What does it mean to discover the past? For an archaeologist like Holley Moyes, the experience includes dirt, ambiguous fragments, and the tedium of sorting and cataloging. But there is also the imaginative moment, the sudden seeing of a distant culture come alive in a particular space and time. For Moyes, associate professor of anthropology at UC Merced, both kinds of discovery are essential.
The two year interdisciplinary project, Raising the Sky in 2012, encourages students as well as residents of the University’s surrounding Central Valley community to encounter the ancient Maya, Moyes’s specialty, via multiple paths—literary, visual, scholarly and popular. Moyes draws on her own work excavating caves in Belize, on the array of artifacts uncovered in Mesoamerican jungles—pottery, sculpture, hieroglyphic inscriptions—on historical accounts from the Spanish conquest, and on the studies of modern ethnographers. She’s also, she says “been reminding students that the Maya aren’t dead. They’re still alive and well and there’s millions of them. There are actually a lot who live right in San Francisco.”
At the center of the project is the Popol Vuh, the most extensive example of pre-Columbian literature yet discovered. Like the bible and other ancient epics it blends history with myth, opening with an account of the world’s creation, “out of a calm sea and a great expanse of sky.” Once an acceptable version of man is created—the forefathers make several attempts using mud, wood, and corn—the narrative turns to tales of the Hero Twins (there are, in fact, two sets) and their battles with the lords of the underworld. The final section relates the history of a particular people, the Quiché of the Guatemala highlands—their migrations, rituals, and the genealogies of their rulers.
Besides teaching the work in her anthropology classes on the Maya, Moyes has used it in an interdisciplinary course, “Writing Narrative for Archaeology,” and lectured on it in both literature and studio art classes. In a nice piece of synergy, Popol Vuh was chosen this year as the basic text for the Core I class required of all freshmen. Moyes is also developing an original script in collaboration with Gerardo Aldana, a Maya scholar at UC Santa Barbara, that’s based on one of the Popol Vuh characters—a woman.
Epics may be the original science fiction, envisioning in great detail what for readers in another culture amounts to an alternate reality. The problem for Moyes is all the unscientific, supposedly Mayan realities that are propounded by Hollywood film makers, New Age mystics and historical novelists who keep “bringing in aliens” rather than doing research. In her classes, she says. “I try to debunk some of their ideas. I talk to them a little bit about 2012 and what it really is, and how it’s not going to be the end of the world like the movie says.”
Rather than calling the Maya prophets, she suggests, why not see them as the great astronomers they demonstrably were: “They knew that Venus was the morning star and the evening star, which is something the Greeks didn’t figure out for a really long time. They had a more accurate calendar than the Spanish did when they came to conquer them.”
The survival of the Popol Vuh is also a dramatic story. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Maya had been using a hieroglyphic script to keep written records in bark-paper books. Church fathers, intent on converting the population to Christianity, burned all the manuscripts they could find and persecuted those known to be scribes. In his introduction to Popol Vuh, Allen Christenson, the translator of the edition that Moyes chose for her classes, explains that a group of Quiché nobles transcribed the epic into Latin letters soon after their lands fell to the Spanish, then kept the text hidden for two centuries. In the 1700s a sympathetic priest, Francisco Ximénez, was allowed to make a copy—the only one now known to survive.
Christenson has been a frequent visitor to the Merced campus. Moyes’ students, tempted to think of the Quiché as vanished people like the Trojans, instead hear Christenson’s stories of living among them, What had largely vanished, he reports, was the idea that their language could be written. Working with elders who burned copal over a Xerox copy of the Popol Vuh to mark the seriousness of the undertaking, Christenson was able to use the Quiché text discovered by Ximénez as the basis of his new translation.
Written in the present tense, the epic seems almost cinematic, and students, Moyes says, respond to the work strongly. The Hero Twins are appealing action characters, relying on cleverness when they are overmatched. More contemporary still, they are ball players. Their game—versions are still played among the Maya and ancient ball courts have been excavated—features a solid rubber ball. Today Moyes says, it’s usually played something like volleyball. In the past, she says “based on what we can see in the iconography, they might have used an implement to hit the ball.”
At the beginning of March, a multidisciplinary symposium on the Popol Vuh kicked off with a public lecture at downtown Merced‘s Multicultural Arts Center The lecturer was Michael Coe, professor of anthropology emeritus at Yale, whose best-selling works on pre-Columbian-history include the academic detective story, Breaking the Maya Code. Also opening at the Center was of a show of student art work based on Mayan iconography.
Included along with two and three dimensional works from Tonya Lopez-Craig’s classes were videos from Popol Vuh in Flatlandia –a project of Cyber Heritage students. In one, two avatars, a female herbalist and a younger woman, converse in a torch-lit Mayan garden among seemingly indigenous plants. Topics covered in the student-written dialogue include marriage, mothers; men, and the political pressures on women.
Cyber Heritage classes, Moyes says “focus on the relationship between cultural heritage and technology, in particular social media and virtual worlds.” Using Flatlandia, an independent Open Simulator platform, the students first created a virtual reconstruction –complete with archaeologically accurate temples, palaces and ball courts–of the ancient Maya capital of Tikal, Guatemala. The classes then read the first act of Moyes’ script based on the Popol Vuh, and created their own versions with dialogue.
“We’re hoping to create some writers who want to write historic fiction,” Moyes says “What I’ve tried to do with my classes is calibrate my students’ judgment about what’s good and what’s kind of cheesy.” She tells the “Writing Narrative for Archaeology,” students: “You don’t need aliens to make it interesting. These people are fascinating in their own right.” But they do need to be able to cite sources for their ideas.
Moyes made her own imaginative connection with ancient history after a decade in New York acting with a socially conscious theatre group. When the group shut down at the end of the 1980s, a circuitous path led her through dental hygiene school (her father was a dentist; and the degree meant she could get part time work that paid “a lot better” than waitressing) and on to anthropology, where they were delighted to have her study teeth. A vacation job on a survey in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness sparked her interest in archaeology and having transferred to that department, her choice of a Belize cave excavation as the site of her required Field School semester completed a circle. Caves had been a passion since childhood, but they also, as she is still discovering, served the Maya as a kind of theatre.
“Caves among the Maya are always ritual spaces,“ Moyes explains. She has a book coming out in the fall, Sacred Darkness- about the ritual use of caves from a cross cultural perspective. “People live in rock shelters,” she finds, “they’ll live in the mouth of the cave, but people don’t live in the dark zones.”
In the cave she’s now working on in Belize, “the entrance is bigger than a cathedral, and its completely modified with architecture—platforms and stairs. It’s a giant performance space. So I’ve started to really think about Maya performance. And think how to reconstruct that from a scientific basis.”
Archaeology she thinks “moved away from understanding what people might have felt or any kind of phenomenology in the 70s and 80s.” Instead it took a more consciously scientific and materialist approach, and “talked a lot about what people were eating,” Things now are moving in the other direction, she says, to bring people back into archaeology.
“I think this is something that archaeologists really want to do,” Moyes says. “We can answer a lot of questions about the past. But they may not be what people really want to know. We have the material record, but ultimately, as humans, we want to know what it was like to be human in the past.”
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