Ancestral Faces: A Preclassic Maya Skull-Mask from Cuello, Belize. (News & Notes)

By Hammond, Norman; Saul, Julie Mather et al. | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Ancestral Faces: A Preclassic Maya Skull-Mask from Cuello, Belize. (News & Notes)


Hammond, Norman, Saul, Julie Mather, Saul, Frank P., Antiquity


Twenty years ago, one of us noted that `the extent to which ancestor veneration played a large part in Maya religion is-only now beginning to be appreciated' (Hammond 1982: 321), and that such veneration was explicitly portrayed in Classic Maya iconography (Hammond 1981). Since then, the extent to which the ancestors were used to underpin territorial claims, as a combination of increasing population size and density in an emergent agricultural landscape created an `archaeology of place' in the Maya Lowlands--as elsewhere in Mesoamerica, and in Eurasia also--has be come more fully defined (McAnany 1995; see also Wilk 1991).

Contact-period evidence for ancestor veneration was noted by Landa (Tozzer 1941:131), who recorded that `they used to cut off the heads of the old lords of Cocom when they died, and after cooking them they cleaned off the flesh, and then sawed off half the crown on the back, leaving the front part with the jaws and teeth. Then they replaced the flesh which was gone from these half-skulls with a kind of bitumen, and gave them a perfect appearance characteristic of those whose skulls they were. They kept these together [with the inurned ashes of cremated ancestors] in the oratories of their houses with their idols, holding them in very great reverence and respect'. Kidder (1947: 57-8) cited this in noting at Uaxactun an Early Classic `frontal portion of adult skull, strong frontal deformation ... coronal suture forms rear edge; this and sides worked smooth. At center of rear edge a 0.3 cm broken-through (not drilled) hole and what seem to be the beginnings of two drilled holes on inner surface 1.5 cm forward of center of coronal suture ... If the facial bones once formed part of this piece, it may have served as backing for a human face modeled in stucco'.

We report here evidence from the Middle Preclassic period at the early Maya community of Cuello, Belize, suggesting that this practice may be several centuries older, forming part of the complex behaviour involved in putting down visible roots in the landscape.

During the 2002 season of excavations at Cuello, the Middle Preclassic buildings enclosing a paved patio on its north and east sides were excavated (Hammond et al. 2002); the southern, and parts of the western and northern, structures had been excavated in previous seasons (Hammond 1991: figures 3.4-3.9, 5.4-5.18). Successive deposits of sheet midden were exposed to the northeast of the enclosed area, some of the earlier ones being sealed by subsequent extensions of the plaster patio floors (Hammond et al. 2002: figures 1 & 3). One such layer, 618,6, was a dark, soft and artefactually rich deposit dating, on stratigraphic and ceramic evidence, to the transition between the Bladen and Lopez Mamom phases, close to 600 BC. Among the abundance of large sherds in excellent condition (such that a single event, such as feasting, generating much of the material is not implausible) were numerous chert bifaces, shell artefacts and bone objects, including a needle or awl tip and a carved tube, and the specimen (Q6186.09.01) which we discuss here.

It was recognized on discovery (by Nina Neivens) as part of a skull and probably human (FIGURE 1), and this was confirmed by us (JMS/FPS). We identified it as being from an adult, probably female, and to consist of the central lower portion of the frontal bone (FIGURE 2), extending down to just above the nose and including a portion of the top of the left orbit. No intentional cranial shaping is apparent. At the top, the frontal had been cleanly cut in a horizontal line; a cut just above the nasal bones is less certain. Old breaks delimit the right and left edges, with a small fresh break in the right upper corner. About 0.5 cm to the right of the internal frontal crest at midline and 0.9 cm down from the upper cut, a perforation 0.5 cm in diameter had been drilled through the bone, presumably to allow suspension or attachment. …

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