One of the best rooms in the British Museum, London, is what I like to call the Room of Turquoise and Stone. A capsule of pre-Columbian Mexican History. Here are some of it’s highlights.
Guardians of the East Stairs.
One of the many mid century fusions of diplomat, explorer and writer was a man by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was among the first to write detailed English descriptions of the Mayan sites during the 1840’s and his companion in adventure, a British artist and architect named Frederick Catherwood was the first to visually record them on paper:
‘It is thirteen feet in height, four feet in front, and three deep, sculpted on all four of its sides from the base to the top, and oe of the richest and most elaborate specimens in the whole extent of the ruins. Originally it was painted, the marks of red colour being still distinctly visible.’John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. v I.. 1841.
Despite his detailed descriptions, which inspired later explorations of the sites, Stephens admitted that it was annoyingly difficult to find out any verifiable history regarding them.
The question, who built them?, never by any accident crossed their minds. The great name of Montezuma, which had gone beyond them to the Indians of Honduras, had never reached their ears, and to all our questions we received the same dull answer which first met us at Copan, “Que sabe?”‘John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. v I. 1843.
Que Sabe would remain the question until modern scholars cracked the Mayan writing system but the lure of ‘lost’ cities proved irresistible and in the decades that followed.
Years later the explorer, and archaeological pioneer, Alfred Maudesley became known in the scientific world because of a five volume treatise called Biologia Cantrali-Americana. Published in 1902 it described many of the most important Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza and represents the fruit of his life’s work.
When Stephens and Catherwood made their explorations they relied on detailed drawings and written descriptions but, Maudesley could rely on the use of camera technology to document his findings.
He also made detailed casts of the extraordinary sculptures he surveyed, made by expert plaster modeler, Lorenzo Giuntini. These were carefully packed and crated to be shipped off to museums in Europe and North America.
Two of Giuntini’s grey plaster Stelae from Copan confront you at the foot of the British Museum’s East Stairs. Their labyrinthine intricacy is offset by the simple intensity of the noble faces of the rulers, staring down at visitors with solemn imperturbability from either side of a wide doorway, barred to all except staff.
Room 27: The Mayans.
As far as the galleries of the British Museum go, room 27, housing the Mexican exhibits and accessed by a right turn at the bottom of the stairs, (they themselves being decorated with Mayan stelae) is an intimate space.
It’s dark, illuminated by the spotlights that reveal the objects on display. The selection showcases the sophistication of the early civilisations of Mexico, ending with fabulous mosaic items from the Mexica empire.
But first we return to the Maya. The writings of the Mayan civilisation have taken 150 years to read. It is only recently that scholars have been able to decipher the tantalisingly neat pictograms blocked into plaques and wall paintings.
A great aid scholars used in breaking the Maya code was the painfully rare codex’s, a tracing of the ‘Dresden codex’ which document’s the remarkable astronomical sophistication of this civilization.
Works of art as well as vital historical documents, the linguistic legacy of the Mayan civilization stands as one of it’s greatest achievements and is as equally inspiring and complex as the most graceful European calligraphy or Egyptian equivalents.
Not even the Mexica (anachronistically known as the Aztec) people, who came to rule central Mexico, knew who the builders of Teotihuacan were. The name means simply, ‘place of the gods.’
Sitting in the company of multiple ceramics and precious objects this fragment of a Nebaj style jade plaque must have been made for a very important individual. It draws the eye at once, as if the speech sign emanating from the Lord’s mouth was calling to you directly.
Along the far wall, under the geometric ceiling, which gives the impression of a portico, late Classic Mayan door lintels from a royal structure in Yaxichilan, Chiapas, hang for visitors to observe.
Rated without exaggeration as amongst the finest works of high Mayan art, it is hard not to be moved by the power exuding from the succeeding cut stone images. Among the most understandable is Bird Jaguar IV dominating a prisoner, holding him in thrall as much by his ferocious stare as his spear.
In another lintel (not pictured) Shield Jaguar the Great looks on as his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, threads a thorned rope through the tip of her tongue in a bloodletting ceremony. Try thinking about doing that without flinching.
Although it must be admitted that the British Museum’s Mexican Collection is tiny beside that of Egypt and accumulated by private means and by early archeologists rather than soldiers and tourists, the methods by which some of the items were gathered leaves something to be desired.
Addressing the Royal Geographic Society in 1883, Maudesley displayed one of the lintels now hanging in room 27 and described how he came by it:
’The other difference [to Tikal] is an important one, namely the employment of stone instead of wood for lintels. Many of the these lintels are carved on under the surface and I have succeeded in bringing to England one of the best preserved of these carved stones. I took it from a half-ruined house, where it had fallen from its place, but was luckily resting with the carved side against the wall, and had thus been protected from the weather. The stone, when I first saw it, weighed about half a ton, but by keeping the men constantly at work on it with the point of a pickaxe and some chisels which I had luckily brought with me, at the end of the week we had chipped it down to half it’s original thickness and cut off the two ends. Afterwards … we cut it down to it’s present size with hand-saws.’Explorations in Guatemala, and Examination of the Newly-Discovered Indian Ruins of Quiriguá, Tikal, and the Usumacinta
A. P. Maudslay. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography
Vol. 5, No. 4 (Apr., 1883), pp. 185-204 (26 pages) JSTOR.
Though all of the cities that formed the classic Mayan civilisation ceased to be a meaningful political entities by the time of the 15th century, a great Nahuatl speaking power grew in their stead in the valley of Mexico.
Room 27: The Mexica.
The heart of the British Museum’s Mexica Collection are the Turquoise Mosaics. A selection of nine intriguing and sometimes disturbing works of religious, royal and historical significance, there being only 25 Mexican mosaics in Europe.
Famously the Mexica placed great importance on ceremonial masks. This one, with its studded turquoise face, and frozen grimace stares out from a darkened glass case.
It depicts the ancient fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and probably something out of your more vivid nightmares. This particular mask might even have played a part in some of the great moments of Mexica history as high quality masks like this would most certainly have been worn by the Tlatoani on the occasion of his investiture.
Safely locked behind glass under watery lights that play softly on their subjects, the turquoise fractals gleam with otherworldly beauty, and in some cases, quiet menace.
Not far away, the tarnished design on a shield-like object, never meant for war but for ceremony, suggests the four quadrants of the Mexica world in almost unimaginable detail.
Beside the disc is a finely made atlatl, or spear thrower, a small device a hunter or warrior could use to project his weapon great distances towards his target. Such weapons were commonly included in religious and royal iconography and this one appears to be uncommonly well made.
Highly significant but at the same time quite reluctant to offer any definitive clue as to it’s significance, the painstakingly inlaid double headed serpent represents the pride of the nine Mexica Mosaics in the British Museum.
The skill and craftsmanship involved in making and detailing this object is breathtaking to think about and due to it’s uniqueness it might be considered one of the most important pieces in the museum’s entire collection.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.