Magazine article Science News

Murals Unveil Maya Literary Practices: Discoveries Peg Ritual Specialists as Central to Making Books

Magazine article Science News

Murals Unveil Maya Literary Practices: Discoveries Peg Ritual Specialists as Central to Making Books

Article excerpt

Excavations at a more than 1,200-year-old Maya settlement in Guatemala suggest that ritual specialists made sacred books in a room where they also painted murals and astronomical tables on the walls. The findings offer a rare glimpse of the people who created Maya books.

At least two men buried near the mural room, located in a city called Xultun, took part in making bark-paper, stucco-coated books known as codex books, say archaeologist Franco Rossi of Boston University and colleagues. One man was interred in an addition to the mural room built when the room was filled in with limestone and mud, Rossi's group reports online January 5 in American Anthropologist.

"The mural room was sealed off and turned into this individual's mausoleum," Rossi says.

Two pendants found with the man's skeleton identify him as an important ritual specialist depicted in the murals, the researchers propose. On one painted wall, the man--wearing one of the pendants hanging from his neck and the other attached to his headdress--sits below hieroglyphics that dub him a senior taaj. Two smaller men sitting next to him bear the title of junior taaj. Only those designated as taaj would have had the knowledge to calculate and write the calendrical tables in the mural room and, presumably, in codex books, Rossi says.

Several other Maya sites from the same time contain written references to ritual specialists known as taaj, but their duties are poorly understood, Rossi adds.

In a related paper in the February Antiquity, Boston University archaeologist William Saturno, Rossi and others describe who and what was portrayed in the Xultun murals. Images painted on the room's stucco walls show members of a taaj order celebrating a new year's ritual with their ruler, the researchers say.

Saturno's group previously reported that writing and numbers painted on the mural room's walls referred to lunar and planetary cycles (SN: 6/16/12, p. …

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