Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time

Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time

Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time

Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time

Synopsis

InMaya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos, Prudence M. Rice proposed a new model of Maya political organization in which geopolitical seats of power rotated according to a 256-year calendar cycle known as theMay. This fundamental connection between timekeeping and Maya political organization sparked Rice's interest in the origins of the two major calendars used by the ancient lowland Maya, one 260 days long, and the other having 365 days. InMaya Calendar Origins, she presents a provocative new thesis about the origins and development of the calendrical system.

Integrating data from anthropology, archaeology, art history, astronomy, ethnohistory, myth, and linguistics, Rice argues that the Maya calendars developed about a millennium earlier than commonly thought, around 1200 BC, as an outgrowth of observations of the natural phenomena that scheduled the movements of late Archaic hunter-gatherer-collectors throughout what became Mesoamerica. She asserts that an understanding of the cycles of weather and celestial movements became the basis of power for early rulers, who could thereby claim "control" over supernatural cosmic forces. Rice shows how time became materialized- transformed into status objects such as monuments that encoded calendrical or temporal concerns- as well as politicized, becoming the foundation for societal order, political legitimization, and wealth. Rice's research also sheds new light on the origins of thePopol Vuh, which, Rice believes, encodes the history of the development of the Mesoamerican calendars. She also explores the connections between the Maya and early Olmec and Izapan cultures in the Isthmian region, who shared with the Maya the cosmovision and ideology incorporated into the calendrical systems.

Excerpt

In Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos (2004), I explore a suggestion by the late ethnohistorian Munro S. Edmonson (1979) that Classic-period Maya geopolitics might have been based on the same structural principles that operated in the Postclassic and Colonial periods. The core structuring principle was the rotation of divinely sanctioned geopolitical capitals on a roughly 256-year cycle known as the may. Edmonson also suggested the possibility that Preclassic (or Formative) Mesoamerican societies might have observed may cycles, a possibility that I explore briefly in my text.

The present volume is both an outgrowth of Maya Political Science (MPS) and a "prequel" to it: an exploration of Maya Time with a capital T. While writing MPS I became fascinated with Maya calendars, particularly their beginnings. It is widely known that the Maya possessed astonishingly accurate systems of recording time (Time) in a series of intermeshing cycles. Today's archaeologists, however, not only take these achievements for granted, they consistently fail to incorporate the role of the calendar and calendrical celebrations into their interpretations of Maya history. Certainly, early twentieth century–style Maya calendrical studies have long been out of fashion: calendrical glyphs are now deciphered, the chronological position of the Maya civilization is no longer a significant archaeological problem, correlation issues are largely settled, and radiometric methods are available to date deposits not otherwise datable by inscriptions. But, perplexingly, examination of the calendars as expressions of deep-seated structural, cultural, and historical identities seems to hold little intrinsic interest for Mayanists (see P. Rice N.d.b). Questions about when, why, where, and how these instruments developed and what deeper meanings might be embedded are rarely if ever asked—not because the answers are transparently evident but because the questions themselves somehow do not seem to have been deemed pertinent. As I note in the preface to MPS (Rice 2004:xvii), scholars commonly pay lip service to the concept of Maya kings as "lords of time," but they have not examined what this might mean in an evidentiary or hypothetico-deductive sense: if Maya kings were indeed lords of time, then how does that structure our expectations about how this role might be manifest in the material record? Similarly, archaeologists, art historians, and epigraphers . . .

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