Fall/Winter 01

Studying
the
Archaeology
of
Performance
among the
Ancient
Maya

by Julia L. J. Sanchez

Research project presents unique challenges but can provide a vivid, active view of the human past


The author joins a marimba band in Antigua, Guatemala


I have studied ancient Maya monumental art for the last eight years, looking at ancient Maya social organization, politics, and ritual through art and architecture. Last year I began to ask some new questions. What kinds of performances—such as dance, theatre, and processions—are part of rituals? How can archaeologists take the material remains of societies and recreate the performances and what they meant to the community? The project currently focuses on performance among the ancient Maya (approximately 250 bc to ad 1500), with comparisons to other cultures and time periods increasingly included.

I didn’t realize how exciting and challenging this project would be. Performance is a general term encompassing many behaviors: purposeful performances such as theatre, dances, processions, or concerts; other activities that involve displays such as feasts and costumes; and everyday activities through which people perform their social identity. Like most of the behaviors that archaeologists study, performances are ephemeral. We can’t see the performances, only their material remains. While houses, tools, and food often seem familiar to archaeologists and easy to identify, performances can be incredibly rich and varied. Making matters more difficult, there are few surviving examples of musical notations, scores, or scripts of performances in any part of the world (with a few exceptions in Greece, Egypt, and China). Costumes and musical instruments often are made of fragile materials that deteriorate. In the Maya area, there are numerous texts and images but relatively few make explicit references to performances.

Although the research is difficult, all efforts are rewarded with a vivid, active view of the human past. Performance is a significant part of social activity and ritual. Imagine the amount of time you spend listening to music, participating in or attending dances, enjoying literature, or participating in feasts. Such activities are integrated into every other aspect of life; yet, we know very little about performances in the past.

Some of the research questions are:

  • How are performances incorporated into ritual, politics, economy, ideology, social organization, and everyday life?
  • How are performances used for political goals?
  • How do performances define social groups?
  • Who is involved in performances?

With no model to follow and few previous studies to use as examples, the intellectual challenges are irresistible. Instruments have been found at ancient Maya sites, including ceramic drums, ceramic flutes and ocarinas, conch shells, turtle carapaces that were hit with deer antlers, and rattles. Decorative elements from costumes and ornaments are frequently preserved. Architectural settings for performances still exist. Brilliantly painted murals and pottery provide examples of how these elements were used, yet they also tease us with reminders that we are missing a multitude of wooden instruments, textiles, feathers, as well as the sounds that were a part of the performances.

Ethnohistoric documents and ethnographic data can help fill in some gaps. Spanish explorers wrote detailed descriptions of groups they encountered in the Maya area. Public performances were more interesting and unusual, and so they often were recorded in more detail than such mundane activities as farming. Ethnographic research of modern Maya performance also can be extremely informative, although modern performances differ greatly from those of the ancient Maya. Comparisons of archaeological, ethnohistoric, and ethnographic data have revealed fascinating changes as cultures clashed and assimilated new ideas.

For the ancient Maya, performance was integral at all levels of society, from large state ceremonies involving hundreds of people to an individual whistling on the way to the fields. Murals depict processions with large bands of drums, flutes, and rattles. Performers in supernatural costumes accompanied and reenacted mythical scenes. Royal participants donned elaborate costumes and danced. Such large ceremonies would fill the plazas with noise and spectacle, spreading onto the building platforms above. The performances united the community as performers and audience shared the experience. At the same time, participants were divided into different social groups according to their roles.

Recent studies indicate that war banners and perhaps even carved statues were carried into battle as representations of supernatural patron deities who would lend support. Some scholars have suggested that battles themselves were performances used to gain captives for sacrifice. Material evidence demonstrates otherwise, at least at some sites where numerous weapons and fortifications have been identified. Even in such deadly, large-scale combat, displays of prowess could be used to intimidate the enemy. Conches and drums created a frightening din to intimidate the enemy. Ethnohistoric documents describe Maya and Aztec music as having a mournful sound that was not pleasant to European explorers under the best of conditions. “When the dawn appeared the Quiché descended from the hills, cries and shouts of war broke forth, the banners were displayed. Then were heard the drums, the trumpets and the conches of the combatantsŠthe noise of the drums, the trumpets and conches resounded, mingling with the enchantment of the heroes” (Annals of the Cakchiquels).

Ethnographic replicas of ancient instruments such as ceramic flutes and gourd rattles

Rattles and conch shells also were used in hunting or to keep time during ballgames. A variety of ballgames were played in the Maya area, as discussed during the recent UCLA Maya Weekend. Some ballgames were reenactments of creation stories, while others were sporting events. Music and dance celebrations surrounding the events varied according to the type of ballgame played. On a much smaller scale, hundreds of figurine whistles have been found at sites and were possibly carried around to create impromptu music by individuals and small groups.

We will never know what songs the ancient Maya sang, never be able to recreate the steps of an ancient dance, yet the attempt is exciting and informative. At the Society for American Archaeology meetings in 2002, I will bring together a group of archaeologists to discuss different approaches to performance. Some of the participants conduct research on performance, while others are making an attempt to interpret such activities for the first time. We already have found a wealth of information and new ways to explore it. We can take instruments that we know were used and produce potential sounds, or copy images to examine a few dance steps. We can look at the contexts and meanings of performances. And as always in archaeology, we can enjoy the constant pursuit of information about the past.



Julia L. J. Sanchez is Assistant Director of the Cotsen Institute.Backdirteditors can be reached by email at ioapubs@ucla.edu.