from MayaDiscovery Website

One thousand seven hundred years ago, on a small island near the coast of the current Mexican state of Campeche; the Maya built a ceremonial center called Hanal (house of water). The land was barren, so the Maya transported material from the mainland to construct buildings and temples. Centuries later, after the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in 1519, the name of the area was changed to Jaina, by which it is still known today.

by Román Piña Chán

Numerous pre-Hispanic tombs have been discovered in Jaina. In keeping with Maya tradition, they were filled with various utensils and ceremonial objects like bone picks, vases, stone tools and, above all, small clay statuettes. The latter are the objects that have given Jaina its fame, for they depict the people of the island with such fidelity, it seems as if they have returned from the dead.

    Although the exact date of their creation is unknown, the statuettes seem to have been produced between A.D. 600 and 1000. These extraordinary sculptures are like documents that allow researchers to reconstruct and decipher what the Maya society of those times was like. This data was used to recognize the Halach Uinic (the True Man) who was the governor or war chief. His was a hereditary position, and he was represented as wearing sumptuous garments.

    Here, in Figure 1, we can see one of these lords seated on a bench or circular throne—perhaps made of carved wood and leather—in a very dignified posture. His rank is evident in his clothing; a detachable helmet comprised of a serpent's head with exotic feathers. He has a small beard—which is probably fake—and his face is tattooed. His breastplate is decorated with jade beads and he wears a shirt over his loincloth. A fan rests on his knee. His outfit is completed with earrings, bracelets and sandals.

    These chief lords lived in elegant buildings surrounded by a court of nobles or dignitaries holding administrative positions in the government, which enabled them to dress in fine clothing with precious jewels. The Halach Uinic ruled over a group that occupied a limited territory, and when he was older, he apparently received the title of Ahau (Supreme Lord).

    Figure 2, might depict just such an Ahau. The noble is standing and is dressed for an important ceremony. On his head he wears a detachable helmet adorned with flowers and a bundle of exotic feathers, his hair has been cut back and his cheeks have been tattooed with the scarring technique typical of the ancient Maya. He wears jade earrings and a sumptuous necklace of jade beads. His finely-made short skirt is held up by a girdle, the ends left dangling in front, and his outfit is completed by bracelets and sling-back sandals.

    Although the Halach Uinic could officiate at certain religious ceremonies, the priest class was in charge of all matters pertaining to religion, like cults, rituals and festivities. The priesthood was based on a complex hierarchical organization. Apparently by the year A.D. 900 there was already a head priest called the Ahau Can (the Priest of the Serpent). He was greatly revered; servants were assigned to cultivate his lands, and people came to make offerings and present him with gifts.

    Figure 3 is thought to depict one of these high priests, since it bears one of the ornaments typical of this caste: a half mask of leather or bark which covers the face from the ear to the chin, in addition to a jade necklace with a small mask made of the same material. This could be interpreted to be the glyph for Ahau. The figure's outfit is completed by a loincloth, the ends hanging in front and in back, and a fan, the symbol of a high-ranking noble.

    In addition, there were other priests called Ah Kines (Priests of the Sun), who were in charge of rituals in the villages. The Nacom class performed human sacrifices with the help of their assistants, who held the victim by the arms and legs. Finally, there were the Chilanes, who were highly respected soothsayers.

    Along with the principal rulers there were the Batab, who were in charge of governing the conquered village like viceroys. One of their main tasks was to collect tributes for the Governor. Figure 4 represents one such local dignitary. He wears a large, wide-brimmed hat whose crown is adorned with three feathers. We can also see a small beard and a type of neck ruff or strip of woven cotton, worn over a long shirt or open coat, which reaches below his knees. He appears to be barefoot.

    Festivities and ceremonies honoring different gods were common in Maya life. On festival days special dishes were prepared, as was a special drink called balche, made from corn, honey, and bark from the tree of the same name. Copal incense was burned and the celebrants sang, danced, prayed, fasted, participated in bloodletting ceremonies and in human sacrifice. Distinct castes celebrated their feast days at different months of the year. Deer hunters, anglers, beekeepers and owners of cacao plantations each had separate rituals and entertainment.

    Figure 5 shows an orator, dancer or actor, perhaps one of the artists who participated in plays and dances. He wears a kind of cap on his head and dangling earrings. One hand is on his hip and the other is extended out to his right. He wears a simple loincloth and short skirt.

    The Maya had many gods, some of whom had several names. For example, the goddess Ixchel, or Rainbow, was also known as Ix U Sihnal or Moon Patroness of Birth. She was the moon goddess and patroness of sexual relations, procreation and births. She was associated with all natural bodies of water, and at the same time, she was the goddess of medicine and weaving. Apparently, as the goddess of weaving, she was known as Ix Chebal Yax, or Old Red Goddess of Weaving, and women formed a guild in her honor, which included spinners, dyers and weavers of various types of cloth.

    In Figure 6, a noble women carries a wooden loom, carved with a two-headed snake, and a bobbin of yarn to offering to the goddess. The worshipper is wearing a skirt and tunic, in which the color blue, associated with religion, predominates. Her braids, interwoven with ribbons, flow down the back of her head, which bares the ritual deformation typical of the ancient Maya.

    The Ball game also had religious connotations, from its association with the Sun, or Venus. In the first case, the coming and going of the ball was thought to represent the movement of the Sun through the sky; in the second, it was Venus, which appeared to be a star, imitated by play in the four corners of the court. In general, the association with the cult of the sun evolved in the Classic period, whereas the connection with Venus was a Post-Classic development.

    Players who were specially trained for inter-city games were noted for their gaudy clothing, with wide, protective stomach wrappings girded by a belt worn over a loincloth. One arm was also wrapped, and players wore wide wrist and knee guards. All this protection was very important, since players were not allowed to use their hands to hit the large, solid-rubber ball. This uniform can be observed in Figure 7.

    On special occasions and in very important cities, the loser of the ball game was sacrificed to the god of fecundity. Thus in Edzna, Campeche and Chichen Itza, Yucatan, you can see representations of the Nacom or sacrificial priests dressed as ball players, each carrying a sacrificial knife in one hand and the head of a player in the other.

    The custom of ball game sacrifice was originated by Mexican tribes like the Totonaca from the Gulf Coast, who eventually migrated to the Yucatan Peninsula. In Figure 8 found on the island of Jaina, we see the influence of the central regions of the state of Veracruz in the ball player's costume, which has a fish in its headdress. The uniform depicted in the molded, orange statuette is similar to those from other regions: stomach protector, belt, and wrist and knee guards.

    Jaina's sculptors, when faithfully copying their models—the people of their time—recorded ancient Maya physical characteristics in clay. These included short stature, oblique eyes, a hooked nose, straight hair, as well as artificial characteristics like an intentionally deformed skull, which made the forehead seem to join and follow the same line as the nose (called an oblique tabular deformation), mutilation, ornamentation of the teeth, and intentionally crossed eyes.

    They also depicted common people going about their daily activities. We see weavers seated in front of their waist-looms, ball players at the doors of temples, dwarfs, musicians, the sick, the blind and the old. In Figure 9 an old woman is shown, her hair braided and coiled on her forehead, along with a porter carrying a fat man on his back.

    In Jaina, there is a marked difference between the handmade and the molded figurines. Those, which are handmade, are almost all unique, though often two and even three copies of the molded statues were often made. Although there is no exact dating, the figurines seem to have been produced between A.D. 600 and 1000. The earlier ones are predominantly handmade and those of later eras are often mold reproductions.

    In all the figures, one observes a change in clothing according to the social status and occupation of the individual, though local availability of materials and level of trade also influenced clothing. Thus, a countrywoman wore a skirt, a huipil and a cotton quechquemitl, or yoke to cover her breasts, while those of a higher rank might wear the same items of clothing, but might adorn them with colored string. In addition, they wore short shawls and elegant jewelry made of jade, shells and other basic materials. Figure 10 is an excellent example of this type of costume.

    The influence of the central region of Veracruz, famous for its caritas sonrientes, or smiling little faces, and Nopiloa figurines (made of orange-colored clay and painted white), is evident in Jaina. In Figure 11, we see a woman with her hair pushed back and flowing down her back, her mouth half-open so her mutilated teeth can be admired. She is wearing a beautifully woven huipil with a border of flowers. Topping her huipil is a yoke, embroidered with a design and topped by a necklace with several strings of colored beads. This statuette is thought to depict a worshipper of the god of rain, wind and vegetation.

    Another of the molded, hollow figurines painted in white is Figure 12. Here we see the use of a short huipil decorated with a series of diamond shapes surrounding a central circle. Over the huipil is a quechquemitl embellished with a design featuring the heads of birds, snakes and jaguars. A necklace adds the finishing touch to this elegant costume. This figure is noteworthy for the holes in the joints of the limbs, which led archaeologists to believe it was used as a puppet.

    The statuettes mentioned are but a small sample of the many pieces on exhibit in museums and private collections. They are surprisingly true to the natural human form and are perfectly executed. The sculptures serve as portraits of a people and their times, of the society and its evolution on the island of Jaina. Today researchers think they were made as offerings for the debts for which they died, and to be companions to the dead on their trip to the beyond.