Time Among the Maya Synopsis

Time Among the Maya Synopsis

Stephen Houston

Jesse Knight University Professor at Brigham Young University

Matthew Restall

Associate Professor of Latin American History at Pennsylvania State University

Charles Golden

Doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania

Stephen Houston, Matthew Restall and Charles Golden provided insight into Maya understandings and uses of time from the Classic Period (c. AD 250 - 900) through the era of Spanish Colonialism in the Yucatan Peninsula. Drawing on hieroglyphic texts, colonial documents and the archaeological record Houston, Restall and Golden broke down the simple dichotomy between linear modern time, and cyclical Maya time and examined the twists and turns of time used, time experienced and time created.

Stephen Houston focused on two topics (1) debates about the presentation of time-sense in the inscriptions, and (2) the notion of spatial and temporal concurrence, in which different times and places overlapped. With regards to the first, Houston states "Distinctions between past and present, reader and writer, almost evaporate in these reiterations." With regards to the second, Houston interprets the iconography and texts to indicate that "time and space are not exclusive but inclusive, that two, sentient, animate beings can inhabit the same body, that they can occupy the same space, and that other times may be summoned and conjoined with this one." Thus for the Maya, texts and imagery concerned with what to us appear as past events were not conceived of as "past" by the Maya. As Houston concludes "These are not memory acts but transposed frames that summon the past to validate and shape the world of the dancer and to attach predictable structure onto quotidian uncertainties."

Matthew Restall examines the documents from the period of Spanish Control in Yucatan to paint a picture of Maya time that is neither linear nor cyclical, but may metaphorically resemble a corkscrew: viewed from the side it forms a wavy line, while viewed end-on it is a cycle. The Maya never viewed time exclusively from either of these perspectives.

With the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors Maya concepts of time were forever changed, but they were changed along lines that were meaningful to the Maya. Spanish time was, in some sense, imposed, but it also was subjugated to the needs of the Maya.

Perhaps most disruptive, argues Restall, was the disruption of temporal cycles established at ritual centers such as Cozumel. With the Spanish Conquest, the establishment of the same temporal cycles across the Yucatan Peninsula became impossible and calendars in different regions were no longer coordinated. This has important implications for archaeologists and epigraphers working in the pre-conquest period who have tried to use conquest period documents to establish a unified historical chronology for the Maya area.

Charles Golden argues that Maya rulers established themselves in places in time, using architecture, monuments, burials, and other performances to mark their connections with royal authority constituted in association with a legitimate royal past. The conception of time as encoded in the body, and the associations of this embodied time with moral status made these signs of history of particular importance to Maya rulers. Using architectural changes at Piedras Negras, Guatemala as but one example, Golden explores the ways in which Maya rulers used their construction programs in particular to make connections with a predecessor, connections to a past that was appropriate for a given political present. Golden concludes by arguing that all political leaders, past and present engage in similar practices, and that the construction of the correct connections with the correct past is fundamental to the construction of political authority.