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Live by the Pen, Die by the Sword

July 17, 2001

Live by the Pen, Die by the Sword


At the height of the Maya civilization, the only literate society in pre-Columbian America, kings fervently, perhaps desperately, believed in the power of the pen. Whether they thought it mightier than the sword is doubtful, but a growing body of evidence from Maya writing and art shows that scribes played a central role in magnifying their king's reputation and solidifying his political hold on the realm.

No royal court in the classic Maya period, especially from about A.D. 600 to 900, seems to have been without scribes of high rank. In paintings and sculptures, they are seen seated cross-legged and wearing a sarong and headcloth, with a bundle of pens and brushes at the ready. Some of the painted or carved figures are accompanied by inscriptions identifying the person as keeper of the royal library, the chief scribe.

The court scribes, archaeologists have concluded, came from the noble class, sometimes from the royal family itself -- younger sons of rulers or sons by secondary wives and concubines, and even some daughters. Their duty was to prepare art and text for elaborate public displays glorifying the king's triumphs. They were, in modern parlance, propagandists and spinmeisters.

When times were good, scribes lived well, sometimes too well. One painting of drunken revelry reveals that even then, writers on occasion had an unbounded thirst. When their king met defeat in battle, though, the scribes were among the first to suffer a cruel fate. And that, as much as anything, an archaeologist has now pointed out, affirms the paramount place of scribes and writing in Maya politics.

In a close study of texts and three imposing pieces of art, Dr. Kevin J. Johnston, a Maya archaeologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, determined that those who lived by the pen for a defeated ruler could expect to die by the conqueror's sword. These scribes were captured, humiliated in a public ceremony, mutilated and finally executed. A favorite form of mutilation was breaking their fingers and tearing out their fingernails.

Writing in the June issue of the journal Antiquity, Dr. Johnston concluded, "Texts were a medium through which kings asserted and displayed power, and thus they and the scribes who produced them were targeted during warfare for destruction."

The fact that many of the captured scribes were kinsmen of the conquered king and suspected of continued loyalty might have contributed to their fate. But the methods of public torture suggest that the conquerors also intended to send an unambiguous message.

"What captors chose to emphasize in public documents was not the physical elimination of the scribes through sacrifice but the destruction through finger mutilation of their capacity to produce for rivals politically persuasive texts," Dr. Johnston wrote. "Finger breaking was a significant political act because it produced and revealed the vulnerability of enemies and competitors."

Dr. Johnston said in an interview that these previously unrecognized practices underscored the importance of the written word and monumental art in reinforcing the power and authority of Maya kings. They were forms of what he called "competitive display," meant to intimidate people into a state of loyalty.

Because most Maya city-states were small and inherently weak, Mayanists say, kings typically had to resort to such ceremonial strategies to help justify and maintain their power. In the late classic period, there were at least 40 city-states across the heart of the Maya domain, which included what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and part of Honduras. No single king apparently ever managed to control a wide section of the land.

Dr. David Webster, a Mayanist at Penn State, said he agreed with much of Dr. Johnston's thesis, particularly the role of scribes in proclaiming royal authority through competitive displays.

"A king who is not very confident brags a lot," Dr. Webster said. " ĀI am the king,' he brags all over the lowlands. The next king is only 30 kilometers away and he's saying, ĀNo, I am the king.' There's a lot of status rivalry, and so they build lavish palaces and have a lot of feasting and other ceremonial displays."

A more risky alternative course for enhancing a king's reputation was warfare, which among the Maya often stemmed from "status rivalry" between neighboring rulers, not necessarily from an appetite for more territory. After a war, a monument prepared by a loyal scribe- painter soon went up in the victor's city. The triumphant king is shown standing heroically on the backs of prostrate captives -- the Maya version of a photo-op.

Several other specialists in Mayan archaeology said they found Dr. Johnston's research convincing.

"It's a new perspective based on what had been stray pieces of evidence that we haven't been putting together before," said Dr. Stephen D. Houston of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Dr. David Freidel of Southern Methodist University in Dallas said the research provided important insights into "a war of words" the Maya seemed to have waged through much of their classical period, before the civilization went into sharp decline around 900.

In his judgment, Dr. Freidel said, the Maya were a history-minded people and their scribes were not just mechanical transcribers but were the historians, intent on defining their culture and imposing their own interpretation of history. The destruction of monuments and inscriptions was one city's way of erasing the history of an enemy. But he questioned the premise that the Maya civilization was more politically fragile than most others.

Modern scholars think that the Maya glyphs are one of only three writing systems -- the other two being Sumerian cuneiform in ancient Mesopotamia and Chinese -- to be invented independently. All others were probably modeled after or influenced by existing scripts. Maya was the last of the three scripts to be deciphered, beginning in the 1950's; it has given scholars a clearer picture of Maya history.

In an attractive and definitive book on the subject, "The Art of the Maya Scribe," Dr. Michael D. Coe, a specialist in Maya writing at Yale, said studies of monumental inscriptions since the decipherment began had "revealed entirely unsuspected details not only of the social and political organization of particular Maya cities, but of their relationships -- often but not always hostile -- between them."

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