March 15, 2010

Maya Geek Week in Antigua, Guatemala

Jack and I are off to Antigua, Guatemala. Maya Geek Week is here.

One of our goofiest, geekiest, right-brain-iest travel pleasures is our trip each March to the Maya Meetings sponsored by the Mesoamerican Center at the University of Texas.

For more than 30 years, the annual Maya Meetings have attracted some of the top academics in the field of Maya studies: archeologists, historians, linguists, art historians and epigraphers (experts in the study of writing). The focus is the interpretation of the almost-lost hieroglyphic language of the ancient Maya civilization that thrived in parts of Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras from about 200 – 900 AD.

The Maya Meetings have everything: tales of vast palace complexes lost for centuries in overgrown lowland jungles; temples and steles carved with scenes of powerful rulers bedecked in fanciful masks plumed with quetzal feathers ­- and skulls hanging from their belts – and what appear to be captions written a language of symbols as mystifying as the hieroglyphics of Egypt. Only the Maya epigraphers never had a Rosetta stone to unlock the mysterious language. It’s been a painstaking process of decipherment that’s lasted for 50 years, gathering momentum over the past couple of decades. The Maya Meetings, founded by the late epigrapher, Dr. Linda Schele, have contributed to that progress.

Attending the meetings for almost a decade, Jack and I have heard breathtaking tales of archeologists escaping from bandits by jumping au natural into crocodile infested rivers; of races to float precious tablets downstream one step ahead of looters, and serendipitous discoveries of priceless stone carvings, ritual ceramic vessels and painted murals hidden for centuries in impenetrable jungles. But in between those Indiana Jones moments there’s been a half-century’s laborious effort to decipher the language glyph by glyph, letter by letter.

On occasion, we’ve observed the meetings break into heated debate, with renowned scholars from Yale and Harvard and Cal near fisticuffs (or so it seemed) over the precise meaning of a glottal stop. We had to stifle a chuckle over that one.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Maya Meetings is that we – and other lay enthusiasts like us ­– were there at all. Founder Linda Schele believed hobbyists had something to offer. As one Mayanist explained “they ask the dumb beginner questions that we should be re-thinking ourselves. They’re naïve enough to challenge the status quo without realizing it.”

In the past, the Maya Meetings were held on the UT campus in Austin over spring break. While students were off in Cancun drinking up sunshine and beer – and each other – we budding glyphers shared the campus and the town with a high school basketball championship and the South by Southwest music festival. The lunch line at the barbeque shack offered a mind-blowing sociological brew: six foot teenagers with crew-cuts and pimples, bleary-eyed, tattooed gen-Xers sporting dreadlocks, and us. The “us” was a social brew all its own: preppy professors in khakis and elbow-patched jackets; archeologists sporting jungle pants and safari shirts; a respected linguist who looked like he’d parked his Harley outside – full beard, bandanna headscarf, earring; a renowned art historian who sat through the lectures with her knitting bag at her side.  The “hobbyist” contingent ran the gamut from limp T-shirts and distressed jeans to corporate casual Friday, with a colorful sprinkling of Maya textiles on belts, bags and huipiles – the traditional blouse worn by highland Maya women.

I hope my fellow glyphers won’t be offended by the geek moniker. I think not. There’s usually a pretty good sense of humor floating around the auditorium. Besides, with that cast of characters, what else could I say?

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