General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 27 Feb 2021/4 Dog
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Mexicolore contributor Rosamund Fitzmaurice

Maya Graffiti

We are most grateful to Rosamund Fitzmaurice for this intriguing article on ancient Maya graffiti. Rosie is a based at University College London studying forced labour and “slavery” in Mesoamerica. She did her MA on the Classic Maya Graffiti found at Xunantunich, Belize, in 2017 and continues to work with colleagues in their efforts to study and preserve further examples of graffiti in the Maya area.

Pic 1: Views of the ruins of Tikal: in 1882 ((L) and 2017 (R)
Pic 1: Views of the ruins of Tikal: in 1882 ((L) and 2017 (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeologists have known about Maya graffiti since Edward H Thompson visited Tikal, Guatemala in the late 19th century. Initially, however graffiti were disregarded as scribblings on walls made by children, or those who lived in abandoned civic centres and temple complexes. Since about the 1960s, however, archaeologists have begun to reconsider graffiti as more than just idle scribblings.

What is graffiti?
Maya graffiti could be painted but was usually carved. Etchings were made usually into plaster with stone tools made from materials such as chert (flint) and obsidian. Graffiti is closely related to rock art which is usually found in caves and in natural areas. Graffiti and rock art share many artistic themes and while graffiti is usually carved, rock art tends to be painted.

Pic 2: An Ajk’uhuun administrative person with mirror, found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke
Pic 2: An Ajk’uhuun administrative person with mirror, found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke (Click on image to enlarge)

Archaeologists usually make sketches of graffiti when they are first found, but as technology has evolved so has the recording of graffiti. Archaeologists used to take rubbings of graffiti by carefully placing thin paper on the surface and lightly shading the paper with pencil or charcoal. The result is a like for like image of the graffiti. Since then archaeologists use a method called light raking to record graffiti. In darkness a light is shone at a shallow angle over the top of the graffiti, this highlights the carved lines of the graffiti in the shadow. Then photographs are taken.
All sorts of images were carved from individual figures to entire scenes. Jaroslaw Źrałka’s 2014 book details a multitude of categories that Maya graffiti fall into, listed here:-

Pic 3: Guard/warrior found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke
Pic 3: Guard/warrior found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke (Click on image to enlarge)

1. Anthropomorphs or anthropomorphic graffiti (human figures) (see pix 2, 3 and 4)
2. Zoomorphs or zoomorphic graffiti (animal figures)
3. Architecture (possibly pic 9)
4. Palanquins (also known as litters, these are objects used to carry people from A to B, they are person powered and usually shaped like chairs - see pic 11)
5. Deities and supernatural beings
6. Glyphs (pic 10)
7. Sexual symbols/attributes
8. Patolli boards (pix 7 and 8)
9. Geometrical designs
10. Handprints
11. Punctate designs (designs made by punching small holes into plaster)
12. Lines
13. Others
14. Unidentified graffiti.

Pic 4: Guard/warrior found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke
Pic 4: Guard/warrior found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke (Click on image to enlarge)

Where and when
Graffiti has been found throughout the Maya world, but excavations revealing Maya graffiti have thus far been concentrated in the southern Maya lowlands. Most graffiti appear to date to the Terminal Classic period 700-1000 CE since much of the plaster from earlier structures does not preserve well. Graffiti are dated using relative dating, meaning that archaeologists look at the structures that the graffiti are carved into and the objects found with and alongside the graffiti to work out when they are from. Archaeologists can also work out when graffiti was made based on the style of the images that were carved. For example, human figures carved during the Classic period usually have very naturalistic features, whereas Postclassic human figures appear more geometric with more boxy features than Classic figures.

Pic 5: Xunantunich site map
Pic 5: Xunantunich site map (Click on image to enlarge)

Most graffiti are carved onto structures that are covered in plaster. In tropical areas of the Maya world plaster needs to be reapplied regularly otherwise it flakes off due to repeated wetting and drying throughout the seasonal wet and dry cycle. Making graffiti may have also contributed to the erosion of the plaster since carving into the surface may have weakened the plaster.

Xunantunich: a Classic site with graffiti
In summer 2017 the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance (BVAR) project (see link below) began excavations of the northernmost structure complex of the site core (pix 5 and 6). Some of the rooms of these structures revealed finely etched graffiti, while others revealed partial images. The best-preserved examples found included a human figure gazing into an obsidian mirror (pic 2) and patolli boards (pix 7 and 8).

Pic 6: Archaeologists at work at the A13 site, Xunantunich
Pic 6: Archaeologists at work at the A13 site, Xunantunich (Click on image to enlarge)

Interpretations and possible meanings of graffiti
When people think of graffiti in the 21st century many may think of vandalism. Many people may think that making graffiti is a crime and that it is a sign of disrespect. Such a perspective, however, is fairly new. The idea of “vandalism” is that it is intentional damage to another person’s personal private property (British Crime Survey 2011), and is thus heavily seen as a malicious act. Can we really say that all graffiti across the world is intended as malicious? Graffiti is largely context based and each graffito should be regarded with care. We cannot always know what graffiti might mean, but to assume that all of it is intended as vandalism would not be wise.
Archaeologists have discussed many possible meanings behind Maya graffiti. However, it is important to point out that not all Maya are the same, as is the case with all people and peoples, thus the reason for one person carving a graffito may not be the same as another. It is entirely possible that all of the reasons for making graffiti discussed below are true. It is also possible that some are true in some contexts, and others are true in other contexts.

Pic 7: Patolli board graffiti found at Structure A13
Pic 7: Patolli board graffiti found at Structure A13 (Click on image to enlarge)

Meaningless
For some, graffiti is simply meaningless, it was a way for people to pass the time before structures were re-plastered, or to pass the time in an abandoned structure. Indeed, many people engage in this kind of graffiti today, and some might even call it vandalism. Some believe that the images of the board game patolli (pix 7 and 8) etched into benches, walls and floors fall into this category since it could represent casual play rather than any deeper meaning (Watkins et al 2018, 338).

Spiritual
Some, like Webster (1963) believe that carving graffiti was akin to expressing a wish or desire. By carving an image onto plaster you can wish for the image. Others like Kampen (1978) associate graffiti with termination rituals whereby the Maya prepared to terminate and thus stop using a structure. Terminating buildings usually involved filling them with material and sealing them in order to make the structure secure. In this way the structure could then be used as the base of a new structure for a new building. Finally, Haviland and Haviland (1995) theorise that graffiti may be the result of ritual trances.

Pic 8: Another patolli board graffiti found at Structure A13
Pic 8: Another patolli board graffiti found at Structure A13 (Click on image to enlarge)

Education
Hutson (2011) and McCurdy and colleagues (2018) believe that graffiti might be a way to teach children. While Hutson believes that graffiti was used by children to try to understand the world around them, McCurdy and colleagues consider that graffiti might have been a method for teaching young scribes their craft.

Memorialisation
Finally, many such as Źrałka (2014) and Navarro-Castillo and colleagues (2018) believe that graffiti is a form of memorialisation. Especially in the case of scenes of graffiti which seem to depict a narrative it is thought that it is telling the story of a real-life event. For example, scenes of processions may depict familiar temples or hills that could be seen from the room in which they are carved. Images of people in particular (pix 2, 3 and 4) lend themselves to this sort of interpretation as well as images that might represent structures (pic 9).

Pic 9: Possible graffito of a structure, found in Room 12, structure A13, illustrated by Tia B Watkins
Pic 9: Possible graffito of a structure, found in Room 12, structure A13, illustrated by Tia B Watkins (Click on image to enlarge)

Closing thoughts
The study of graffiti is expanding with each new excavation. Each new find brings a new context which can tell us more about what kind of images are regularly carved, which new images may appear, and what the Maya found important enough to carve into plaster. While we may not know why Maya created graffiti, we are continuously learning what they thought was important enough to carve into their structures.

Pic 10: A hieroglyphic date reading 11th October 790 CE, found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke
Pic 10: A hieroglyphic date reading 11th October 790 CE, found in Room 7, structure A13, illustrated by Christophe Helmke (Click on image to enlarge)

Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Ian Mursell for inviting me to write this brief article on a subject that I am regularly fascinated by. Thank you also to the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance (BVAR) project for sharing images of various graffiti that we have discovered since 2017. Thanks also to the Tilden Family Foundation for their support in excavations with BVAR throughout the years. Thank you to BVAR Director Jaime Awe and co-directors Julie Hoggarth and Claire Ebert for their guidance.
Thank you, Christophe Helmke, BVAR’s epigrapher for his wonderful illustrations and mentorship in the study of graffiti.
Thank you, Tia Watkins, for providing beautiful illustrations and an excellent image of A13, the spiritual homeland of our friendship. Finally, and most importantly, thank you to the excellent excavators and careful caretakers of the graffiti found at Xunantunich, the people of Belize, in particular of San Jose Succotz.

Pic 11: Palanquins in the Maya world, 8th century CE: personages in litters - painted on a polychrome vessel from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. University Museum Philadelphia (top); ceramic figurine, probably from Jaina, Campeche (bottom)
Pic 11: Palanquins in the Maya world, 8th century CE: personages in litters - painted on a polychrome vessel from Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. University Museum Philadelphia (top); ceramic figurine, probably from Jaina, Campeche (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

References cited:-
• British Crime Survey, (2011), Vandalism, [Accessed: 24 January 2021], Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/nature-of-vandalism-statistics
• Haviland, W.A. and Haviland, A.L., (1995), Glimpses of the Supernatural: Altered Monumentals of Consciousness and the Graffiti of Tikal, Guatemala, Latin American Antiquity, 6:295-309
• Hutson, S.R., (2011), The art of Becoming: The Graffiti of Tikal, Guatemala, Latin American Antiquity, 22:403-426
• Kampen, M., (1978), The Graffiti of Tikal, Estudios de Cultura Maya, 11:155-179
• McCurdy, L., Brown, K. and Dixon, N., (2018), “Tagged Walls: The Discovery of Ancient Maya Graffiti at El Castillo, Xunantunich”, Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology, 15:181-193
• Navarro-Castillo, M., Sheseña, A., and Pincemin, S., (2017), “The Maya Graffiti of Plan De Ayutla, Chiapas”, Latin American Antiquity, 1-8
• Watkins, T.B., Awe, J.J., Helmke, C., and Fitzmaurice, R., (2018), “Classic Maya Palaces and Their Roles within the Greater Ceremonial Centre: Results from the 2017 Field Season at Xunantunich, Belize”, in (eds.), Ebert, C., Hoggarth, J.A., and Awe, J.J., The Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project: A Report of the 2017 Field Season, Vol. 23, 333-356. http://www.bvar.org/publications
• Źrałka, J., (2014), Pre-Columbian Maya Graffiti: Context, Dating and Function, Kraków, Alter.

Image sources:-
• Pic 1: photo by Alfred Percival Maudslay, first published in 1890, from Wikipedia (Tikal) (L); photo by and courtesy Rosie Fitzmaurice (R)
• Pix 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 & 10: illustrations courtesy of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project
• Pic 6: photo by and courtesy Tia Watkins
• Pic 11: illustrations courtesy of Javier Urcid.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 27th 2021

Learn more about patolli...

Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project website
Hear more about Rosie’s research (UCL Podcast)
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