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Ritual and Power in Stone

Ritual and Power in Stone
The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art

A masterful art historical analysis of how Late Preclassic (300 BC to AD 250) rulers in Chiapas, Mexico, created an elite visual language to express political and supernatural authority which spread through much of the Maya world.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

December 2006
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229 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 34 b&w photos, 105 figures, 5 maps |

The ancient Mesoamerican city of Izapa in Chiapas, Mexico, is renowned for its extensive collection of elaborate stone stelae and altars, which were carved during the Late Preclassic period (300 BC-AD 250). Many of these monuments depict kings garbed in the costume and persona of a bird, a well-known avian deity who had great significance for the Maya and other cultures in adjacent regions. This Izapan style of carving and kingly representation appears at numerous sites across the Pacific slope and piedmont of Mexico and Guatemala, making it possible to trace political and economic corridors of communication during the Late Preclassic period.

In this book, Julia Guernsey offers a masterful art historical analysis of the Izapan style monuments and their integral role in developing and communicating the institution of divine kingship. She looks specifically at how rulers expressed political authority by erecting monuments that recorded their performance of rituals in which they communicated with the supernatural realm in the persona of the avian deity. She also considers how rulers used the monuments to structure their built environment and create spaces for ritual and politically charged performances. Setting her discussion in a broader context, Guernsey also considers how the Izapan style monuments helped to motivate and structure some of the dramatic, pan-regional developments of the Late Preclassic period, including the forging of a codified language of divine kingship. This pioneering investigation, which links monumental art to the matrices of political, economic, and supernatural exchange, offers an important new understanding of a region, time period, and group of monuments that played a key role in the history of Mesoamerica and continue to intrigue scholars within the field of Mesoamerican studies.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • One. An Introduction to the Late Preclassic Period
  • Two. The Site of Izapa in Context
  • Three. A Historiography of Izapa and the Izapan Style
  • Four. Part of a Continuum: Supernatural Communication in Late Preclassic Izapan Style Art
  • Five. The Performance of Rulership: Avian Transformation in Izapan Style Monuments
  • Six. Monuments in Context
  • Seven. Beyond Ritual: Macaws, Men, and Matrices of Exchange
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Julia Guernsey is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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Nevertheless, as we cut farther down, the elaborateness and Classic appearance of the discovered structures were no less apparent. Things were not getting simpler, or cruder, or increasingly formative.

—Coe and McGinn 1963


The Late Preclassic period in Mesoamerica, which dates from 300 BC to approximately AD 250, witnessed the florescence of a unique mode of artistic expression known as the Izapan style. The term "Izapan style" takes its name from the site of Izapa in the hills above the Pacific coastal plain, or Soconusco region, of modern Chiapas, Mexico (fig. 1.1). The convention of erecting carved stone altars and stelae in pairs in courtyards surrounded by platform mounds first emerged during the Late Preclassic period in this region (fig. 1.2). The monuments at Izapa are perhaps best known for their dense, figural compositions carved in low-relief that bear stylistic and iconographic continuities with earlier Olmec art and the later art of the Classic Maya (fig. 1.3). The stylistic and iconographic traits that comprise the Izapan style, however, also extend to contemporaneous stone carvings from sites located throughout the highlands and coastal piedmont of Chiapas and Guatemala, along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and into the valleys of central Veracruz, Mexico.

Despite the fact that monuments carved in the Izapan style are found throughout a broad and ethnically diverse geographic region of Mesoamerica, their repertoire of images, symbols, narratives, and stylistic traits coheres into a remarkably consistent sculptural corpus that provides a unique glimpse into the types of messages that were broadcast across the sacred landscapes of Late Preclassic Mesoamerica. These messages articulated political ideologies and complex cosmological themes, and formed a shared language of power that was employed by rulers in a dynamic Late Preclassic communication sphere. The focus of this study is the content, context, and active role of a specific subset of these monuments, which depict rulers performing in the guise of an avian deity, within the physical geography of Late Preclassic site centers.

In recent years, scholars have made dramatic strides in understanding the function of monumental sculpture as an ideological tool—one that literally gave voice to potent messages of authority and the relationship of humans to the cosmos—among the Maya and Aztecs of the Classic and Postclassic periods. However, the parallel role of sculpture during the Late Preclassic period has been relatively neglected. Traditionally, the Late Preclassic period has been understood as a strictly developmental period that fueled the later cultural florescence of the Classic period. This period's alternative designation, "Late Formative," is likewise laden with an evolutionary bias that connotes a lack of maturation and sophistication. More recently, scholarship addressing the archaeology, linguistics, and iconography of this period has demonstrated that it was, indeed, more than simply "formative." In fact, the Late Preclassic period represents a mature expression of civilization that prefigures the better understood and more clearly defined Classic-period manifestation. As Joyce and Grove (1999a: 2) stated in the introduction to their investigation of social patterns in Mesoamerica, "Every later Mesoamerican society developed within a framework that was laid in the Pre-Classic. The material features that we see archaeologically as typical of Mesoamerica took their essential form during this period."

In order to understand fully the role of the Izapan style phenomenon within this matrix, its presence within the political, economic, and social landscape of the Late Preclassic period must be determined. It is the premise of this study that the messages encoded on Izapan style monuments were part of a currency of elite ideological exchange that was shared across southeastern Mesoamerica and into regions to the north and west. Moreover, this novel mode of artistic expression structured and gave tangible form to notions of Late Preclassic political authority, economic and ideological interchange, and social cohesion. As a prelude to an in-depth examination of the Izapan style phenomenon, this chapter explores several of the major cultural developments that characterized the Late Preclassic period, some of which demonstrate patterns of continuity while others are more difficult to define. Issues such as the spread of hieroglyphic literacy, networks of communication, and displays of conspicuous consumption—which include the erection of monumental sculpture and architecture—are considered.

The Archaeological Picture

Archaeological excavations, particularly since the 1960s, have revolutionized our understanding of the extent and complexity of the Late Preclassic period in eastern Mesoamerica. For example, in the Maya region—which includes Guatemala, Belize, the eastern portion of Mexico and the western boundaries of Honduras and El Salvador (fig. 1.1)—the Late Preclassic was a vibrant period of cultural, economic, and social development. Archaeological data indicate that populations, particularly in the areas of northern Belize and the central Peten, were expanding. Corresponding to this population growth was an increase in the construction of monumental architecture, more massive and ornate than in the preceding Middle Preclassic period. This is best evidenced by the Tigre pyramid at El Mirador, Peten, Guatemala, which is estimated to have covered an area of 19,600 square meters (Hansen 1998: 76; 2000: 62). Concurrently, the density of structures also increased in site centers and their surrounding plazas, establishing a pattern of residential architecture that would continue throughout the Classic period (Demarest 1984; Hansen 1998: 77).

In order to support these burgeoning populations, intensive agriculture was undertaken. In some regions, cultivated fields often were irrigated by means of hydraulic engineering systems that testify to sophisticated, developing technologies. Complementing the Late Preclassic economy were specialized communities such as that of Colha, which capitalized on available natural resources by mass-producing stone tools from local chert sources (Hester, Shafer, and Eaton 1994). Recent investigations suggest that the Colha elite were involved as well in the production and consumption of cacao, the chocolate bean used to create a beverage that was consumed primarily by the ruling elite during the Classic period (Hurst et al. 2002: 289). Patterns of ritual behavior, such as the ceremonial use of cacao, certainly were exchanged in conjunction with utilitarian and luxury goods during this Late Preclassic period, laying the foundations for ritualized activities better documented during the Classic period.

In fact, extensive trade networks linked various Late Preclassic Maya and non-Maya sites and gave rise to regional trading centers. For example, the location of Cerros in northern Belize at the mouth of the New River where it empties into Chetumal Bay enabled it to control trade between the coast and inland. Upriver was the site of Lamanai, whose Late Preclassic population availed itself of rich aquatic resources and riverine transportation routes. Lamanai was strategically located to take advantage of trade routes that extended down into the Southern Lowlands and Peten as well as up into the Northern Lowlands of modern Campeche and Quintana Roo (Guderjan and Williams-Beck 2001; Pendergast 1981; Powis 2002). In the Peten, archaeological assemblages from sites such as Nakbe and El Mirador demonstrate that the elites there had entered into systems of economic interaction through which they received obsidian from highland Guatemala and strombus shells from the Caribbean (Clark and Hansen 2001: 15). Archaeological data throughout these regions attest to the considerable control that Maya elites exerted during the Late Preclassic period in the long-distance trade of specific commodities, including jade and other greenstones, obsidian and stone tools, pyrite, strombus and spondylus shells, and even feathers from exotic birds such as the quetzal.

Throughout the Maya area during this time period, the archaeological record has preserved innumerable acts of conspicuous consumption that were invested with ritual significance. These range from special burial treatment replete with high-status grave goods to caches of precious objects such as jade and greenstone. On a grander scale, they include the long causeways, or sacbeob, that linked site cores to their peripheries and accommodated ritual processions. Sacbeob are, after all, as Lekson (n.d.) described for the American Southwest, "long, linear monuments that we call roads." They also include the monumental stone sculpture and magnificently adorned stucco architectural facades that required the expertise of highly skilled artisans. These examples testify to a considerable degree of economic power exercised by the elite, who commanded labor and controlled limited resources in both public and private domains. However, elite manipulation of sculpture and architecture was more than just a reactionary response to economic well-being or an ostentatious display of wealth: these forms of artistic expression carried social, political, and cosmological messages that structured the space and worldview of the inhabitants of these Late Preclassic Maya sites.

A comparable scenario characterized the Pacific coastal plains and piedmont during the Late Preclassic period. This region (fig. 1.1), which stretches from Chiapas through Guatemala and into western El Salvador, was home to both ethnic Maya and Mixe-Zoque peoples, among others. Certain sites, such as Izapa and Takalik Abaj, represented critically important crossroads of communication during the Late Preclassic between Mayan speakers to the east and Mixe-Zoquean-speaking peoples to the west. These sites also occupied advantageous locations along communication and trade routes between the Pacific Coast and the interior.

Izapa, for example, appears to have been an important Late Preclassic political center within the Soconusco region, famed for its rich volcanic soils and cacao production (Lowe, Lee, and Martínez 1982: 312). It reached the apex of its growth during the Late Preclassic period, which was marked by massive construction and sculptural activity. Like their Maya neighbors to the east, the elite at Izapa—who may have spoken a Mixe-Zoquean language—participated in similar ritualized acts of conspicuous consumption that included, most notably, the construction of pyramids and elaborate plazas lined with ornately carved stelae and altars (fig. 1.4). Importantly, many of the symbols and themes carved upon the monuments were not unique to Izapa, but were shared by other sites such as Takalik Abaj approximately fifty kilometers to the east.

Takalik Abaj, which already by the Middle Preclassic period possessed a significant array of Olmec-style sculpture, appears to have been ethnically Maya by the Late Preclassic period. It, too, rose to a position of regional prominence during the Late Preclassic, during which time extensive construction of plazas, terraces, and monumental structures took place. Like Izapa, the public spaces of the site were filled with monuments, commissioned by the elite, which featured rulers and mythic scenes that bear intriguing affinities to specific sculptures at Izapa. Takalik Abaj's location in the sloping piedmont, on a natural communication corridor between the adjacent Guatemalan Highlands and the coastal plain, undoubtedly contributed to its importance within the Late Preclassic political landscape. The formal and iconographic relationships between its corpus of Late Preclassic monuments and those at Izapa also confirm that a specific and recurring repertoire of symbols and narratives successfully transcended political boundaries and ethnic divisions at this time. Moreover, this vocabulary of power—which not only stated a ruler's political might, but also advertised his control over the supernatural realm—was literally carved in stone and placed in hallowed site centers where it formulated and structured the ideological currents of the Late Preclassic period.

Also participating in this dynamic interaction sphere were the elites of Kaminaljuyu, whose site dominated the Guatemalan Highlands region. Recent epigraphic investigations indicate that the inhabitants of Kaminaljuyu spoke a Mayan language (Fahsen 1999, 2000; Valdés and Wright 2004). Importantly, certain monuments from that site display the same symbolic vocabulary found at Izapa and Takalik Abaj, which strongly indicates that it, too, was an active participant in this southeastern Mesoamerican communication sphere (Guernsey Kappelman 1997, 2001; Kaplan 1995; Parsons 1986). Contributing to Kaminaljuyu's success was its optimal location at a natural pass between the Pacific Coast and interior of Guatemala. Recent excavations at the site also have demonstrated the presence of elaborate systems of water management and hydraulic engineering that enabled the establishment of a stable agricultural base that, in turn, attracted a growing population and contributed to developing commercial interests (Barrientos 1999; Popenoe de Hatch et al. 2002; Valdés 2002; Valdés and Popenoe de Hatch 1996; Valdés and Wright 2004).

Kaminaljuyu's role as the principal polity within the Southern Highlands appears to have been closely linked to its control of obsidian distribution into the Maya Lowlands of the Peten from two sources in the Guatemalan Highlands, San Martín Jilotepeque and El Chayal, both located not far from Kaminaljuyu (Michels 1979; Nelson 1985: 39). During the Late Preclassic period, obsidian was imported primarily from San Martín Jilotepeque, revealing a shift away from El Chayal, which had been the dominant source of obsidian prior to this period (Clark, Lee, and Salcedo 1989). Most tellingly, obsidian from San Martín Jilotepeque appears in the Late Preclassic archaeological record of sites not only in the Guatemalan Highlands and Maya Lowlands, but also along the Pacific Coast and the interior of Chiapas, indicating the extent of this network of distribution (Clark, Lee, and Salcedo 1989: 275-276). Importantly, as Clark, Lee, and Salcedo (1989: 272-275) discussed, when the availability of high-quality Guatemalan Highland obsidian fluctuated, another important source was the volcano Tajumulco, located just to the east of Izapa in Guatemala. Although Tajumulco obsidian was of a lesser quality, it nonetheless was used throughout the Late Preclassic period, particularly at Izapa, as an alternative resource. Evidence such as this indicates that changing patterns in the control and distribution of these natural resources was directly linked to the evolving political landscape of Late Preclassic Mesoamerica.

At Kaminaljuyu the control of limited resources and regional trade routes had immediate societal ramifications, as evidenced by two extraordinarily rich Late Preclassic tombs at the site. These interments, which date to consecutive construction phases, were placed within Mound E-III-3, the largest structure at Kaminaljuyu. The scale of Mound E-III-3, as well as its function as a mortuary monument for what appear to represent two successive rulers (Shook and Popenoe de Hatch 1999: 304), indicates that Kaminaljuyu's political power, by this point in time, was concentrated in the hands of individual rulers who wielded the power to commission—or coerce—the construction of monumental architecture (cf. Shook and Kidder 1952; Valdés and Rodriguez 1999: 145; Valdés and Wright 2004). Likewise, exquisitely carved monuments from the same Late Preclassic period at Kaminaljuyu bear witness to the messages of authority that were transmitted throughout the ritual precinct. Kaminaljuyu Stela 10 (fig. 1.5), for instance, depicts a standing figure who wields a chipped flint ax remarkably similar to one recovered from Tomb I in Mound E-III-3, which suggests that the individual portrayed was one of the Late Preclassic rulers interred within the structure (Parsons 1986: 66; Shook and Kidder 1952: fig. 79c). Images such as Stela 10 articulated a message of political authority to local populations but also undoubtedly operated within a broader, regional network of rhetoric, competition, and exchange.

For example, Monument 1 at Chocolá—a contemporaneous Late Preclassic site located on the sloping piedmont between Takalik Abaj and Kaminaljuyu—compares closely to Kaminaljuyu Stela 10 (Parsons 1986: 70; Prater 1989: 128; Valdés et al. 2004). Elites at Chocolá, like their neighbors, appear to have taken advantage of the site's location along an important communication corridor; this same setting enabled the cultivation of cacao in the rich agricultural fields of the piedmont. Recent excavations at the site have also revealed extensive water management systems, artificial terracing, and a carefully orchestrated astronomical orientation for the central ceremonial precinct (Kaplan, Valdés, and Gutiérrez n.d.; Paredes Umaña et al. n.d.).

Another region absolutely critical to this Late Preclassic communication sphere was the northern Maya Highlands, which straddled a natural communication route between the southern Guatemalan Highlands and the Maya Lowlands to the north (Kidder 1940; Sharer 1989: 258; Sharer and Sedat 1987, 1999). Sites such as El Portón in the Salamá Valley witnessed increasing sociopolitical complexity during the Middle to Late Preclassic transition, as evidenced by large-scale ceremonial centers and sculpture (Sharer and Sedat 1973, 1987, 1999). El Portón Monument 1 (fig. 1.6A), for instance, bears an early hieroglyphic inscription, while its form attests to the site's participation in the rapidly expanding stela phenomenon that characterized the end of the Middle Preclassic and gained momentum in the ensuing Late Preclassic period.

Paths of communication throughout Late Preclassic Mesoamerica also extended into the region traditionally referred to as the "southeastern periphery," which included southeastern Guatemala, western Honduras, and El Salvador. For example, the site of Chalchuapa, El Salvador, which is located approximately 120 kilometers southeast of Kaminaljuyu and was first occupied during the Early Preclassic period, became a focal point of construction activity during the Late Preclassic period (Sharer 1978). At that time a large pyramid and a series of plazas and ceremonial platforms were erected and accompanied by monumental stone sculpture, an example of which, Monument 1, contains an early Maya hieroglyphic inscription (fig. 1.6B) (Sharer 1974). Although Monument 1 is stylistically distinct from Izapan monuments, it demonstrates Chalchuapa's participation in emerging Late Preclassic writing systems (Graham 1971).

Without a doubt, the archaeological evidence and iconographic record of shared symbols and themes clearly demonstrate corridors of influence and communication throughout southeastern Mesoamerica. However, these paths also extended to the north and west, stretching through the Upper Grijalva River region of Chiapas and into portions of Veracruz. In these Mixe-Zoque regions, at sites such as Chiapa de Corzo and Tres Zapotes, there is evidence of interaction at many different levels, including shared ceramic assemblages as well as common symbol systems on their monumental sculpture. In particular, the practice of erecting carved stone stelae is well documented at the site of Chiapa de Corzo (Lee 1969). There, several stelae, each intricately carved with abstract horizontal designs, compare closely to stelae from Izapa (fig. 1.7). In both cases, these designs mimic textiles, and bear testimony to shared iconographic systems that were linked to expressions of rulership and sacredness. In fact, much of the imagery from Chiapa de Corzo depicts typical Late Preclassic symbols of authority better known from southeastern Mesoamerica and confirms its participation within well-established communication spheres at this time.

Of particular pertinence to this study is the fact that many of the symbols invoked across southeastern Mesoamerica as well as to the north and west carried specific associations with the office of rulership and were part of Late Preclassic political dialogues in a variety of linguistic regions. Perhaps even more importantly, analysis of such symbol systems, the monuments on which they appear, and their context within the built environment provides valuable insight into patterns of ritual behavior that were held in common by Late Preclassic elites. In other words, ephemeral events such as ritual performances were preserved through a dynamic visual vocabulary of motifs, shapes, and mediums. Accordingly, these monuments and their repertoire of symbols represent more than mute testimony, written in stone, to events that were soon forgotten. They must be understood as protagonists—albeit stone ones—that structured sacred space and delivered powerful messages to a diverse Late Preclassic audience.

Nonetheless, despite evidence of broad communication networks and their implications with regards to rulership, the nature of Late Preclassic ideological expressions remains enigmatic. For example, along the Guatemalan coast only about forty kilometers southwest of Takalik Abaj, the large urban center of El Ujuxte also developed during the Late Preclassic period (Love 1999a, 2002a, 2002b). However, in stark contrast to regional neighbors such as Takalik Abaj and Izapa, El Ujuxte produced no known monumental carved stone sculpture during its florescence. Such a situation challenges assumptions about how best to define the character of a Late Preclassic, southeastern Mesoamerican interaction sphere. While most of this expansive site was carefully laid out according to an astronomically oriented gridlike pattern—surely attesting to some form of centralized authority, as Love (1998, 1999a: 146, 2002a) suggested—the elite at El Ujuxte did not express notions of power and authority through the medium of monumental carved sculpture or hieroglyphic inscriptions. Yet, the very sophistication of their urban landscape is equal to, or even surpasses, that of other primary centers that did employ monumental sculptural assemblages replete with messages of rulership and cosmic authority.

A similar scenario characterized other Late Preclassic sites located to the south along the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. Bove (n.d.b) suggested that rulership throughout this region was expressed principally through large-scale construction projects and astronomical alignments rather than monumental sculpture, a situation that he characterized as a "corporate embodiment of authority." Yet, as he further cautioned, such generalizations do not necessarily accommodate the existence of carved monuments or alternative sculptural expressions of authority such as plain stelae or "potbelly" sculptures at many of these coastal sites.

While many puzzles concerning the nature of the Late Preclassic period in southeastern Mesoamerica still remain, it is only by literally piecing together the archaeological, stylistic, and iconographic evidence that a more complete picture of the environment can emerge. And this picture, despite its gaps and incongruities, is not one of an unsophisticated "formative" landscape that pales next to the accomplishments of the "mature" Classic period. Rather, the evidence reveals a dynamic, multiethnic interaction sphere that included not only the dissemination of tangible goods, but the communication of symbolic ideas as well.

The Advent of Hieroglyphic Writing

Critical to these systems of communication during the Late Preclassic period was the development of hieroglyphic texts and calendrical records sometime between the years 1100 to 600 BC. This phenomenon undoubtedly grew out of the already well-developed iconic system of the Middle Preclassic Olmec, such as that depicted on the famous Humboldt Celt (fig. 1.8A) (Coe 1965, 1976; Justeson 1986; Justeson and Mathews 1990; Proskouriakoff 1971). As Justeson (1986: 443) noted, the emergent writing systems of Oaxaca and southeastern Mesoamerica were linked conceptually to visual systems that were employed to "legitimate and reinforce elite power and prestige;... [which] would remain the principal function of Mesoamerican writing."

It was during the early years of the Late Preclassic period that hieroglyphic writing began to appear regularly in southeastern Mesoamerica and the Isthmus region. A sherd from the fill in Mound 5b at the site of Chiapa de Corzo in the Upper Grijalva River valley of Chiapas, dated to Chiapa IV-V (Francesa-Guanacaste phases, or the Late Preclassic period), contains a fragmentary inscription (Méluzin 1995: fig. 5). This evidence indicates that, already during the Late Preclassic period, writing was in full bloom, and that the development of hieroglyphic script traditions must have taken place much earlier, during the Middle Preclassic period at the very latest. One of the hallmarks of early script traditions in this region was the use of the Long Count, a type of calendrical notation that counts the number of days elapsed since a set base date. The earliest known Long Count date appears on Stela 2 from Chiapa de Corzo (fig. 1.8B) and corresponds to a day in the year 36 BC, while Stela C from the site of Tres Zapotes in Veracruz bears a Long Count date five years later (Coe 1957a: 598-599; Marcus 1976: 49-53; Stirling 1940: 4). Both of these monuments are non-Maya, from sites located in traditionally Mixe-Zoquean-speaking regions.

Writing also appeared at the Pacific piedmont sites of Takalik Abaj and El Baúl during the Late Preclassic period. Takalik Abaj Stela 5 (fig. 1.9) bears two Long Count dates that fall within the year AD 126. An even earlier, although incomplete, Long Count date also appears on fragmentary Stela 2 (Graham, Heizer, and Shook 1978: 90-91). Stela 50 may contain an equally early, although again fragmentary, Long Count date as well (Graham 1989: 239 n. 2; Guernsey and Love n.d.). Although the small corpus of noncalendrical glyphs at the site of Takalik Abaj makes it difficult to analyze what language was spoken at the site during the Late Preclassic period, Stela 5 may bear the kingly title ajaw spelled in a Mayan language, which would suggest that Takalik Abaj was occupied by Mayan speakers during this period. The Long Count date inscribed on El Baúl Stela 1, which also appears to be inscribed in a Mayan language, corresponds to the year AD 36.

Monuments from Kaminaljuyu also bear hieroglyphic inscriptions. The elaborately carved Stela 10 (fig. 1.5), which dates to the Late Preclassic period, is incised with a lengthy series of glyphs that includes bar-and-dot numbers but lacks a Long Count date. While Fahsen (1999, 2000: 90, n.d.) recently argued that the inscription on Stela 10 was written in Ch'olan, a Mayan language, Justeson and Kaufman (1993) suggested that the text may represent a Mayanized form of Mixe-Zoquean, or even possibly a script that incorporated both languages (Kaufman and Justeson 2001: 31). In a similar vein, Mora-Marín (2001) pointed to comparable epithet structures between the text of Kaminaljuyu Stela 10 and Classic Mayan inscriptions, which would suggest a Mayan language, but also noted that only slight variations in the same epithet structure characterize the Late Preclassic text of La Mojarra Stela 1 from the Mixe-Zoque region. Despite the limited number of inscriptions available to test these various hypotheses, it is increasingly apparent that, during this Late Preclassic period, Mayan and Mixe-Zoquean speakers freely borrowed signs from one another (Kaufman and Justeson 2001; Mora- Marín n.d.). Moreover, the complexity of this situation at Kaminaljuyu suggests that this site in particular may have been a key point of interaction between the two linguistic traditions (Mora-Marín 2001; Kathryn Josserand, personal communication 2003).

While writing appears in clearly non-Maya regions of southeastern Mesoamerica by the first century BC, and at probable Mayan-speaking sites along the Pacific Coast by the first century AD, there is also intriguing evidence for early writing in the Maya Lowlands during this same Late Preclassic period. For example, an early ajaw glyph appears on a Late Preclassic ceramic sherd from El Mirador (fig. 1.10A). As Fields (1989: 51) observed, similar early ajaw forms appear on the stucco facade of Cerros Structure 5C-2nd. More recently, Stuart (n.d.) suggested that certain stucco mask facades in the Lowlands, such as those on Late Preclassic El Mirador Structure 34 (Hansen 1990), may contain nominal elements that were tied to evolving script traditions, and that presaged Early Classic developments such as the monumental embellishing of a ruler's name in modeled stucco on the Margarita substructure at Copán (Sharer et al. 1999). Within the medium of stone stelae, Hansen (1990) likewise proposed a Late Preclassic date for El Mirador Stela 2, which contains a badly eroded hieroglyphic text. Ongoing investigations at San Bartolo, Guatemala, which have already recovered evidence for early writing in exceptionally well-preserved murals at the site, may push back even earlier the dates for the appearance of writing in the Maya Lowlands region (Saturno, Taube, and Stuart 2005: 41).

Perhaps even more fascinating are the paths of communication between the Maya Highlands and Lowlands that are implied by some of these early Lowland texts. An excellent example of this is the Kichpanha bone (fig. 1.10B) (Fahsen 1995: 152; Mora-Marín 2001: 310-311). Gibson, Shaw, and Finamore (1986: 11) dated the archaeological context of the bone to circa 100 BC-AD 100, although more recent reanalysis of the associated ceramics suggests a date of circa AD 150 or later (Meskill 1992; Reese 1989; Reese-Taylor and Walker 2002: 100). Most interestingly, the inscribed glyphs on the Kichpanha bone bear a striking correspondence to an inscription on Takalik Abaj Monument 11, which can be dated to the Late Preclassic period on a stylistic basis (fig. 1.10C). As Mora-Marín (2001: 306-326) detailed, such evidence not only indicates a significant degree of interaction between Highland and Lowland Maya scribes during the Late Preclassic period, but also suggests that long-distance trade of objects like the Kichpanha bone contributed to the development and dissemination of writing during the Preclassic period.

The miniature Hauberg Stela (fig. 1.11), an unprovenienced monument undoubtedly from the Maya Lowlands, also bears a hieroglyphic inscription that, although lacking a Long Count date, bears a Calendar Round date that has been correlated to the year AD 197 (Schele, Mathews, and Lounsbury 1990; cf. Houston 2000: 146). The stela depicts a ruler in a posture and performance mode that would become part of a standardized lexis of authority during the Classic period: in his arms he cradles a serpent that alludes to the scepter of authority among the Maya while also burping from its maw the head of a figure in a scene of otherworldly communication. The text records the fundamental facts—ruler's name, polity, and official ritual act—while the imagery reveals the ramifications of this ritual behavior.

Tikal Stela 29 (fig. 1.12), which records a Long Count date that corresponds to AD 292, is the earliest dated, archaeologically recovered monument in the Maya Lowlands (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982). It depicts a Tikal ruler, garbed in the royal regalia, communicating with an ancestor who looks down upon him from above. On both Tikal Stela 29 and the Hauberg Stela (fig. 1.11), the rulers are literally dripping with the ornaments of power. They are portrayed as individuals who not only wielded power in the natural world, but also could communicate with the supernatural sphere. The Hauberg Stela, moreover, demonstrates how writing was woven into the composition as a formal complement and as a source of supplemental, detailed information that enhanced and elucidated the context of royal performances.

With the advent and spread of writing throughout different regions, the Late Preclassic thus represented the first period in ancient Mesoamerica in which dates, events, and the deeds of specific individuals were celebrated in script traditions carved onto stone. In fact, as scholars (Grube 1995; Justeson 1986) have argued, the act of writing was inextricably tied to the foundation of royal dynasties and the invention of divine kingship, a function also attested to in ancient China and Egypt. This is demonstrated by inscriptions from both Mayan- and Mixe-Zoquean-speaking regions that date to the end of the Late Preclassic period and glorify the deeds of specific rulers, placing their actions within broader contexts of calendrical cycles, astronomical phenomenon, and cosmological events (Guernsey and Love n.d.).

La Mojarra Stela 1 (fig. 1.13) may provide another example of this practice in which the deeds of divine kings were recorded using hieroglyphic texts inscribed on monumental stelae. Stela 1 was pulled from the Acula River at the village of La Mojarra in Veracruz, which is located midway between Cerro de las Mesas and Tres Zapotes, and records Long Count dates in the years AD 143 and 156 (Winfield Capitaine 1988). The Isthmian script with which the stela is inscribed flourished in the Olmec heartland and throughout much of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec between circa 150 BC and AD 450. Other sites whose monuments incorporate this script tradition include, among others, Tres Zapotes, Cerro de las Mesas, and San Andrés Tuxtla in the Olmec heartland, as well as Chiapa de Corzo in the Upper Grijalva River valley of Chiapas and El Sitio, which was located along the Pacific slope of Guatemala (Justeson and Kaufman 1993: 1703, fig. 1; Méluzin 1995: 2-3). Significant, too, is the similarity between hieroglyphs in the text of La Mojarra Stela 1 and certain glyphlike forms on several stelae at the site of Izapa, which is otherwise notable for its almost complete lack of hieroglyphic writing. The relationship between the standing figure on Stela 1, presumably the ruler, and the adjacent hieroglyphic text is similar to that of the Hauberg Stela, and suggests that the composition formed a conceptual whole in which textual specifics were combined with iconographic and narrative devices to tell—and record in monumental form—the events associated with the reign of a specific Late Preclassic ruler.

What these various inscriptions also underscore is the extent and nature of Late Preclassic communication spheres. At the most basic level, the Isthmian and Mayan script traditions were related: their numerical and calendrical systems are virtually identical. Isthmian inscriptions like La Mojarra Stela 1 also exhibit a columnar format, which in the Maya region and Guatemalan Highlands was modified into a system of paired columns of text. Beyond purely formal similarities, however, the content of the inscriptions reveals a shared attention to recording and monumentalizing the office of divine kingship. This common language of power—which not only included hieroglyphic inscriptions but also encompassed a repertoire of imagery incorporating recognizable symbol systems and formal conventions—became absolutely central to the display and justification of hierarchical authority during the Late Preclassic period. Beyond elite legitimation, however, it addressed issues of social organization and the relationship between the natural world and supernatural sphere that helped to structure and define a Late Preclassic worldview.

Yet, such characterizations do not adequately address the lack of hieroglyphic writing at sites such as Izapa, nor the emphatic emphasis on imagery rather than text. Rather than signaling a lack of familiarity with hieroglyphic writing on the part of the Izapa elite, this absence should perhaps be understood as a deliberate choice in which political authority was expressed in visual terms—or through images—rather than textually, or through writing defined as visual speech. Such a choice would have offered one distinct advantage: it would not have been language dependent, but instead would have communicated effectively to audiences of diverse linguistic affiliations. This option by elites at Izapa to communicate with images rather than hieroglyphic texts provided a solution, and should not be dismissed as an evolutionary blunder or ignorant mistake: it afforded a widespread, accessible, and presumably successful nonverbal system of communication. As will be discussed in the following chapter, Izapa's position at the juncture of two linguistic regions may have fostered the penchant for nontextual communicative strategies rather than language-dependent ones (Guernsey and Love n.d.).

Mediums and Modes of Expression

This study explores the role of sculpture in the development and dissemination of a Late Preclassic language of power that stretched throughout a geographically and linguistically diverse region. Along the Pacific piedmont and highlands of Guatemala, and throughout the entire Izapan style sphere, the preferred sculptural vehicle for these messages appears to have been the stela-altar tableau. Stelae emerged as a sculptural format by the end of the Middle Preclassic period, and by the Middle to Late Preclassic transition were paired frequently with plain or carved altars at their bases (fig. 1.2). The prepared surfaces and more regularized contours of stelae—compared to boulders or natural rock formations—accommodated increasingly complex narrative compositions (Clancy 1990: 27). The more controlled form and human scale of stelae also more readily facilitated their transportation to and placement within a carefully constructed ceremonial precinct. Although the concern for unified programs of sculpture and architecture dates back to the Early Preclassic colossal heads of the Olmec, stelae became the primary vehicles for the transmission of symbolic imagery from the late Middle Preclassic through the Terminal Classic periods. While the stela form became more regularized during the course of its development, its associated imagery varied considerably, from depictions of rulers, deities, and ceremonial occasions to abstracted designs of specific iconographic motifs.

In stark contrast to the Pacific piedmont and Guatemalan Highlands, the Maya Lowlands were characterized by monumental architectural facades during the Late Preclassic period. Although stelae are not absent from sculptural assemblages in this region, programs of elaborate architectural sculpture appear to have served as the primary format for public expression. These architectural facades, typically composed of enormous deity heads modeled in stucco (fig. 1.14), differ distinctly from the stelae of the Pacific piedmont and highlands. While stelae often depicted rulers as protagonists in ritual action, the stucco facades typically depict not rulers, but their supernatural patrons. More than just architectural backdrops for political and religious performances, however, these facades were part of a genre of expressive media that communicated information to largely nonliterate, Late Preclassic Maya populations (Reese 1996). In addition to these monumental architectural facades, new discoveries in the Maya Lowlands indicate that mural programs may have provided another outlet of symbolic expression for Late Preclassic rulers in this region (Saturno n.d.; Saturno et al. 2001). Mural programs readily accommodated more narrative compositions and provided an ideal counterpoint to the iconic monumentality of the architectural facades.

Regardless of the media—whether stucco facades, painted murals, or carved stelae—monuments throughout this Late Preclassic communication sphere punctuated space with their messages and indicated the conceptualization of a unified program of sculpture and architecture that demarcated sacred space. They functioned as communicative media that transmitted potent symbolic imagery and, occasionally, carefully constructed hieroglyphic texts. More significantly, they also gave form, quite literally, to the development of powerful Late Preclassic political and cosmological messages.

It was thus within this vibrant setting of Late Preclassic Mesoamerica that the Izapan style developed and spread, permeating more-physical ethnic and political boundaries. Specifically because it was widely employed by elites at numerous sites, it provides a unique lens through which the Late Preclassic landscape can be viewed. The monuments themselves, scattered throughout a broad and diverse geographic region, make visible certain paths and modes of communication during this time period in Mesoamerican history. The monuments and their rich repertoire of imagery also provide insight into Late Preclassic symbolic vocabularies of elite authority, many of which were crystallized during this time period into a canon of forms that would endure for a millennium.

An adequate picture of the Late Preclassic political and economic sphere is imperative to understanding the greater context in which these monuments existed. Yet, the monuments and their messages were more than reactionary devices to the forces of economic wealth and distribution, political organization, or the control of limited natural resources or agriculturally productive land. To borrow Ringle's (1999: 214) words with regards to the monumental architecture of the Late Preclassic Maya, Izapan style monuments "fostered growth, prosperity, and political expansion," instead of simply responding to it. They were key players in the Late Preclassic landscape and actors upon the stage of history, participating within a dialogue of sculpture, architecture, and performer that formulated messages of rulership, power, social cohesion, and humans' relationship to the earth and supernatural sphere. As Kubler (1971: 167) once stated, "emergence"—or, in this case, the appearance of a coherent artistic tradition like that of the Izapan style—"is like the actor coming on in the prologue to the play. But unless he can say something of value to the audience they may walk out on him." The Izapan style not only debuted on the stage of Late Preclassic Mesoamerica, but forged a lasting imprint. It is this notion—of art as a dynamic, tangible force—that guides the ensuing discussion of the Izapan style phenomenon and its role within a broad, Late Preclassic interaction sphere.



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