The visual discourse of ninth-century stelae at Machaquila and Seibal (Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras)

Bryan R. Just
School of Liberal Arts, Tulane University
July, 2006


This dissertation investigates how ancient Maya artists and ruler-patrons adapted traditional visual conventions to the dramatic socio-political changes of the ninth century AD. Shared visual conventions used throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and northern Honduras formed a coherent communicative system, particularly in the eighth century, an era that also witnessed significant growth of the elite class and an increased frequency of inter-polity warfare. Resulting economic and social stress catalyzed dramatic changes in the ninth century, leading to the abandonment of most Maya cities.
Some polities, however, enjoyed political success in this era, effectively adapting to the changing social landscape. This study considers the ninth-century sculpture at two such polities, Machaquila and Seibal. Sculptors at each site produced a series of ruler- portrait stelae proclaiming the political power of local kings following the violent demise of the region's dominant Mutal polity. The 'visual discourse' model applied herein situates stela production in the context of artist-patron-audience interaction and highlights the socio-political implications of drawing upon specific visual precedents and of adapting and implementing them in particular ways. Initially, sculptors at each site portrayed local ruler-patrons as the regional successors of Mutal kings by adopting the visual conventions of that polity. Subsequently, however, stelae at Machaquila and Seibal diverged significantly. Machaquila's conservative stelae presented increasingly streamlined, 'legible' compositions to stress socio-political stability and expand the potential audience to include non-elite Maya and foreign audiences. In contrast, Seibal's artists heterogeneously employed old, new, and foreign visual devices. Seibal's late stelae implement traditional Maya visual conventions primarily to contrast with non-local modes of expression, reflecting a decline in that system's social power. The eclecticism of Seibal's late stelae contradicts past proposals of foreign invasion and takeover. Instead, Seibal's rulers chose to present themselves as 'cosmopolitan' in a context of increasingly international interaction. The concluding chapter elucidates several possible socio- political explanations of Machaquila's and Seibal's visual discourses by considering each city's geopolitical situation, the increasing social power of merchants, a conceptualization of eighth-century Maya visual expressions as excessively sophisticated, and the roles of the artists, patrons, and audiences involved in the production and reception of the stelae.