Who were the Maya Commoners?
The repeated argument by the U.S. Forest Service and a clique of Georgia archaeologists is, “No Maya pottery has been found in the United States.” Actually, the similarity of the pottery made by Maya Commoners to that found at the Track Rock terrace complex near Blairsville, GA and Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, GA is one of the stronger arguments for a Maya presence.
Grave-robbing has a long, honorable tradition in the Americas. De Soto’s men dug up fresh graves in present day South Carolina to obtain the pearls buried with the victims of a plague. For far too long professional archaeologists dug up Maya cities and Southeastern mounds to obtain trophy art for wealthy benefactors and Northeastern museums. Neither in Mexico or the Southeast were the archaeologists particularly interested in the everyday items of the commoners.
At least 90% of the population of the Maya civilization was composed of illiterate slaves, farmers, tradesmen and merchants. Possibly, as many as 40% of the Maya population were slaves, whose ancestors or themselves had been snatched from distant, less advanced societies. The percentage of fully literate Mayas probably was no more than 5%, perhaps as little as 2%. This fact might be the reason that the Maya tradition of carving stelae died out so abruptly around 900 AD.
Yet, because archaeologists and antiquarians have always been obsessed with finding the artifacts of “high culture,” the general public associated the culture of a tiny Maya elite with the population as a whole. Nothing could be further from the truth. Maya commoners had their own priests and their own religion. Their language was a blend of the ethnic groups that had been enslaved. They wore turbans and simpler clothes to mark their social status. Their houses were different. They certainly would have not been fond of either slavery or human sacrifice. Most would have had no clue how to make the sophisticated ceramics and carved stone statuary that collectors esteem today.
Walk out from the “downtowns” of ancient Maya cities. Sometimes for miles one will pass by fieldstone walls and shallow piles of stone that look little different than the ruins of Track Rock Gap. These are the foundation beds of Maya houses. Itza Maya commoners often built their wattle and daub houses on beds of fieldstone. There are at least 43 field stone beds visible at the Track Rock terrace complex. The Tayrona Indians of northern Columbia also practiced this custom at their terrace complex of Ciudad Perdido.
The Mayan calli of Yucatan, Totonac chiki’s of Vera Cruz and the Creek Indian chiki’s of Georgia were instead, prefabricated structures set into foundation ditches. The Itza Mayas, Totonacs and Itsate Creek Indians called their houses, chiki’s. Is their a connection?
Around the ruins of these ancient homesteads the ground is often littered by clay-red potsherds (pieces of pottery.) The interior of the shards are gritty and grayish brown in color. The surfaces are a bright reddish-orange finish, created by an application of an iron-oxide rich liquid clay slip. If in good condition the Maya Redware shards will be shiny on the outside, appearing to have been glazed. That sheen was created by burnishing the dry clay with river pebbles. Close inspection under a magnifying glass will reveal tiny white specks of partially vitrified calcite (CaCO3) within the grayish-brown interior core.
Although the undecorated Maya Commoner pottery appears to be primitive, it actually represents a technical innovation that conserved fire wood. Because vast quantities of timber was consumed to make lime and fire the ceramics of the elite, little was left for the common people to cook or make pottery with.
The specks of calcite in Maya Redware, Ocmulgee Redware and Track Rock Redware are the remnants of either crushed shells or limestone grit that was added as a temper and flux for the raw clay bodies. Whereas most clays completely vitrify (melt into glass) at around 1200 ^(o) C. (1560 ^(o) F), calcite completely vitrifies at about 850 ^(o) C. (1560 ^(o) F) The calcite flux also permitted much shorter firing times.
North American archaeologists associate the appearance of what they call shell tempered or grit tempered pottery with the appearance of advanced cultures. Actually, the crushed shells and grit would more accurately be labeled as fluxes, since they bind the clay particles together. Calcite ceramics appeared at roughly the same time as large scale cultivation of corn and beans. However, few, if any Southeastern archaeologists are aware of the connection between these phenomena and the Maya Commoners. The ceramics of the Maya elite seldom included significant amounts of calcite flux.
When the Hernando de Soto Expedition entered present day Georgia in March of 1540, they immediately noticed that the men were averaged a foot taller than the Spanish and wore turbans. High status women in this region also wore turbans. The adult men had mustaches. Their elders wore beards.
The mention of turbans in the De Soto Chronicles should have long ago caused bells to go off in the heads of Southeastern historians and anthropologists. It didn’t. They specialized in the study of Southeastern indigenous peoples, while other anthropologists studied Mesoamerica. However, neither gave much attention to the commoners that made up about 90% of the respective populations.
During my fellowship in Mexico, I would periodically return to Mexico City for chats with my advisor, Dr. Roman Piña-Chan, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. In the very first chat, Dr. Piña-Chan was glancing through a book on Etowah Mounds in NW Georgia. E-tula (Etowah Mounds) was both contemporary and aligned with the Track Rock terrace complex. E-tula is an Itza Maya word meaning “Important Town.”
Dr. Piña-Chan blurted out, “Ricardo, why did your Georgia Indians make marble statues of slaves? They are wearing . . . how you say . . . turbans. Only Maya slaves and peons wore turbans!” I couldn’t answer because I was just a young, wet-behind-the-ears architecture student.
Both the Creek Indians of the Southeastern United States and the Maya commoners of the Highlands in Chiapas and Guatemala, traditionally wore turbans. Statues wearing turbans suddenly appear at archaeological sites in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama about 900 AD. The movie, Apocalypto, accurately portrayed all the Maya slaves wearing simple turbans.
Second only to the History Channel’s discovery of Georgia minerals in Maya buildings, the tradition by the Creek Indians of wearing cloth turbans is major proof that Maya Commoners came to North America. They imparted their unique traditions among the indigenous peoples, whom they intermarried. However, if one is a Gringo archaeologist, who blurted out to a Georgia audience, “This Maya thing is a bunch of crap,” rather than an esteemed Mexican archaeologist who always asked “¿Por que?” . . . perhaps the obvious will never become the obvious.
Very elementary, my dear Watson!
PS: Three Gringo archaeologists have angrily asked to be unsucribed this weekend. Eight anthropology, archaeology or sociology professors from Harvard, SUNY, U. VA, U. MD, Guelph University in Canada, Cambridge & Oxford in the UK and Uppsala University in Sweden have asked to join. Not a bad trade-off. I was also chewed out by a well-meaning professor in Vermont for amateurish writing mistakes. I plead guilty on that one!
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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.
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