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Last Great Capital of the Maya Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by Susan Milbrath

[image] Mayapán's traditions were diverse; naturalistic Aztec forms inspired some artwork, while the rain god Chac (left) derives from Maya codices. (Phillip Hofstetter) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the mid-1400s, Mayapán, a vast and powerful Maya political center in Yucatán, was destroyed by a violent revolt spurred by fear of Aztec mercenaries living in the city. Mayapán was the last great capital to fall--a seminal event in the Maya world. In the 1950s, archaeologists from the Carnegie Institution of Washington found evidence of the revolt in burned buildings, ransacked altars, and columnar figures with their heads lopped off. But despite Spanish and native accounts of Mayapán's former importance, it appeared to the archaeologists to be a shoddily planned cultural backwater, its buildings and artwork poor imitations of those at the grand capital of Chichén Itzá nearby. At the time, archaeologists writing in the pages of this magazine dismissed Mayapán as an "impotent state" and punned that it had been "a flash in the Maya pan."

But recent archaeological finds by Carlos Peraza Lope and his team of archaeologists from Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) are overturning these notions. In the mid-1990s, I heard buzz through the academic grapevine about their finding artifacts, unusual murals, and architectural reliefs in the first full-scale excavations at the site in decades. As a Mesoamerican art historian and iconographer also trained in archaeology, I was drawn to Mayapán. I first met Carlos there in 1998 just as he had unearthed a smiling ceramic figure from the path of a new road to Mayapán. He too was smiling, and his enthusiasm was contagious. By the roadside we made plans to work together because my background would help place the site in a larger context.

For the past six field seasons, Carlos has toured me around the central plaza, pointing out the most important discoveries they've made. I've studied artifacts from Mayapán in the INAH depository in Tecoh, a nearby village, as well as murals and sculptures in situ at the site. I've had an inside look at artistic masterpieces that speak to the city as a vital place full of painters, architects, sculptors, and stone masons who drew inspiration from Mixtec codices from southern Mexico, Maya sculpture from sites to the west, building forms at Chichén Itzá, and mural painting in Aztec style from central Mexico. Mayapán had diverse influences, as well as a wide network of trade contacts with other parts of Mesoamerica. Some effigy censers seem inspired by a marriage of Maya and Central Mexican themes and gods such as the Howler Monkey Scribe, which resembles both a Classic Maya deity and the Aztec god Xochipilli. The mixture of symbols suggests they were designed to be understood across language barriers, allowing the Maya, Mixtec, and Aztec peoples living there to share broader Mesoamerican traditions.

Susan Milbrath is curator of Latin American Art and Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America