called Codices.”
“Excellent!” the Professor almost bellowed. Andrew saw her smile with relief. “Yes books! The Maya would pound bark into pulp with stone implements called bark beaters. Natural gums were used as a bonding substance to hold the pulp together. Then they would apply a coating of fine white lime to both sides of the paper, providing a smooth finish they could paint on. Does anyone know what they wrote with?”
No one replied.
“It is thought they would use quills made of feathers, wood and other implements,” John answered his own question. “Now, how many Maya Codices have ever been found?”
“Four, Sir.” Leanne answered again. “The others were burned by the Spanish.”
“And how many Aztec Codices are there?”
“A lot more,” John said, obviously realizing the question was a tricky one to answer. “There are only a few surviving pre-conquest Codices, but there are as many as five hundred Colonial-era Codices dating around the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. One of the more beautiful older ones, painted around 1530, about a decade after the conquest, is the Boturnini Codex. A piece of art I myself have studied.” He began pacing as he talked. “It is on one long sheet of fig bark, folded accordion style and is around twenty one pages long. The pictures tell the story of the Aztec journey to the valley of Mexico.” He stopped talking.
Andrew looked around the group. The whole team, including Afi, were totally captivated. He looked back to his father as he resumed talking.
“Anyway I digress, that was about the Aztec Codices. Now we are talking about the rarer Maya versions. Leanne mentioned they were burned by the Spanish. Yes, this did indeed happen. Many books, both Maya and Aztec, were destroyed when the Spanish tried to convert the population to Christianity.” Professor Cunningham scratched his head and looked around at his captive audience. “Now let’s see if I can remember this quote,” he said, still scratching his head as if to recall it. “We found a great number of books and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil, we burned them, which they took most grievously, and it gave them great pain.” I think I might have a few words wrong there but it’s about right. Now who spoke those words? Andrew?” John asked his son.
Andrew knew the answer immediately.
In 1519, six hundred Spaniards and native allies, led by Don Hernando Cortes, arrived at the metropolis the Aztecs had built on a lake island, now known as Mexico. Although the Maya cities were in ruins centuries before, the mighty Aztec culture was rich and economically, politically, and religiously powerful. The Spanish were amazed by the splendors they saw, great temples and palaces and incredible marvels. Even so, the Spaniards considered the Aztec to be barbarians and aimed to attack and steal their riches and convert them to Christianity.
“Bishop Diego de Landa,” Andrew answered.
“By 1566, they started gathering up all the writings they could find to burn them. A few missionaries saved as much indigenous literature they could find so they could protect them and escape the fire.”
“So,” John went on, not acknowledging Andrew’s correct answers. “Although there are a number of Aztec writings, we do know that only four Maya glyph books survived. Can anyone tell me the name of any of the four Maya Codices that have been found?”
Andrew noticed his field team looking over at him, wondering where this line of questioning was going and whispering amongst themselves. He caught Baxter’s eye and grinned. Baxter smiled back. They both knew the plan to announce the find. Baxter was clearly enjoying the line of questioning.
“The Dresden Codex,” Leanne called out again.
“Yes, the most famous, most beautiful, most complete and best understood of all the Codices. It has served as our most important source of information about Maya astronomy. The Dresden Codex has around seventy four pages. The artist used both sides of the paper and painted them with a fine brush. The Codex is housed securely in a glass cabinet inDresden, hence its name.”
Everyone was listening.
“Now, what are the other three called?” John asked again. When no one replied he turned to the archaeological team sitting by Andrew. “Team?”
“Grolier Codex, a fragment of eleven pages.”
“Which of the four is the one still debated?” John asked.
“The Grolier Codex is the most recently discovered and its authenticity is still furiously debated,” Baxter answered.
“Very good, yes,” John replied. “It was said to have been found in a wooden box in a cave not far from here, in Chiapas. It is in very poor condition. It appears to have been hastily created with rough penmanship but that doesn’t mean it’s not authentic. So we have the Grolier,Paris,Dresden, and Madrid Codices, the only four that have ever been found and all named after the cities that house them.” John stopped talking and rubbed his chin.
No one spoke.
“Andrew,” he turned to face his son, pausing a moment longer for effect. “What will the name of the fifth Codex be I wonder?”
Andrew smiled and paused, savoring the moment. “I don’t know yet, any suggestions?” Andrew replied.
There were loud audible gasps from the team. Some of the younger group did not immediately comprehend what was transpiring between father and son. After a moment, the noise level slowly rose and erupted, peaking in level as the group realized what had just been announced.
There was a Codex down in the tomb!
Author: Lisa J Flaus