Ancient newsreels

On more than one occasion, I have applied successfully for a research grant from the National Geographic Society. They were never enough to fund a full season of excavations, but supplemented other sources to get those extras that are so valued, like supporting graduate students in the field. I thought at the time that it would help my cause if I was on the list of subscribers to their famous magazine, and so the number of issues accumulated over the years, each one including beautifully illustrated articles on matters of interest. However, in the end I ceased subscribing and the issues in my library were parked on the shelves of our holiday retreat on the shore of Lake Hawea in Central Otago – great reading for wet Sundays. Last week, my wife and I decided to take them to the recycling facility, so someone else could enjoy them. As I was moving them out of the car, I noticed one that I was not going to let go. The front cover had an image from the remarkable painted Maya building at Bonampak, the name meaning ‘painted wall’.

It portrays a ferocious Maya chief clad in a jaguar skin, with a jaguar’s head on his own, spearing an unfortunate captive. First seen by an outsider in 1946, the paintings are as close a reflection as you are likely to see of life in an elite Maya centre. The article described the successive themes in the three painted chambers. The first depicts the heir being presented to lordly grandees during a splendid ceremony. We move next into a room completely decorated with a battle in progress, and, in the third, there is a rite of passage to the throne involving blood-letting rituals. Thanks to the relatively recent decipherment of the Maya glyphs, we know that ruler Chaan Muwan was the last known king of Bonampak. There is an extraordinary insight into life at the court. We see trumpeters in front of a person wearing the mask of a caiman, another with arms covered in the claws of a crayfish, both viewed by an aristocrat wearing jade ornaments sitting on a comfortable cushion. Glyphs also tell us that these scenes date to AD 790-791.

The striking surface of the Dong Son drum from Co Loa shows scenes from the daily life of the inhabitants.

Social inequality is the one consistent feature of all early states, and the Bonampak murals leave us in no doubt that this was the bedrock of the Maya social system. In South-east Asia, I have for long encountered wealthy prehistoric elites, their status advertised through exotic marine shell and stone jewellery that they took to their graves. A row of elites at Bonampak likewise wear prestigious Spondylus shells and jade pectorals. We are told that the ceremonies before us were supervised by the holy lord of Yaxchilán, the centre that held political sway over Bonampak. In my experience, too, social inequality is seen in the lavish treatment of dead infants, interred in adult-sized graves in order to contain the weight of mortuary offerings. Here at Bonampak, the crown prince is a small boy, carried to the ceremony by a court functionary.

We move to the second chamber, to pick up on another recurrent theme in early states: warfare. It is Chaan Muwan himself whom we see wielding his spear, tipped with a viciously sharp obsidian point as he despatches an enemy. A human head dangles at his neck. Captives are investigated, their fingernails being pulled out. A head lies on the steps. The third room shows us Maya women, including the wife of the king, participating in a blood-letting ceremony. With stingray spines and obsidian points, they pierce their tongues and pull cords through to let blood fall into parchment in a pottery container, before it is set alight to send the blood-tinged smoke upwards to the gods.

Visual history

Imagine if the builders of Stonehenge had carved more than daggers and axe-heads on the stones there, or if the inhabitants of Skara Brae showed more artistic tendencies. Fortunately, in South-east Asia we are well served. Shizhaishan and Lijiashan are two royal cemeteries of the Dian Kingdom, located in the lakelands of Yunnan Province. The graves contain bronze vessels and drums embellished with tiny models of daily pursuits. One shows an elite woman borne aloft on a palanquin, entering a religious ceremony involving the sacrifice of a prisoner tied to a post awaiting his fate. Another leading woman, covered in gold, sits weaving while receiving offerings. A ruler astride his charger is seen finishing off an enemy foot soldier, while the head of another swings from his bridle. There are also house models, where you can see a riotous party in progress, a bullfight, a musical ensemble, and a meeting of chiefs being served a feast by the populace at large. It is rather like watching a newsreel of a chiefly society returned from oblivion by archaeology.

Moving down the Red River to the broad plains of northern Vietnam, we encounter the Dong Son chiefdom. Their capital, the great walled urban complex of Co Loa, dates to the 3rd century BC. One of the notable Dong Son drums unearthed there was decorated with scenes of daily life. We see a house raised on piles against the possibility of flooding. People are winnowing and grinding rice. A raised platform has four drummers aloft. Look at the drums and you can see that they vary in size. There are warriors with feathered headdresses brandishing spears, and a musical quartet. Other drums feature war vessels with archers readying their bows as they go into battle.

This scene carved on a wall at Banteay Chhmar shows a furious battle between the Ankgorian army and invading Chams.

King Jayavarman II founded the Kingdom of Angkor 11 years after the painting of the Bonampak murals, but we have to wait 350 years before we can see the first image of one of his successors: the great Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat. Here, we see the king seated on a richly carved wooden throne surrounded by kneeling ministers, each labelled with his name and duties. His parasol-holders shade him from the sun, fans cool him, and minions wave fly whisks. This is a segment of one of the greatest series of stone reliefs known, anywhere or at any time. Further down the corridors, the king stands on a massive war elephant as he goes into battle, holding the sacred sword of state in a procession through the forest that includes his generals and foot soldiers. The bas reliefs, unfinished when the king passed on to live with the gods, show scenes from Hindu epics, heaven and hell, and the churning of the ocean of milk to generate amrita, the elixir of immortality.

I always find the later stone reliefs of the Bayon, temple mausoleum of Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-1218), even more fascinating than those at Angkor Wat. Although rather roughly finished – Jayavarman was a builder in a hurry – they depict more domestic scenes. I have spent hours wandering along the walls of this mysterious temple mausoleum, capped as it is by massive heads of the king as a boddhisatva. We do know a lot about life in the surrounding city from the eye-witness account written by the Chinese visitor Zhou Daguan, who arrived in August 1296 for a stay of 11 months. He described the marketplace, the palace, a royal progress, how women would give birth and go straight to work in the rice fields, the homes, heat, and regular bathing. I can sympathise with the last observation. The Bayon carvings bring all this immediately to life. No domestic buildings, no palaces, survive. Only the temples and walls were built of stone. But the reliefs show the elite and ordinary homes. In one of the latter, we can glimpse a woman in the throes of childbirth, surrounded by her midwives. Two men play chess in a quiet corner, but in a more animated scene, there is a pig fight in progress. We can see servants preparing food for a feast, with the grandees on a higher tier being waited on.

It was Jayavarman who claimed victory over the Chams, an enemy that had sailed up the Mekong and across the Great Lake, only to be crushed by the Angkorian navy, if the reliefs are to be believed. The Chams wear lotus-shaped helmets, and many must have toppled into a watery graveyard, to be consumed by crocodiles. The trumpets and drums, the bellowing of the war elephants, and the discharge of ballista bolts are all there to be seen as depictions of royal military prowess. If you have the time to visit the remote temple of Banteay Chhmar, you can see a second set of reliefs by the same king in this fabulous monument built in honour of the crown prince and fallen war heroes. When my colleague Rachanie and I visited 20 years ago, we were the only people there until some village boys joined us out of curiosity. The walls again depict the great victory over the Chams, alongside domestic and religious themes.

I am so glad that the one National Geographic that caught my eye stimulated rambling thoughts about old newsreels. From Bonampak to Angkor and many points in between, one comes across a common theme: conflict and war. Alas, aggressive military actions continue to generate plenty of content for modern newsreels.