Republication from  theconversation.com

 

A carving from the Maya city of Yaxchilan depicts the local ruler forcing a subdued captive to kiss the shield of his captor. At the small of his back, the victorious king wears a decorated trophy skull. Drawing by Ian Graham, CC BY-ND

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By

Associate Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University

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Two trophy skulls, recently discovered by archaeologists in the jungles of Belize, may help shed light on the little-understood collapse of the once powerful Classic Maya civilization.

The defleshed and painted human skulls, meant to be worn around the neck as pendants, were buried with a warrior over a thousand years ago at Pacbitun, a Maya city. They likely represent gruesome symbols of military might: war trophies made from the heads of defeated foes.

 

Fragment of the Pacbitun trophy skull. Drawings by Christophe Helmke; Laserscan model by Jesse Pruitt, CC BY-ND

Both skulls are similar to depictions of trophy skulls worn by victorious soldiers in stone carvings and on painted ceramic vessels from other Maya sites.

Drilled holes likely held feathers, leather straps or both. Other holes served to anchor the jaws in place and suspend the cranium around the warrior’s neck, while the backs were sawed off to make the skulls lie flat on the wearer’s chest.

Flecks of red paint decorate one of the jaws. It’s carved with glyphic writing that includes what my collaborator Christophe Helmke, an expert on Maya writing, believes is the first known instance of the Maya term for “trophy skull.”

What do these skulls — where they were found and who they were from — tell us about the end of a powerful political system that thrived for centuries, covering southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and portions of Honduras and El Salvador? My colleagues and I are thinking about them as clues to understanding this tumultuous period.

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