Wednesday, December 01, 2010

mummies and mayans


Yucatán is about as flat as a billiard table.

But, where villages and hills meet, the local church will be built on the highest point.

That is true of Santa Elena.  Its ocher-painted church (San Mateo) can be seen from miles away.  Looking like a cross between an El Cid fortress and Noah's high-centered ark.

Islagringo and I stopped at the village not to gawk at its church or its roof-top view of the surrounding area.  (If we had, I would have been ticked because the church was closed.)

Nope.  We were in an Indiana Jones frame of mind.  There were mummies to be seen.

A Mayan pyramid once stood on the church's hill.  It is long gone.  Replaced by a church some time in the Seventeenth Century. 
The current structure was built two centuries later.  I am certain Davis-Bacon wages were not paid to any of the construction teams. 

In 1980, the church was reconstructed.  While excavating the area, the workers found nine small coffins.  When they opened them, they found small bodies.  Mummified small bodies.  Two hundred year old mummified small bodies.

Rather than reburying them, the village saw income in the discovery.  The local newspaper immediately dubbed them: "The dwarfs of Santa Elena."  With genuine Mexican sensationalist journalism. 

It is no coincidence that dwarfs figure in the legend of the Mayan pyramid now missing from the crest of the hill.

Of course, they were not dwarfs.  Four of the bodies were infants.  The others were children aged 1 to 9.  All dead of some serious infection.

The four infant coffins were placed in the church's small museum.  (The other bodies simply did not comport with the myth.) 

The current exhibit is a bit more forthcoming.
Each of the infant bodies on display is clothed,
wrapped in cotton shrouds, and wears a flowered headdress.  Each coffin also includes branches, twigs, leaves under the body.

These were the children of Mayans.  Buried in an age-old tradition.

No one is certain what caused the bodies to mummify.  Obviously, they were not formally embalmed.

The scientific explanation is that the hot climate, a prolonged dry season, protection from rainfall, and good drainage beneath the church kept the bodies from decaying.  Instead, they mummified.

But the museum is an equal opportunity exploiter.  The missing pyramid gets its due.  A pre-Colombian Mayan grave was discovered during the excavation.

The male Mayan is laid out, under glass, approximately the way he was discovered.  And the museum provides an excellent summary of Mayan burial procedures.  Far more informative than the ambiguious "dwarfs."

American guide books feel compelled to comment about the ghoulish nature of the exhibits -- just as they do about the Guanajuato mummies.  As if the locals were somehow disrespecting their own ancestors.

My experience is that Mexicans have a far different view about death and bodies than do most Anglo-Saxons.  The Day of the Dead celebrations are the most obvious example.

We NOBers know that death is going to happen.  But we diet, exercise, and pop pills in the vain hope of somehow missing Miss Dickinson's carriage.  And then we hide our dying in hospitals.

Displaying these bodies is merely a reminder that for all of our egos, our finery, our possessions -- we are all going to end up in a little box when we are done using this body.

On that plane, we will all be equal.


norm said...

The upside down pyramid over the door, top clad in white, bottom used by the priest as his platform to address the flock. The Maya world turned upside down. Cool picture.

Steve Cotton said...

Norm -- Great catch on the Mayan symbols. The Catholic church has always been a master at incorporating other cultures into their rites. The location of the church being a prime example.

norm said...

Did you take one of the church in Ticul? The Mayan owl is set in stone on its front.

Billie said...

Steve, if you are going to be exploring Mexico, you might want to get some of Richard Perry's books.
I loved his book Maya Missions which lead me to lots of the churches in the Yucatan that I would not have found otherwise. Can't remember which book is about the Puebla area but it also took us off on rutted roads and into some little villages with magnificient 16th century churches. I think his books are really great to use as a off the beaten track travel planner.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Having been to Sta Elena numerous times I never wanted to see the mummies. In fact, I've actively avoided seeing them and the famous Guanjuato ones which were exhibited at the state fair one year.Your post was really interesting and I learned something. I'm still not keen on seeing them but I'm glad you did and reported so well.
I hope you stopped at the Pickled Onion and saw Valerie!

Steve Cotton said...

Norm -- I have shots of the Ticul church. I need to take a closer look at them.

Billie -- Thanks for the suggestions. New research material always comes in handy for these trips.

Theresa -- I am usually put off by the carnival atmosphere of mummies on display. It may be because the exhibition at Santa Elena is so small that it did appear to be as exploitative as I thought it should be. I actually learned quite a bit about Mayan death rituals from this little stop.