Monday, November 24, 2008

U.S. museum returns Mayan jade pieces to Mexico

Announces the director of Harvard's Peabody Museum, which he intends to deliver to the country about 50 figures carved in stone green to nearly one century of years have been drawn from a sacred cenote at Chichen Itza

The director of the Peabody Museum of Harvard wants to return to Mexico some 50 pieces of ancient Mayan carved jade green, almost a century after a U.S. consul took out the one sacred cenote near the ruins of Chichen Itza.

The devices were part of hundreds of items carried by the U.S. consul Edward Herbert Thompson, who drag to the bottom of the cenote a sink flooded between 1904 and 1910 to recover the offerings deposited there by the Maya.

William Fash, director of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said on Tuesday that the idea has yet to be approved by the authorities of the university and the museum, but found that the return of artifacts would help the Mexican specialists to better understand the artistic and religious significance for the Mayans had these pieces of jade stones and the like.

"I think it is important that many of the jades are studied here in Mexico for people who are making careful study of jades," many of whom were brought in from distant sites by ancient pilgrims to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula, in southeastern Mexico, said Fash.

These pieces could say a lot about trade, exchange and artistic models of pre-Hispanic world.

With the return of artifacts, many of which were reconstructed from pieces by the famed researcher Tatiana Proskouriakoff before his death in 1985, could also assemble an exhibit in a museum near the site where they were originally found, said Fash.

The director explained that the planned return is part of a growing trend in which museums make arrangements to return artifacts to their countries of origin in exchange for short-term loans of other artifacts. "This way both institutions earn," he added.

Thompson's collection has been the subject of dispute for a long time, along with other important artifact: a feathered headdress is five centuries old? old who allegedly belonged to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The headdress is in the Ethnological Museum of Vienna, which never has agreed to return to Mexico

In the 10th century the site was re-settled, and a new culture was born, a mixture of Toltec and Maya. This was the period when Chichen Itza was at its greatest. Some time afterwards, a Mayan leader moved the political capital to Mayapan while retaining Chichen Itza as the religious capital. Chichen Itza went into decline, and was eventually abandoned in the 14th century, although it remained a site of Mayan pilgrimage for a long time afterwards.

The centrepiece of the site would appear to be the main pyramid, called the castle by the Spanish. 25 metres high, it was originally built before 800 AD before the Toltec invasion. Nevertheless, it shows the plumed serpent along the stairways and Toltec warriors on the door carvings in the temple on top. This has supported counter-theories that Tula was influenced by Chichen Itza and not the other way around.

The pyramid actually embodies the Mayan calendar. The nine levels are divided in two by a staircase, making a total of 18 sections, representing the months of the haab, the "vague" year. The four stairways each have 91 steps; adding the top platform makes a total of 365, the number of days of the year. Each facade of the pyramid had 52 flat panels, representing the number of years in the "calendar round". The Mayan calendar actually had two types of year: the tzolkin ("sacred" or "almanac" year) consisting of 13 periods of 20 days; and the haab, consisting of 18 months of 20 days and the uayeb, a five-day "portentous" period. These two types of year completed a 52-year cycle called the calendar round, within which any date could be located precisely. These two counts were common to all of Mexico's pre-Hispanic civilisations. However, the Maya also had a third system, known as the long count, using units of 1, 20, 360, 7200 and 144,000 days, which could be extended indefinitely. Mayan inscriptions show the number of Long Count units which had passed from a starting point, the Mayan creation date, corresponding to August 13th 3114 BC.

During the equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the sun makes a pattern of light and shadows along the steps of the pyramid, creating a series of triangles which appear to form the shape of a serpent crawling up the pyramid. We didn't visit Chichen Itza at the right time for this, but we saw pictures and it looked pretty impressive. The pyramid also contains another pyramid inside, containing a jaguar throne and a Toltec-style chac mool figure. To visit this inner pyramid, you have to wait in a long line in the heat with no shade, and then you only get to glimpse the throne from behind a metal fence for a few moments before you have to move on to let other people see.

One of the most impressive sights at Chichen Itza is the so-called Group of the Thousand Columns, named after the many pillars, which presumably supported a roof originally, in front of the buildings. The group consists of the Temple of the Warriors, with similarities to Tula's pyramid B, the Temple of Chac Mool inside the Temple of the Warriors, and the Steam Bath, which was used for ritual purification. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to see the Temple of Chac Mool, or climb the Temple of the Warriors, and had to be content with viewing it from a distance

The main ball court is the largest in Mexico at 135 metres in length, and has temples at either end and stone hoops high up in the side walls. The side panels of the court have panel carvings representing the ball game which suggest that the game changed over time - some of them show players with knee- and elbow-padding, while others show players using bats. The theory is that if a player hit the ball through one of the loops in the wall, his team was declared the winner. There are seven other ball courts located around the site. The temples at either end of the ball court and on one side appeared to have impressive, well-preserved carvings and decorations.

Nearby is the Tzompantli, "temple of skulls" in Toltec. It is believed that this platform held the heads of sacrificial victims. All along the walls on every side are many carvings of skulls.

About 300 metres to the north along a paved Mayan road is the sacred cenote. Cenotes are natural limestone sinkholes containing water found all over the Yucatan. Some were used for drinking water (indeed some still are), but the Sacred Cenote, 60 metres across and 35 metres deep. The sacred cenote has been dredged and explored on a number of occasions, and human remains as well as artefacts and valuable gold and jade jewellery were found.

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