A Maya Universe in Stone

In 1951, Quest for the Lost City was published in the United States. Reviewed in The New York Times as ‘a sort of overland Kon-Tiki’ – in reference to Thor Heyerdahl’s recent Pacific Ocean adventure – the book was an instant success and remains in print today. In 1955, it was released as a documentary film by Sol Lesser, producer of Tarzan films. The film’s poster displayed the book’s authors, husband and wife Dana and Ginger Lamb, stripped down for adventure clutching weapons, gazing through the Mexican jungle at an ancient-looking city, saying: ‘We walked 1,000 miles through the hostile jungle… to make this incredible discovery!’

Although the Lambs have been widely derided as charlatans and their story as fiction, Dana undoubtedly made one vital archaeological discovery at a Maya site in Guatemala that he never explicitly located. To quote his journal for April 1950: ‘There are two beautifully carved temple stones here. The best I have ever seen. … We spent all day exploring around and moving the stones so we could get pictures of them. … This ruin is completely unknown so we decided to name it the Place of the Carved Stones, in Maya it is Lashch Tu Nich.’ Unfortunately, the stone lintels were later looted from the site, probably in the 1960s, sold, and disappeared. Having reappeared on the US art market in 2013 and 2015, they disappeared again.

These historic photographs taken by the Lambs form the focus of Mayanist Stephen Houston’s intriguing, beautifully illustrated academic study of Laxtunich and its significance for Maya studies, written in collaboration with four other specialists in the field: Charles Golden, Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. The lintels are replete with dynastic and cosmic information. As Houston comments at the beginning, the ‘monograph focuses on a carved lintel dense with ancient Maya meaning’.

Maya glyphs – increasingly deciphered since the 1950s, with revolutionary results – reveal an artist’s signature carved on one of the lintels: Mayuy. ‘The name Mayuy is probably the Ch’orti’ word for fog, mayuy’, write Houston, Scherer, and Taube. ‘In modern usage, the term conveys a sense of smog or contamination, possibly an emanation. Maya imagery applies this to other noxious vapours from the mouth, ti’, a word present in this name as a word sign’. The mammalian head that appears at the end of Mayuy’s name, however, resists decipherment. ‘Marked with signs for dark/night, ak’ab, it may be a nocturnal animal with long ears, but there are insufficient clues to secure the identification. At an impasse, we simply call him Mayuy’.

The same signature appears on another lintel (now at a Texas art museum), presumably from the same region, not photographed by Lamb. The dates of these two lintels are similar: AD 773 and AD 783. So maybe Mayuy worked in more than one location. Yet, curiously, similar damage was caused to both lintels. ‘The cuts and saw marks hint that the same people were involved in looting the pieces from Laxtunich and from whatever site or building yielded the later Mayuy [inscription],’ according to Houston et al. So perhaps both lootings ‘occurred at the same place’.

Eventually, write the authors, if the orphaned lintels’ places of origin can be established with certainty, they should be repatriated. But in the meantime, they must be forensically investigated and contextualised – as in this book – in the light of the epigraphic, archaeological, and iconographic exploration of the ‘Maya universe’ since their mysterious discovery.

Ironically, such expert study magnifies their appeal to collectors. ‘The decipherment of Maya writing and decoding of imagery deepened the allure of sculptures, goading the desire for collectors or museums to buy them,’ comments Houston. ‘As an ethically fraught yet undeniable consequence, finding more monuments also advanced scholarship.’

Review by Andrew Robinson.

A Maya Universe in Stone, Edited by Stephen Houston, Getty Publications, Hardback, £40, ISBN 978-1606067444.