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WE RECOMMEND
‘Exile Space’
‘Exile Space’
Esther Pasztory’s memoir
Esther Pasztory

The hand of a Maya scribe with paintbrush

We wanted to share this gem, from the recently published memoir of Professor Esther Pasztory (member of our Panel of Experts), Exile Space, titled ‘The Ineffable: a Maya Hand’...

So long ago, so far away, without clear descendants, through the impersonality of archaeology and the bias of old texts, in curious rites and bizarre preferences, the ancient American Indian does not really ‘live’ for us or speak to us. We marvel, but we don’t recognise ourselves in their mirrors. There are a few hints, here and there, that make us feel that they, or some of them, were sentient beings like us - or at least ‘us’ as we flatter ourselves to be.

A Maya scribe’s hand with paintbrush incised on a bone from Tikal - based on the original, below
A Maya scribe’s hand with paintbrush incised on a bone from Tikal - based on the original, below (Click on image to enlarge)

There is the delicate hand, with pinkie raised, holding a paintbrush between thumb and forefinger, engraved on a small, shovel-shaped piece of bone. The hand emerges from the open maw of a partially rendered reptilian monster. The focus is on the hand; the maw is really the frame. Nothing else, just a lively hand and a paintbrush.
The bone was found with other carved bones at the site of Tikal in Guatemala, inside Temple I, in the burial of a ruler once called Ruler A but now named Jasaw Chan K’awiil. Dated about 700 AD/CE, all the other objects in the tomb are typically Maya, showing various identifiable deities.

Incised bone from Burial 116, Tikal (Late Classic Maya); original photo from The Linda Schele Photograph Collection
Incised bone from Burial 116, Tikal (Late Classic Maya); original photo from The Linda Schele Photograph Collection (Click on image to enlarge)

In ancient American art, various deities or persons emerge from a monster maw, an image that is supposed to signify birth or rebirth. The monster is a divine being, such as the earth or the sky. The image is a positive one and suggests divine origins, for anyone familiar with Mesoamerican symbols. Therefore, in this unusual little bone, the hand, presumably of the artist or scribe, emerges from something divine. Perhaps the artist or his art is ‘divine’.
But a Maya iconographic interpretation is not the point. The point is that lively hand with a brush that communicates with us so directly across time and space. We know that hand from our own experience. No-one has to tell us what it means. Cultural differences disappear.

Only occasionally do we have moments like this from the ancient Americas.

Special thanks to Esther Pasztory

Quote from:-
Exile Space by Esther Pasztory, Polar Bear & Co., Maine, 2018, pp. 208-9.

Image sources:-
• Main pic: illustration by Andrea Stone, scanned from Reading Maya Art by Andrea Stone and Marc Zender, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2011, p. 114
• Photo from and courtesy of The Linda Schele Photograph Collection (Schele Number: 77028), c/o FAMSI (link below).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 30th 2020

famsi.org website
Esther Pasztory’s website
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