Saturday, September 15, 2007

An Illinois Yankee in the Maya Court

One of my perpetual favorites of American literature is Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Perhaps not as well known as good old Huck Fin and Tom Sawyer, but nevertheless a wonderful example of the imaginative capabilities of Twain’s mind. The protagonist of the story is an inventive Connecticut engineer from Twain’s era who through a fortuitous bump on the head is transported back in time and place to King Arthur’s court. With the best of American ingenuity the protagonist introduces modern technology to the court and soon he is considered the greatest magician of the day. After all Merlin could only mutter and wave some smoke around, he never produced a fancy metal rod, which made a loud bang and smoke while at the same time killing a knight in his tracks.

As of yesterday the protagonist of this journal (that would be the author) had his own engineering puzzle to ponder. Regrettably however no one bumped me on the head sending me 2500 years back in time. Oh Dan was all eager for the challenge, but it was decided that it might not work. A relatively large building was discovered by the workers from Ucu early this week. The first few times I saw the building it looked a little odd, but with it still covered in vines and dense vegetation there wasn’t much point in trying to figure out quite what was going on. Well yesterday the building was finally clear from the tenacious grip of the forest, and at first glance it still didn’t make much since. The vast majority of the larger buildings at Xtobo, and through out the rest of the Maya world, are basically rectangular. This building had two long straight sides arranged at right angles to each other, but then the other side of the building was more or less missing. The stone that it was built with also looked different; it lacked many of the refining touches used on all the other buildings. Then it was noticed that to the North East there was a smaller pile of stones located exactly in position to make the building a roughly 100 x 80 feet rectangular platform. In short, the pieces of the puzzle seem to suggest that this building was begun, but never finished.

Now, that may seem like a relatively minor conclusion for a once a week blog meant to try and keep people from forgetting that I exist while I’m so far away. However, if the conclusion is correct it could have a larger impact on the interpretation of the site. This building was among the largest at the site, and depending on how big it was intended to be, it could have been among the 5 largest buildings at the site. Given the close ties among large architecture, leadership, and religion, among the early Maya that would be some what like finding a church/court house abandoned only half completed. In the context of Xtobo there is one obvious conclusion that we can leap to. A building such as this suggests that either the rulers fell out of power rapidly or that the site was abandoned rapidly. Right now it is estimated that Xtobo was abandoned around 300 BC, but many other sites in the region continued to be occupied after that time. So there should be a specific reason why Xtobo itself was abandoned. This building may go a long way to uncovering that reason.


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