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Lessons To Learn From Lost History

We’re standing in front of a 72-foot long knee wall that boasts a mural from end to end, depicting two groups of warriors locked in battle: on one side are jaguar warriors, armed with spears, obsidian knives, and round shields, battling an army of bird warriors.

The palace we’re in was built before 700 AD, and the style of painting is decidedly Mayan, but the Mayan weren’t prolific in Central Mexico to any great degree, which makes the site unique and mysterious. The place was once called Cacaxtla and was composed of the palace built in the shape of a pyramid and several other smaller pyramids and temple bases close by.

The site wasn’t rediscovered or excavated until the 1980’s, so these murals were covered in dirt for eons and thus well preserved, and they’re incredibly vivid and beautiful–tones of deep yellow, bright blue and orange. The murals are a national treasure, but there’s no one here to enjoy them.

Today, 53,000 people will visit Disney World. Four people will visit Cacaxtla.

Unless your name is Machu Picchu or Coliseum, if you’re an archaeological site, you might be rather lonely. Archaeology has its super stars, but it takes a certain kind of person to truly embrace the science of our past and give up beaches and margaritas for a romp around a relatively unknown ruin in Guatemala or Turkey.

Lack of interest in our past, and the failure of archaeology to connect to the mainstream, has created a lull in the profession. We don’t teach history at schools anymore, so we fail to value what came before us. Ancient bones, stones and thrones lay hidden all over the world. There’s not enough money or labor or interest to uncover them.

An archaeologist in Bulgaria once told me that during the years when the country was under the rule of communism and before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was very little archaeological work being done in the country. Communists don’t value the past–they fear it. They want citizens to be living in the present or looking forward, because romanticizing better times is a dangerous thing.

Let me tell you a story that will show you the importance of archaeological finds.

The Maya of Mesoamerica were a literate culture who recorded everything from astronomical observances to the days and months and years on accordion-shaped books made from the inner bark of the wild fig tree. Their writing system developed three hundred years before Christ, which is quite an achievement in itself.

The Mayan put their writing on stone and wood and paper, and they created beautiful books called “codices” that told stories of their past, their beliefs and their culture.

Now, I hate to rehash history and point my fingers at any one country, but the Spanish were particularly brutal in their conquest of Mexico. In a world of brutal people at that point in history, the Spanish get the prize for being, perhaps, the worst.

During the Spanish Conquest, these books (codex or codices) were interpreted as “falsehoods of the devil” by the Spanish and were systematically burnt en masse by priests, who then expressed shock that the Maya were traumatized by the destruction.

Compare it to the burning of the Bible.

So much was lost in the burning of those books. Only three known Maya codices are known to have survived the conquest. I want you to picture the scene of the mass burning:

It’s July 12, 1562. Hot, humid in the Yucatan. In front of the monastery of San Miguel, a Spanish Franciscan Friar named Diego de Landa stood in front of a massive pile of artifacts–about 5,000 in all. Among the wooden idols and other items, were 27 bark paper books. These codices had been passed down through the centuries among the Maya elite and priests.

And they were beautiful. They contained astronomical observations, sacred instructions and historical accounts. Diego himself couldn’t decipher the books, but he wanted them destroyed.

They were lies of the devil, he said.

It is unknown what ancient knowledge was lost, but given that the Mayans knew within inches how far away the moon is, we can only imagine what’s been lost to time.

De Landa effectively erased all evidence of physical culture that connected the Maya to their ancient past. He decided the Maya’s belief system was too “childish.”

De Landa would later be acquitted of his crimes against the Maya, including his condoning physical torture. But the good news is three codices survived: perhaps they’d already been sent to Europe before the burning.

You can view these beautiful codices in Madrid, Paris and Dresden, Germany. It’s my wish that they one day be returned to Mexico where they rightfully belong, but most countries aren’t too keen on returning stolen artifacts.

The Mayan civilization petered out after the conquest. The jungle overtook their fabulous pyramids and today, we’re still trying to peel back those layers.

Not long ago, another codex was found in a cave in Mexico by looters. It had been stashed in a box with a jade mask. Perhaps the Maya had hid it there, safe from the conquistadors. Although heavily water damaged, it is now in its rightful place in Mexico City, after taking a circuitous route through America.

While new discoveries help to educate us further, it would be hard to measure the loss of the codices that were burned. It’s right up there with the burning of the library at Alexandria in its scale of destruction.

It’s a sad story of man which is apt to be repeated unless we are taught history. It seems obvious to me, and probably to you, but the little people are still not in charge.

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