The Mysterious Beauty & Intrigue of The Maya
As the Red Army’s brutal battle for Berlin was nearing its conclusion a Soviet artillery soldier Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov came across boxes of books right in front of the Prussian State Library. Evidently the Germans hadn’t managed to transfer them to a more secure location as they did with numerous works of art before the Allied troops could advance deep into the heart of the country. It was a fortunate coincidence that Knorosov was interested in and had begun studying ethnology back in Moscow before the war began. It was further an added advantage that the books had survived the war vandals and the bombings without much damage and were in a fairly good condition.
Within this treasure lay an edition of Diego de Landa’s “Relación de las cosas de Yucatán” (“Narrative of the things of Yucatán”). In spite of it being written in 1566, this book is still relevant and is THE authority on the Mayan civilization. It is anti-climactic that the author de Landa was the one who was responsible for the demolition of a great number of works that consisted of the icons and hieroglyphs of the Mayan language in 1561. Some of the most famous Mayan codices – the folding books made of huun paper as the Mayans called it were a part of these works that were destroyed. This huun paper was believed to be comparatively resilient and provide a better surface to write than even papyrus. De Landa, a bishop, however, felt that all of these consisted of superstition and evil delusions. In a contradictory manner, he has described the Mayan way of life, their culture and contributions like the calendar, the architecture, their floral and animal world through the use of Roman letters phonetically representing the Mayan words as he heard them being spoken. It was his work that made almost a third of the Mayan language & hieroglyphs decipherable.
The treasure also includes replicas of three exquisite codices that managed to survive the conquerors from all over and these Mayan heritage pieces have been named after the three places where they have been brought to viz. Paris, Dresden, and Madrid. It is the codex in Dresden which is considered the most valuable due to the fact that it is the oldest and the conserved in the best possible manner. Knorosov delved deeper into Mayan studies back in Leningrad with great energy and knew that the script comprised of 800 symbols. It was clear that these 800 characters could not have been letters or signifiers of phonemes, nor could they have been words, as no language could possibly have a mere 800 words. On deeper analysis, a conclusion was drawn to declare that these 800 symbols may have been representation of syllables which were of course bigger than a phoneme and definitely smaller than a word.
An American anthropologist and archaeologist, Michael Coe remarked in a documentary that Knorosov was probably the one who was least expected to come up with the greatest of the breakthroughs in the Mayan deciphering. The findings of Knorosov Were published first in 1952 in a Soviet journal where the Soviet Union beat its chest like a triumphant primate claiming its supremacy over the imperialist scholars of US, UK, and Germany. This claim was however promptly dismissed by most of the British scholars as mere communist propaganda.
These books that Knorosov took from Berlin were never returned but Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau museum did host an iconic exhibition titled “Maya—The Language of Beauty” that included approximately 300 Mayan artefacts from the Yucatán peninsula from the time period of 500 BC to 1500 AD. Whether it was a tiny limestone or clay figurine or a gigantic arenite sculptures depicting humans, gods or animals, they all represented the Mayan lifestyle, rituals, and their ideas of beauty, strength, and status in one way or another. Different creatures were Maya signifiers of various forces of nature and phenomena and were revered as the links between man and God. The beauty ideals that existed then are vastly different from those of today. They were even known to sandwich the heads of infants between boards and apply a gradual pressure to create a severely sloped forehead, an aesthetically desirable feature and considered a feature of elegance by the Maya of all social stratas.
Though the content and literature accompanying these artefacts may be incomplete and haphazard with gaps and discontinuities, the artefacts by themselves are exquisite and are preserved in a fabulous manner.
According to Mr. Grube, however Speyer, West Germany in collaboration with Bonn University is to host a major exhibition on the Maya in early October. Completely different from the one in Berlin, this exhibition would be showcasing around 320 artefacts from Guatemala and from museums all over Europe. The results of the latest scientific research on Mayan urbanization of the rainforest would be showcased with the help of uniquely designed interactive installations, and would be accompanied by a detailed catalogue that would throw some light on different creative and intellectual aspects of the Mayas.
Research and exploration in the field continues, with 6,000 registered Maya sites in Central America, hundreds more are yet predicted to await discovery and further exploration.