Connections: Sabbatical 1998 • Description
1. Professional and Cultural
My travels took me through the Olmec, Mayan, Aztec, and Native American Archaeological Sites running from Copan in Honduras through and including Vancouver and local Northwest Native American sites.
Travel Throughout The Northern Hemisphere
Impressions, Experiences and Observations
One general aspect of my trip was to experience the elements and landscape of the cultures that I passed through. To accomplish this, I camped, using a small one-man backpack tent, at as many national and state parks so I could to cut down on my expenses (senior citizen camping). Since most are located nearby or on Native American sites, both historic and contemporary, this worked out to my advantage. One of the last ones I visited, on my way back from Yellowstone and the Black Hills, was Pipstone National Monument in Minnesota. To accomplish the above, I walked or hiked through as much of the natural environment as was practical. At other times, I used a four-wheel drive sport utility vehicle.
My experiences ran the gamut. I camped in the jungles of Tikal in Guatemala, with wildlife, such as monkeys and flocks of parrots flying overhead. I camped on the beach at Tulum, on the Mexico Caribbean, for over a week. At Palenque and Copan I experienced torrential rains while camping. In the States and Canada, I camped in as many Native American sites, as was possible. One of most memorable was my one hundred mile, eight day, solo, kayak trip through the Florida Everglades. On this trip, I slept on Native American inspired structures called Chickees. (Insert Picture # ) These are simply platforms on stilts, usually with a simple roof. On this trip, my endurance was tested. I overturned in a swiftly moving tributary at dusk and had to hold on until sunrise to right myself and continue. I saw practically no one on this trip, except crocks, snakes, and porpoises. I did stay on the only remaining privately owned real estate in Everglades National Park. (See enclosed e-mail message from the owners.) I four-wheel drove and camped. At Canyon De Chelly National Monument, I was required by the Park Service to hire a Navajo guide to enter the canyon. I hiked and camped on the beach at Hole in the Wall, near the Quileute Indian Reservation, Olympic National Park in Washington State. I camped in the rain forests nearby and visited other reservations such as the Makah, Ozette, Hoh, and Quinault.
I discovered many connective threads. I realize that all may not be new, but they were mine and important to me.
One observation that made a strong impression on me was the Mayan stucco portrait heads in what we call guillotine style (from the neck up). These were found buried with or near the leader or a prominent individual of each Mayan City State. One example is the stucco head of "Pacal" found beneath his sarcophagus at Palenque. (Insert picture # ) It is now exhibited in the museum near the entrance to the site. These stucco heads may be the only surviving remains of full life size figures that, because of their fragility or size did not survive intact. They are obviously portraits done in a realistic classical style. In my opinion, they are equal to anything in the classical European tradition (Greek or Roman). Most portrayals of Mayan leaders were in low relief or in bar flattened relief on stelae. One other example is of a complete bar relief supine stone figure of a leader found at the entrance of a labyrinth tunnel construction in the Tonina ruins.
Museum of Anthropology at Xalapa
One other profound experience that I had was my visit to the Museum of Anthropology at Xalapa, Veracruz. Seeing half a dozen of the monumental basalt portrait heads that are installed in the museum was, for me, a revelation. I have studied them in photographs and they are very impressive. My seeing them in their actual size and under ideal conditions caused me to realize that nothing that peoples have done elsewhere can in any way detract from their significance. The so called "Monument 6l" is one of the most perfectly realized examples of a classical, realistic, portrayal of a human being contained within a certain time and space continuum.
Architecture as Part of the Landscape
Another observation that became important to me as I traveled was the way architecture was environmentally incorporated in the landscape. An example was the structures incorporated into the cliffs and washes of the Southwest at Mesa Verde National Park and Wupatki National Monument. The natural stone formations were not modified or removed but became a part of the overall structural integrity, often adding to the strength of the man made brickwork. This is, to me, is an environmentally and aesthetically resolved solution. Another observation was the way the natural environment, like soil, rock formations, color, foliage, and animal life were incorporated into the design of household utensils and clothing. It seemed as though, when representational imagery was used, its success had more to do with well-established societies with strong apprenticeship programs. Where pure design held a strong influence, such as the Mextec structures at Mitla and the Mayan Labna sites, there seems to be a more conservatively developed society, possibly without a strong apprenticeship program. Although the designs of these structures were lacking in figurative elements, I am not implying that they were inferior. My guess is that most of the brickwork has been done by semi skilled craftsmen under an obviously talented architectural tutelage.
It seemed as though most of the Pre Colombian and Native American architectural structures were located primarily where there were natural resources and or esthetically (pleasing) environmental surroundings. This is most apparent at Mesa Verde, Palenque in Mexico or Tikal, in Guatemala. The location was not, solely for defensive purposes, although it may have been of some consideration. In the case of Mesa Verde, the choice was one of compromise between the native men and women. The water was in the valley below, gathered by the women and the hunting of game by the men, was on the plateau above. The logical solution was to move the housing in the already naturally created cliff walls, halfway between both places. This also provided the extra advantage of water seepage from above, used for drinking, and the natural protection from the elements due to the natural overhang.
Pacific Northwest Native American Carvings
It immediately became apparent to me when I traveled to Vancouver and the surrounding area, that the natural resources found both in their surrounding water and forests had a strong influence on the native carvings in size, material, and complexity. Throughout all North American indigenous societies, there was a strong tie with nature and the environment. I was also struck by the ability of Niska and Haida artists to render in a naturalistic way the people of their societies. Because of the quality and consistency of the sculpture, it appears that there was also in these Pacific Northwest Coast Societies, a built in apprenticeship program similar to those in Pre-Colombian Central America. Native carvings and imagery are still being practiced today through this still intact apprenticeship program.
There is at the exhibition, "Down From The Shimmering Sky, Masks of the Northwest Coast", installed at the Seattle Art Museum, two, Tsimshiam 19th Century stone masks. These masks are unique because they are in stone, not the usual wood, and not necessarily meant to be worn. They remind me of the Aztec or Maya stone carvings of Central America. I mention this only because I feel that there seems to be a spiritual relationship, if not a direct, cultural relationship. Was their commerce this far north? I think not, but it just might be possible that there were some contacts, enough to have been some remote influence. One detail of their possible origin is in the design of the eyebrows that are reflected in similarly related woodcarvings and therefore they are more likely the sole creation of the Tsimshiam people. There are other sculptural examples of such related influences in the mounds of the Mississippi River valley and the cliff dwellings of the Southwest.
Central American Ceremonial Platforms
Other observations of possible connections are to be found in the pyramids of the pre-Columbian artists of Central America. The tunnels found connecting the pyramids to ceremonial platforms are located several yards from the pyramids. In the North American Indians of the Southwest, there were also connecting tunnels from adjacent rooms to the kivas. These were most likely used for ceremonial purposes to create mystery or magic for both peoples. Ceremonial platforms are found throughout the Mississippi and adjacent river valleys. Some brick work and door or window openings share similar relationships. One design of a wall opening in the shape of a slightly narrowing tee shape may have been used for a slab or reed covering to rest on the bottom narrower opening. This design might have been to control ventilation. The remains of parrots are found in the Four Corners area of the southwest. There indicates that there may have been trade or commerce and sharing of ideas between all peoples of the North American continent.
One extremely interesting experience I had, that was very enlightening to me was a side trip I took to Bonampak. The fresco paintings lining the "Templo de las Pinturas" at the top of a ceremonial platform. From descriptions from previous visitors, I expected to be disappointed. They were beautifully preserved and the colors were vibrant with finally delineated, sensitive imagery. What was interesting to me was the very sensitive and intriguing post and lintel carvings surrounding the entrances to the chambers. I had a chance to visit the reconstruction of these paintings at the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. After having seen the originals, the reconstruction was disappointing.
The second, was seeing the examples throughout Mayan restorations where they are uncovering older structures preserved under the more recent ceremonial platforms. Two notable examples are at Copan, Honduras, and Becan. At Copan the stucco and color are remarkably preserved. This practice of burying older structures under more recent structures without major disturbance, is most likely the result of ancestor worship. Another example of buried intact stuccoed carvings was at Becan, in the state of Campeche. It was at Becan where I saw a French team restoring the complete complex. They were near the end of their tenure and another team was to continue the restorations. There was a woman restoring a large architectural mask element. She was very disappointed in the little time she had to complete her task.
I visited the major archeological sites such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Coba, Palenque, Copan, and Tulum, but some one of the more interesting smaller sites were at Hochob, with a huge monster mouth doorway which was certainly unique. It looked as though the structures at the top of a steep rise is what is normally found on top of other ceremonial platforms and these also included combed roomed structures as well. Although I am not an, archeologist it seems that there is a large pyramidal structure still to be uncovered.
There is a helicopter pad for visitors at the base of this complex. I am still glad I drove in, as I experienced the lay of the land.
Calakmul, Kabah, Sayil Laba, Nohcaob, Edzna, Dzibilchaltun and Kohunlich were several other locations I explored in the Yucatan Peninsula.
My travels and research have been strengthened, by directly experiencing my comprehension of the aesthetics of Pre-Colombian Native American art and culture. Three dimensional art works are best understood by visiting the actual locations. Attempting to experience them through written works and photos can be frustrating at best. My understanding and sensitivity to sculpture has been greatly expanded by my experiences.
I now better understand and am reinvigorated by the relationship of the environment to the art and culture of the North American Continent.