Maya Murals May Depict Murder of Royal Scribes

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A king also used captives as human sacrifices to the gods. Human sacrifice was seen as necessary for the king to maintain a relationship with the gods and keep them happy, thereby ensuring healthy, abundant crops.

Scribes were important to a king as well, to document his spiritual superiority, success in battle, and political might.

Power of the Pen

Reading and writing were elite functions in Maya society, and scribes were minor royalty, related to nobles or sometimes even to the king.

By immortalizing a king's victory in battle and ready communication with the gods, a scribe played an important and highly visible role in maintaining the king's power.

Scribes wrote on a variety of media, including pots, stone, books of deerskin covered with a thin layer of plaster, and other small portable objects, said Johnston. Text was also posted on stelae, tall stone obelisks that frequently surrounded the central plaza.

Steve Houston, a Maya scholar at Brigham Young University, has suggested that some of the texts were designed to be read aloud to assembled crowds.

In Maya society, Johnston said, "writing was a political tool of persuasion and authority. Scribes were deliberately targeted in warfare to silence the king's mouthpiece, which would compromise his power and reveal his vulnerability."

Johnston thinks a king may have had additional motives for executing an enemy's scribes. The conquering king already had numerous scribes of his own and would not need their services, and because the captured scribes were typically related to the defeated king in some way, their loyalty was questionable.

Another View

Mary Miller, a professor at Yale, is the lead researcher on the Bonampak restoration, for which the computer-enhanced photographs of the murals are being produced. She has a slightly different, if even more gruesome, interpretation of the bleeding fingers depicted in the artwork.

Miller believes that the scribes' fingernails are not being ripped out, but the fatty pads on their fingers are being cut away from the bone. She is also not sure that captured artists and scribes were executed.

"I've been arguing for years, since at least 1986, that artists are one of the most important pieces of tribute a conquering king could have, and that captive workers were often forced to produce works of art," she said. "After warfare, in many cases you can see styles of art change."

Johnston agrees that such artistic tribute was required of captives in some cases. There is very limited evidence at the moment to tell whether artists, scribes, and carvers were treated differently.

Reconstruction of the murals at Bonampak are a multi-year project for Miller and her colleagues, and their findings are just beginning to be published.

"As more of the data is published," said Miller, "it will engender a lot of discussion, as new details of the richness and complexity of Maya cultural practices emerge and we can take a fresh look at Maya warfare."

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