Posted by: Johan Normark | April 22, 2011

Smithsonian on El Mirador and the vocabulary of exaggeration

Smithsonian magazine’s May issue probes “the mysteries of the Maya.” If there is something that annoys me in popular media it is the image of the “mysterious” and the “exotic” Maya. We do not have to retreat to postcolonial theory to see how this vocabulary always shows up in descriptions of some “cultures” and not others. Have you ever heard about the mysterious Swedes or Americans? I have written about these issues before. Along with these mystifications we tend to find exaggerations of the “cultures” under discussion.

As argued before on this blog, El Mirador is a brand but it tends to be a bit blown out of proportion (such as having a pyramid larger than the pyramid of Khufu). In this issue Richard Hansen continues to make statements that are not exactly true, such as this: “That’s a causeway. There’s a plastered roadbed under there 2 to 6 meters high and 20 to 40 meters wide. A sacbe it’s called—white road. It runs for about 12 kilometers from Mirador to Nakbe. It’s part of the first freeway system in the world.” A causeway is not quite a freeway, which according to Wikipedia is “a limited access divided highway with grade separated junctions and without traffic lights or stop signs.” Apart from the obvious lack of traffic lights and stop signs at ancient El Mirador, the other criteria does not really fit evidence either. There are no lengthwise divisions of a causeway and no grade separated junctions, etc. Although the causeway systems at Maya sites sometimes are impressive, they are nothing compared to the Roman road system. That road system comes a bit closer to the freeway system Hansen mentions (but still not the same). Whereas all roads led to Rome, not all roads in the Maya area led to El Mirador, not even at the “height” of El Mirador’s power. I simply wish people ceased to make unsubstantiated statements that includes the world’s first, largest, oldest, tallest, most massive, richest, unique, etc. That don’t impress me much.



  1. At The Height Of Peten Culture Population Density Was 2600 Per Square Mile Simular To Present Day Los Angeles.With This Population And Logistic Demands Saq’ Be’s Could Be Utilized And Needed.The Artistic Renderings Of El Mirador Are Very Impressive In Form And Scale.

    • I have seen that number somewhere else. For a small area at a densely settled site that number may be accurate but it is incorrect for the whole Petén area.

  2. Johan,

    as a member of the Mirador Basin Project, I admit my position on this subject can’t be entirely dispassionate. However, I am a believer in the Mother-culture hypothesis regarding the Olmec, quite contrary to Richard and most other Mayanists, and so I think I can approach this subject with at least some objectivity.

    I agree that a lot of the language used by Mayanists and archaeologists in general, especially for a popular audience, is often hyperbolic. There does often seem to be a pissing contest between scholars, with each trying to promote his or her project as working on the biggest pyramids, with the earliest writing, and the grandest palaces, etc. I have come to the realization that this may be a necessary evil in our field, as this is what catches the popular attention and that’s what brings in donations and the badly needed funds on which these projects are dependent. It’s annoying, but without this kind of language many projects wouldn’t be able to excavate for the truly interesting finds of scientific archaeology. So I’ve made my peace with it.

    So, did the Preclassic Maya of the Mirador Basin have the first “freeway system”? I’m not going to quibble over their lack of streetlights and boulevards. I think you are being unfair here and maintaining a far-too literal criticism. Maya sacbe were causeways and roads and served to ease transportation of people and their material goods from point A to point B and that works as a description of a “freeway” to me, if used loosely. Now, are the Maya sacbe in this region earlier than roads anywhere else? I’m not sure on that. The Roman road system is roughly contemporaneous, at least in Italy, and in some cases may be earlier. Certainly it was much, much larger and more sophisticated than anything the Maya ever produced, but that’s not very politically correct to say these days.

    And that brings me to your comment on the “Mysterious Maya”. You aren’t the first person I’ve seen mention your unease at the popular use of that alliterated phrase. I have to say that I object to this postmodernist critique. You mention that we don’t talk about the “Mysterious Swedes” or “Mysterious Americans”. That’s because these modern peoples are, frankly, not mysterious. There is indeed a number of real mysteries about the ancient Maya. And, there are about ancient Swedes as well. If you google “mysterious bog people”, which ancient Scandinavia is famous for, you will find more than 27,000 entries. “Mysterious Stonehenge” brings up more than 55,000 entries. The term “mysterious Maya” is so over-used (more than 6 million google hits), I think, because it rolls of the tongue and sounds cool, largely due to that alliteration. Furthermore, the fact is that the Maya are obviously more mysterious to most people in the Western world than the people who built Stonehenge and tossed bodies in northern European bogs. I do not see this as due to racism but simply the fact that the Maya are a relatively small group that is poorly known around the world except through their archaeological remains, which even the modern Maya don’t know much about. The only way to make the Maya less mysterious is for us scholars to publish far more books that are public-friendly and disseminate our knowledge to a wider audience. Too many Mayanists concentrate on putting out technical articles and edited volumes that no more than 500 people on Earth will ever read. If you want to see why academics are held in such disrepute these days by the population at large, this self-imposed isolation of academics I think is largely to blame. And that isn’t good as ultimately it is that same general population that funds our projects and our careers.

    • I do not believe in any mother-culture(s) at all but I’ll save that for another time. I am sure I will bring up that issue again (at least in an article for an anthology).

      I know that the exaggeration is there to attract funds and interest in the project. My main concern is that it gives the public an unnecessarily inaccurate description of the Maya. Mayanists themselves understands what is true and false so I am not concerned about them.

      The reason why I chose Swedes and Americans as examples was for a reason. I did not mention ancient Vikings or the Mississipian culture but people whose identity relates to the formation of the national states. Yes, Stonehenge is also mysterious in the public view (and to many archaeologists as well), but the builders of Stonehenge had probably very little to do with modern Brits. In line with Peter Hervik’s article on the mysterious Maya in National Geographic, I want to emphasize that magazines like NG and Smithsonian are not written for the Maya but for Westerners (Swedes and Americans) who do not see their own immediate ancestors as mysterious. However, my own ancestors on my fathers side, just a few generations back, were Sami (“Lapps”) and therefore not part of the national majority and automatically I can mystify my own ancestry a little more…

      I do not think Mayanists have had problem reaching out with their view to the public. I just say that we need not fall back on “sensationalism”. We see too much of that in other media. One solution is that more archaeologists begin to blog and interact themselves with the public where most of them are, i.e. on internet.

      • Yes, there aren’t many Mayanists like myself who believe in the Mother-culture hypothesis, so I’m not too crowded on that position. As for the presentation of our own cultural ancestors as unmysterious, while referring to the Maya as indeed mysterious, I think this is just what has to be expected. My own family’s historical path with the Mennonites through Canada, the Ukraine, and Prussia is not that mysterious to me but it was remarkable enough to many of my colleagues that “Mennonite” is one of the nicknames I was given. I stand more amused than bemused on that, as I have to admit that not too many people run into Mennonite Germans, unless you’re working around Lamanai, of course. 😉 As for the makers of Stonehenge not being related to modern Brits, I’m suspicious of that. I think there are actually DNA studies that have shown at least some of the genes of those ancient inhabitants of the British isles are to be found in the modern people of Britain. I don’t think this has almost anything to do with race. It has to do with knowledge of these people. My own ancestors 500 years ago are almost as mysterious to me as the ancient Maya, and that has everything to do with knowledge available about them, or lack thereof, and I think the same goes for the builders of Stonehenge.

        I was talking to a student the other day about her research paper on the Titanic. She couldn’t believe the men who calmly waited for their deaths, rather than fighting for a seat in one of the lifeboats. I tried to explain that honor was more important than life for these people, who lived only a century ago, and she just couldn’t comprehend it. These attitudes seem just as mysterious to these students as the ancient Maya do. When you combine the fact that the Maya have different cultural traditions and different languages, that makes them very mysterious and to admit that I do not think is any problem at all.

        As for Mayanists publishing, I think you can see in your own blog right here the problem we have. Apart from fellow academics, most of the non-specialists commenting here are commenting on 2012 subjects. That’s what catches their attention, not the nitty gritty of excavation reports, and certainly not the esoteric realms of archaeological and anthropological theory. We can try and present the real situation on 2012 and human sacrifice and other subjects that constitute almost the only thing most of these people “know” about the ancient Maya, but we face the problem that the truth isn’t as fantastic and interesting as the pseudoscience. Avoid the sensationalizing you are decrying here and very quickly we’ll find ourselves out of jobs and out of funding because when you come down to it, archaeology is a luxury of a wealthy society. And when the society no longer has such deep coffers one of the first things that will be cut back are luxuries. Unless we can somehow convince a good portion of the population at large that what we are doing has either a direct benefit in their lives, or is of enough interest that they’re willing to part with increasingly scarce discretionary funds, we are in trouble.

      • What I meant by Brits and Stonehenge had more to do with traditions than with genes. My genetic make up is probably very similar to that of Vikings but I would have problem feeling at home with their way of life.

        I notice that Scandinavian archaeology do just fine with blogs and public relations without attracting the lunatic crowd (some people with out of the blue ideas do exist but they are amateurs compared to the 2012ers). Is the US public that finds the Maya of interest (excluding 2012ers) only interested in what is amazing, fantastic, greatest, oldest, etc.?

        Yes, archaeology is a luxury and far from the most important thing one can do (my wife saves lives of people with heart transplantations…). But I still believe we should not exaggerate. El Mirador is important as it is.

  3. “Mysterious swedes?” What is mysterious about turnips? It’s not even an alliteration.

    The whole purpose of “mysterious Maya,” “amazing Aztecs,” and “incredible Inca” (I believe I have two courses with titles involving those phrases) is advertising. It gets people interested in what one might say about settlement patterns, subsistence systems, lithic technology, and non-capitalist semi-commodified market systems.

    “Lugubrious Lapps” is at least alliterative, and generally truthy. But if one wants to sell turnips, one calls them “Sensuous Swedes.” And develops a sense of humor about hyperbole. 😉

  4. Yes, it is all about advertising and Hansen does that well. It is a symptom of the capitalist system: sell to the market and the market sets the standards. There are differences between the market in the US and in Sweden. Perhaps as a Swede I fall victim of the so-called Jante Law ( since I am never impressed by anything, and particularly exaggerations set me off in a negative mode (unless I can sense some irony in the hyperbole, which I fail to detect in Hansen’s advertisement).

    However, I suspect that there are different traditions, perhaps not between countries but rather within disciplines themselves. I cannot remember I have ever seen a course where the words amazing, mysterious or incredible are combined with Vikings here in Sweden whereas courses with the same words could potentially be combined with Bronze Age studies and for sure Greek and Roman archaeology at a Swedish university. I am pretty sure it boils down to evaluation of supposed cultural achievment and political history. The achievments of Vikings are often downplayed because in modern political history they have been associated with nationalism and Nazism. Greeks and Romans are always put high on that cultural evolutionary ladder (intentionally or not) and they are “finer” than anything encountered in Scandinavian soils (according to some categories of people anyway).

    Anyway, advertisement for archaeology here in Sweden has entered a new era:
    However, here I can easily sense the humor behind the hyperbole.

    • Johan, I really don’t see this as reflecting anything about perceptions of cultural achievement, but rather familiarity with the society. In Sweden the Vikings aren’t that mysterious, but to a lot of the rest of the world they would be considered far more mysterious than the Romans or the Greeks. The Roman Empire and Greek city states had political organizations and lifestyles far more similar to ours than the ancient Vikings, and their styles of architecture and art are a common part of our Western European cultural heritage, repeated in new works of art in our own society all the time.

      I agree with you that the Nazi promotion of these ancient Germanic peoples explains to some degree the relative decline in interest in these groups in comparison to many other ancient people these days. I have found it interesting to see how the British promoted their Anglo-Saxon history in the 19th century, with many people bearing Anglo-Saxon names, even in the royal family. That ended in the early-to-mid 20th century, as after the two world wars the previous interest in the Middle Ages declined and Britain’s Germanic history was seriously downplayed. While I see modern conceptions of race and racism as playing a large part in that, I do not see this as explaining the popularity of the phrase “mysterious Maya”.

      • I should have exemplified with the Scandinavian Bronze Age as a contrast to the Viking age. This period has also figured in earlier nationalistic writings but not to same degree as the latter. The Bronze Age and its rock art is full of cosmological modelling and mystification of various aspects. The cultural achievments are supposed to be great, etc. Just compare this with any written stuff on Mesolitihic material from the same area (the Neolithic can be mystified if it have megalithic tombs).

        I do believe that you will find more hyperbolic language in narratives explaining the artistic and architectural achievments of ancient Rome, Angkor, and El Mirador than you will find in narratives concerning a mesolithic fishing camp, a commoner household at Barton Ramie, etc.

        These evaluations are always made in the present and leading a life at an ancient Maya royal court may be just as exotic as spearing fish in the Mesolitic from our modern setting. If everything is so marvelous about the past than nothing stands out. It is like eating your favorite meal everyday. You will get bored with it.

  5. Wonderous Welsh!

  6. In my opinion there is nothing mysterious, or amazing or incredible about the Maya.
    The Maya Pyramids, astronomy, the Maya calender, the Maya science, and civilization
    came from the Aiens, and the Maya say this themselves.
    In Egypt, Mr Havass try to tel us, that ten thousand years ago some of those goat herders got together in the desert, and they said; hey guys lets build a Great Pyramid. But it was the same Aliens, the Annunaki who build the Great Pyramid, the Maya civilization , the city on Mars, The face on Mars, if it is a face, is the face Alalu,who was the first to discover this Earth Planet 500 thousand yeas ago, and the Annunaki followed him after.

    • Where exactly do they say so themselves? Please enlighten us Mayanists where we can find this incredible information.

      It is always interesting to see that even if a discussion has to do with the Maya, 2012ers quickly turn it to Egypt. At least get the basic facts correct. I think you should look up the goat herder idea and please find a quote where Hawass says what you just claim. Good luck with that.

      Or maybe you are joking?

      • Hi Johan.
        I guess you never heard of, and never read The Earth Chronicles, from
        Zecharia Sitchin, The Russian Orientalist, and Biblical scholar. He was not a Mayanist, but he translated ancient Sumerian tablets, and put together more than ten books, The Earth Chronicles. This have nothing to do with 2012, far from it. I m not joking about Mr Hawass, I m only trying to say, is that nobody believe Mr Hawass.

  7. Sure I have heard about Sitchin. I have written about his various frauds before:
    I suggest you read the post about the ethnocentrism he and people like him are spreading.
    Sure, few people believe and like Hawass. I don’t but it has more to do with his flamboyant style and age old cultural historical standpoints. It has nothing to do with him not believing in aliens. No other Egyptologist believe this as well. But they are all fooled are they not according to your belief?


%d bloggers like this: