Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Olmec" burial found in Puebla

One of the great problems of Mesoamerican archaeology is the lack of osteological remains from the Olmec civilization. The environment of the Olmec heartland, the steamy and wet Gulf Coastal plains of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco states in Mexico, has destroyed almost all traces of bone from the archaeological sites in this region. This week Mexican authorities have reported on the discovery of a burial that was found underneath the Casa del Mendrugo and that dates apparently to the Early Preclassic period, roughly 1500 - 1200 B.C. The burial included the remains of two individuals, one a woman and the second possibly a man. The woman's remains were better preserved and indicate she was around 55 years old at the time of her death. Archaeologist Arnulfo Allende found 35 objects with these bodies, including 26 ceramic vessels as well as at least 3 mirrors (two essentially complete) and figurines and pectoral jewelry made of greenstone. (Images of some of these objects, as well some of the skeletal material, can be seen HERE.) A DNA study from one of the teeth in this burial is planned, to test the ethnicity of the individual, although the fact that osteological remains from the Olmec heartland are so few would make any test of these bones as being of immigrant Olmecs exceedingly difficult. Furthermore, determining ethnicity from remains more than 3000 years ago is questionable, given the intervening cultural changes and genetic transmission between groups over that span of time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Supposed Reference to December 21, 2012 on a Brick Found at Comalcalco

On November 24, 2011 the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) of Mexico revealed, in a communiqué regarding the Mesa Redonda of Palenque that occurred in late November, the existence of a second reference to the infamous December 21, 2012 date. 

This second putative inscription mentioning the 2012 date is written on a brick found at the site of Comalcalco, Tabasco. [Click HERE for a drawing of the brick in question.] Mark Stevenson, of the Associated Press, subsequently released a short news report on this new revelation, entitled “Mexico acknowledges 2nd Mayan reference to 2012”:

Stevenson’s report has exploded across the internet, with editors giving the story ever more sensationalistic titles. The Huffington Post ran the story as “Mayan 2012 Prophesy: Mexico Finds Second Reference Among Ruins”: while msnbc went with  “Mexico adds yet another brick to the 2012 Maya legend”. ABC News went even more hyperbolic, with “Apocalypse 2012 Back On? Second Inscription Uncovered” and even had a video report on the subject on their Good Morning America program, in which they had John Major Jenkins speaking but identified as David Stuart.

Some of these reports have tried to run images of the Comalcalco brick in question, but to date I have only seen images popping up of bricks that have no inscriptions on them at all, or of the Aztec calendar stone, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the 2012 date at all.

Apart from revealing that news editors these days are woefully informed of not only Maya archaeology and epigraphy, but simple English grammar and the need to check stories and images before publishing them, the popularity of this report demonstrates what widespread interest the 2012 meme has generated in contemporary society. Not unpredictably, this story has been picked up with glee by the 2012ers themselves, those pseudoscientists and their believers who insist that December 21, 2012 was an epochal event for the Maya, and which has meaning and importance for not only ancient or modern Maya, but also for all of us in the modern world.

Mayan experts keen to debunk 2012 doomsday theories used to point out how strange it was that the Mayans never mentioned the specific date of (their equivalent to) Dec 21, 2012, not anywhere. The only way we knew of it is by determining when their Long Count would finish, and start again. Then a few years ago some scholars let us in on a secret, the date is inscribed upon Tortuguero Monument 6 ... Given that there was just one mention, experts assured us that Dec 21 2012 was not an important date for the Mayans. But what about two mentions? Making the news this week, the National Institute of Anthropology and History have let it be known that a second reference exists ... Which begs the question, how many more are there, kept secret? 
Not unsurprisingly, there is no conspiracy, although, since 2012ers often run in the same company as conspiracy theorists, it is not surprising that they choose to see one here. Neither is there any second reference to December 21, 2012 in this Comalcalco brick. Given how much traction this misinformation has received, it is worthwhile exposing the reality of what this inscription says and why some think it may refer to the 2012 date. In addition, I think revealing how this story came to explode across the media in late November provides a cautionary tale to epigraphers and archaeologists as to why we must be very careful with our comments on issues as popular and sensitive as the 2012 meme, and also instructive to non-experts as to how epigraphic work is carried out, and why, although this information may have seemed hidden from them, there was no conspiracy to keep genuine data on the 2012 date from the general public.

The media circus over an apparent reference to December 21, 2012 on the Comalcalco brick actually goes back a year and a half, when on July 6, 2010, INAH published a news report on a course on Classic Maya religion and mythology, taught by Mexican epigrapher Carlos Pallán Gayol at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ENAH). In the article Pallán Gayol is cited as saying “Conforme la correlación GMT + 2 (Goodman-Martínez-Thompson, más dos días) que utilizan los epigrafistas para convertir las fechas mayas al calendario gregoriano, la fecha exacta sería el 23 de diciembre de 2012 y no el día 21. Ésta se halla registrada en el Monumento 6 de Tortuguero y en un fragmento encontrado en Comalcalco, ambas zonas arqueológicas de Tabasco y relativamente cercanas entre sí”.

Pallán’s source for the idea that the Comalcalco brick may refer to the 2012 date was Erik Boot, who in January of 2010 had prepared a short contribution for an exhibition on 2012 and the Maya being prepared at the Museum Volkenkunde, in the Netherlands. This unpublished work was circulated amongst a number of fellow epigraphers, and would ultimately be cited in Sven Gronemeyer and Barbara MacLeod’s “What Could Happen in 2012” paper, published online in the Wayeb Notes series (Wayeb Note 34).

The original INAH report spread around Mexican websites and within days came to the attention of a number of posters on the Aztlan webserverOn July 7, 2010 Thiago Cavalcanti posted links to the INAH report published on the website of the Diario de Yucatan and on July 8 he followed up with a question on whether anyone else knew anything about the 2012 date on the Comalcalco brickJohn Major Jenkins, a prominent proponent of the 2012 meme, then replied on July 9, revealing Erik Boot as the ultimate source for this idea.

Jenkins' reply is worth quoting in full:

In answer to your query, Maya scholar Erik Boot noted last December that an incised brick from Comalcalco probably contains a 4 Ahau 3 Kankin tzolkin-haab combo. The accompanying inscription states "it will be completed" which lends credence to this being a reference to the future 2012 period ending. Sven Gronemeyer, in his study of Tortuguero, writes that Comalcalco may have become the successor to Tortuguero; another fragment at Comalcalco mentions Bahlam Ajaw, the 7th-century king of Tortuguero who is the protagonist of TRT Monument 6, which contains the 2012 date.   

The probable 2012 reference from Comalcalco was first illustrated in Neil Steede, 1984, Catálogo preliminar de los tabiques de Comalcalco. Cárdenas: Centro de Investigación Precolombina, p. 40.

Steede did not recognize it as such back in 1984; I found an image of it online in the context of a different discussion, which I have reposted here:

Now, all those "only one 2012 date reference" statements will have to be revised.

John Major Jenkins

It should be noted that both in the original INAH press report and Jenkins’ reply to Aztlan the idea that the Comalcalco brick carries a 2012 reference are taken almost as a given. While Jenkins does admit that Boot merely noted that the brick “probably” contains a reference to the 2012 date, his final sentence “all those “only one 2012 date reference” statements will have to be revised” is anything but nuanced.

Jenkins’ note came to the attention of epigrapher Marc Zender, who has conducted archaeological work at Comalcalco with Miriam Judith Gallegos and Ricardo Armijo Torres, and he has examined the original brick in question in detail. Given that no other epigrapher has more familiarity with this text, it is worth quoting Zender’s response in full as well, as he demonstrates that the Comalcalco brick simply cannot be said to bear a reference to December 21, 2012.

Hi all,

I don't post here very often, but I wanted to follow up
on John's recent discussion (copied below) of the text on
an inscribed brick from Comalcalco.  It was thoughtful of
him to bring up Erik's recent suggestion that this contains
a reference to the 2012 date, but I'm afraid this is
unlikely to be the case.  For reference, here's the link
where John has usefully posted a drawing of the text:

Unfortunately, it's pretty clear that the month sign cannot be K'ank'in.  Granted, there's a well-known "dog" variant of this month that Erik must have had in mind when he made his suggestion late last year (see for example the Chinikiha Throne, B1 and PNG Altar 2, D2), but this never has the infixed AK'AB "darkness" elements which appear just below the ear of this sign.  As I've argued elsewhere, this is a trait of nocturnal animals in Maya art and writing (e.g., jaguar, bat, rodents, fireflies and other insects, etc). As a result, only Zodz (anciently Suutz' "bat") and Xul (anciently Tzikin or perhaps Chikin, some kind of rodent) emerge as feasible candidates, with the latter offering the most likely identification.

Second, I'm afraid the verb isn't "completion" and it isn't cast into the future.  Rather, the verb appears in block 3 and seems to be made of up the two syllables hu and li, spelling the incompletive intransitive verb hul-i-Ø "he arrives".

The fourth glyph block, interpreted by Erik as the verb tzu2-jo-ma (tzuhtz-j-oom-Ø "it will have ended") is admittedly not terribly clear, but the final element is most likely K'AHK', and certainly not the -ma demanded by the future ending.  (It's also more likely that the sign above it is cha rather than jo, but it's very rapidly executed and hard to make out.)  More importantly, the syntax requires this glyph block to provide either the name of the subject  (i.e., the individual arriving, present tense) or a toponym (i.e., the place being arrived at), so it can hardly be another verb.

Given other dates known from the inscriptions of Comalcalco, I'd say a placement at 4 Ahau 3 Xul (10 May, 769) is most likely, but the text is too rapidly executed (I've seen the original, and it really does look like this) and too thoroughly decontextualized for this to be more than a suggestion.   To the extent that we can read it, then, I think the most reasonable interpretations are either "He arrives at Tzutz? ... K'ahk' on 4 Ahau 3 Xul" or "Tzutz? ... K'ahk' arrives on 4 Ahau 3 Xul".

On July 20, 2010 Michael Ruggeri, a frequent poster to Aztlan, forwarded a letter from Erik Boot (not a member of the Aztlan webserver), in which Boot revealed his own actual thoughts on the subject and the history of the dissemination of his idea, prior to its actual publication.

It is most unfortunate that Boot’s idea was leaked to the press before their actual publication date, and especially that the original INAH publication did not cite him properly for his idea. This emphasizes the need for epigraphers and archaeologists to be careful when talking to the press as the popular media are not in the same business as us, and will jump at sound bites and sensational titles, often not caring about nuances or citations. I learned this lesson the hard way myself, and with the popularity of the 2012 meme, and especially the possibility of a second reference to this date, we epigraphers must be very careful. The media circus attendant to the "revelation" of this putative second 2012 reference at Comalcalco attests well enough to that fact.

While epigraphers must be wary of the press running away with a story they manifestly do not understand (and few reporters seem to have much interest in actually understanding such an esoteric subject), epigraphers must also be careful about rushing to press with preliminary analyses that will be sure to generate such a media circus. In his reply to Aztlan, Boot criticized Zender for having commented without having seen the original claim or any of the caveats that went along with it. However, it is unclear that this is really an issue, given that Zender’s critique was of the basic idea that the Comalcalco brick refers to the date 4 Ahau 3 Kankin and that the associated text includes a completion verb. Zender’s critique shows quite clearly why this inscription provides no evidence at all that this constitutes a second reference to December 21, 2012, and reading Boot’s original writeup on this does not change my estimation of this argument. While Boot criticizes Zender for not doing proper science by commenting without having seen Boot’s original writeup, Boot admits in his letter that he has never seen the original brick, and it is clear from his own writings that he never discussed his ideas with Zender, the epigrapher at Comalcalco, and the one man who would be most knowledgeable on the subject. Nor, apparently, did Boot ask Zender for pictures of the brick before writing up and submitting his article for publication. To use Boot’s own words, “this is not the way one practices science”.

The field of epigraphy is quite competitive, and publications are the bread and butter of our profession. Every epigrapher wants to make certain that he or she gets proper credit for their own ideas, and so there is an understandable rush to presses sometimes, especially when many of these deadlines are not of our own choosing. Ideally, epigraphers with new interpretations of inscriptions, especially sensationalistic claims such as those involving the subject of 2012, should run their ideas by those who work professionally at the sites where these inscriptions are found. This should be all the more the case when the epigrapher is working with eroded or problematic texts and has no access to the original pieces, or even to photographs of them. 

The field of epigraphy is held in not inconsiderable suspicion by many archaeologists and this is to no small degree a product of the fact that many published epigraphic ideas have been overturned by later scholarship. This is no different a case than we see in archaeology, and it is important to note that healthy debate and a difference of opinion are things of which the field of epigraphy should be proud, not ashamed. However, we should avoid providing unnecessary fuel for the pseudoscientific hijacking of the Maya and their cosmology. Thankfully, the 2012 meme has only one more year to run its course before it will hopefully and mercifully come to an end; unlike the Maya calendar itself.