Maya Perspective On The Material World
April 26, 2014

The Maya Perspective On The Material World Has Parallels With Today’s Online Culture

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

We take it for granted that our lives, and our beliefs, are intrinsically different from cultures of the past. They built pyramids and temples, we play on Facebook and build virtual lives.

A new study from the University of Cincinnati, however, shows that the ancient Maya might just have been big fans of Facebook. They believed that material objects, like a courtier's mirror or a sculptor's carving tool, could be imbued with part of the owner's identity. They considered such objects to be alive, naming them, talking to them, and taking them to special events.

UC's assistant professor Sarah Jackson claims that such behavior isn't much different than today's selfie-snapping culture where a Facebook profile can become as important to a person's identity as his or her real-world interactions. Jackson presented her findings on the interesting parallels between ancient Maya and modern-day views on materiality at the Society for American Archaeology's (SAA) annual meeting on Friday.

"This relates to a lot of things that people are feeling out right now about virtual realities and dealing with computers and social lives online," said Jackson, an anthropological archaeologist, in a recent statement. "These things start to occupy this uncomfortable space where we question, 'Is it real, or is it not real?' I look at the Maya context and consider, 'How different is that from some of the concerns we have now?' There are some parallels in terms of preoccupation with roles that objects play and how attached we are to things."

To understand the Maya view on the material world, Jackson and her team are employing hieroglyphic textual evidence, which they are incorporating into a database of Maya material terminology. This allows them to track certain property qualifiers — visual markings on glyphs indicating from what material an object is made, like wood or stone.

Jackson is finding that the most important part of this process is to try to understand these property qualifiers from the Maya perspective, rather than her own modern-day perspective. Understanding Maya culture becomes crucial then because the Maya applied property qualifiers in a broad manner that leads to some unexpected areas of divergence if read from a literal interpretation.

The property qualifier for a Maya temple might indicate “stony” qualities, but this same qualifier could also be applied to a calendar or other items related to time. Research has also revealed that the Maya behaviors included a belief in the concept of object agency — the ability to act independently — and partible personhood — the idea that identity can be split into sections capable of living outside the body.

Jackson had to overcome her own modern-day social bias and material assumptions in order to appropriately analyze a glyph that appears to show a Maya ruler having a conversation with his mirror, or one that depicts a sculptor carving a “living” statue.

"There are some really interesting possibilities if we can try to incorporate at least some kind of reconstructed understanding of how the Maya would have seen these materials, not just how we see them," Jackson told Tom Robinette of the University of Cincinnati.

Jackson believes her work could potentially cause major changes in some of the fundamental aspects of archaeology, including the process of excavation itself. An archaeologist's interpretation, according to Jackson, can even be directed by the assumptions encoded in standard paperwork.

"It's really important to me that this isn't just abstract," Jackson said. "Let's see if we can think about how the Maya think, but let's also think about how this can transform what we're doing archaeologically."

Next year, Jackson will return to Belize for further field work and to test some experimental techniques. Christopher Motz, a doctoral student in UC's Department of Classics, is helping Jackson develop a database and an interface for mobile tablet use in field work that will allow researchers to catalog field data in a way that integrates traditional and new recording methods.

"Some of these things I'm thinking about could really shift how we characterize objects, how we record them, what is our vision of what they look like. And then how we construct ideas of assemblages, like how objects are relating to each other in a particular context and how we document them," Jackson said.