The Maya would have loved Facebook

Credit: Cover photo by Justin Kerr

The cover of Sarah Jackson's book, "Politics of the Maya Court" includes
an image of what appears to be a Mayan ruler talking with a mirror.

The ancient Maya lived in a virtual world much like people of today who live on Facebook or Twitter.

The Mayan perspective on the material world has been explored in science, and begins to uncover parallels with today's online culture. The Maya believed that part of your identity could inhabit material objects. Maya might even name these objects, talk to them or take them to special events. They considered these items to be alive. The practice of sharing your identity with material possessions might seem unusual in a modern context. But is it this different from today's selfie-snapping, candy-crushing online culture, where social media profiles can be as important to a person's identity as his or her real-world interactions?

If Facebook were around 1,400 years ago, the ancient Maya might have been big fans of the virtual self according to research by University of Cincinnati assistant professor Sarah Jackson who is beginning to uncover some interesting parallels between ancient Maya and modern-day views on materiality.

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"This relates to a lot of things that people are feeling out right now about virtual realities and dealing with computers and social lives online," says Jackson, an anthropological archaeologist. "These things start to occupy this uncomfortable space where we question, 'Is it real, or is it not real?' I look at the Maya context and consider, 'How different is that from some of the concerns we have now?' There are some parallels in terms of preoccupation with roles that objects play and how attached we are to things."

The Maya perspective
For her research, Jackson uses hieroglyphic textual evidence to help her understand how the Maya might have viewed the material world. She's building a database of Maya material terminology and tracking certain property qualifiers -- visual markings on glyphs indicating from what material an object is made, like wood or stone.

Key to the process is trying to look at these property qualifiers from the Maya perspective. Jackson has found that the Maya applied property qualifiers in a broad manner, including some unexpected areas of divergence from literal interpretation.

For example, to the Maya, a temple might have "stony" qualities but so might a calendar or different things related to time. Other known Maya behaviors suggest belief in the concepts of object agency and partible personhood, meaning objects have the power to act in their own right and that the identity can be split into sections which can live outside the body.

So when Jackson analyzes a glyph that appears to show a Maya ruler having a conversation with his mirror or another that depicts a sculptor carving a "living" statue, it's important for her to overcome her own material assumptions.

"There are some really interesting possibilities if we can try to incorporate at least some kind of reconstructed understanding of how the Maya would have seen these materials, not just how we see them," Jackson says.
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Story Source: Materials provided by University of Cincinnati, written by Tom Robinette. "Ancient Maya and virtual worlds: Different perspectives on material meanings." ScienceDaily.

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