17th European Maya Conference: Helsinki, Finland

On Methods:
How we know what we think we know about the Maya

9 – 15 December 2012

The 17th European Maya Conference is co-organized by the University of Helsinki (Department of World Cultures) and Wayeb (European Association of Mayanists), and will be held from December 9th to 15th, 2012 in Helsinki, Finland. The conference is initiated by workshops (December 9th-12th), followed by a day off between the workshops and the symposium (December 13th, with extracurricular activities including a visit to the Maya III: Life, Death, Time exhibition at the Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki), and finally a two-day long symposium on the 14th and 15th of December.

Programme for Workshop and Symposium

The theme of the conference differs from the customary, concentrating on the processes of scientific investigation, rather than on the end results of research. Consequently, the conference deals with methodological issues, challenges in interdisciplinary research, questions that rise in the liminal area between disciplines, as well as experimental and cutting-edge disciplinary research.

The conference is not intended to be a showcase of different sub-disciplines (and their methods) in Maya Studies but, rather, a platform where scholars from different branches of learning will discuss the premises of scientific knowledge and expose the processes and methods of their work – rather than merely the outcome of research. We think this would be beneficial for students and scholars alike (and even for people coming from totally different fields altogether). We rarely question the basic premises and foundations in our fields – and we do not talk about methods and their importance often enough – but when we do, we also get significant results. Not too long ago the ancient Maya lived in “peaceful theocratic society, not engaging themselves in wars and not writing about earthly affairs”. However, few questioned these premises at the time.

Also, although multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research seem to predominate in the modern academic world today, we rarely question and examine the processes used in these studies. For example, do we really know how to combine different fields so that we do not fall into a methodological trap by using the methods and research results of the fields that best suit our analyses each time – without checking what the internal logic of each (sub)field is – and what its methodological assumptions are? Consequently, the idea of the conference is that people from different disciplines discuss the processes involved in their studies (whether they are disciplinary or interdisciplinary) and expose these to the audience for further discussion.

The speakers of the conference include:

  • Michael Coe (Yale University, keynote speaker and the recipient of the Wayeb Award)
  • Dmitri Beliaev & Albert Davletshin (Russian State University for the Humanities)
  • Jesús Carretero Pérez (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) & José Luis González (Information Technology Laboratory Center of Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV) Ciudad Victoria, Mexico)
  • Elizabeth Graham (University College London)
  • Daniel Graña-Behrens (University of Frankfurt)
  • Sven Gronemeyer (La Trobe University)
  • Nikolai Grube (University of Bonn)
  • John S. Henderson (Cornell University) & Kathryn M. Hudson (University at Buffalo)
  • John Hoopes (University of Kansas)
  • Kerry Hull (Reitaku University)
  • Harri Kettunen (University of Helsinki)
  • Milan Kováč (Instituto Eslovaco de Arqueología e Historia)
  • Felix A. Kupprat (UNAM)
  • Alfonso Lacadena (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)
  • Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania Museum)
  • Peter Mathews (La Trobe University)
  • Romelia Mo’ Isem (Guatemala)
  • Shawn Gregory Morton, Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown, Peter C. Dawson & Jeffrey D. Seibert (University of Calgary)
  • Alexander Safronov (Lomonosov Moscow State University)
  • Rogelio Valencia Rivera (Centro Knorosov-Xcaret; Universidad Veracruzana, Xalapa)
  • Gabriel Wrobel (Michigan State University)
  • Eriko Yamasaki (University of Bonn)
  • Marc Zender (Tulane University)

Opening Lecture

Opening Lecture (Sunday, 9 December, evening)

Simon Martin (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

The workshop includes an opening lecture that serves as an introduction to Maya hieroglyphic writing and provides participants with a general overview of the history of the decipherment.

All workshop groups will be taught and supervised by experienced tutors. Participants will be tutored in English. Spanish explanations can be provided by tutors, on an individual basis, for workshops of all levels.

Introductory level workshop on Maya hieroglyphs
Tutors: Christophe Helmke (University of Copenhagen), Ramzy Barrois (Ecole du Louvre), Sven Gronemeyer (La Trobe University, Melbourne) & Rosa Worm Danbo (University of Copenhagen)

The information drawn from Maya hieroglyphic texts has fundamentally changed our understanding of the ancient Maya culture. To be able to read what the Maya themselves wrote about their history and rituals provides a fascinating and unparalleled window into a past culture, whose descendants continue to thrive in the communities of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The objective of this workshop is to provide an intensive introduction to the study of Maya hieroglyphs. Participants will have a chance to decipher hieroglyphs on their own during the workshop with the assistance of the tutors. General tuition will be given in English but explanations can also be provided in other languages (including Danish, French, German and Spanish) on an individual basis. No previous knowledge of Maya culture, Maya hieroglyphs, ancient scripts, or linguistics is required to attend the workshop.

Towards the end of the three day workshop, participants will be able to understand the basic structure of Maya texts, decipher calendrical information, reconstruct chronology, point at verbs and nominal phrases, and much more. The focus of the introductory level workshop is on the Late Classic history of Piedras Negras, in the present-day Guatemala, tying in interactions with neighbouring sites along the course of the Usumacinta River.

Introductory to intermediate level workshop on bioarchaeology
Tutor: Gabriel Wrobel (Michigan State University)

This workshop will focus primarily on current analytical techniques used in bioarchaeological research, with particular focus on those commonly employed in the analysis of pre-Contact Maya contexts. We will begin by discussing methods of documenting human skeletal remains in situ that can be valuable to reconstructing mortuary behaviour and distinguishing cultural from taphonomic processes related to bone movement. Next, instruction will focus on several forensic techniques related to generating a “bioprofile” of individuals and of commingled bone assemblages. These include age and sex estimation, scoring of epigenetic dental traits, categorizing dental and cranial modifications, explanations of isotope techniques currently employed to reconstruct diet and geographic origins of individuals, and the evaluation protocol and descriptive terminology related to various pathologies and traumas. We will also discuss variations in bone trauma that can help distinguish ante-, peri-, and post-mortem processes influenced by different taphonomic, biological, and cultural processes. Finally, we will also discuss some of the challenges inherent in the application of all of these methods, as well as the possible deranging influence these may have on the results of analyses.

Intermediate level workshop on the epigraphy and archaeology of the Middle Usumacinta region
Tutors: Peter Mathews (La Trobe University, Melbourne) & Marc Zender (Tulane University)

This workshop will deal with texts from Maya cities in the Usumacinta / Western Maya region. The workshop will be divided into two parts. On the first day we shall divide into a number of working groups, each of which will study a selection of texts (from sites such as Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, Pomona, Palenque, and Tonina), in order to gain an understanding of the historical information within individual kingdoms as well as relationships between them. On the morning of the second day we shall summarize this historical material, and for the remainder of the workshop, individual working groups will concentrate on more detailed analysis of the texts, which could involve more refined historical research or structural and linguistic analysis.

Intermediate level workshop on Maya cosmology and mythology
Tutors: Erik Boot (Independent Scholar) & Alexandre Safronov (Lomonosov Moscow State University)

In Late June of 2012 archaeologists revealed that they had found a second reference to the 13th bak’tun date in 2012 at La Corona, a site in the western Peten, Guatemala. This date was previously only known from the inscription of Tortuguero Monument 6. In this year’s workshop we would like to reconsider several of the most important Classic and Postclassic Maya mythological narratives, both textual and visual, which describe mythological events prior to, on, and just afterwards the date as placed in 3114 BC and compare these to the Classic Maya textual material we have on the date in AD 2012.

Research questions we would like to address in this workshop include: When and how are dates represented in Maya hieroglyphic texts? Which events take place on that date and how do they relate to events before and after the date? How do we define and structure these events in relation to the Classic Maya kings who included them in their “dynastic” narratives? What happens on the date in AD 2012 and how does it relate to the previous event? Are there other (mythological and/or historical) “anchor dates” besides the dates that Maya kings and queens employ in their narratives?

While the narratives surrounding the dates already provide a wealth of texts and images defining Classic Maya mythology we also like to include two well-known but still not fully understood narratives: “The Throwing of the Jaguar Baby” and “The Maize God in the Water.”

The workshop will be introduced by an illustrated presentation. The workshop itself will consist of various short presentations on a variety of subjects that introduce hands-on epigraphic and iconographic analysis. Through discussion and short presentations by the participants we hope to arrive at a better understanding of these most important narratives of the Classic Maya.

To best enjoy and have a fruitful experience in the workshop, it would help if the participants had a working knowledge of Maya calendar and a basic understanding of Classic Maya writing and grammar. Textual and iconographic material from a variety of Maya sites (e.g., Copan, La Corona, Palenque, Tortuguero, Xultun), Late Classic ceramics, and the Postclassic Maya codices will be made available through a sourcebook. The sourcebook is provided to the participants at printing cost (depending on the number of pages, ca. 10€).

Advanced Workshop on Ancient Maya Poetics
Tutors: Alfonso Lacadena (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) & Kerry Hull (Reitaku University)

The hieroglyphic texts of the Ancient Maya richly detail aspects of ritual, warfare, mythology, and various elements of elite interactions. Many of these texts, however, also contain a secondary level of intended meaning couched in rhetorical style, discourse structure, and prosody that have gone largely unnoticed by scholars. In this workshop participants will discover the verbal artistry used by Maya scribes to construct literary texts of extraordinary complexity and beauty. Each of more than twenty poetic devices found in Ancient Maya hieroglyphic texts will be discussed, and participants will have opportunities to decipher not only the verbal messages of select texts, but also the rhetorical features built into the texts, resulting in a fuller comprehension of the original intent of their authors. We will identify the linguistic and extra-linguistic tools employed by Ancient Maya scribes to indicate the climax of a narrative or to create emphasis, highlighting, or emotive response. We will also investigate the concept of “literature” as it relates to the Ancient Maya, drawing heavily on Colonial and modern-day instantiations of ritual discourse among various Maya groups, to pinpoint relevant structural or prosodic schemes that help to distinguish such speech from everyday parlance.

An Introduction to Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cooking
Tutors: Claudia Alarcón Cacheux (Independent Scholar) & Verónica Amellali Vázquez López (UNAM)

This one-of-a-kind three day workshop will feature an overview of the ingredients, utensils and techniques used in Pre-Hispanic Mexican and Maya cuisine. This interdisciplinary workshop will be divided into a lecture section followed by cooking demonstrations, hands-on participation and food and beverage tastings.

The theoretical portion will include archeological, iconographic, epigraphic and anthropological research in the following topics:

  • Overview of ingredients, utensils and techniques
  • Maize in history, mythology, archaeology, iconography, and epigraphy
  • Ritual foods, Day of the Dead, and ancestor worship

The second part of the day will include cooking demonstration and hands-on participation, including the following:

  • Cooking utensil demonstration and practice
  • Tasting and explanation of various ingredients, such as cacao & chocolate; maguey & mescal; insects (chapulines, gusanos, etc.); varieties of chiles; differences between fresh and dried, uses, handling, preparation of salsas; maize, beans, seeds, and amaranth; spices, herbs, and other flavorings
  • Recipe preparation and tasting

For the hands-on portion of the workshop, a basic knowledge of cooking and use of kitchen utensils, as well as kitchen safety, are desired. The workshop is divided into morning session (9-12) and afternoon session (14-17) each day, i.e. each participant will either choose the morning or the afternoon session for each day.


Dr. Harri Kettunen of the University of Helsinki