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Face mask probably used for a ceremonial dance by a Maya ruler

ca. A.D. 810



7.6 x 7 inches, 3mm thick

National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Guatemala City

(Courtesy Takeshi Inomata)

Just before enemies attacked his city and burned it to the ground, Tahn Te' K'inich, the last Maya ruler of the capital city of Aguateca in Guatemala, likely hid some of the royal family's most valuable possessions— including jade ornaments, pyrite mirrors, and bones and shells inscribed with Mayan glyphs—in a palace storeroom. Among the precious artifacts and rubble, a team of archaeologists led by Takeshi Inomata found hundreds of thin ceramic pieces. Some sherds had openings for eyes and other facial features. When project conservator Harriet "Rae" Beaubien of the Smithsonian Institution finished fitting them back together, she saw the face of an aged man or god.

Depictions of rulers wearing masks representing the storm god, a jaguar deity, or another supernatural being, are well known from Maya ceramics. Although scholars have guessed that the masks were made of wood or other organic materials, the example from Aguateca is the first one ever found to reveal that at least some masks were created by soaking gauze-like textiles in clay and shaping them into the contours of a face. When the clay was fired, the textiles burned off, leaving a mask that was light and comfortable to wear. In fact, it is not hard to imagine that Tahn Te' K'inich wore this mask during a ritual before Aguateca was destroyed and his dynasty came to an end.