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Public Lecture Series with Virginia E. Miller

Skeletons, Skulls, and Bones in the Art of Chichén Itzá

During the Classic period (300-900 C.E.) at southern Maya sites like Tikal and Yaxchilán, rulers portrayed themselves on stone monuments, elaborately attired and alone, or occasionally with family members or subordinates. Accompanying dated texts tell of their accomplishments. When present, war-related imagery focuses more on the capture and humiliation of enemies than on their sacrificial deaths or their post-mortem remains. In contrast, at northern Maya sites in Yucatán and at Chichén Itzá in particular, the stela format is largely abandoned, portraits of individual kings are no longer in vogue and are replaced by multifigural scenes, and written texts nearly vanish. Battle scenes, heart sacrifice, decapitation, skulls, and bones are frequent themes in reliefs, murals, and other media such as jade and gold.

The impulse to exhibit human body parts and bones as war trophy seems to be nearly universal. Such displays serve to celebrate victories over enemies, as acts of vengeance, and to strike fear in the enemy. Skulls and bones were probably exhibited on temporary structures from very early times throughout Mesoamerica, and death motifs are widespread in Late Classic polychrome ceramics. Nevertheless, Chichén Itzá is unique in the sheer number of skulls and skeletal figures represented on a large scale and in public places. The skull rack or tzompantli, a new architectural form decorated with sculpted impaled skulls, eagles devouring human hearts, and marching warriors bearing severed heads, was prominently placed right next to the massive ballcourt. Even when no human heads were on display, these reliefs may have served as a grim reminder of the potential power of Chichén’s rulers.

Why this upsurge in graphic sacrificial and death imagery between about 800 and 1000 C.E.? Were the Itzá militarily more successful than their predecessors? Why are both victors and defeated presented in groups and anonymously, in contrast to the southern Maya practice of naming individual captors and captives? Did the northern Maya practice human sacrifice on a more massive scale, foreshadowing later Aztec practices?

The new emphasis on vivid sacrificial and death imagery does not necessarily demonstrate an increase in actual human sacrifice, but may instead reflect ideological and political changes that called for highly visible representations of collective Itzá strength rather than the individual statements of personal victories over named enemies that characterize earlier southern Maya art and writing. Just as Itzá warriors became nearly-anonymous members of a large military elite, represented in multifigural reliefs and paintings, their victims, too, became mere symbols. It is their skulls and bones, real or sculpted, rather than their portraits and names, that served as relics of successful battles.

Virginia E. Miller received her B.A. in French from McGill University in Montreal in 1969, then went to the University of Texas at Austin for her M.A. in Latin American Studies and her PhD. in Pre-Columbian art history, which she completed in 1981. In 2015 she retired from the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was department chair for several years. She has also taught at Oberlin College and Northwestern University. Virginia is the recipient of two Fulbright fellowships for research and teaching, one in Guatemala and another during which she split her time between Mexico City and Merida, Yucatan. Other fellowships she received include one from the National Endowment for the Humanities and two from Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.

She is the editor of The Role of Gender in Precolumbian Art and Architecture (1988) and the author of The Frieze of the Palace of the Stuccoes, Acanceh, Yucatan, Mexico (1991), in addition to many articles, mostly related to the ancient Maya art and architecture of Yucatan. Her current research focuses on Chichen Itza and 20th century Maya revival style architecture in Merida, Yucatan. Recent publications include articles on the Castillo at Chichen Itza, on that site’s tzompantli or skullrack, and on the enigmatic figure known as the chacmool.

Date: Monday, November 5

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Program

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

Student Ticket Price: $5 with a valid student ID

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