They were the "spinmeisters" of their day.
They told, and no doubt embellished, the story of their Maya king with symbols and pictures that created images of a leader who possessed such power that any rivals had best stay clear.
Unfortunately for these early scribes, it didn't always work. And when their man fell, they paid a high price. First, the conquering king had their fingers broken.
Then, in most cases, he had them put to death.
That's the story that is emerging from the research of Kevin Johnston, assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio State University who specializes in the Maya civilization that flourished in central America more than 1,200 years ago.
"The scribes were targeted for capture in battle, and once they were captured, they were tortured by having their fingers broken," Johnston says. "It was symbolic, in effect muting their effectiveness."
Ancient Press Secretaries
Scribes are believed to have played a significant role in the Maya culture, he adds. The civilization consisted of many loosely-bound city states, ruled over by kings who had to suppress rebellion from within while keeping a wary eye on rival kings from nearby regions. The scribes told their stories in tablets of stone, carving out images, adding paint here and there, trying to get their message across.
"They were sort of historians, but not in the way we think of historians," Johnston says. "There was no attempt to be objective. They recorded events that actually occurred, but they recorded them with a particular purpose in mind, to strengthen the political position of those whom they represented.
"In that respect, they resembled modern spinmeisters."
The White House press office, or the governor's flack, or the mayor's pitchman all play a similar role today, but with one huge exception. They rarely get their fingers broken, and most of them live to write their personal memoirs before drifting into oblivion.
Scholars have long thought that scribes paid a price for their loyalty to a fallen king, but Johnston is the first to spell out just how high that price probably was. He arrived at his conclusion — which he calls a hypothesis because he can't actually prove any of this — as sort of an intellectual hitchhiker.
Murals Lent the Clues
Awhile back he was thumbing through an issue of National Geographic. The magazine carried a number of computer-enhanced images of murals he had seen before in the Maya site of Bonampak, in the Chiapas state of southern Mexico. The mural has long fascinated experts, but it has deteriorated so much over the centuries that many details cannot be seen.
That led art historian Mary E. Miller of Yale University to team up with National Geographic to see if modern computer techniques could be used to "reconstruct" the mural. Data from infrared photographs was fed into the computer, and other researchers used that to, in effect, sharpen the details that had been lost to time.
The mural is quite famous among historians because it shows nine male captives at the feet of a conquering king. Red paint on the captives' fingers suggests that the digits had been broken.
But when Johnston studied the new image of an old mural that he thought he knew so well, he saw something new, a detail that had not detectable before.
Near the right, lower corner of the mural, one captive is holding something in his hand.