Maya Murals May Depict Murder of Royal Scribes

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
November 26, 2001

A new study offers a gruesome illustration of the pen being mightier than the sword.

It suggests that the official scribes of Maya kings, who were considered important to the kings' power, were especially targeted by enemies in warfare. If captured, they were executed—after their fingers were broken and their fingernails ripped out, according to a researcher who has taken a much closer look at Maya murals.

Kevin Johnston, an anthropologist at Ohio State University, first began thinking about the fate of captured scribes when he saw a photo enhancement of a mural from Bonampak in National Geographic. Bonampak is a Maya site in the Chiapas state of southern Mexico.

The mural depicts captured scribes—bound, semi-nude, and with their fingers broken and bleeding. Some have already been executed.

"I was looking at it and I had a 'eureka!' moment," said Johnston. "I realized they were holding quills, and that I had seen similar depictions in other places.

Johnston, whose study is published in a recent issue of the journal Antiquity, said: "Destroying a conquered king's ability to communicate is a powerful act of symbolism."

Human Captives

During the Classic Maya period, A.D. 250 to A.D. 800, the Maya civilization consisted of 50 or more city-states spread across Mexico, Belize, northern Guatemala, and western Honduras. A king ruled each city-state, which consisted of farmlands surrounding urban centers.

Warfare between neighbors was common. Besides the usual spoils of war, the conquerors sought human captives, which were essential for a king to maintain power.

One measure of a kingdom's wealth was its large temples, ceremonial plazas, and palaces. Building these monuments required a great deal of manpower, which was often provided by the forced labor of those captured in battle.

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