Oct. 6, Skeletons, Skulls and Bones in the Art of Chichén Itzá

Sunday, October 6, 2013, 3 p.m.
Virginia Miller, University of Illinois at Chicago
Virginia Miller

Maya art expert Virginia Miller will give a lecture in which she will examine the meaning of such motifs as skeletons and skulls in the carved reliefs and painted murals found at the site of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán region of Mexico. She will explore the reasons for the upsurge of graphic death imagery between A.D. 800 and 1000, and consider whether the northern Maya, who lived at Chichén Itzá, practiced human sacrifice on a large scale, perhaps foreshadowing later Aztec practices.

Maya art expert Virginia Miller will give a lecture in which she will examine the meaning of such motifs as skeletons and skulls in the carved reliefs and painted murals found at the site of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán region of Mexico. She will explore the reasons for the upsurge of graphic death imagery between A.D. 800 and 1000, and consider whether the northern Maya, who lived at Chichén Itzá, practiced human sacrifice on a large scale, perhaps foreshadowing later Aztec practices.

The Aztecs considered the bones of slain captives to be powerful, a belief probably shared by the earlier Maya: one Maya hieroglyph for “captive” translates as “bone.” Nevertheless, at southern Maya sites like Tikal and Yaxchilán during the Classic period (A.D. 300-900), war-related art focuses more on the capture and humiliation of enemies rather than on their sacrificial deaths or their post-mortem remains. In contrast, at northern Maya sites in Yucatán and at Chichén Itzá in particular, battle scenes, sacrifice, skulls, and bones are frequent themes in reliefs, murals, and other media such as jade and gold. The skullrack, a new architectural form decorated with sculpted impaled skulls, was prominently placed right next to the massive ballcourt. This may have served as a grim reminder of the potential power of Chichén’s rulers, the Itzá, even when no human heads were on display. Why this upsurge in graphic sacrificial and death imagery between about A.D. 800 and 1000? Were the Itzá militarily more successful than their predecessors? Why are both victors and defeated presented in groups and anonymously, in contrast to the southern Maya practice of naming individual captors and captives? Did the northern Maya practice human sacrifice on a more massive scale, foreshadowing later Aztec practices? These are just some of the questions Virginia Miller will address in her lecture.

 

Chichen Itza Skullrack

Dr. Virginia Miller is Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her scholarly interests focus on ancient Maya art and architecture of the northern Maya of Yucatan, particularly Chichén Itzá. She is also currently writing about monuments and buildings in the neo-Maya style in the city of Merida, Yucatán, mostly dating from the 1920s-1950s. Professor Miller is the recipient of several major fellowships, including one from the National Endowment for the Humanities, two Fulbright Fellowships to teach and conduct research in Guatemala and Mexico, and two residential fellowships at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. She wrote The Frieze of the Palace of the Stuccoes, Acanceh, Yucatan, Mexico, edited The Role of Gender in Precolumbian Art and Architecture, and is the author of numerous articles on Maya art and architecture.

In January, 2014 she will lead an AIA tour of “Pyramids and Temples of the Yucatán” (See http://www.archaeological.org/tours/americas/11923 and http://www.archaeological.org/tours/leaders/virginiamiller)