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Layers, Echoes, Decay and Its Lack

February 6th, 2013

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This is an unnamed shrine southeast of Plaza 1 at the Zaculeu archaological site, Huehuetenango, Guatemala: an example of the temple-within-temple phenomenon I mentioned in the last post. Hard to say what happened to leave both inner and outer layers exposed like this. I’ll hazard a guess: a somewhat more judicious use of the excavation-by-dynamite technique employed by early British explorer Thomas Gann (and no doubt others) to disastrous effect at Chichen Itza and elsewhere. At least here—if that’s what happened—they only blew up this wee little outlier shrine instead of the main attractions. The white structure you can see in the near distance is a corner of the ballcourt; the mound on the right is Structure 9, an unfinished temple whose construction was interrupted by the conquest.

Then there’s the other layer, not immediately noticeable: click the above to zoom in and you’ll see that this entire bombed-out shrine and even a couple feet of earth surrounding it has been covered over in concrete. The United Fruit Company, in 1946, hired another incompetent non-archaeologist, John M. Dimick, to ‘restore’ the temples at Zaculeu as part of their PR campaign to appear to be improving Guatemala’s infrastructure and protecting its cultural heritage while sucking its land and people dry. Dimick, a building engineer from Iowa who’d caught the Mayanist bug, came to the understandable but stupid conclusion that all the weird angles in the pyramids were the result of incompetence, and the ancient Mayans had really intended everything to be at nice clean right angles if only their engineering skills had been up to snuff. Concrete was the obvious material of choice: cheaper, harder, withstood earthquakes better and lasted longer than the traditional Spanish colonial stucco (which was already falling into disuse), never mind the orginal Mayan cooked limestone mortar.

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Zaculeu’s concrete-encased temples are the only ones I’ve ever seen without weeds, or even whole trees, growing from cracks between stones. They’re the only thousand-year-old temples I’ve ever been allowed to climb and leap all over like in a Prince of Persia video game. They’re also the only temples, with the exception of the Castillo at Chichen Itza (also restored, though with infinitely more painstaking faithfulness and care) with any kind of functioning acoustics: not the effect its original architects intended, for certain, but it’s not like I was ever going to get that anyway. Shout in front of the ten-terraced Temple 1 at Zaculeu, you get back ten harsh, staggered echoes, like yelling into one of those toy echo microphones with a vibrating spring inside you had as a kid. The effect is disconcerting, dissonant: it forced a halt to our conversation until we’d reached a point oblique to those unassailable planes. Interestingly, though, when two hundred people gathered in the plaza before the temple, the press of bodies dampened the effect; instead of feeling shouted down by several angry copies of myself, it just seemed like there were twice or three times as many people in the crowd, clapping, cheering, babbling.

Gonzalo de Alvarado conquered Zaculeu in 1525, after a protracted, horrific siege during which the entrenched Mam resorted to eating their dead. For 421 years, it decayed. Then it stopped decaying. The effect is something like that of an alternate history Mayan ruin replica as conceived by aliens. No, not that kind of aliens.

You know what it’s like? Those concrete tipi motels on Route 66. Or the miles of parking lots and concession stands surrounding the Niagara Gorge, the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. What was maybe at one point a well-intentioned effort to allow regular people to interact with this beautiful, unfathomable thing without destroying it has in the intervening generations become an ageless, indestructible monument to epidemic cultural disconnect. And the doomed effort to traverse all these layers of misinterpretation and time becomes part of the point of being there.

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One of the “traditional” Mayan costumes centers on a mask depicting what I can only interpret as an absurdly stylized roly-poly German gentleman, complete with rosy cheeks and ridiculous moustache. These costumes also come in red monkey, black monkey, jaguar, black moustache guy, demon, tiger, etc.

What does this effigy mean to the guy wearing it? I get the impression this style of costume is a throwback to a different time, where the relationship between the colonizing and colonized culture was simpler, more black and white, though still weird and screwed up. And maybe it’s trotted out now only when called for by political pageantry (such as a PR tour for a future presidential candidate) or tourism (such as Oxlajuj Baktun). Certainly I only saw this style of costume in the context of the government-funded 13 Baktun celebrations when there were armed police present and helpful educational banners strung up everywhere, as opposed to the more intimate events where real Mayans followed their own beliefs with less regard for the crowd watching.

Traditions change, things cease to mean what they meant, and it happens over and over. Other things, though, seem as transparent now as ever:

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