The Black Rocks

By: L. S., Jr.

Originally Published in 1935

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THE following article by Mr. Satterthwaite, Field Director of the Museum’s Expedition to Piedras Negras, Guatemala, covers the work accomplished during the 1935 season which was brought to a conclusion in July. The discovery of certain important inscriptions and unique architectural features is of particular interest.

THE Usumacinta River rises in the highlands of central Guatemala and twists its way north between the mountains. Before it can cross the border into Mexico and escape across the flatlands of Tabasco to the distant sea it must pass through a series of precipitous gorges. Here stand the ruins of two Maya cities, Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, and farther downstream a day’s ride from the river and overlooking the plain lies Palenque. In these three jungle-buried cities the sculptural art of the American Indian reached its highest achievement.

Large flat rock on the bank of a river with a circular carving on it
Plate I — View of the “Sacrificial Rock” showing two seated figures enclosed in a circular band
Note: Chalk has been used to bring out the designs in all the above mentioned figures

We do not know the names their builders gave these cities, though half a million people still speak the Maya language in nearby Yucatan. Piedras Negras is merely the Spanish for “Black Rocks,” the name given the ruins by its discoverer. The non-calendrical hieroglyphs of the Mayas may be deciphered sometime in the future; their written numbers can now be read. We can generally make out their carved or written dates and reckon forward and back from fixed points in their calendar, though we cannot yet transfer them with certainty to our own era. But no one needs to speak or read Maya to judge their civilization.

The University Museum has been digging at Piedras Negras since 1931 when Dr. J. Alden Mason, Curator of the American Section, led in his first expedition. In 1932 some of the greatest Maya sculptures known, four great stelae, a throne, two carved lintels and other monuments were brought to Philadelphia on long-term loan and set up in the new Maya Hall. Succeeding field seasons have disclosed more and more of the city.

Among many objectives, students of the Maya hope perhaps most of all to determine where and when Maya culture originated. Conceivably it may not have been in Maya country and the art may have sprung up in an entirely different setting. Most Americanists think otherwise. We have reason to hope that the two carvings on the “Black Rocks” along the river’s edge at Piedras Negras and another on a cliff within the city, all studied and recorded by the staff during the 1935 season, will prove of value in the search for early stages of Maya art.

The first group of carvings (Plate II above) consists of mere scrolls and spirals pecked in the stone. Discovered by Dr. Mason in 1931, they were first recorded this past year. In technique they do not differ from rock carvings in Colorado and Pennsylvania, Transjordania and South Africa, which have been referred to primitive cultures. These at Piedras Negras cannot have been made in recent times by the primitive or degenerate Maya still living in the valley, for one carved fragment was quarried out and used in a classical Maya building of the city, where it was found in 1932.

Many scrolling circles carved into three large rocks
Plate II — Scrolls pecked in the native rock surface
Note: Chalk has been used to bring out the designs in all the above mentioned figures

The second carving is more ambitious and depicts a typical Maya scene: two Indians seated facing each other, their legs tucked under them in a manner familiar to Maya art. They may be seen, somewhat foreshortened, in the frontispiece. This scene is surrounded by a circular band perhaps once broken into glyphs. Band and figures are practically duplicated on a Piedras Negras altar, but here the glyphs have now vanished. Possibly sacrifices to the river or to some other god were performed here; Teobert Maler, who discovered this carving during his visit in 1898 and first published the monuments of Piedras Negras in 1901, in fact, called it “The Sacrificial Rock.” The technique is a combination of line-drawing by the pecking process and cameo-carving which leaves parts of the figures raised.

The third carving (Plate II below) cut high on a cliff face within the city, apparently represents the so-called two-headed dragon well known to Maya art, though only a few lines of the head on the left survive. The grotesque face on the right, with the long up-turned nose, is that of a well-known Maya god. On the back of the beast is cut the Maya day-name Six Ahau. This carving, unlike the others, is perfectly preserved, even to traces of red paint in the lines. These are pecked in the same manner as the scrolls; like the Sacrificial Rock there is some use of crude relief, but there is no sign of the delicate control of even the earliest Piedras Negras monument (Lintel 12 now in the Maya Hall). This design was seen by Maler, who published a faulty sketch of it; it was rediscovered by the expedition this year.

A man standing below a large carving of a creature in the rock above him
Plate II — Rock inscribed with figure perhaps of Two-headed Dragon, a well known figure in Maya art
Note: Chalk has been used to bring out the designs in all the above mentioned figures

The use of a simple technique in ancient Maya times to depict mere scrolls on these rocks suggests an early primitive art. The use of the same technique in true Maya designs also on the living rock but in combination with a crude relief technique, suggests a bridge over the gap between the crude drawings of primitive Indians and perfected Maya relief sculpture. This group of rock carvings may thus contribute to the already strong case against an “Egyptian” or “Cambodian” origin for the Mayas. It must be remembered, however, that our speculations are not founded on positive proof of an early date in Maya history for these carvings; this must await the finding of similar ones elsewhere.

Because the carvings could not be properly lighted they were carefully chalked before the accompanying photographs were taken.

Maya priests or nobles sat cross-legged on thrones which in this region resemble tables. One on exhibition in the Museum consists of a great flat slab supported in front by two tapering legs and at the rear by a masonry bench. Behind was an elaborately carved screen representing a fantastic serpent head. This is Throne 1 discovered by the 1932 Expedition; other similar thrones are shown on Stela 40 and on Lintel 3, both in the Museum. In the Peabody Museum at Harvard is one leg, a single carved stone block apparently from such a throne; tradition says it was found at Piedras Negras toward the close of the last century by a mahogany cutter. The finder is still alive and last spring he gave us a description of the mound on which, to the best of his memory, he had found it. On a modern survey of the site this seemed to correspond to a building known as J-18.

A man standing in the corner of an excavated throne room with brick walls
Plate III — Piedras Negras
The upper picture shows the ruins of a throne found at Piedras Negras during the 1935 Season

During the past season we dug in this building. We did not find the missing fragments of this throne; instead we discovered the remains of an entirely new throne of the form expected but very different in construction. The front legs were not single carved slabs of stone, but were built up of masonry, as seen in Plate III (above). Built against the wall is a masonry bench of the expected type, but instead of a carved stone screen, this element is also built up of stucco decorated masonry. In the foreground can be seen two of the throne-room doorways and the picture gives an excellent idea of local Maya masonry. Those who believe that the aristocracy of the Southern “Old Empire” Maya was destroyed by an uprising of subject peoples can find additional support in this circumstance, that not a fragment of the seat slab of this throne was found; apparently vandals had broken it up and thrown the fragments away. This was the fate of Throne 1 also, except that most of the pieces were left nearby.

The staff has visited the ruins at Palenque and Yaxchilan several times, but only this year was it possible to make the thirty-mile trip upstream to Yaxchilan with government permission for minor excavations. To get there from Piedras Negras one must ride muleback two days or spend four days in dugout canoes ascending an endless series of swift rapids. The return journey speeded by the rushing current is easily made in ten hours.

Close up of part of a carved stone lintel showing a kneeling priest making an offering
Plate III — Yaxchilan
A carved stone lintel from a neighboring site is shown to the right. It shows a Maya noble or priest making an offering to a figure seated on a throne similar to the ones found at Piedras Negras.

During our two-week visit we were able to gather considerable architectural data and to search for and excavate three new carved lintels. The latter work was undertaken at the request of Dr. Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Dr. Morley as a result of work at this site in 1931 was able to predict the existence of each of the lintels found. One of these is shown in Plate III (below). It shows a standing Maya noble or priest offering something to a figure who sits before him. The standing figure wears an elaborate headdress surmounted by a long-necked bird. The hieroglyphs at the top would perhaps name the personages if we could but read them. But what especially interests us here is the throne on which the figure at the right, enveloped in a robe, is seated. Like Throne I of Piedras Negras, it has tapering legs and proves that this type of ceremonial seat was used in the same way at Yaxchilan. Stucco reliefs at Palenque prove the same for that site and it thus becomes typical for the region.

Many primitive North American Indians, in common with Asiatic tribes, take steam baths as curative and ritual ceremonies. The arrangements for these vary. Water poured on hot stones usually provides the steam. In the Mexican Highlands at the present time this is done in a small room, built with a low ceiling and a very low doorway, so as to confine the steam. Recently Dr. Morley has suggested that two Maya buildings at Chichen Itza, in northern Yucatan, are sweat baths. But the existence of this custom as part of the Maya civilization in the hot lowlands is hardly proved, especially as those two buildings may result from late intrusive influence from the Mexican Highlands.

Beginning with the excavations by Dr. Mason in 1931 of Structure P-7 (Plate IV above), buildings having much in common with the supposed sweat baths of Chichen ltza have been discovered at Piedras Negras, a purely Maya site. With the close of this season no less than eight had been identified. Assuming this function for them we can speculate on refinements and improvements on the simple structure of the highlands which might occur to the culturally sophisticated Piedras Negras Maya and produce what we have found. The steam room might be surrounded by well-lighted and ventilated outer rest and dressing rooms. The architectural restoration of Structure P-7 shows the facade of such a room. One corner of a small inner chamber may be seen through the right doorway. This room has a low ceiling and a single very low doorway and would serve admirably as a steam room.

Drawing of an imagined reconstruction of a bath house
Plate IV — Restoration of Supposed Sweat Bath Building

A sunken entrance passage leading out from this doorway would eliminate the inconvenience of crawling into this chamber on hands and knees. Such a passage is shown in the drawing. The passage continues within the supposed steam chamber until it reaches a fire chamber and so could serve the additional purpose of carrying off surplus water and providing a channel through which ashes could be swept outside without scattering on the floors of either the inner or outer rooms. The main question is whether or not the presence of the fire actually within the small ill-ventilated chamber would by its smoke render the room unsuitable for long continued occupancy.

The drawing was made by Miss Tatiana Proskouriakoff from careful field plans. This building was so well preserved that very little imagination entered into the restoration and the general effect must have been very close to that shown.

View from above looking down into an excavated bath building
Plate IV — Loking down into the so-called steam room of another “Sweat Bath,” showing the low passageway leading from the entrance in foreground

In Plate IV (below) we look down on the now roofless central chamber of Structure N-1, a building of similar type excavated this year. Unlike Structure P-7, the tropical forest had reduced this building to a mere mound. With the roof gone the arrangement within the central chamber or steam room is visible. The sunken passage may be seen running under the lintel of the low doorway and continuing inside the supposed steam room to a boxlike masonry construction at the rear. The interior of this inner chamber which was badly burned by fire had its own doorway, the broken lintel of which may be seen on the floor to the left, where we moved it; the front edge was blackened by smoke and the under side was also badly burned. Perhaps for the purpose of throwing out heat the rear wall of this little firechamber leans forward as it rises. If made of limestone the heat would soon have cracked an overhanging wall to the point of collapse and it was accordingly faced with the heavy rims of broken pots, forming an ideal fire brick. The excavation of Structure N-1 was entrusted to Mr. Francis M. Cresson, Jr., assistant archaeologist.

L. S., Jr.

Cite This Article

Jr., L. S.,. "The Black Rocks." Museum Bulletin VI, no. 1 (October, 1935): 7-15. Accessed June 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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