The Stela of Iximche, Guatemala

In December of 2012, the 12th baktun of the Maya Long Count calendar was drawing to a close. While Hollywood and other sensationalists presented December 21st, 2012 as “the day the Maya predicted as the end of the world,” the modern-day Maya (and a handful of scholars) knew that this was simply the beginning of another period of time– the 13th baktun.

To commemorate this event (a moment that only happens once every 400 years), the Kaqchikel ethnic group of Guatemala created a fiberglass monument modeled after Classic Maya stone stelae. This monument documents the history of the Kaqchikel people and the site of Iximche, from the years prior to the arrival of the Spanish, to the conquest and on to their fights for equality and respect today. 

The stela of Iximche. Photography by Catherine Nuckols-Wilde

So what makes this monument special? It represents the first time since the conquest that a Maya-identifying group has created a large-scale monument written entirely in legible Maya glyphs. The decipherment of Maya glyphs has allowed indigenous communities to reclaim this lost art, and they have begun to use it as a way to assert their connection with Precolumbian cultures.

It is also an example of the Pan-Maya movement in Guatemala: after a 36-year-long civil war in which indigenous communities were targeted, Maya communities have begun to unite under the term “Maya.” Although the term originally derived from the Postclassic site of Mayapan in the Yucatan Peninsula, Maya ethnic groups have long identified themselves with their own names and have refrained from using the term Maya. However, the term has been increasingly adopted by these groups in order to bolster their movements for rights and increase unity in their fight for equality. 

The Kaqchikel do not claim to be direct descendants of the ancient people who created stone monuments in the Peten jungle. In fact, stone monuments carved with inscriptions never appeared at the site of Iximche. However, the use of this stone monument links the Kaqchikel people directly to that Pan-Maya heritage in a way that highlights their history and importance in the region. In order to represent the Kaqchikel language (which uses different sounds than those represented anciently by the Classic Maya), some of the signs have been slightly modified to distinguish them from their ancient counterparts.

For example, the sign for the Maya period of time known to us as a month was spelled winal or winik anciently. On the stela of Iximche, the artists used the logogram for this sign, but complemented it with a modified ka sign. A small marker was added to the ka sign so that it makes a q instead of a k sound, producing the modern-day Kaqchikel word for month, winäq. Small changes like these occur throughout the inscription. 

Modifications made to the ka sign (bottom right) to create a qa sound

This monument acts as a powerful reminder of the effects of colonialism, and the great strides being made today towards indigenous autonomy. The second column of the monuments text records the arrival of the Spanish and the subsequent “death of the Maya people” brought on by disease, war and discrimination. This death included not only the physical deaths of the people, but the death of much of the knowledge concerning their history. However, as the monument itself bears witness, recent advances have allowed the modern-day Maya to reclaim that history and to continue to fight for equality, dignity and fair representation. 

The glyph for the name of the site of Iximche.

If you would like to learn more about the Maya glyphic writing system, check out our online course for beginners, or email me at catherine (at) mesoamericanstudiesonline.com to ask about private tutoring!

Sources:

Matsumoto, Mallory E. “La Estela de Iximche’ en El Contexto de La Revitalización Lingüística y La Recuperación Jeroglífica En Las Comunidades Mayas de Guatemala.” Estudios de Cultura Maya 45, no. 45 (2015): 225–58.

Contemporary Maya Stela at Iximche, Guatemala https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/contemporary-maya-stela-at-iximche-guatemala/cAHO5lWCsVjgyA?hl=en

“Two stelae, Two Maya Languages” http://discovermam.org/2013/11/6-ajaw-18-kej-november-26-2013-two-stelae-two-maya-languages/

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