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Heads, Skulls, and Sacred Racks

April 21, 2022
06:00 PM to 07:00 PM
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Shifts in Sacrificial Practices, Body Processing, and Exhibition Beyond the Maya Collapse. Vera Tiesler discusses new insights on the massification of ritualized violence leading up to and beyond the Maya collapse.

Like other ancient Mesoamerican societies, human sacrifices among the Maya epitomized a hierarchically organized cosmic food chain between the transpiring human sphere and a divine anecumene. Although ritualized violence has been abundantly recorded in Maya iconography and colonial testimonies, only the last decades of scholarship have seen methodological and interpretive strides towards a more nuanced study of sacrificial choreographies involving humans. This talk examines different procedures of ritual killing. A review of skeletal and iconographic evidence highlights the increased practice of body processing and exhibition in Late Maya strongholds when compared to Classic-period urban centers. The lecture will address the religious and sociopolitical shifts that led to the massification of ritualized violence and body display leading up to and beyond the Maya collapse, as showcased by Terminal Classic urban centers and the eloquent mortuary record of Chichén Itzá.

Vera Tiesler is based at the Autonomous University of Yucatan in Mérida, Mexico, and currently serves as a Tinker Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago. Coming from an archaeological, artistic, and medical background, her academic interests lie in illuminating the human condition among ancient Mesoamericans by studying their mortuary remains, including active fieldwork at Palenque, Calakmul, and Chichén Itzá. In her research, Tiesler examines skeletal information together with other material and discursive media to understand ancient living conditions and lifestyles, physical appearance and embodied identities, violence, and ancestor veneration. Recent book publications include The Bioarchaeology of Artificial Cranial Modifications (2014; Springer), Before Kukulkán. Maya Life, Death, and Identity at Classic Period Yaxuna, Yucatan, Mexico (Tiesler, Cucina, Stanton & Freidel, 2017; University of Arizona Press); Social Skins of the Head. Body Beliefs and Ritual in Ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes (Tiesler & Lozada, eds. 2018; University of New Mexico Press), the Dumbarton Oaks publication Smoke, Flames, and the Human Body in Mesoamerican Ritual Practice (Tiesler & Scherer, eds. 2018), and the forthcoming volume Precious Smiles. Dental Modification and Social Identity Among the Ancient Maya (Tiesler, University of Texas Press). Tiesler’s current CONACYT research grant focuses on Maya sensorial experiences.  

Detail from Chichén Itzá’s major tzompantli platform. Photo by V. Tiesler.