Travis Nygard, Art Historian > Precolumbian Research

Precolumbian Research

Travis Nygard at Yo'okop
Travis Nygard drawing the eroded
designs on Yo'okop's Stela 3.
Photograph by Linnea Wren.

One of my research interests is ancient Mesoamerican visual culture. By its very nature studying ancient life is an interdisciplinary endeavor; people who understand visual forms, ancient writing, material culture, and other evidence are all useful for producing rich analyses. As such, I have collaborated with many people, including the art historians Linnea Wren and Kaylee Spencer, the photographer Amanda Hankerson, and the archaeologists Justine Shaw and Dave Johnstone.

I am part of the ongoing Maya Portrait Project, which is using new imaging techniques to document and analyze sculptures. The project was launched in 2010 by Spencer, Hankerson, Wren, and myself. Our first field season focused on the site Palenque, located in the state of Chiapas, because it has an especially large number of portraits. Many of them are named queens and kings--masterpieces that have survived the ravages of looting. We are also researching the ways that explorers depicted this area during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Much of my earlier work in the Maya area focused on carvings at the ancient Maya site Yo’okop. I was initially involved at that site with Wren as part of a project to document sculpture and inscriptions. There are two freestanding stela and a carved wall panel at the site, all of which show naturalistic images of kings rendered in low-relief. They have all suffered some erosion, due to the fact that they have been exposed to rain for over 1,400 years. Imagery on these monuments focuses on royal rulership, and it includes intriguing ties to the natural world—especially water. In an area with annual rainy and dry seasons and only one source of surface water—a shallow lake (aguada)—water was likely a key interest of leaders.

Yo'okop Stela 2
Wall panel at Yo'okop: A Royal Ballplayer.
Drawing by Travis Nygard and Linnea Wren.

We published an analysis of Yo’okop’s monuments in a book edited by Justine Shaw and Jennifer Mathews. The paper includes a discussion of both the sculptures and a queen named on a hieroglyphic staircase, whose indigenous title and name is Kaloomte Na Chaak Kab. That translates roughly as “The Queen named Chopper of the Earth.” I am now working on a theoretical treatment of Maya queens, which will be coauthored with Wren, Spencer, Shaw, and Johnstone. This article will focus on Queen Chaak Kab as a conceptual anchor for broader issues.

Yo’okop is located in a particularly interesting part of the Maya area, which has received little attention from archaeologists because of its tumultuous political history. This is the “Cochuah” region, the name of which refers to the polity that existed there at the time of Spanish conquest. The people in this region have been particularly successful at maintaining independence from foreign domination. The Cochuah area was poorly controlled by the government of New Spain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it was the center of the Caste War of Yucatan during the nineteenth century.

Map of Maya Area with Yo'okop.
Map of Maya Area with Yo'okop.
Created by Justine Shaw and Dave Johnstone.

The Caste War is sometimes referred to as the forgotten democratic revolution of 1848, and it resulted in the creation of an independent Maya state, Chan Santa Cruz. This “State of the Cross” existed from the 1850s until the Mexican army fully occupied the region in 1901. The uprising was inspired by the Enlightenment ideals of Europe, and support for it was generated through the use of cross imagery. A tradition of cross imagery existed in both indigenous and Christian religions, and the nineteenth century Maya belief system was a hybrid of the two. In 1848 images of crosses began to “speak” through leaders of the community, demanding a revolt against the Mexican government. Such turmoil is understandable, given that the Maya had been subjugated, slave-like, for agricultural laborer. Although the war reached a stalemate in 1901, the “cult of the cross” remains active. Crosses have continued to speak in the Maya area until the twenty first century and are housed in guarded shrines. I once coauthored a series of posters for a general audience about this phenomenon, along with Wren and a friend, Madeline Rislow.

Unfortunately, half a century of warfare left the region’s roads and other infrastructure in poor condition, and many areas were accessible only by boat or airplane until the late twentieth century. Some communities were also hostile to foreigners. Thus, it is unsurprising that when we look at archaeological maps of the Yucatan peninsula there is usually a large area with nothing penciled in. Most maps from just a few years ago show only Yo’okop in this region—labeled “Okop”. It has simply never been properly documented. When I joined the Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey (CRAS) in 2001 along with Linnea Wren, it was named Proyecto Arqueologico Yo'okop because Yo’okop is the largest site in the area and was the focus of initial investigation. The project has since been expanded to a survey of the broader Cochuah region, and the directors of the project are Justine Shaw and Dave Johnstone. Shaw and Johnstone, however, have shown that there were many prominent Maya cities in the region, with Yo’okop being the largest.

Overgrowth on The Castillo, largest pyramid at Yo'okop.
Photograph by Travis Nygard

The monumental architecture at Yo’okop is overgrown with vegetation, and there has been little architectural reconstruction there. The exception is a small sweat bath next to the site’s lake that was consolidated by Shaw and Johnstone. The core of the city is thus difficult to photograph, but portions of the periphery are kept clear by local people for subsistence agriculture. The land is farmed by residents of the town Saban. During their first seasons Justine and Dave worked exclusively with this community, and with the expanded project they are working with several others. Some years they have integrated their project with the school curriculum, showing high school students how to process ceramic sherds. They have employed local men to help with the research—a different crew each week—and given them named credit in the annual reports. They have also held public lectures about their research in the communities that they work in, which are well-attended. Happily, there has been only modest looting at Yo’okop, and the local people value it. The site is a source of pride, and there is awareness in the community that in the long-term it might attract tourists.

The site was first documented in 1926 by the New York Times journalist Gregory Mason along with the archaeologist Herbert Spinden. They noted that Yo’okop once boasted grand architecture, including a pyramid that they exclaimed was “a whale of a Castillo!” The tallest structure at the site, S4W1-1, is indeed 28 meters in height—only two shorter than the widely-celebrated Castillo at Chichén Itzá. Mason sent accounts of their travels back to the Times regularly, and he compiled them into a book the following year titled Silver Cities of Yucatan. Although lost for decades, in 2002 film footage from the expedition was located and used to create a documentary film of the same name.

Hieroglyphic Stone C from the ancient Maya site Yo'okop.
Queen Cha'ak Kab's portrait is in the lower left quadrant of
this hieroglyphic stone from Yo'okop.
Photograph by Reginald Wilson.
The inscription that describes Queen Chaak Kab was first documented in 1966 by a medical missionary named Reginald Wilson along with a pilot named Bill Clapp. They had been invited to the area at the request of the people who live in a nearby town, Dzoyola, and their work was affiliated with the Medical Aviation Fellowship. While Wilson and Clapp were there they mapped the major architecture at Yo’okop as well as photographed the sculpture and inscriptions. Wilson published information about Yo’okop in both English and Spanish, and his work was the most complete source of information on the site available until CRAS was instigated. Wilson has generously shared his photographs and other research materials with CRAS, and we remain in communication with him about our research.

I wrote a paper along with Linnea Wren on the history of archaeology in the Cochuah region, which embeds the story of earlier research here within social history. It was presented at the American Anthropological Association in 2008. A couple of years ago we also wrote a summary of research in the Cochuah region, which is intended to serve as the introduction to a book that Shaw is editing.

We are grateful that Wilson photographed the inscription at Yo’okop, as two of the stones are now missing. This includes the one with Queen Chaak Kab’s name on it. It is possible that the stones are still in the region, but it is also possible that they were sold on the black market for antiquities. The stones were last documented in 1986 in the city Felipe Carrillo Puerto (formerly the capital of Chan Santa Cruz) by a friend of Karl Herbert Mayer. Mayer is a scholar who seeks out and publishes unprovenanced monuments. We have been able to draw the missing stones and decipher them from Wilson’s photographs.

Hieroglyphic Inscription at Yo'okop.
Hieroglyphic Inscription at Yo'okop.
“Queen Chop the Earth, the governor under Sky Witness, is the lordly person of the waters.”
Drawing by Travis Nygard and Linnea Wren.

The inscription was originally on a riser for a hieroglyphic stairway, and it describes the relationship between Yo’okop and a ruler named Sky Witness (561-572 CE) from the house of Kaan. The Kaan or “snake” family is so-called because it used a snake head as its emblem. The family controlled a large geographic area, and they were probably based at the city Dzibanche at the time that the staircase was constructed. The family later moved their largest royal residence to the site Calakmul, where it is better understood.

Wren and I think that because these are the only hieroglyphic blocks found that they represent a single phrase. If so, in English the inscription states that “Queen Chop the Earth, the governor under Sky Witness, is the lordly person of the waters.” The name Sky Witness cannot yet be expressed phonetically, but in Maya the remainder of the inscription reads “kaloomte’ ix chaak kab ajaw-k’in(?)-ni-ya nal imix.” We take full blame for any errors in the epigraphic analysis, but to give credit where it is due we should note that while deciphering the inscription we were in correspondence with other scholars, including Dave Johnstone, Simon Martin, Phil Wanyerka, Rosemary Joyce, and Elisabeth Wagner. They were all generous to discuss the inscription from Yo’okop with us. Martin, in fact, identified the name Sky Witness on one of the stones before we were involved. Johnstone is somewhat skeptical of our reading order for these glyphs, but we all agree that the inscription involves a woman from Yo’okop and Sky Witness from the house of Kaan.

Structure S5E1-1 at Yo'okop.
Structure S5E1-1 at Yo'okop.
Rendering by Justine Shaw and Dave Johnstone.

Queen Chaak Kab’s inscription may have been installed on an unusually shaped piece of architecture located next to the site’s shallow lake. The blocks were not found in situ, but are likely from a building that we now call Structure S5E1-1. Staircase risers can be dislodged through the growth of tree roots or other mundane phenomena, and that may have happened here. S5E1-1 has not been cleared or reconstructed, so discussion of it must be cautious. Local people who accompanied Wilson and Clapp explained that these blocks came from that building. Wren and I agree that this is probable because the blocks are approximately the same size as others used to build it.

The building S5E1-1 rises upward like a typical pyramid, dips down at mid-elevation, and then rises up again. Unfortunately the building does not photograph well because of overgrowth, but Shaw and Johnstone have mapped it three dimensionally. The building looks like it has a raised moat with a pyramid rising in the middle. We don’t have a precedent for this shape in the Maya area, and it could either have been built this way intentionally or be the result of collapsed roof vaulting. The purpose of this building is not clear, but one intriguing possibility is that it could have collected water for practical or ritual purposes. We know from other sites controlled by the house of Kaan that Queens are often shown with water-related imagery, such as fish or water lilies. At Yo’okop the inscription is next to a lake and describes Chaak Kab as the “lordly person of the waters” by using the “water lily monster” glyph. This is a head with a lily above it. Given the text, the geographic position, and the unusual shape of the building, there is good reason to be interested in it. A careful excavation and reconstruction could reveal the true purpose of S5E1-1, and we hope that Justine and Dave will be able to do that some day.

Oval Tablet at Palenque.
The Maya Queen Sak Kuk of Palenque crowning her
son Pakal on the Oval Tablet above his throne.
Nineteenth century drawing by Antonio del Rio.

Returning to our current research, we are using Queen Chaak Kab as an anchor for a discussion of royal women and architecture. It is a constant struggle in Maya studies, as in many parts of the world, to differentiate the ancient views about gender from our own. In the case of Maya archaeology scholars historically assumed that sculptures and inscriptions were about men. While it is true that men are depicted and named more frequently than women, we now know of many examples of Maya queens. Tatiana Proskouriakoff first discussed this during the 1960s. Queens are depicted on sculpture and vases, and occasionally they are mentioned in glyphic texts, such as we have at Yo’okop. When named in this context they are usually rulers in their own right, or mothers of rulers. What we cannot recover from the epigraphy alone, however, is the wider cultural significance of queens. For that we must take a holistic approach, considering the broader archaeological evidence, and comparing women at Yo’okop to those from other sites.

By pooling our knowledge of representations of queens we hope to contextualize Queen Chaak Kab from Yo’okop in a more interesting way. One of the most interesting Maya queens is Ix Sak Kuk of Palenque—the mother of Pakal. She is shown on the Oval Tablet in the process of crowning her son. The best reading of this monument to date has been done by my coauthor Kaylee Spencer, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on portraiture at Palenque. Kaylee takes the imagery itself seriously as a form of communication. She is conversant with theories of portraiture from across disciplines, and she argues that we can use these images to better understand ancient Maya politics. Besides Ix Sak Kuk, Kaylee is knowledgeable about the other queens at Palenque, such as Pakal's wife Ix Tzakbu Ajaw. She has analyzed the imagery to show how rulers—including men such as K'inich K'an Joy Chitam—look like their mothers. She also is interested in earlier queens named in the texts at Palenque. Linnea and Kaylee have also coauthored material on Maya gender at Chichén Itzá. There they used imagery to show that some of the warriors—traditionally thought of as men—are in fact women. One in particular has well-defined breasts, and she wears a skirt of snakes that evokes Goddess O. This type of material is particularly revealing about the importance of women in Maya society, but too often scholars ignore it if there is no hieroglyphic label. Linnea has also written on the royal women at Chichén Itzá, who are described in glyphs and images.

Olmec pendant, recarved by Aztec lapidary, in eighteenth century mounting.
Olmec head-shaped pendant, recarved by an Aztec
lapidary, with an eighteenth century European body.
Treasury in the Munich Residence, Bavaria.

By taking a holistic and comparative approach we will not be able to recover everything about Queen Chaak Kab, but we intend to reconstruct a probable scenario for her life’s circumstances. We recognize that some of the points we raise may generate more questions than answers, but we view this as a good thing. Our field is in many ways thriving, and stimulating greater discussion is a good goal.

I plan to remain active in Mesoamerican art history with projects relating to the visual culture of the caste war and sculpture that was meaningful across cultures. The Caste War has never been properly analyzed by art historians. In addition to the speaking crosses described above panel paintings, paper ephemera, and architecture has potential for meaningful analysis. By taking this type of material into consideration I hope that we can better understand how images change political history.

Objects from the Americas with culturally hybrid histories are another interest of mine. One of the best examples of such an object was first published by the art historian Hugh Honour. It is an ancient Olmec pendant carved from jade in the shape of a human head. A second layer of meaning was added to this piece of jewelry when it was recarved by an Aztec lapidary. Still a third layer was added when the object was exported to Bohemia and placed in a mount shaped like a Byzantine priest.

Further Reading

Bever, Sandra, Alberto G. Flores Colin, Dave Johnstone, Adam Kaeding, Christopher Lloyd, Veronica Miranda, Johan Normark, Justine M. Shaw, and Tatiana Young. Final Report of the Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey's 2004 Field Season. Edited by Justine M. Shaw. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2004.

Bever, Sandra, Annie Hanks, Tara Holman, Dave Johnstone, Maya Kashak, Christopher Lloyd, Veronica Miranda, and Justine M. Shaw. Final Report of Proyecto Arqueológico Yo'okop's 2002 Field Season: Excavations and Continued Mapping. Edited by Justine M. Shaw. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2002.

Flores Colin, Alberto G., Jorge Pablo Huerta Rodríguez, Dave Johnstone, Adam Kaeding, Christopher Lloyd, Johan Normark, Justine M. Shaw, and Tatiana Young. Final Report of the Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey's 2005 Field Season. Edited by Justine M. Shaw. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2005.

Flores Colin, Alberto G., Jorge Pablo Huerta Rodríguez, Dave Johnstone, Adam Kaeding, Johan Normark, Justine M. Shaw, and Tatiana Young. Final Report of the Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey's 2008 Field Season. Edited by Justine M. Shaw. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2008.

Flores Colin, Alberto G., Dave Johnstone, Christopher Lloyd, Veronica Miranda, Johan Normark, and Justine M. Shaw. Final Report of the Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey's 2003 Field Season. Edited by Justine M. Shaw. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2003.

Honour, Hugh. The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975. (Library record.)

Johnstone, Dave. Final Report of the Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey's 2006 Field Season. Edited by Dave Johnstone and Justine M. Shaw. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2006.

Johnstone, Dave, Maya Kashak, Ruth Krochock, Travis Nygard, Justine M. Shaw, and Linnea Wren. Final Report of the Selz Foundation's Proyecto Arqueológico Yo'okop 2001 Field Season: Excavations and Continued Mapping. Edited by Justine M. Shaw. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2001.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Rev. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. (Library record.)

Mason, Gregory. Silver Cities of Yucatan. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1927. (Library record.)

Normark, Johan. "The Roads in-Between: Causeways and Polyagentive Networks at Ichmul and Yo'okop, Cochuah Region, Mexico." Doctoral Dissertation, Göteborg University, 2006.

Nygard, Travis, and Linnea Wren. "The Ritual Space of Yo’okop’s Queen Chaak Kab: Inscriptions, Sculpture, and Architecture of a Lesser-Known Maya City." In It’s Good to Be King: The Archaeology of Power and Authority. Calgary, AB: Proceedings of the Chacmool Archaeology Association’s 41st Annual Chacmool Conference held November 7-10, 2008, 2008.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. "Portraits of Women in Maya Art." In Essays in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, edited by Samuel K. Lothrop, 81-99. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961. (Library record.)

Reed, Nelson A. The Caste War of Yucatán. Rev. ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. (Library record.)

Rugeley, Terry. Yucatán's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. (Library record.)

Shaw, Justine M. White Roads of the Yucatán: Changing Social Landscapes of the Yucatec Maya. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008. (Library record.)

Shaw, Justine M., Dave Johnstone, and Ruth Krochock. Final Report of the 2000 Yo'okop Field Season: Initial Mapping and Surface Collections. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2000.

Stromsvik, Gustav, H. E. D. Pollock, and Heinrich Berlin. "Exploration in Quintana Roo." In Current Reports, 169-78. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, Department of Archaeology, 1955.

Villa Rojas, Alfonso. The Maya of East Central Quintana Roo. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1945. (Library record.)

Wilson, Reginald. "Investigations at Okop, Quintana Roo." Greeley 8, no. 1 (1972): 78-85.

———. "Okop: Antigua Ciudad Maya De Artesanos." INAH Boletín Epoca II, no. 9 (1974): 3-14.

Wren, Linnea, and Travis Nygard. "Monuments of Yo'okop." In Final Report of the Selz Foundation's Proyecto Arqueológico Yo'okop 2001 Field Season: Excavations and Continued Mapping, edited by Justine M. Shaw, 80-108. Eureka, CA: College of the Redwoods, 2001.

———. "Rethinking Cochuah Archaeological History: Indigenous Politics, Foreign Researchers, and International Economies." In 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. San Francisco, CA, November 22, 2008.

———. "Witnessed at Yo'okop: Images and Texts of Rulers in a Watery Realm." In Quintana Roo Archaeology, edited by Justine M. Shaw and Jennifer P. Mathews, 166-82. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005.

Wren, Linnea, Kaylee Spencer, and Krysta Hochstetler. "Political Rhetoric and the Unification of Natural Geography, Cosmic Space, and Gender Spheres." In Landscape and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by Rex Koontz, Kathryn Reese-Taylor and Annabeth Headrick, 257-77. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001. (Library record.)