Incised bone depicting an accession ceremony

CULTURE:
Maya
DATE:
600–900 CE
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General Description

The material of this object, possibly a fragment of jaguar bone, had intrinsic meanings for the Maya. The Classic Mayan word for bone is b'ak (b'aak), which also means “great seed,” “captive,” and “skull.” Bone was a magical substance that conveyed soul-force, called ch’ul (k'ul / "holiness") by the ancient Maya. Even today, Maya people believe that soul pervades all important material things—crosses, images of saints, and staffs of office, for example—not just people. The Maya believed that White Bone Dragon (Zak-b'ak-na-chan) conveyed the souls of ancestors back into the world to live again in the bodies of royal children. Jaguars were favored as the animal form kings most wanted to assume supernaturally to attack their enemies.

The scene incised on this bone is easy to read. At the lower right sits a young lord who is about to become king. To the left, in front of him, stands an elaborately dressed figure who holds aloft the great headdress of Holy Lordship. The headdress bears the image of a mythical bird called Itzam-Yeh, The Magic Giver. The same bird perches in the upper righthand corner, upon the little Sky House in which the young lord sits.

Itzam-Yeh represents both the magical power of kingship and the vanity of belief in material wealth. In Maya mythology, this bird declared himself to be the sun in the darkness before creation. The bird’s claims were false, and the ancestral heroes tore his wonderful jewels from his face as a warning to kings who rely solely on the outward trappings of their power. The bone probably represents both a covenant between the gods and the king, sealed in the moment of his crowning, and a warning against vanity for the new ruler.

Excerpt from

Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010 [originally by David Freidel, PhD, and Richard R. Brettell, PhD, Label text, 1993].

Fun Facts

  • There is no equal to the aesthetic and informative value of this incised Maya bone in any of the world's museums. On this tiny sliver is the only known testimony concerning the divine origin of royal costume. It is the only scene in the corpus of Maya art that so dramatically illustrates the covenant between the king and the gods. Because bone is so perishable in the acid jungle soils, there are but six in the entire United States, and all are in private collections and relatively inaccessible. The incised bone is a unique object and a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.
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