May 9, 2009 Lucia Henderson PhD Candidate, University of Texas at Austin: "The Art of Performance: Song, Sound, and Breath in the Iconography of Preclassic Kaminaljuyú"

The talk Ms. Henderson presented examined a group of monument fragments from the Late Preclassic Maya site of Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala, many of which have never been published or seen by the public before. Kaminaljuyú appears to have been the largest Preclassic highland site, with the rich, volcanic soil which was also desirable to those who built Guatemala City on top of it.  There are over two hundred mounds at the site, but all of the buildings were made of adobe, and most of the mounds have been covered with houses and other buildings. Most destructive to the site were brick factories, which mined the mounds for clay, leaving exhumed bodies, pots and other remains on the surface, often unreported. Any artifacts which survived the bulldozers and looters, were mostly obtained by salvage and were thus out of context. The fragments of silhouette sculptures discussed by Ms. Henderson were all thin, one-sided bas-relief cut outs, a strange format almost unique to Kaminaljuyú. They show figures singing, speaking, or playing musical instruments, and are the earliest incontestable images of musical performance known from the Maya area. As such, Ms. Henderson believes that these fragments appear to have much to say not only about the role of performance, song, music, and speech at Kaminaljuyú, but about the manner in which kings and the office of rulership were structured during this early period in the history of Mayan civilization.
Music, song, and speech are well attested throughout Mesoamerica as ways of communicating with and summoning the gods. Such sacred sounds were also closely tied to concepts of the breath soul, which was believed to animate humans, gods, and even material objects. As evidenced by these silhouette fragments, the Preclassic inhabitants of Kaminaljuyú believed that acts of music, song, and speech were worthy of being sculpted in stone and populated their site with musicians and performers that continued to play, sing, and speak in perpetuity.  Ms. Henderson showed photographs of the fragments, including a headless bejeweled cross-legged king, seated upon a mat, another playing a wind instrument, and many others which include sound or song scrolls. She discussed the MesoAmerican concept of wind, breath, sound and song as one continuum, and then connected it to the breath that exits the sacred caves, which brings rain, and represents the intersection of the human and divine worlds.
Ms. Henderson thus concluded that at least two of the sculptures specifically identified rulers with sacred sound. One image even appeared to show the ruler as the embodiment of wind, the breath soul, and speech or song. These sculptures, therefore, not only emphasize the time depth of performance in the Maya area, but demonstrate that the power of kings was rooted in performance in a very visible way. These sculptures therefore indicate that performance played an active and essential role in the execution of ritual and the maintenance of kingly power during the Preclassic period. As not only the performer of songs and speech, but the embodiment of these things, the Preclassic Kaminaljuyú king marked himself as a human manifestation of sacred sound, watery wind, and the most vital and important of breath souls.  We thank Lucia for her exciting and thought-provoking presentation, and wish her luck on her underwater work this summer and the completion of her dissertation!
Lucia Henderson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation work centers on the beginnings of Maya art and iconography, with particular focus on the bas-relief sculptures at the Preclassic site of Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala. Lucia is a recipient of the prestigious Donald D. Harrington Fellowship and, in addition to her dissertation research, is slated to begin an underwater archaeology project in northwestern Peten, Guatemala, this summer.
Lucia graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in archaeology in 2001. Her undergraduate work centered on her excavation of the tomb of Ruler 12 at the site of Copán, Honduras. She was trained in archaeological illustration by David Stuart and Ian Graham while working for the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, co-authoring The Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Vol. 9, Part 2: Toniná, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2006. She received her Masters Degree in Art History from the University of California, San Diego in 2005, where she broadened her research to include Aztec art and iconography. Her publications and research cover a broad territory, from the 13th Century American Southwest to the Preclassic Maya world. They include Producer of the Living, Eater of the Dead: Revealing Tlaltecuhtli, the Two-Faced Aztec Earth, B.A.R. 2006, Symbols in Clay: Seeking Artists Identities in Hopi Yellow Ware Bowls, Co-authored with Dr. Steven LeBlanc, Peabody Museum Press, 2009, Blood, Vomit, Water, and Wine: Pulque in Maya and Aztec Belief, Mesoamerican Voices, in press, and A Common Space: Lake Amatitlan and Volcan Pacaya in the Cosmology of Highland Guatemala and Escuintla, University Press of Colorado, projected release 2010.

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