Traces of the Maya, both large and small, extravagant and subtle, were everywhere: abandoned city complexes with attendant temple pyramids; buildings boasting massive stucco facades displaying supernaturals’ baroque visages; palace walls decorated with brightly-painted murals promoting the established order; monumental carved stelae; outdoor ball-courts which served as theaters for human sacrifice; jade and shell jewelry, obsidian and flint scepters, and a host of other artifacts.
For me, the Maya country became one of those places I wanted to see more than once, if possible. But the usual – life – took over, so it was only recently I made plans to return to Yucatán. But it had been forty-six years since my visit and some catching-up was in order if I hoped to really appreciate what I would see. As I dove into piles of recent literature about the Mayas, I realized this self-help immersion project was both a good and not so good idea.
On the plus side, during the time that passed between my initial visit to Yucatán and the present, scholars have conducted a vast amount of work on the ancient Maya and their material culture. Over the years, intrepid archaeologists seeking knowledge and determined chicleros scouring the boondocks for gum-producing sapodilla trees peeled away vast swaths of the all-but-impenetrable Mesoamerican forests and jungles, revealing many hitherto “lost” sites. Clever, exquisitely patient epigraphers pursued their investigatory search for the meanings of the calculiform glyphs Mayas carved into their architecture and painted on the bark paper of their screen-fold books; as a result, something like three-quarters of those symbols can be read.
Not surprisingly, some crucial “truths” about the Mayas widely embraced back in the early 1970s have joined the roster of some of humanity’s quainter, more curious beliefs and conceits. For example, the notion of ancient Mayas living within an almost pacific culture composed largely of bucolic milpa tenders and blissed-out astronomer-priests (I’ve only slightly exaggerated the picture) has been supplanted by profoundly different interpretations. In terms of art, research has focused on methods of production, style, materials, and most intensely on the dizzyingly diverse tableaux carved on Maya monuments or painted on Maya walls and pottery. The iconography is stunningly complex, its meanings still poorly understood. On the other hand, some propositions are simply ridiculous; “ancient astronauts” spring immediately to mind. Others, like Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto (2006), telescope history in such a way as to produce just the sort of simplified overstatement and comforting presentism that quickly finds a secure niche in popular culture.
A fair amount of territory separates these extremes: those blissed-out astronomer-priests occupying one end of the continuum, and, just across the way, fantastical space invaders, Noble Savages, and a well-nigh crazed culture in thrall to psychotics and sociopaths. Somewhere between those poles can be found that enormous spectrum composed of what we call “reality.” Over the years, we have learned so much more about that reality than many ever believed possible. In other words, ancient Maya culture and its expressions were far more complex and nuanced than we can ever know.
As I said earlier, my Maya research assignment proved both a good and a not so good idea. Basic common sense alone would surely put a checkmark in the “good” column. After all, is it not (generally speaking) better to know more than less? And is it not also true that the more you learn – really learn – the better positioned you are to realize how little you actually know? Will not the acquisition of new knowledge spur a desire to acquire additional knowledge? Well, that’s the theory. So, I report back: On the not-so-good front, the sheer volume and tonnage of truly solid, provocatively interesting material reflecting scholarly research in the field proved, like the Mesoamerican selva, almost impossibly daunting. (It’s also informative, fascinating, and inspiring.)
Long ago, an old school thespian told me that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet the bard gave his character Polonius the best lines. Of these, “to thine own self be true” may be the most memorable. In that spirit, I knew I wasn’t going to attain anything beyond basic illiteracy when it came to the Mayas’ ingenious glyphs; nor would I approach Copernican heights in comprehending their complex mathematical and astronomical practices. Having spent much of my professional life immersed in the drawings and paintings of Plains Indian warrior art, I settled on what seemed a reasonable approach: getting a handle on “reading” the culture’s graphic presentation of itself to better appreciate its underpinnings.
Now, of course I know ancient Maya art is, as a body of work, much sought after by collectors both public and private. The high status afforded truly extraordinary pieces in public exhibitions is matched by the price similar objects command in the private realm. It is clear that in at least one crucial respect Maya art is exactly like that of every other culture whose material legacy attracts the interest in the tribal art world’s universe of custodians and curators, buyers and sellers. And that, after a couple of turns around Robin Hood’s proverbial barn, brings us to the subject at hand: the provenance situation.
In the art world, “provenance” and “provenience” are sometimes used interchangeably. The words look and sound similar, but they are fundamentally different and by no means synonymous.
Archaeologists (and others) use “provenience” when discussing the “three-dimensional context (including geographical location) of an archaeological find, giving information about its function and date.” “Provenance” refers to the history of the piece, basically where has it been and when? So, not to put too fine a point on matters, provenience documents (through persuasive written, photographic or other evidence) where and when an object was found and contextualizes it; provenance tells us where the object has been over time. Ideally, this means from the time it was created up to and including the present. However, in the real world, most of us would probably be delighted and reassured knowing as much of its documentable history as can possibly be recreated.
Along these lines, this column recently reported on a notice of intent to repatriate a Sisseton Can Otina (Tree or Forest Dweller) figure under provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). The State Historical Society of North Dakota stipulated it had something of a mystery object on its hands, summing up its provenance: “On an unknown date, an unknown number of cultural items were removed from an unknown site in an unknown location.”
I cite this example as an honest expression of the obvious: aside from being present and (more or less) accounted for (kind of), the Tree Dweller effigy has no history, as in “it just grew like Topsy.” “When life gives you lemons,” a wise observer of the human scene noted long ago, “make lemonade.” Which is exactly what the historical society did: lacking any documentable history for the piece, the institution simply made that fact clear.
Hopefully, I’m not belaboring the point by noting that questions about provenance can seem akin to those you’re asked at the doctor’s office, the ones about your pain with possible answers taking the form of a diagram: a smiley face at one end and a very sad one at the other, with a bunch of expressive mugs between. Thumbs up, thumbs down, questioning looks, the picture often turns murky and one realizes the importance of seeking the good in the absence of the perfect. In other words, some solid provenance is always better than none.