June 9, 2007, Bryan R. Just,  "Terminal Classic Art and Politics in the Pasión Region: The Case of Machaquila Stela 2"

In the final decades of the eighth century, dramatic changes swept through the political landscape of the Pasión region of the Southern Maya Lowlands. On Jan 17, 761 AD, the king of Dos Pilas, Kawiil Chan Kinich, departed from of his capital city, marking the decline of the Mutal polity. At that time, Dos Pilas was all that remained of the great polity which had been dominated by what is more commonly called Tikal.  His departure left a political void that several lords of neighboring cities sought to fill.  Among the later competitors was a lord from the small city of Machaquila known only by the titles Ochkin Kaloomte Aj Ho Baak, or Great West Lord, He of Five Captives.  In his talk, Dr. Just utilized his monument, Machaquila Stela 2, as an encapsulation of several visual and rhetorical strategies involved in the region’s political jostling.
                The site of Machaquila is located on the Machaquilá River, a southwesterly flowing tributary of the Pasión River in southeastern Peten, Guatemala. Its nearest neighbors were the Pasion River sites of Seibal, to the north, Cancuen, to the south, and the pre-classic site of Tres Islas, in the center, which bore both the Machaquila and the Cancuen emblem glyphs. In a region of rough terrain that borders the Maya Mountains, it has always been relatively inaccessible. Closer to its source, the river itself eventually disappears below the surface, which required traders to make a lengthy portage when traveling to the resource rich Mopan Valley.  This isolation may have allowed Machaquila to remain apart from much of the warfare that characterized the neighboring Petexbatun region in the late eighth century.
            The known stelae from Machaquila date from 711 AD. The earliest stelae, which are stylistically simple and similar to those of nearby sites, commemorate katuun or half katuun period endings.  An important change in calculating the intervals between period ending rites appears on Stela 18, erected in 775. Instead of using the long count tuun, which has a year length of 360 days, the scribes or artists working on this stela utilized a year length interval of 364 days to calculate the date on which the five year period ending was celebrated in Machaquila. 364 multiplied by 5 results in 1,820 days, a number which is also the product of 7 X 260. 260 days is the length of the tsolkin portion of the sacred calendar round, and this in turn means that the tsolkin dates of the two connected events would be the same. In some later inscriptions, a year of 365 days was used; this 1,825 day interval would then produce identical haab dates. Both of these dating intervals, of course, more closely correspond with the solar year. The badly damaged Stela 17 appears to bear a calendar round of 4 Ajaw 13 Keh, which  probably corresponds to, the date on the newly discovered panel from Cancuen, on which  Tajal Chan Ahk, lord of Cancuen, performs a ballgame ritual with a lord said to be the captor of the king of Machaquilá.  Following this, Tajal Chan Ahk proclaims himself king of both Cancuen and Machaquila.
            On, or January 9, 801, a new Machaquila king, Ochkin Kaloomte Aj Ho Baak, erected Stela 2, which asserted his political autonomy. Although based on the same basic composition as earlier stelae, Stela 2 is much more detailed and naturalistically carved. The figure of the king dominates the front of the stela, and its realistic, elaborate costuming has more in common with that depicted on the stelae of the old Mutal polity, rather than those of the Pasion region. This style perhaps better befits a ruler who bears the exalted title of Ochkin Kaloomte, or Great West Lord.  This title is usually reserved for only the highest ranking rulers, whom scholars believe were originally invested in places of power, such as Teotihuacan. The main figure stands in a conventional pose in which the face is in profile, the body is frontal, and the feet are turned out. He wears a heavily feathered Chaak headdress, complete with a hand holding an eccentric flint blade protruding from its front. Before his face is a cut-away view of a mosaic mask, and he bears a Kawiil Scepter in his right hand. His pectoral is covered with large, probably jade, beads, while olive shells dangle from his belt, and his highly decorated loincloth extends to his ankles. The quetzal feathers in the headdress twist naturalistically from their base, giving a hint of three-dimensionality to the work.  The artist has actually depicted the gap in the beaded wrist cuff where it would have been tied together. Interestingly, there is a kneeling figure, in a subservient pose, with his hand on his shoulder, below and in front of the king. This secondary figure wears a bird headdress, possibly a cormorant, and bears what is probably a deity image, topped with corn foliage, which is similar to one portrayed in sculpture from Cancuen. Dr. Just wonders if it could have been taken from that site and been presented to the king. The events described on this stela include the closing of something which may be a cache, the period ending rites, and the dedication of the stela itself. The dating sequences correspond with the calendrical calculations unique to Machaquila. The inscriptions refer to the king as a ballplayer, one who holds five captives, a divine lord of Machaquila, as well as a Great West Lord.  There is no reference to the king of Cancuen, who was supposedly his overlord, except perhaps in the presentation of the deity image, if indeed it represents Cancuen. Does this indicate that Cancuen no longer controlled Machaquila? Did this Ochkin Kaloomte perhaps receive his power from somewhere in the old Mutal polity, or was he just an upstart lord of Machaquilá indulging in a bit of braggadocio? At present, this is difficult to ascertain, as Stela 2 was the only known monument erected by this lord. The next known stela, Stela 3, was erected fifteen years later by Sijyaj Kin Chaak II. His two more simplistic stelae portray a less realistic, still elaborately costumed lord who again bears the Kaloomte title. This stela utilizes the 1,825 day anniversary interval, while the later Stela 4 returns to the earlier 1,820 day calculation method. Both intervals are apparently unique to Machaquilá, within this region, and their continued use reinforces the possibility of Machaquilan independence.  Inscriptions from Machaquila continue until 840 AD, almost forty years after the major sites of the Usumacinta and Pasión drainages fell into silence. Eventually, Seibal conquered Machaquila, and came to dominate their rugged trade route to the Mopan Valley.
            The society thanks Dr. Just and congratulates him on his new position as Assistant Curator and Interim Department Head of Art of the Ancient Americas at the Princeton University Art Museum. Dr. Bryan R. Just received his MA and PhD from Tulane University’s Interdisciplinary Program in Art History and Linguistics with a 2006 dissertation, The Visual Discourse of Ninth-Century Stelae at Machaquilá and Seibal.  He received his BA from Yale University.  He is the author of numerous publications including collaborative efforts with Gabrielle Vail, Anthony Aveni, Harvey Bricker and others.  He has taught art history courses at Tulane and presented numerous conference papers.

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