Maya Flacks Had Fingers Chopped Off

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.

Johnston thinks that object is a scribe's pen, an instrument used to paint and carve stone stone, etching a dramatic story of life and death. The implication, he says, is that all nine captives in the mural were scribes, and their fingers had indeed been broken to ensure they would never again be able to tout the virtues of another king.

That sent Johnston back to the archives, where he looked for similar clues in other murals. In all, he says, he found five painted and sculpted scenes that support his theory, which he spelled out in the current issue of the British anthropology journal, Antiquity.

A Knife or a Pen?

Not everybody agrees, of course. Deciphering ancient history is a little like reading tea leaves. If there's enough evidence, theories eventually become accepted, although subject to re-examination.

Some experts who have looked at the evidence see an obsidian knife, used to cut the fingers, instead of the pen seen by Johnston.

But Johnston is convinced he's on the right track.

It seems strange, though, that the conquering king felt it necessary to break the scribes' fingers if he was going to have them killed anyway.

"Well, that's puzzling," Johnston admits.

But, he adds, it fits neatly with the way things seemed to go down in those days. Captives, including scribes, were forced to go through a number of rituals.

"The first one was public display," Johnston says. The nine captives were depicted at the feet of their conquering king dressed only in loin cloths, another sign of humiliation.

"Next they were tortured," and if the captives were scribes, Johnston believes, their fingers were broken. "And then they were usually, but not always, executed."

They became, he says, "sacrifices to the gods."

But many of their works survived, because they weren't churning out press releases. They were carving their stories in stone, and they have survived all these years to offer tantalizing clues about a time when being the official spokesman could be a really tough assignment.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.