Comalcalco was a major
port city that was believed to have flourished between A.D 700 to A.D 900.
Though others place it much older, and even perhaps older still, since the finds
at Nakbe in the Petén, it may go back to 1000 BCE, and beyond. Since there was
no rock quarry or stone to use in the area, they built the buildings out of
bricks made of baked mud. The Maya raised HUGE structures made out of these
bricks. That in itself makes this place unique to all the other Mayan locations.
But, you see, the bricks have inscriptions on them.
The map of the Mayan Zone
In 1977 and 1978 the National Institute of Anthropology and History excavated the site and discovered that it was made up entirely of these bricks. And the site is HUGE. What they also found was that approximately 3% of the bricks had inscriptions on them, on the INSIDE. In a study conducted by Mexican archeologist Neil Steede of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, he discovered that 3,671 bricks had inscriptions. Of these bricks, 2,129 had Mayan inscriptions on them. But 499 of the bricks were found to have completely out of place inscriptions. 13.6% of the bricks were found to have Old World inscriptions on them. These inscriptions include writing in Arabic, Phoenician, Libyan, Egyptian, Ogam, Tifinag, Chinese, Burmese, and Paliburmese. In all, about 17.3% of the bricks were inscribed with different languages, but if they had any Mayan inscriptions on them, they were designated to the Mayan inscription pile. Other bricks from this site had drawings on them, and 308 of the bricks were completely unknown and indecipherable.
An ancient Mayan Monument
According to Steede, all of the bricks were carefully
photographed, and copies sent to the Epigraphic Society of San Diego,
California, where the languages were identified and verified. Several of the
bricks had Mayan inscriptions and another language---typical translations. Some
of the bricks were decorated with elephants, and other creatures not indigenous
to the Americas.
The Inscribed Bricks Of Comalcalco
Comalcalco is a Mayan site in Tabasco, southeastern Mexico. It is unusual as Mayan sites go because its 375 structures, including a large stepped pyramid, incorporate millions of fired bricks. Many of said bricks, when separated from their mortar, display various symbols as well as their makers' fingerprints. N. Steede collected a "small" sample of these bricks (4612 bricks weighing in at 21 tons) and photographed the inscriptions that decorated some 1,500 of them. Many bear what are interpreted as "masons' signs". These turn out to be virtually identical to those found on Roman bricks in the Old World. Conclusion:
"The illustrated bricks of Comalcalco are pieces to a grand puzzle, whose completed, final image may reveal a Roman Christian presence in the Americas a thousand years before the arrival of Columbus." (Ref. 1)
1. Steede. Neil; "The Bricks of Comalcalco," Ancient American, 1:8, September/October 1994. 2. Fell, Barry; "The Comalcalco Bricks: Part 1, the Roman Phase," Occasional Papers, Epigraphic Society, 19:299, 1990.
ROMANS in Mexico?
I've always tried to maintain an open-minded attitude towards history, but even I was incredulous when I first heard this suggestion. And you certainly won't find it in most history books! Could it possibly be true?
View across Plaza Norte to Temple One
The evidence comes from the Mayan site at Comalcalco, in the swampy Gulf coast state of Tabasco. Comalcalco ("in the house of the comals"; comals are the pans used to cook tortillas) is the westernmost Mayan site known to archaeologists. The site has stepped pyramids and numerous other constructions. Only when you get close do you realize that Comalcalco is very different to other Mayan sites.
Virtually all other Mayan sites are built using carefully-hewn blocks of limestone, the commonest building stone on the Yucatan peninsula. However, Comalcalco is unique; its pyramids are built of bricks. No limestone outcrops near Comalcalco, so the local Maya employed an entirely different strategy in building the site. They learned how to shape the local clay into bricks and then fire it into "tabiques" (fired bricks). The site has more than 300 distinct constructions, almost all built of bricks: hundreds of thousands of tabiques, held together by a mortar made mainly from oyster shells.
Mayan brick wall
I visited it only because I wanted to see exactly what a brick-built pyramid looked like close up. I was impressed by the workmanship, and marveled at the organization required to build such a site. What I did not realize until many years later was that Comalcalco held another massive secret. (Now, I really want to go back again!)
Archaeologists working to restore the site discovered that many of the bricks had inscriptions on them. These inscriptions had been invisible, hidden from view, while the bricks had been set in mortar. Dislodged bricks, and those removed for resetting as part of the restoration process, often bore mysterious symbols or inscriptions. In some cases, the brick makers' fingerprints were still clearly visible.
Neil Steede, an archaeologist working on the site, studied almost 5,000 bricks, and photographed the inscriptions he found on about 1,500 of them. Most of the symbols or inscriptions have been interpreted as masons' signs. The really curious thing is that these marks turn out to be virtually identical to the masons' marks used by the Romans, half a world away. Steede was led to the astonishing conclusion that, "The illustrated bricks of Comalcalco are pieces to a grand puzzle, whose completed, final image may reveal a Roman Christian presence in the Americas a thousand years before the arrival of Columbus." 1
Masons' marks from Roman sites (left) and Comalcalco (right)
The diagram compares some of the marks found at Comalcalco (on the right) with those found at Roman sites (on the left). The similarities are truly amazing! 2
Some researchers have also claimed that the dimensions of the bricks (more like flat tiles than conventional bricks) and some of the architectural details are more Roman than Mayan. Any Roman connection to the Americas would pre-date Columbus by a thousand years.
Proponents of early contacts from across the Atlantic claim that the Indian Satavahana Dynasty, dating from about 200 BC to 200 AD, had developed extensive trade connections with Rome, and that Brahmi script soon reached Comalcalco. The technology to make kiln-fired bricks appears to be similar in parts of South East Asia and Comalcalco. As further support, they cite the urn burials found at Comalcalco, which they claim were virtually contemporary with similar burials in India.
Comalcalco brick with lizard
Evidence from the inscribed bricks shows that when the site was at its peak, during Classic times, it was a close ally of (or possibly controlled by) the powerful Mayan leaders residing at Palenque. Artifacts found at Comalcalco suggest additional links to Mayan sites as far away as Tikal (in Guatemala).
Visitors today do not see the site as it looked in Mayan times. The Chontal Maya who built Comalcalco covered the exterior surfaces of all the bricks with stucco; remnants of the original stucco can still be seen in some places. Then, for further decoration, they carved ornate reliefs into the stucco, so the site would have been far more colorful then than it looks now.
Clyde Winters and Neil Steede explored the iconography of the symbols carved in Comalcalco bricks in some detail. Winters, an expert on Olmec script, which pre-dates the rise of the Maya, quickly recognized that one particular brick (T1 452 R16) was very special, since it had both Olmec and Maya script side by side. 3 Winters translated the Olmec script, and Steede worked on the Maya script, independently, before comparing notes. Their work showed that the two scripts told the same tale. The left hand side was essentially a translation of the right hand side; the brick was bilingual!
Ancient trade school?
After examining many more bricks from the site, Winters came to believe that Comalcalco may well have been the Mayan equivalent of a trade school, where scribes learned Mayan writing (translating Olmec glyphs), and (perhaps) where construction crews practised their building techniques.
I have absolutely no idea what the truth is, but Comalcalco has me enthralled. Its bricks may eventually reveal far more stories than we ever thought possible. The secrets of its master masons may yet come back to life!
Modified Thursday, December 24, 2009
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