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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Beauty in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Seminar Series - Becoming Maya: Ethnic and Social Meanings of Pre-Hispanic Head Shaping

13th December 2011, 17:30 to 18:30, Seminar Room 1, History Department, North Bailey, Professor Vera Tiesler (Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán)

This is the sixth seminar in the IMRS Beauty in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Seminar Series.

The artificial shaping of infants' heads is a permanent, highly visible body modification that has been practiced cross-culturally to demonstrate beauty, social integration, ethnicity, status, and gender. Unlike most other measures of body embellishment, head modeling bridges the generations, since it is carried out by second or third generation adult practitioners on infants who then carry the resulting head form for their whole life. Among the ancient Maya -and in fact much of Mesoamerica- cranial vault modification once constituted a deeply rooted tradition that was practiced at all levels of society over a span of several millenia. Carried out through massages, cradleboards, head compression devices and constricting bands, head shaping led to astoundingly heterogeneous visual results. Its performance was a regular part of the pre-Hispanic life cycle, a means of spiritual protection and reinforcement of the little ones' souls, a requisite for their Maya identity and integration into society.
This talk, which is grounded in contextualized bioarchaeological data sets and cognitive approaches on Mesoamerican cosmology, will take up the capital topic of the seminar series, "beauty", from the point of view of Maya autochtonous ideological concepts on the human body and body parts, and their harmonious functioning in the cosmos. From here, I will discuss the manifold meanings of ancient head practices and artificially produced head forms. I will explore the evolving social and religious roles of this emblematic body modification, which appears to echo the head forms in which major gods are rendered in iconography. While the distribution of different head silhouettes align with the ethnic and language divisions within the Maya realm during the Classic period, visible changes in preferences of artificial head forms most likely reflect the gradual shift in ideological schemes. I will close my talk with some general notions of the applicability of the notions attributable to "beauty" to the artificial modification of the cranial vault in infants and the caveats implied in the case of ancient Maya notions of "beauty" in head form.

Currently full professor of the University of Yucatan, Mexico, Vera Tiesler holds degrees in art history (Tulane University), anthropology and archaeology (ENAH, National University of Mexico), with additional 5 years of training in human medicine (MHHannover, Germany, and Politécnico, Mexico). Vera is a member of the National Research Foundation since 1996 and of the Mexican National Academy of Sciences since 2005. Her research has focused on the study of human remains within their archaeological, social, and cultural contexts. It has been aimed at assessing general economic and dietary conditions, along with ideological, specifically status and gender issues among the pre-Hispanic and colonial Maya. Vera has participated in several field projects and studied more than 200 skeletal collections from Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, Andes, and Europe, including forensic research. Recent publications include the edited books: Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Colonial Campeche. History and Archaeology, and New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society.

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