We may think we make sufficient sacrifices for our idea of beauty, what with false eyelashes, body perforations supporting various bits of metalwork from earrings to tongue studs, toupees and hair extensions, Spanx and padded bras. The Ancient Maya went much farther, however, reshaping their children’s skulls and inlaying their own teeth with jade.
“The Maya went to extreme lengths to transform their bodies,” Professor Mary Miller reports in the new year issue of Archaeology, the US journal. “They invested vast wealth and endured unspeakable pain to make themselves beautiful.”
As an example, Professor Miller cites K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who ruled the western Maya city of Palenque from AD615 to 683, and after his death at the age of 80 was interred in a great carved sarcophagus below the Temple of the Inscriptions. His skeleton shows that soon after his birth, his head was strapped between two cradle-boards to compress it from back to front, not unlike the crystal-skulled aliens in the recent Indiana Jones film.
This left an indentation above his browline, which was emphasised by an artificial nasal bridge, probably of clay or plaster, built up on to his forehead. Although this does not survive in the burial, a stucco portrait head found below the sarcophagus shows it clearly. The head also shows that Pakal’s hair was cut in a series of bluntly trimmed tresses, with longer strands on top flopping forward, which Professor Miller interprets as imitating the leaves and corn silk on a maize plant: at the site of Cacaxtla, Maya-style murals show maize cobs on the plant as human heads. Pakal was shown as ever-youthful, like the maize that springs up anew each year.
Pakal’s front teeth were filed into an inverted T-shape, marking him as also being the Sun God, something shown on his jade burial mask as well. For many Maya, notably those of the elite, dental decoration was seen as highly desirable.
Teeth, especially the upper incisors and canines were filed and notched in a variety of designs, giving in some cases a distinctly crooked smile. Most striking, however, were the dental inlays: a shallow hole was drilled into the front face of the tooth enamel (using a reed or bone hollow drill and an abrasive such as sand or jade dust), sometimes reaching the dentine within.
Small discs of jade, obsidian or haematite were then cemented into the holes: the plant adhesive was so powerful that many burials found by archaeologists today still have the inlays firmly in place. Up to three discs were inserted into a single tooth, and jade and the other materials were combined to give a flash of apple-green, dull red and shiny black across the mouth; inlays and filing were also
combined. Dental decoration was probably applied as a rite of passage to adulthood, according to Professor Stephen Houston, of Brown University, Rhode Island.
The Maya also painted their bodies, in life and in death. Narrative scenes on polychrome vases show pigments applied to face, chest and buttocks. In death, Pakal’s corpse was treated with alternating layers of red and black pigments, Professor Miller reports. Red to the Maya was the colour of the sunrise, black of the sunset, alternating with each other in the diurnal cycle.
Some facial designs are in the form of long strings of dots, especially around the mouth, and when this is shown in sculpture or vase-painting it may be intended to show tattooing rather than just make-up. “Beauty was a way to display social, if not moral, value among the ancient Maya,” Professor Miller concludes. “The wealth they invested and pain they endured to create bodies that reflected their social beliefs make our modern-day obsession with beauty seem less excessive.”
Archaeology Vol 62 No. 1: 36-42