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A Remarkable Crossing of People’s Paths at Palenque

A Remarkable Crossing of People’s Paths at Palenque

 

At some point in the Spiritual Path of a Native American, he or she begins to see a tapestry . . . especially when two paths intersect.  Many of those conjunctions cannot be explained with logic.  One can only explain them with belief in a Master of Life.

One of the most extraordinary of those conjunctions occurred while I was in Mexico for the first time . . . on a fellowship.  In fact, I did not even know that the conjunction occurred until 38 years later.   It was while watching a NOVA documentary on PBS . . . Cracking the Maya Code.

Actually, there were two astonishing revelations for me in that TV program.   I had met the woman, who played a key role in cracking the Maya Writing System, when she first viewed a Maya city . . .  AND David Stuart, the archaeologist, who was the first person to translate full Maya sentences was the son of George Stuart, my friend at the Smithsonian Institute.

I guess the lesson learned is that whenever you have time to chat with stranger, take the time to get to know this person.  One never knows what the future holds for each of you.

 

This post card was issued in honor of Eastern Airlines’ direct flight to Mexico City – thus making Atlanta an “international” city!

 

Understanding the times

The Atlanta Airport had just initiated its first international flight . . . a direct connection between Atlanta and Mexico City by Eastern Airlines, which no longer stopped in New Orleans.  Now, Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world and Eastern Airlines does not exist.  However, that is the reason that the Mexican government gave me such royal treatment.  Relaciones Exteriores officials just didn’t realize that they would have to wait till 2012 to get a return on their investment.  LOL

Relaciones Exteriores = Foreign Relations (State Department)

The United States has changed radically since 2001 . . . technologically for the better . . . politically for the worse.  Young people today could not imagine how different the United States was in the early 1970s. Twenty years of the Civil Rights Movement had caused many Americans elsewhere in the country to consider all Southerners to be mentally retarded, racial bigots.  The Viet Nam War had polarized the United States to such an extent that the length of a man’s hair was a political statement.  Women used their clothing to announce whether they were hippie or fossil.

President Richard Nixon would be considered a radical Marxist by Republicans today.  He sponsored numerous anti-poverty, downtown development, new community development and affirmative action programs.  He announced his intent to create a national healthcare system as soon as the Viet Nam War ended. In the meantime, bipartisan-backed programs were pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into county health departments, getting ready for national healthcare.

The American Middle Class was at his maximum size and almost anyone could afford to attend a public university.  My tuition at Georgia Tech was $124 a quarter.  I spent twice as much on books and architectural drafting supplies as I did tuition.

So . . . the US Navy forbade me to consume any illegal drugs and required me to wear an officer’s haircut at all times.  It’s the same hair cut that I wear today, but back then not using drugs and having short hair marked me as “the enemy” among many college students outside the Southeast.  Add in an articulate Southern accent and they assumed I was a leader of the Klu Klux Klan like David Duke.  Thus, I experienced almost no socialization with young people my age from the United States, other than Southerners, when I was traveling in Mesoamerica and two year later, working in Scandinavia. 

A chance meeting at Chichen Itza

While photographing buildings at Chichen Itza, I overheard a couple speaking Southern and mentioning the word Alabama.  Their names were David and Linda.  He was a young professor at the University of Alabama and she was an artist.  David had a grant to photograph Maya buildings.  Part of the requirements for my fellowship required me to take at least 2500 color slides of Mesoamerican buildings for the Georgia Tech Library.  I actually took over 3200 slides.

Pyramid of the Sun – Chichen Itza – Yucatan State

I was soon distracted by three Mademoiselles, crying in French, while sitting on the lowest step of the Pyramid of the Sun. They were newly minted teachers from Quebec, who all had dysentery.  They didn’t speak Spanish and no Mexicans understood their English.  I could communicate in both French and Spanish.  Being a Southern Gentleman, I gave these ladies in distress, aid and comfort . . . took them to a farmacia to get medicine . . . then we toured Yucatan together.  It was a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.    

I briefly ran into David and Linda in Campeche.   I took a picture of them together.  David took a picture of me in front of the gate to a Maya city.  I then headed east into the Puuc Hills to meet Maya Separatists.   Naval Intelligence wanted to know if they were populists or Marxists.  THEY LOVED AMERICANS and hated the Spanish-speaking cattle barons, who were stealing their land.   No Viet Nam War here.

The Temple of Inscriptions at Palenques ~ Chiapas State, Mexico

Time fades one’s memory, when the events seem inconsequential at the time.  I am pretty sure that David and Linda were on the same bus with me that went to the magical archaeological zone of Palenque.  It is perched on an escarpment of the Chiapas Highlands and overlooks the Lowlands.  Mountain rivers cascade through the ruins while the landscape is laced with citrus trees and flowers. 

The steps leading down to King Pakal’s tomb . . . no one knew his name, when I was at Palenque!

Whatever the case, we were definitely together on the guided tour of the ruins and went down the steps inside the Temple of the Inscriptions together.  It led to the tomb of a Maya king, which had only recently been opened to the public.  This was a big deal.

David and I photographed the buildings together then I had an assignment on my syllabus to photograph the engraved stone slabs in the ball court.  Being a typical Creek, I was eventually distracted by Mother Nature.  I noticed beautiful crimson, white and purple snail shells in the fast moving water of the river. They were shaped like a dirigible and seen as necklaces on Maya inscriptions.  I followed the river up the mountain until it became a creek and then a spring.  Along the way, I gathered up about five pounds of snail shells, which I intended to make into authentic Maya necklaces for female relatives and any future girlfriends.

Once up on the terraces above Palenque,  I explored the suburbs, where the regular folks lived.  Their shrines were very different . . . almost identical to the stone structures that POOF members are identifying in eastern Alabama and northern Georgia.  Tourist never see these un-reconstructed zones, but I had an INAH  ID Card on a string around my neck, which would protect me from the M-16’s carried by Mexican soliders, who patrol the peripheries of INAH archaeological zones.   I never saw or heard from David and Linda again.

INAH = Institutio Nacional de Anthropologia E Historia

The next day, my assignment was to observe reconstruction of a Maya temple and house of a noble family.   An INAH architect, who spoke excellent English, was my instructor.   Learning how to prepare architectural plans from the notes of archaeologists was the prime objective of my fellowship.

I probably would not even remembered acquaintances made at Palenque had I not written briefly in my daily journal, “Toured Palenque with David and Linda from Mobile.  He’s an architect.  She’s an artist.”  

My have times changed

When I was on my fellowship, no Maya glyphs could be translated for certain, other than numbers.  When giving lectures after returning to Atlanta, I would show off my ability to read the numbers.  Folks thought I was the Wizard of Oz.

After returning from Sweden, I had enormous professional opportunities, which made me resign Mesoamerican to the hobby shelf . . . like preparing the Urban Design Plan for Midtown Atlanta, which now has been built -including Atlantic Station . . . the plans for several newtowns and then the revitalization of Downtown Asheville.  However, when we bought an abandoned farm out at the head of the Reems Creek Valley, north of Asheville, NC, the interest returned.  You see, there was no cable service and the only TV station that we could pick up with an antenna was Channel 2,  a PBS station in Sneedville, TN.  

George Stuart – National Geographic Photographer & Editor

There was nothing to do at night time, but read.  I enrolled in the History Book Club and began self-education on the history and archaeology of Europe and the Americas.  I went back to Mexico three more times and occasionally gave lectures at universities and archaeological societies on Mesoamerican architecture in North Carolina and later Virginia and Washington, DC when I moved up there, but the general public was completely unaware of my continuing study of Mesoamerica.  The only way to know about this interest was to visit my home and see a room full of artifacts.  So after I moved to North Carolina in late 1976, no one in Georgia ever heard me lecture on Mesoamerican architecture. 

In 1985, two middle aged men knocked at my front door of our Reems Creek Valley, NC dairy farm.  One introduced himself as George Stuart and said he had a vacation home up in Barnardsville.  George was doing the photography for his friend, who was writing a book on the Blue Ridge Mountains. He asked if they could interview me and shoot a few photos of the cheese operation and goats for the book.  Off the cuff, George mentioned that he had done some photographic work for National Geographic Magazine. He noticed that a section of the living room was filled with Mesoamerican and Southeastern artifacts.  He asked some intelligent questions about some of the pieces and casually mentioned that his son was interested in the becoming an archaeologist.

Archaeologist David Stuart, when young

Well . . . yes . . . George had done some photography for National Geographic.  He was their Senior Photographer and eventually would become Senior Editor.  And yes, he knew a little bit about archaeology.  He was a professional archaeologist and had written three books on the Mayas, plus some of the most famous articles on the Mayas in National Geographic. Much of his work was AT Palenque. 

His son David?   As a toddler, David had accompanied his parents to Palenque and immediately began studying the ruins.  At age 12, David Stuart had presented his first scholarly paper on the Mayas.  In 1984, at age 19, David had become the youngest ever recipient of the McArthur Fellowship. Beginning in 1978 as a teenager, David had spent summers working with a brilliant archaeologist named Linda Schele at Palenque.

George and I stayed in contact through the years.  It was he who encouraged me to move up to Virginia, where I would have many more architecture clients.  I was frequently invited to parties in Georgetown,  Chevy Chase, Sandy Spring, Arlington and Alexandria via contacts through George.   As a result of these parties, most of my clients were administrators at National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institute and Library of Congress . . . or else retired Naval officers.  We lost contact when simultaneously he retired and moved back to Barnardsville, while I moved back to Georgia.

This is kind of disgusting and funny, too.  Since 1999, I have not been invited to a single private social engagement in Georgia.  The big fish in the little ponds of North Georgia try to make themselves feel important by keeping with the guidelines set by THE PARTY.  They have no clue concerning the people I have known and those who come to visit me here from other parts of the nation and world.

I have never known a more modest person than George Stuart, considering how much he accomplished and experienced in his life.  He had incredible adventures in several parts of the Americas, but would invariably talk about anyone but himself at parties. You would have to ask him specific questions to pry out those experiences.

Linda Schele ~ Artist and Archaeologist

In 1990, a new book on the Mayas made newspaper headlines.  Someone had finally translated some of the Maya glyphs.  I bought the book, A Forest of Kings by Linda Schele and David Freidal. I ordered it immediately from the History Book Club. When the sequel to the book, The Code of Kings, was published in 1999, I bought it too.   It was amazing how much more archaeologists knew about the Mayas than when I was first down there.

By 2008, I was working almost full time on projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation.  Not really sure what you call what I do now . . .   Prehistoric Architectural Preservation?   Anthropological Architect?   Specially trained architects are now standard team members in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, but in the United States, many archaeologists consider us lower forms of life . . . even though many like me have just as many years of education and in much more difficult curricula.

That year, NOVA on PBS broadcast one of its most interesting programs ever . . . “Cracking the Maya Code.”  There was an OMG moment when the film shows a snapshot of the first day that David and Linda Schele were at Palenque.  I recognized the David and Linda, who I had befriended in the Yucatan Peninsula so long ago.  Just to be sure, I looked up Linda’s bio.  Yes indeed . . . she had been an art professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile when I was on my fellowship.  They were the same people.  The reason that I had not realized that the Linda Schele in those books was the Linda at Palenque was that her physical appearance had changed considerably.

The visit to Palenque had inspired Linda to go back and study anthropology.  She devoted the rest of her life to the discipline . . . much of it at Palenque.  David Schele, the member of the couple, who I assumed to be the expert on Mesoamerican things, drifted back into the traditional practice of architecture.  This is essentially the opposite of what happened in my career.

Forty years after the last time that I visited Palenque, I looked closely at some symbols on Boulder Six at Track Rock Gap and then compared them to glyphs at Palenque that I had photographed for the Georgia Tech Library.  However, this time around I could translate them, thanks to Linda Schele and David Stuart.

Hene Mako Ahau Kukulkan ~ Great Sun Lord Feathered Serpent

Early in the morning of Sunday, October 14, 2012, Scott Wolter called me from Minnesota.  He told me that he had asked for Maya Blue samples from several ruins, but the INAH had only been willing to give him a sample from one Maya city.  A scientist at the University of Minnesota had just determined a 100% match between the Maya Blue sample from Mexico and a sample of attapulgite from a mine near Attapulgus, GA.  I was told to keep this a secret until the premier of America Unearthed was broadcast. 

I asked Scott what Maya city did the Maya Blue come from.  He responded, “Palenque . . . have you ever been there?”

In 2014, I was doing research on yaupon holly, from which the Creek Sacred Black Drink is made from.  I had just discovered that the Panoan peoples of eastern Peru use the same word for the Sacred Black Drink and the holly bush that it is made from as the Creeks do.   Osabaw Island, GA is the Anglicization of the Panoan word, Asebo, which means “Place of the Sacred Black Drink.”

Out of curiosity I looked up the growing range of Yaupon Holly.  It does not grow naturally in South America.  The Panoans make their beverage out of the leaves of a closely related holly.  There are only two places in the world, where wild Yaupon Holly grows naturally . . . The coastal plains of the Lower Southeast and in Chiapas State, Mexico near the ruins of Palenque.

 

Live is indeed a box of chocolates . . . especially for us late bloomers.

 

 

 

 

 

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

5 Comments

  1. redearth@hemc.net'

    Absolutely amazing, Richard! I am in awe of the Creator! I know you may not feel really blessed right now, but you are doing precious work, and anything truly worthwhile is worth the suffering. It is interesting that the word “passion” has to do with willingness to suffer for the cause. We are behind you!

    Reply
    • Hey Barbara

      At least by my standards, LOL I am fine now. I need to find a decent place to live, but can’t say that I am suffering. However, you can’t deny that something supernatural going on at Palenque that has stretched over the decades.

      Reply
  2. theoldlibrary19@yahoo.co.uk'

    Fascinating Richard. Just for one minute I thought you were going to say you had come across the murex shell from which the Minoans got their purple dye.

    Reply
    • I don’t know. Maybe these shells were boiled for dye. These events were in the era before personal computers and internet. Especially, out in the middle of Chiapas, I had no way to check out those shells. It was much harder to obtain information . . . the only way being either having access to a large library or being in a book club like I was. I still have a bag full of shells. I will compare one with dye-carrying snails on the internet.

      Reply
  3. kkakins@gmail.com'

    ” There are only two places in the world, where wild Yaupon Holly grows naturally . . . The coastal plains of the Lower Southeast and in Chiapas State, Mexico near the ruins of Palenque.”

    There you go. If that doesn’t support the entire ball of wax, and they can’t see it, they are indeed blind.

    Reply

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