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.

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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