Photo-imaging using extremely high magnification is starting to illuminate a critical aspect of economic and religious practice among the ancient Maya civilisation – but the difficulties in analysing the results are considerable.
For researchers who specialise in the Maya – the meso-American society that arose around 1800 BCE and ended about 950 CE – analysing a characteristic and common type of sharp blade fashioned from obsidian carries a particular, and particularly gruesome, challenge.
In short, how does one tell if such a blade was used only once, by its owner, to slash or pierce his own penis?
It is not a frivolous question. As a team led by James Stemp from Keene State College in New Hampshire, US, outline in a recent paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, “auto-sacrificial bloodletting” among the Maya was intimately tied up not only with religion, but also with the relationships between “producers, consumers, practitioners, and observers”. It played a major role in determining status and gender roles.
Obsidian, the researchers explain, was an important stone to the Maya, and many thousands of complete or partial blades made from the material have been recovered from archaeological sites throughout central America.
The blades, thin and sharp, were used for a wide variety of purposes, including the expected quotidian ones, such as skinning and scraping and cutting meat.
Some, however, were held to be sacred, or, at least, used for a sacred purpose. The Maya worldview held that caves were portals to other-worldly realms, in which resided supernatural beings that clustered around a central Maize God. Maize, the “first fruit”, was revealed to humanity when lightning struck a stone.
Obsidian was considered a mineral created by lightning – thus it was a crucial tool for use in rituals designed to appease the gods, and to ask favours from them.
Just how this was done is abundantly clear from pictograms found in caves held to be sacred.
Stemp and colleagues deploy a passage written in 1941 by US anthropologist Alfred Tozzer to convey the gist of the practice:
“They offered sacrifices of their own blood, sometimes cutting themselves around in pieces and they left them in this way as a sign. Other times they pierced their cheeks, at others their lower lips. Sometimes they scarify certain parts of their bodies, at others they pierced their tongues in a slanting direction from side to side and passed bits of straw through the holes with horrible suffering; others slit the superfluous part of the virile member leaving it like their ears…”
There is some iconographic evidence, Stemp and colleagues add, that women also indulged in ritual bloodletting, although it was mostly a male business.
It was also sanctioned, and practised, at the highest levels of Maya society.
“Based on artwork, male rulers would pierce or cut the foreskin or glans of the penis with obsidian blades, stingray spines, and bone shards/needles,” the researchers write.
“After use of the blades in ritual, the Maya men left them in the caves, thus returning them as gifts along with the blood back to the earth or ‘Earth Lords’.”
Although, pictorial evidence in caves leaves no doubt that auto-sacrificial bloodletting was undertaken all the way up to the fall of the civilisation around 950 CE, identifying exactly which blades among the large numbers found were used for the purposes has been challenging.
There are, Stemp and colleagues say, two sources of confusion. First, it seems that blades, many of them broken, used for more everyday purposes were also ritually deposited in the same caves.
“Not all obsidian blades were used for bloodletting; therefore, differentiating those that were from those that were not is important for understanding the role of these implements in ritual cave contexts,” they write.
“Blades in caves have been used for a variety of tasks based on microwear analysis, such as scraping, cutting, or sawing plants, skin, meat, bone, shell, and wood.”
Second, the degree of wear imposed on a blade used only on one occasion to slice open a penis is very little indeed. Previous analyses, some done by the same team, have been forced to classify potential auto-sacrificial blades as “indeterminate”.
For their latest attempt, therefore, the researchers focussed on blades recovered from a well-studied sacred cave complex known as Actun Uayazba Kab, located in the Roaring Creek Valley of the Cayo District in western Belize.
In all, they recovered 113 blades, either full or partial, and washed them in dilute hydrochloric acid. They were then photographed at 40, 100, 200 and 400-times magnification using a specialised Unitron MS-2BD metallurgical microscope.
The results were then compared against a previously constructed dataset comprising high-resolution images of use-wear derived from modern, purpose-constructed obsidian blades that had then been used to slice, stab, pierce and otherwise mutilate fresh pig, cow and chicken flesh.
Stemp and colleague report that by using this method they conclusively identified 23 blades that had been used to cut flesh, and noted another 16 that they “strongly suspected” had been used for the same purpose but had been subsequently further damaged.
The results will be used to further research a wide range of associated questions. Maya caves, for instance, include brightly lit and darker areas, and scholars think these were used for different types of rituals. The distribution of blades throughout may help to constrain possibilities.
Just as important, the researchers note, the findings take them a step closer to discovering who in Mayan communities had responsibility for actually making the blades. Was blade-making itself a religious activity, they ask, which required active engagement with the supernatural in order for it to be done “properly”?
And, the blade having been made, to whom fell the responsibility to use it for self-mutilation?
“Given the use of obsidian blades to let blood, presumably by Maya men, an interesting question arises as to the nature of the relationship between blade-maker and blade-user,” they write.
“If men, particularly high-status individuals or elites, were most commonly, if not exclusively, the ritual specialists who used obsidian blades for bloodletting in caves, were they also the blade-makers?”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.