A Maya Universe in Stone delves deeply into the imagery, inscriptions, and political and social contexts of several ancient Maya carved limestone lintels made in the late 8th century AD, likely in Guatemala’s Department of Peten. Eminent epigrapher and archaeologist Stephen Houston edited the book and wrote its four chapters with Charles Golden, Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. The authors approach the sculptures from interdisciplinary perspectives, decry the looting of the lintels in the 1960s, and advocate for their repatriation.
During the 20th century, archaeological projects revealed astonishing buildings, sculptures, ceramics, and other media made by ancient Maya artists, and international collaboration led to the decipherment of Maya writing. But interest in the ancient Maya also inspired a hunger for owning Maya sculptures and other media, which led to the illicit looting of many sculptures. Some sculptures’ sites of origin were known, but others came from sites that had not been documented. The lintels addressed in the book come from a place that adventurers Dana and Ginger Lamb visited mid century and nicknamed Laxtunich, although they refused to divulge its location. They published photographs of two Laxtunich lintels in their 1951 book, Quest for the Lost City. The lintels were looted in the 1960s and have been in private collections since then.
Their site of origin remains unidentified, but it is clear it participated in the political sphere of the more powerful kingdom of Yaxchilan, in Chiapas, Mexico, during the reign of the k’uhul ajaw (sacred lord) Cheleew Chan K’inich. These and other late 8th-century sculptures show complex political and social engagements, portraying more powerful rulers and provincial governors participating in rituals together. Installed in the smaller sites, they reminded people of the larger entities’ power and their interdependence.
The book comprises four chapters that focus on different aspects of the lintels and other sculptures. Chapter 1 addresses their looting, thereby grounding the discussion in a modern context and showing how past actions affect our understanding of ancient politics and artistic production. Chapter 2 recounts the history of exploration in the region and recent attempts to locate Laxtunich, which the authors propose is in Guatemala’s Sierra Lacandon National Park.
Subsequent chapters analyse the sculptures. Chapter 3 focuses on the sculptor Mayuy, whose sculptures can be identified by his carved name or by stylistic attribution, and compares his carvings with contemporaneous artworks, which contributes to determining Laxtunich’s location and the contexts in which the lintels were made. Chapter 4 investigates supernatural and seasonal references embedded in the lintels’ images and texts involved in the expression of ancient Maya sacred rulership, such as the association of Cheleew Chan K’inich with the solar deity K’inich Ajaw.
This beautifully produced and richly illustrated book provides the most detailed analysis to date of the Laxtunich lintels and related sculptures. One hopes that the astonishingly complex lintels carved by Mayuy may one day be returned to their places of origin. The work of Houston and colleagues takes us several steps closer to this goal.
Review by Megan E O’Neil
A Maya Universe in Stone, Stephen Houston (ed), Getty Publications, £40, ISBN 978-1606067444.