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The Good Prince: Transition, Texting and Moral Narrative in the Murals of Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico

  • Stephen Houston (a1)

Nearly seventy years ago, a group of competitive explorers, few on good terms, reconnoitred the Maya ruins of Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico. There, in what is now known as Structure 1, they found the most densely figured and compositionally ambitious paintings from Precolumbian America – the Bonampak murals, in a building dated by their final, painted notation to c. AD 791. The themes, events, dramatis personae, dynastic setting and execution of the murals find general consensus among scholars, if with some disagreement about detail and, in some respects, the overall thematic focus of the paintings. A key, under-used resource consists of some 125 texts or captions in hieroglyphic writing that identify, or studiously ignore, the serried warriors, dancers in feathered costumes, courtly ladies, foes in extremis, ambassadors, and lords in repose that crowd the murals. Brought to crisp view by infrared vidicon imaging in 1996, subsequently processed and here reported, the captions pose further questions about the decision to name people, past and present. The typology, positioning, relative weighting and onomastic contents of the captions at Bonampak clarify a veridical story, artfully positioned and cadenced, that stresses a tale of three youths. Likely brothers, they can be seen to enjoy a distinct centrality in the murals, more so than the ruler himself. The Bonampak paintings thus discharge several functions. They offer a specific account of a prince's career, assisted by two young peers, a primer for the skills and accomplishments of a suitable heir, a vertical account of generational interplay at times of transition, and a horizontal lesson, too, that a good prince both leads and relies on brothers, close kin and courtiers for collective success. Whether the path to the throne was completed remains an unresolved matter, insoluble without further evidence.

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Cambridge Archaeological Journal
  • ISSN: 0959-7743
  • EISSN: 1474-0540
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-archaeological-journal
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