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Agriculture and Arboriculture in Maya Art and Writing


M.A.R.I. Lunch Talk Series


Agriculture and Arboriculture in Maya Art and Writing

Uptown Campus
Dinwiddie Hall

Featuring Dr. Marc Zender - Department of Anthropology

The result of decades of work—including the arduous mapping of Maya cities and landscapes, the meticulous cataloging of plant and tree species around settlements, and the truly transformative imagery of ancient fields and towns recently revealed by lidar—it is now increasingly clear that Maya agriculture and arboriculture comprised a complex, sustainable set of practices often taking place directly within and beside ancient settlements. Old debates arguing for ancient sites as either vacant ceremonial centers or dense urban landscapes have given way to more nuanced views of ‘garden cities’ surrounded by a ‘managed mosaic’ of forest preserves, milpas, and orchards. Perhaps surprisingly, Maya art and writing have hitherto contributed little to these new insights. In part, this is due to their relatively restricted genres, only rarely featuring overtly agricultural themes. There are no painted ceramics or sculptured reliefs depicting cornfields, for instance, and no ancient maps of settlements representing the interspersed fields, forests, and orchards which are now thought to have characterized the ancient landscape. However, a close look at the Maya script reveals numerous signs explicitly derived from the ‘forest gardens,’ as well as some key agricultural tropes upon which royal inscriptions often relied. Further, ancient imagery does reveal numerous points of contact with developing views of Maya agriculture and arboriculture, including orchards adjacent to palaces, and forest preserves and game alongside settlements. Some orchards may even have been targeted in warfare. As will be seen, our appreciation of agricultural and arboricultural references in Maya art and writing is immeasurably deepened by considering them in the light of recent archaeological discoveries.



Middle American Research Institute