Solar Max And the End of the World 2012

solar flare photographed by NASA 3/7/2012Today, my favorite NPR station’s network broadcast was interrupted. The local technicians had to improvise for a couple hours, because the satellite carrying their news feed was temporarily shut down by an electronic storm from the sun. This is the kind of event that we shall see more of over the next 12 months, as we ride out a Solar Maximum.

The present Solar Max made its grand entrance two nights ago, catching our attention with the eruption of a strong solar flare, sending a coronal mass ejection towards earth, “Hocking a lugie” at us, as CNN put it. On their website, CNN edited NASA’s press release thus:
“The equivalent of 10 billion tons of highly charged particles are hurtling at a rate of 3 million to 4 million miles an hour toward Earth.” Continue reading

Did Spacemen Visit the Ancient Maya?

A university student in Memphis poses the question:
Did the Ancient Maya have extraterrestrial help to achieve their civilization?

Ever since I was a child wondering at the night sky, I have hoped and wished to see a UFO. I collected stories from magazines and newspapers about them; read all I could get my hands on, of the literature by Donald Kehoe, Project Blue Book, etc. But it never happened; I have never laid eyes on a flying saucer, or even a suspicious moving point of light.

I still would welcome a proof of their existence, but to date I have never seen any evidence that anyone is out there. As a scientist, I must conclude that, without more substantial evidence, we have never been visited by extraterrestrial intelligence. As a scientist, I am also impressed by the arithmetic that suggests overwhelmingly that we are not alone in the galaxy. Everywhere we look we seem to find planetary systems, and a calculable portion of these fall in the same range of life-sustaining features that we enjoy here on the thin habitable skin of the Earth. If only one out of a million solar systems is inhabited, then there are 200,000 such star systems in our galaxy. If we are just an average planet, then perhaps half of these will have a civilization more advanced than ours. That’s still 100,000 potential star-sailing civilizations. As far as I am concerned, it’s certain that they are out there.

Continue reading

Yaxchilan, Jewel of the Usumacinta

A four- to five-hour trek by road and a one-hour speedboat ride down the broad Usumacinta (which forms here the border between Mexico and Guatemala) brings the intrepid traveler to the riverbank-city-ruin of Yaxchilan, strategically located on a forested oxbow-peninsula, its main plaza winding along a plateau a hundred feet above the river.  Along this meandering sacred space its kings erected several dozen small palace-temples.  Kind of like the Washington Mall, I reckon.  Maya ceremonial structures like this always had lintels over the doorways, usually made of hard sapodilla wood, which resists rot and decay for centuries.  Eventually nature has her way, and nearly all these lintels rot away, letting a bit of the wall above them collapse.  Only a few such lintels survive, usually on high temples, above the tree line at Tikal and a couple other places where the wood was allowed to dry out. 
But at Yaxchilan and nearby Bonampak, the architects utilized a fine, tough limestone for their lintels, and Yaxchilan has yielded to archeologists (and ruin-raiders) about sixty of them, beautifully carved in relief.  Unlike the more-public stelae, which stand out in the plaza for all to see, lintels are much more private.  Only two or three people at a time can stand in their doorways and admire them. Continue reading


Visitors to Palenque can spend days bedazzled by the many ancient  buildings in various states of picturesque decay and reconstruction.  Set on a jungled hillside overlooking the plains of Chiapas and Tabasco to the north, the ruined city is sometimes dubbed “Athens of Mesoamerica” due to its wealth of sensuous relief sculpture. Like the Acropolis of Athens, the buildings of Palenque display mere fragments of what was once a vast gallery of polychrome sculptural art, shining from every wall, courtyard, mansard-roof, hallway, and roof-comb.
Unlike Athens, shining white in the rocky semiarid landscape, Palenque is crowded, surrounded, festooned, (one might even say oppressed) by the fecund jungle.  Toucans, monkeys, and innumerable loud insects gambol in the branches of the forest canopy; every tree is burdened with bromeliads, air ferns, staghorn ferns, Spanish moss, strangler figs, huge termite metropoli, and aerial roots dangling down looking for more purchase, trying to wedge another slight advantage in the constant competition for the abundant resources.  Even in the “civilized” parts of town, near our hotel, the trees are stages, platforms for desperate competition, a tangle of roots and vines continually climbing on each others’ backs.
Only a tiny part of Palenque has been dug out from the grasping jungle. Ed Barnhardt and his team mapped the remains of about 1500 stone structures –temples, shrines, palaces, apartment blocks, performance platforms… even, in Residential Group B, a waterfall-view platform that could have –must have– been the site of moonrise-watching, spontaneous-poetry-composing parties.  Of these 1500, about 50 or 60 have been excavated.  Continue reading

Teotihuacan, “The Place Where Men Became Gods”!

Teotihuacan is pretty convenient to Mexico City. A short bus-ride from the Bus terminal Norte, for 36 Pesos, and the ticket seller gave me my first lesson (on this trip) in caveat emptor: “The bus leaves in three minutes,” he informed us, “Do you have 8 pesos?” I had given him a 200-peso note, and fished out the requisite change. He gave us our three tickets and we hurried away…. You guessed it. He did not readily proffer our 100-peso-note change. The bus was pulling out of its parking space by the time we did the arithmetic, and realized we had been *allowed* to overpay. (Later that day, we reported him, but we were unable to return the following day and confront him. His colleague was very apologetic …. and unable to pay us back.)

No shade, bring plenty of water. Teotihuacan, like every major archeological attraction in the country, cost us each 51 pesos. Couldn’t find a decent map of the site to guide us around, though there were maps posted here and there. I shot a photo and consulted it from time to time. Most of the visitor-friendly portion stretches along the Avenida de los Muertos, the broad, (nearly) north-south boulevard that forms the axis of the ancient mertropolis. It’s not exactly a highway, interrupted by stairways and sunken courts… There are no ballcourts in Teo, but the Avenida, lined with steps like bleachers, would have served well. Imagine huge, sacred Stickball tournaments held in Times Square…. Or down Colorado Blvd in Pasadena, instead of the Rose Parade….

Evidence of the ancient city’s enormous population, (variously estimated from 150,000 – 400,000, during its apogee in the 500’s AD): Even today, with millions of visitors annually, the ground is littered with ancient trash. Potsherds abound, red, buff, or black, even right on the Avenida. Here and there, especially after a rain, the occasional chip of obsidian glitters in the harsh sunlight. One does not pick up souvenirs at archeological sites –it’s unethical and illegal– but I did shoot a few pictures of some of the richer surface scatters of s herds.

We met some schoolboys who showed us, not just sherds, but a piece of pottery painted with post-fire stucco they had found. Teo is a rich site still… Will reward anyone allowed to stick a shovel in the ground. 95% of the city still sleeps beneath the sod. A few of the mounds have been penetrated, and several painted apartment-complexes even lie outside the fence surrounding the site. Why is there not an army of archaeologists burrowing and exposing its treasures? Partly lack of funding, mainly infighting and highly restrictive obstacles to anyone’s receiving permission to dig. Anyone lucky enough to dig here will find career-changing treasures, and the powers-that-be are not generous in granting such opportunities. Stay tuned, and visit often.

Teo died violently –a layer of ash overlays the final layers of occupational debris– around 650 AD. Some experts date its Fall as early as 600 or as late as 750, but I note that the Late Classic Florescence all over Mesoamerica seems to have really revved up in the mid-7th century: Cities like Tikal, Monte Alban, and Cholula enjoyed a huge building boom in the Late Classic (650-850); I attribute this to sudden freedom from onerous Teo-taxation. Most of the Classic ruins one visits show very little Early Classic or Preclassic architecture at all. Late Classic structures cover them all, just as Rome’s Early Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance churches all hide behind Baroque facades.

As we climbed the Pyramids of the Feathered Serpent (actually they don’t let you near it; we climbed the *adosada*, or porch), of the Sun (about 260 steps to the top), and of the Moon (they let you up half way), we scanned the site to see which mounds had been excavated, as we knew that that was where to see painted walls. By the time we finally learned that the mural sites were outside the gates, it was pushing four pm, and they closed at five. After much searching and asking –a pleasant walk through semi-rural avenues and alleyways– we found Tetitla, a large complex (about 40 rooms?) with the remains of beautiful frescoes on many walls. Preservation exacted a price however: Only the portion of the walls which had lain buried for the last millennium, that is, the lower two to four feet, are still adorned… Often all we see are the feet of the sacred participants, or the lower framing band.

At Tetitla, also, lived some ancient Maya ex-pats; iconographer Karl Taube’s latest project is analyzing hundreds of fragments of their murals. He tells me they even contain a few glyphs. Sadly (for me), these are all packed away in the storeroom. But what is on display enthralls.

Now, the return journey provided some REAL adventure. About ten minutes out of Teo, the bus pulls over, some armed, brown-shirted special police clamber aboard, look over the passengers… point at me, and beckon. I rise slowly. I am NOT liking being singled out in this manner. My companions sit quietly, trying to be as unobtrusive, as *invisible*, as the rest of the passengers. They take me outside the bus, pat me down perfunctorily, and motion that I remain outside. Inside the bus they’re prodding and searching people’s handbags.… Eventually one of the guards and I establish enough of a connection to overcome the language *tope*. They’re looking for guns. My new friend tells me that the newest method to smuggle them is in ladies’ handbags, but all Americans are suspect. After ten endless minutes –or was it an hour?–, they let me back on, and we continue home.

A week among the wonders of (mostly) ancient Mexico and the jungle!

Dazzling churches! Frida & Diego! Great cuisine! Pyramids! Sublime sculpture! Hieroglyphs! Mysteries! Howler Monkeys! Dawn chorus of a million birds! Dark, vaulted chambers, stone walls sweating, ceilings hung with bats! Leafcutter ants! Army ants! Biting ants! Stinging ants! Malarial mosquitoes! Montezuma’s Revenge! Corrupt cops! I love this place!

So, arriving into Mexico City with friends, one is obliged to put away the pith helmet and don the tourist’s baseball cap a bit. It turns out that we chose a bad time to visit the joined houses/studios of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in San Angel, as her half was closed completely and in his half only the top floor was open. (A landmark of modernist architecture by their friend Juan O’Gorman, built just after their return from the USA. Fenced with organ-pipe cacti.)

This contained his airy studio, reconstructed to look like he just left it: A sexy portrait of Dolores del Rio on the easel, her eyes enormous, Keen-like; his palette and brushes ready, his jacket and other clothes hung on the chair. Around three walls hang colossal papier-mache skeletons and other parade figures; shelves along the walls hold the tools of the traditional artist:brushes galore, palettes, scales with brass weights, muller and grinding-glass, jars of brightly-colored minerals, some finely powdered, others in crumbly crystals of sienna,

malachite, and orpiment…. And then four huge vitrines of artifacts: some folk-art, but mostly Pre-Columbian . Mainly pottery and figurines, broken heads of prettyladies, and the like. Someone once pointed out to Diego that he had a large number of :”fakes” in his collection. His reply: “It’s all made by the same hands.”

A taxi ride across town to Frida’s Blue House in Coyoacan was much more rewarding. No photos allowed in the galleries, full of her and others’ paintings, photos, drawings, letters, furniture, books, and other relics… Hmph. Apparently this is the spacious home-around-a-courtyard she had grown up in, and in the courtyard she displayed dozens of precolumbian sculptures, mostly Teotihuacan and Aztec. Tenoned skulls protrude from a little pyramid decked with Chicomecoatls (Aztec Maize goddesses), serpents, etc…. and so on. Lovely, tranquil place.

Lunched at the famed and gracious San Angel Inn (built in a grand 17th-century estate). Great environment. Good –not great– food.


Revisioning the Maya Tour Log

1 June 2011

Tomorrow I set off with two friends for Mexico City.  For twelve days, we journey slowly across southern Mexico, eastward, toward what the Aztecs called “The Land of the Red and the Black”…  For the Aztecs, these colors usually refer to the rising Sun and the watery Underworld**, but they have a double meaning: Red and black are the colors of ink.  The Maya were the learned ones, their home the land of innumerable books.
My kind of people!
After twelve days —the wish-list is long, from Cholula to San Lorenzo to La Venta to Agua Azul to Palenque— I join a tour of 27 academics paid for by the NEH (thank you, taxpayers, thank you!) for five weeks, to as many Maya sites as we can get to.
Last trip I took, to Peru for ten days, I came home with 7000 digital photos (many in stereo, so it’s not as many as it sounds).  My view of the world is often framed by a camera viewfinder.
Packing to do, so will close here.  More soon!

**Yucatan is riddled with caves… So many that the land has no surface water to speak of… It’s all underground.  Every town and village is built around a cave, a cenote (Mayan dzonot), a sinkhole, access to an underground pool of the clearest, cleanest, sweetest water anywhere.  This peculiar topography is thanks to the limestone karst, shivered with a million cracks sixty million years ago by the Chikxulub meteorite impact…. Sorry, dinosaurs!=

Glyphs – The Ancient Maya and the Film Industry, Part I

Precious Few Films Attempt to Portray the Ancient Maya in a Sympathetic and Realistic Way.

The documentary-film industry has found the “Mysterious Maya”, “Mayan Calendar Prophecy” and the “2012 End of the World” to be fertile soil. There are so many of these films that I can’t keep track of them all… And most of them are sensational, opportunistic, garbage, merely jumping on the “Mayan Apocalypse” bandwagon.

However, Independent filmmaker David Lebrun is a delicious exception. He and his wife Amy Halpern spent eleven years making Breaking the Maya Code .


This is a feature-length, 2-hour visualization of Michael Coe’s book of the same name,

and Lebrun and Coe tell the incredibly complex, 150-year story of the decipherment of this mysterious script. (*see note below)

David selected me to do the graphics and the “hand-inserts”. This means my hands got to be in the film —carving stone, writing Japanese, painting Mayan glyphs in codices and on ceramic vessels, and writing Mayan in Colonial Spanish letters— but not my face. (The makeup people were able to make my hands look Maya, painting them brown and even shaving off my arm-hair! But, sadly, my mug was too Anglo.) I also drew all the Maya glyphs used in the film’s numerous graphics, and with my friend Paul Johnson, made all the codex-props used in the film. The largest number of these eventually were burned in the “Bonfire of Maní” scene, (in 1561 the Archbishop of Yucatan burned every Maya book he could lay his hands on… An act which his Maya flock, who had trustingly turned them over to him, “regretted to an amazing degree”.) To make these books as authentic as possible, we copied the texts and images from ancient Maya vases (thanks to the fabulous visual database of Justin Kerr actually printed them on bark-paper, so they would burn authentically. I have made props for a number of historic movies, from wax-seals for The Man in the Iron Mask,


to the “Pirate’s Code Book” in Pirates of the Caribbean 3,


but I have never had as much fun working for any other film as I did in Breaking the Maya Code.

PBS-NOVA edited Lebrun’s splendid film down to 53 minutes and called it “Cracking the Maya Code“.

Though not as in-depth as “BtMC”, it is a fine introduction to an understanding of the Mysterious Maya Glyphs. WGBH-Boston, who produce NOVA, also put up a great website where one can see and hear an ancient Maya stela read through from start to finish. They engaged me to render the text into stately English, and I in turn hired my friend, linguist Barbara MacLeod (a far better decipherer than I), to read it aloud in sonorous Mayan.
——- ——–
(*below Note):
Now, I am happy to report, the majority of Maya texts can be read, and it turns out that they contain the same kind of wisdom we find written on monuments the world over. Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to belittle this information; what the ancient Greeks and Romans and Egyptians and Chinese carved for the Ages on stone is an extremely important source of historical and cultural information —notwithstanding their stunning calligraphy— but have you ever sat down to read through it? “Lord So-and-so nobly led his people/soldiers to prosperity/victory, in the year …”, or “Here lies Dame Such-and-such, a good wife and mother … “, or “This building’s cornerstone laid by So-and-so in the year …” Every culture has unique ways to invoke blessings from above, and the Maya erected statues or stelae (monumental carved slabs), bearing beautiful glyphs and images of their sacred kings performing ceremonies. And what they say, carefully documented with dated events and calculations of the intervals between events, is “Lord So-and-so dedicated this temple with a ‘scattering’ of his blood/ burning of incense/ donning the costume of the god Such-and-such. Six years and 136 days later he was married to Lady So-and-so, noble daughter of Lord Whatsisname of [neighboring kingdom]. Twelve years and 73 days later, So-and-so made sacred war on the people of ….” And so on in that rather tedious vein. Ho-hum. We have thousands of inscriptions in Maya glyphs, but none of them mention an “apocalypse” nor a “2012 End of the World” nor even an “End of the Mayan Calendar”.  (Frankly, I find the beautiful artistry of Maya calligraphy much more interesting than the events it so beautifully records.)

To repeat a technicality: The word “Maya” is properly used as a noun or an adjective: “Maya culture”, or “the ancient Maya” “Maya glyphs”. One ought *only* use “Mayan” when referring to language: “Landa was fluent in Mayan”, or “the Mayan word for ‘snake’ is the same as the word for ‘sky’: *Chan*.”

Glyphs – The Ancient Maya and the Film Industry, Part II

Another Good Documentary and a Couple Feature Films

National Geographic, once reknowned for the quality of its features about the Maya (and the ancient Americas in general), has lost a little of its Mesoamerican creds since George Stuart retired. One of the documentaries that I DO recommend, they made during his tenure: Dawn of the Maya (2004).

It was this film that introduced me to producer/director Graham Townsley.

He has been responsible for about 20 films (mostly on PBS’s “NOVA”), as producer, director, and/or writer. His work is intelligent and deeply respectful of the people he exhibits for us.
So I was deeply honored when he sought me out to contribute to his new series on the Maya predictions of 2012, and the 2012 phenomenon in general. It will consist of three parts, one about the ancient Maya calendar and their culture of prophecy, a second on the Maya Collapse of the tenth century, and a third on the modern New Age response to the so-called “Mayan 2012 Prophecies”. I believe in this one, you’ll get to see my face…

Among films-as-entertainment, a few spring to mind. In some James Bond film from my distant youth, the Bad Guy and his bevy of buxom, blank-faced women occupy a fanciful Maya ruin, where James battles crocodiles or water snakes… (Why didn’t the Baddie just throw him into a piranha pool?) More recently, the latest “National Treasure”

and “Indiana Jones” films construct quasi-Maya temples (replete with Chichen-Itza serpents, talud-tablero step-pyramids, and numerous teetering replicas of the Aztec Sun Stone.

The “Jones” film also features the gratuitous massacre of an entire population of Maya Temple guardians and destruction of a whole alien museum, just because George Lucas couldn’t figure out what to do with them by film’s end. (At least Nicholas Cage is able to save the Museum of Alexandria!) Finally, they put Maya inscriptions side-by-side with Ancient Chinese Shang-Dynasty characters, and locate Maya civilization in South Dakota and Peru respectively. I roll my eyes, heave a big sigh. … Ah, Hollywood!


Glyphs – The Ancient Maya and the Film Industry, Part III

Blood, Gore and Gibson

Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto has the unique distinction of being the only feature film whose dialogue is entirely in the lovely Mayan language.

This remarkable feature is offset, of course: Gibson portrays the Maya as either Noble Savages living “innocently” in the forest, violently impaling pigs and playing nasty practical jokes on their friends (in the first five minutes), or as Jaded Bloodthirsty City-Dwellers, drugged or diseased, performing mass sacrifices, and cowering at a solar eclipse (a scene Gibson borrowed from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). The ancient Maya may have had a stone-age technology, but they were excellent astronomers: they knew how to predict eclipses. He seems reluctant to credit them with anything good, even of having built a glorious city of towering pyramids. which he shows for about three seconds total…. In this, he is not unlike the first explorers, who gave credit for the Mayas’ Lost Cities to the Phoenicians, the Lost Tribes of Israel, the Egyptians, … anybody but those pesky Indians. The little bit of Maya costume and construction we are granted to see (most of the film is one long, tedious Run Through the Jungle) is mostly authentic, thanks to the guidance of Gibson’s adviser Archaeologist Richard Hansen, who has been excavating in the vast Mirador Basin in Northern Guatemala for several years now.