Classic Maya: sexual bodies

Posted on May 1, 2010


In Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, I draw on my own work on Classic Maya sex/gender in Chapter 3, which deals centrally with sexuality in hierarchical societies. In addition to asking students to read Chapter 3 in the book, I selected a group of articles that all explore the way idealized, sexualized bodies were represented in Maya art. These articles include contradictory or at least divergent arguments made about some of the same monuments and images. And the main emphasis in all four articles is the male body, youthful object of admiration for men and women alike.

While Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives is not intended primarily as a book about women in the past, as in other chapters, here I try to simultaneously draw out the implications of case studies for broader issues and also illuminate specific times and places:

At least three different issues are raised by the still-lively debates about women in Classic Maya society. First, it is clear that here, as in most other archaeological cases, starting with a two-sex/two-gender model leads to grouping people together (on the basis of sex) who don’t really have that much in common. Social standing within Classic Maya society was a much more powerful determinant of people’s lives than sex….Second, it is not impossible to identify actions that are typical of one sex/gender or another, but typical does not mean universal, natural, or uncontested. Not all the things that men and women did at any one time or place were divided along lines of sex….Third, if a dichotomy on the basis of sex is taken as automatically the basis of a hierarchy of power and status, then the two-sex/two-gender model will always reproduce stratification by sex.

In the course from which the book emerged, discussion of the Classic Maya serves as a major turning point, when we move to consideration of the Americas, where no credible argument can be made for historical contacts with Europe prior to the sixteenth century. It is a time to consolidate course themes, and prepare to turn towards new concepts.

Articles discussed by individual student panels:

Ardren, Traci, and David Hixson. 2006. The Unusual sculptures of Telantunich, Yucatán. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16:7-25.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2000a: A Precolumbian gaze: Male sexuality among the ancient Maya. In Archaeologies of Sexuality, pp. 263-283.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2002: Desiring women: Classic Maya sexualities. In Ancient Maya Gender Identity and Relations, edited by Lowell Gustafson and Amy Trevelyan, pp. 329-344. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Stone, Andrea J. 1988: Sacrifice and sexuality: Some structural relationships in Classic Maya art. In The Role of Gender in Precolumbian Art and Architecture, edited by Virginia Miller, pp. 75-103. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.