Read My Lips…Ears, Nose, Head, and Teeth: Interpreting Permanent Bodily Ornaments

Research Notes

By: Pamela L. Geller

Originally Published in 2003

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Codex Nuttall
This image from the Codex Nuttall depicts the Mixtec ruler Eight Deer “Tiger Claw” having his septum perforated after a political and military victory.

Tattooing and body piercing are nothing new. The punctur­ing and painting of skin have long been expressive forms of social communication in many cultures. Even in the contemporary United States, the reinvention of “primitive” forms of indelible decorations is a way to explore and express identity while resisting established cultural and political norms. How­ever, when self-styled “modern primitives” indulge in body modifica­tions simply because they see them as primal and unchanging, the unique cultural and historical meanings encoded in the alterations become lost in translation.

Contextually considering inten­tional body modifications presents an opportunity for learning about cul­tures over time and space. This is the challenge I have taken up through examining pre-Columbian Maya body modifications. I use a bioarchaeologi­cal approach in which skeletal remains and their archaeological contexts are considered jointly.

Although it may not be immediately obvious, integrating a bioarchaeological approach illuminates and expands our conception of non-Western writing systems, like that produced by the Maya.

To investigate Maya peoples’ modification of their own and others’ bodies in life and after death, I have considered burials from within and adjacent to the lands owned by the Programme for Belize (PfB) in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, comprising approx­imately 260,000 acres. The Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP) commenced in 1992; my involvement with PfBAP’s burials began with doctoral research in 1998. The burial sample contains approxi­mately 100 Classic period (ca. A.D. 250–900) burials exhumed by me and other PfBAP researchers, primarily from commoner and elite residences. As was common, these Maya peoples buried their deceased kin beneath and within their domestic structures.

Evidence from artifacts, actual bodies, iconography, and ethnohistories speaks of the many ways in which Mesoamerican peoples altered their bodies. One famous scene in the Codex Nuttall — one of eight Postclassic Mexican screenfolds that contain historical information in iconographic form — depicts the 11th- to early 12th-century Mixtec leader Eight Deer “Tiger Claw” having his septum per­forated and inserted with a turquoise noseplug following the conquest of a rival. Piercing of nose, ears, and lips, as well as cranial shaping, tattooing, and dental decoration were also included in the Maya peoples’ repertoire.

Site of Los Barbaras
The author is hard at work excavating a burial from the site of Dos Barbaras in the PfB confines.

The preservation of skin in the Maya tropical lowlands is unprecedented, so consideration of piercing presents an investigative challenge. Artifacts and skeletal evidence from one burial in the PfBAP sample, however, prove informa­tive. In June 2000, colleagues of mine exhumed a Late Classic burial from underneath a resi­dential structure’s floor at the small site of Guijarral. The individual was interred in an egg-shaped burial chamber of irregular cut stones. Despite the highly fragmentary condi­tion of the body, skeletal markers indicated that the tightly flexed individual was a male who died between the ages of 25 and 35. His grave goods included a flower-shaped bone orna­ment, shell button, and shell disk; the bone ornament was found near his fragmented skull. Based on the location of the ornament, the decedent appears to have worn it in life as well as in death.

For the individual in question, no teeth were modified; if worn as a labret (lip ornament), the ornament would have centered a viewer’s attention at the mouth and affected speech. It is also pos­sible that the ornament was worn in a perforation through the nose, suggestive of a warrior status. Ethnohistorical accounts support this supposition. A.M. Tozzer’s translation of Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas Yucatan quotes the late-16th-century Franciscan mis­sionary Juan de Torquemada’s description of the Maya warriors: Bodies are the original books upon which people inscribed markers of social norms and personal preferences.

The Maya did record their epigraphic writing system in paintings, sculptures, and codices. Advances in decipherment have contributed to reconstructions of sociopolitical intrigue and personal histories from the courtly sector. However, for the rest of society, exposure to and understanding of inscriptions varied. Scribal training was highly specialized, and therefore, restricted to a fraction of society. Most Maya would have com­municated cultural knowledge and individual narratives through other channels. Bodies represent one easily inscribable surface for those seemingly “illiterate” members of society.

“They disfigured their faces in order that they might appear ferocious and did the same on the nose and lips, placing in the holes some jewels, worked in gold or silver. This was done to frighten the enemy in war and also for coquetry.”

Bone Ornaments
Bone ornaments similar to this flower-shaped one were found in burials at Piedras Negras, Guatemala (Coe 1959). Excavators designated them “problematical ornaments,” as it was uncertain whether or not they perforated noses, ears, cheeks, or lips.

Regardless of the ornament’s location, this individual from Guijarral did have pierced skin. Such a visible and permanent body alteration would have considerably structured this person’s definition of himself, perhaps in conjunction with his age, gender, social status, and occupation. Reading the signs of past people’s bodily inscriptions offers important and insightful information about the social process and individual experience of constructing identity. In life, it is possible that this individual was a respected member of his community, and the material (and osteological) remains of his burial after death speak to a newly acquired status as venerated ancestor.

With this in mind, what do bodies communicate? Osteo­logical analyses eloquently narrate the dynamic and personal nature of an individual’s life and death. Bodies — changed by social or self-inscription, age, and accident — facilitate archaeological investigations concerned with identity construction. Rites of passage, usu­ally prompted by changes in age, gender, or status, often serve as a space for identity (re)construction. Permanently marking bod­ies during rites offers visual reminders of a person’s or group’s social transformation. Bodies, then, provide the grounds for how people define themselves, as well as how society perceives this identification.

Pamela L. Geller holds an M.A. in anthro­pology from the University of Chicago and is currently completing doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania in anthro­pology (archaeology). Her research interests include Mesoamerican archaeology, femi­nist and social theories, and bioarchaeolo­gy. In her doctoral project, she highlights the physical body to reconstruct the seem­ingly ephemeral — ritual practices, embod­iment, sensually, and identity. This work draws upon her investigations with the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP). She has also gotten her hands (and various other body parts) dirty on archaeological projects in Israel, Hawaii, and Honduras.


In the Programme for Belize, I am grateful to Fred Valdez, Julie Saul, and Frank Saul for offering invaluable support and guidance throughout my ongoing research. I am also appreciative of Jon Hageman and Michelle Rich’s careful attention to detail and documentation during their exhu­mation of the burial from Guijarral.

Cite This Article

Geller, Pamela L.. "Read My Lips…Ears, Nose, Head, and Teeth: Interpreting Permanent Bodily Ornaments." Expedition Magazine 45, no. 2 (July, 2003): -. Accessed July 18, 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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