Maya Funerary Tapestry Restored and Ready for Exhibition
MEXICO CITY.- More than 1,600 years ago, nearly 8,000 shells and seeds gave form to a tapestry part of the funerary attire of a high rank personage of the ancient city of Calakmul. After its discovery in 1998 and hard work restoring and reconstructing it, the piece will be exhibited for the first time at the National Museum of Anthropology (MNA).
The small tapestry was placed between 375 and 450 AD, to the left of an important character of Calakmul, Campeche. This person was buried inside Structure III, and was discovered in 1998 by archaeologist Sophia Pincemin, as well as the rich offering of ceramics and jadeite.
Between 2008 and 2009, the funerary tapestry began to be restructured by Sofia Martinez del Campo Lanz, specialist from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Parting from the red coloration that some small pieces conserved, the order in which they were found and several essays of collocation of shells and seeds, it was possible to complete the puzzle.
“Restoration of the tapestry not only represents the rescue of a master piece of Maya art, but of the cultural and ritual meaning it had for this civilization more than 1,600 years ago”, commented Sofia Martinez del Campo, when explaining that according to images represented, the piece had the aim of helping the dignitary to transcend in a spiritual way the 3 levels of cosmos: celestial, earthly and underground.
The tapestry was confectioned with 6,630 seeds of the Lithospermum genus and 1,648 cut shells of five different species: Morum tuberculosum, Oliva reticularis, Oliva sayana, Marginella labiata y Marginella carnea.
According to studies conducted at INAH laboratories, where species were identified, “Seeds have a hard cover that protects them. Maya artisans extracted the internal material by using indirect heat; we know this because seeds show evidence of having been exposed to fire, maybe using a comal (flat griddle). Then they were sewn to a cloth or leather piece that disintegrated in time”, explained the restorer.
Martinez del Campo mentioned that identification of shells was in charge of archaeologist Adrian Velasquez and biologist Belem Zuñiga, from Templo Mayor Archaeological Project, and biologist Norma Valentin, researcher at INAH Sub Direction of Laboratories and Academic Support. Identification of seeds was in charge of Jose Luis Alvarado and Maria Susana Xehuantzli, researchers at INAH Laboratory of Archaeobotanicals.
The restorer explained that once the proposal of assemblage was formulated, it was achieved to determine the order in which pieces were originally arranged. Then a linen support was confectioned, reinforced and the nearly 8,000 pendants were attached.
“It was a surprise to find out that this funerary tapestry represents the 3 levels of cosmos”, expressed Martinez del Campo when mentioning that Mayas represented the sky, the earth and the underworld, united by a central axis.
The celestial part was created with 13 shells of the Oliva genus, while the earthly one is framed in a rectangle located at the central part. In it, with small seeds, a milpa (field) was represented and parcels delimited with lines made with shells that still conserve the red color.
“For Mayas, red was associated with blood and fertility; placing the red shells in the earth symbolized the ritual bloodshed that fed the soil”, mentioned the restorer.
At the center of the tapestry, 2 groups of Oliva shells were cut and carved to resemble skulls and faces. “In Maya art, facial features had patterns that represented expressions of deities and other supernatural beings.
“There is a pattern of 4 faces that would represent the presence of these beings called Pauahtun or Bacabs, linked to the cult to water and who supported the cosmos.
“The conjunct of faces and skulls is framed with bigger shells that represent an underground river. The scheme represents the transitional existence facing death of the body and the mandatory descent to the underworld”.
After almost 2 years of restoration and interpretation work, the funerary tapestry of Calakmul will be displayed at the Indigenous Cultures Hall of MNA, where an enormous photography will help appreciate details, as well as information cards where interpretation of the tapestry is explained, concluded the INAH restorer.