Millennial Artifacts From San Antonio Art Museum Reveal Power Dynamics Among Mayan Communities

The past doesn’t always scream through the words on the pages. Sometimes it has to be pieced together bit by bit with the clues hidden under our feet.

This is the case of the current exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art entitled Nature, Power and Mayan Royals: Recent Discoveries from the Buenavista del Cayo Site. Ending on February 27, it displays artifacts of Mayan royalty that have been excavated by a team of archaeologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio, led by Professors Kathryn Brown and Jason Yaeger. (Maya is the term used for the past and present culture and civilization, while Maya is the term for the language, which is still spoken today.)

Found in Belize, these ornate ceramic vessels and intricately carved jewelry reveal how the Mayan elite used certain symbols of nature in their art to assert high status. Bernadette Cap, Ph.D, is the curator of the exhibit and participated in the excavations. She explained how much power these elites held.

“They control the writing, so they control the telling of the past. They control the art we see,” Cap said.

And the art that museum visitors see from this excavation has contributed to the study of the Maya civilization. Cap mentioned that Belize was once considered by scholars to be a “backwater” for research, but this Buenavista del Cayo site “now adds to the political history of the region.”

It does this by revealing the important role that small communities played in Maya society in general.

“You have to have these other smaller communities supporting” the bigger kingdoms for civilization to work, she explained.

The proof of the power these small communities possessed, of course, is found in the artifacts. Although buried underground for over 1,000 years – since the Classic Maya period – the artifacts have been restored to reveal their intricate and detailed beauty.

Jiawen Chen


For Texas Public Radio

Diagram of the 2019 Buena Vista del Cayo archaeological excavations with locations where artifacts were found in the tomb.

Cap noted that artifacts inside this tomb confirm that it contained the remains of a king who ruled over the Kingdom of KomKom. Moreover, he was a king affiliated with the Underworld. Two main elements show why. One is the marine nature of the artifacts. Much of the jewelry found inside was made of seashells, which symbolize the aquatic underworld of the Maya. The other was the presence of images of a monkey (seen in the lid of the vessel below and on the back of the pendant below), an animal which, according to Mayan legend, originated in the underworld.


Jiawen Chen


For Texas Public Radio

Royal shell pendant, enlarged from the diagram above.

Roughly the circumference of a softball, this intricately carved shell-shaped pendant is one of the highlights of the exhibit. Cap explained that it would have been worn like a necklace (hence the two pinholes where it would have been strung) as a symbol of authority, much like the crown of a European king.

The face on the right is that of an ancestor of the king’s royal line. Cap explained that they knew this because he is surrounded by decorations that represent the Kingdom of Heaven, where Maya believed their ancestors dwelt. This occupies the right half of the pendant, while on the left half are five discrete glyphs, symbols that made up the Maya writing system. When read together, the glyphs read, “This is the pendant of Naah Uti’ K’ab, King of Komkom.”


Jiawen Chen


For Texas Public Radio

Ceramic lid with monkey head handle

Cap said this lid was strategically placed in the king’s burial as it contained many markers of the king’s authority. Monkeys represented writing and art, which required privileged access to education. The lid also contains the “carpet sign”, the braided incisions on the right side, “which is a distinct and exclusively used symbol of elite authority”. It is also an incense burner with holes in the mouth, ears and nostrils to place cinnabar incense powder, its red color another symbol of royalty.

“You can look underneath and you can see the burn points.”

Below the lid of the showcase is a round vessel with which the lid was buried, and it also contains distinct symbols of his authority. Small circles representing cocoa beans form a band around the bottom of the container.

“Chocolate is also something that is exclusively used by the elites,” Cap added.


Jiawen Chen


For Texas Public Radio

The two vases on the right were taken from the Buenavista del Cayo site, while the one on the left comes from the museum’s permanent collection.

Carefully reassembled by a restorer in Guatemala, these vessels are essential to understanding the power dynamics within Mayan society. The Maya civilization did not function as a centralized empire with a single ruler. Instead, it was a collection of independent kingdoms, and “these types of ships were used as signaling devices between elites, rulers, nobles, as symbols of their authority” between them.

On all three ships, the symbolism of the jaguar is prominent. The opposite side of the ship on the right depicts a king dressed in jaguar skin with a jaguar skin pennant seated on a jaguar skin throne. As the most powerful animal in their world, the revered jaguar was used as a symbol of authority. The elites had exclusive use of their images and skins. The vessel in the middle shows an interaction between a jaguar (right) and a coatimundi (left), which Cap says symbolizes the king with his advisers. Beneath them, the dull sign of authority is evident.

Curiously, the vase on the left is labeled “jaguar enema”. “The Mayan kings gave themselves enemas,” it turns out. Cap didn’t seem to want to press the point.

This one-room exhibit reveals just how powerful Mayan royalty could be through the elaborate works of art they patronized. But visitors only have about a month left to see it.

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