Monday, May 15, 2017

WOVEN MEMORIES – Traditional Maya Weaving and Book of Mormon Connections
by Mark F. Cheney (Adapted from article in IMS EXPLORER - May 2017)
Mesoamerican cultures have been profoundly influenced by their clothing and textiles. Even ancient Olmec stone sculptures have shown what look like “magnificent textiles” per Michael Coe and Richard A. Diehl’s In the Land of the Olmec: The Archaeology of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. The clothing revealed on Maya painted vases and in murals as found at Bonampak is described as “sumptuous” by Patricia Rieff Anawalt in her book Indian Clothing before Cortés.
Even for the modern Maya, traditional dress plays an essential role identifying members of various indigenous communities. Worn as a symbol of ethnic pride and for religious ceremonies, textiles are both personal and cultural modes of expression, as well as wonderfully marketable products for the tourist industry.
A traditional pati or manta
Maya women traditionally wore a long wrap-around skirt and a huipil (Náhuatl word), a loose cotton tunic, and some wore a simple mantle that covered their breasts, called a pati (or sometimes a manta), see example above.
Fibers, Tools and Dyes
Anciently, fabric similar to linen, which is made from the flax plant, was made from the fibers called henequen from agave, maguey or yucca fronds. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier under Cortés and chronicler of the conquest, said the clothing of the natives was “like linen” in his The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico.
In Anawalt’s above-described book, she wrote that silk was spun from the cocoons of wild moths. Another reference states, “Wild silk was produced by the Gloveria paidii, a moth, and the Eucheira socialis, a butterfly, found in the Oaxaca, Mexico, area” (de Ávila Blomberg, 1997).
It is suggested by de Ávila Blomberg that wild silk was used in Oaxaca in Precolumbian times, a theory that has been greatly debated. However, in a 1777 document, an excavation of a Precolumbian burial site is described as containing “wild silk” according to Careyn Patricia Armitage from her research, “Silk production and its impact on families and communities in Oaxaca, Mexico,” in graduate theses and dissertations, Iowa State University (2008). The above references almost certainly confirm the meaning of the Book of Mormon scriptures speaking of people having “abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth” (Alma 1:29, 4:6; Mosiah 10:5 and Helaman 6:13).
The tool most often used traditionally by the women is the ubiquitous backdrop or “back-strap” loom as shown in the Florentine Codex. The famous Florentine Codex is one of the most important sources on early Mexican crafts and techniques. This codex is a treatise with the full title of Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, written in the sixteenth century. The author, Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, interviewed indigenous people about various aspects of their lives and recorded their descriptions in Náhuatl.

Depiction of back-strap loom in use as shown in the Florentine Codex - “Virtuous Daughter”
In the Yucatan kapok fibers from the seed pods of the sacred ceiba tree were twisted and spun into a “soft and delicate” cloth similar to silk per Clavigero’s History of Mexico I, as translated by Cullen. Sadly, cloth did not hold up well over the centuries in the Mesoamerican climate. Besides vegetable fibers, more esoteric cloth was woven from cotton and rabbit fur (note samples shown in the photos below).

(L) Textile of cotton and rabbit fur and (R) textile of vegetable fiber, both from Acatlan Cave.  Photos above are by David C. Grove, published at
                    Beyond the fabrics used anciently, however, are dyes made from crushed seashells, plants and insects, and designs that have changed some over the centuries, but the fact that they have endured at all is a cultural miracle.
A recent article on the Jewish News Service website,, reports finding an important seashell on the temple mount. To quote from that article: “An ancient sea snail shell discovered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has created tremendous interest among researchers, who believe the find ties in with the particular shade of vibrant blue dye ("tchelet" in Hebrew) used in ancient times to color the fringes of religious garments. The shell of the branded dye-murex (Hexaplex trunculus) snail was recently discovered as part of the Temple Mount Sifting Project… Dvira said the snail's mucus secretions produced the unique shade of blue used to dye the ritual fringed garments, cloths for use in the Temple, and the clothing of the ancient priests. The rabbinical sages had deemed the species kosher (snails in general are not) so the dye could be used.” (See )  This could be cited as evidence of trans-oceanic cultural transfer, especially since “Nephi did build a temple” and “…did consecrate Jacob and Joseph, that they should be priests and teachers over the land of my people” (2 Nephi 5:16 & 26). It is presumed that they fulfilled their callings in said temple under the Mosaic law spoken of in Jarom 1:5 & 11, etc.
In my modest collection of things Mesoamerican, one of my most prized possessions is a large (30" x 30") tapestry that I purchased from its creator in Santiago Atitlan on a trip to Guatemala in 1995. In researching this article, I found a photo of a golden tapestry of a strikingly similar design which had been sold at auction online.

Top) The tapestry I procured in Santiago Atitlan. Btm.) Intricate golden tapestry in online auction.
Additional Resources
Three wonderful, recent books with beautiful photos are: Oaxaca Stories in Cloth, by Eric Sebastian Mindling (2016), Traditional Weavers of Guatemala: Their Stories, Their Lives, by Deborah Chandler and Teresa Cordón (authors) and Joe Coca (photographer (2015), and Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas, by Walter F. Morris, Jr. and Carol Karasik, along with Janet Schwartz (photographer, except as noted, 2015). Maya Threads was reviewed in the April 2016 IMS Explorer.
In the more scholarly book by Tia Tohveri, PhD, Weaving with the Maya: Innovation and Tradition in Guatemala (2012), she explains that “The link between weaving and creation goes back to Precolumbian times... The creation of cloth and the act of weaving itself is considered a gift from the Goddess IxChel; she wove the colorful rainbows in the sky and manifested the skill of making patterns to the Maya women in times past.”
For those wanting to look further into this amazing aspect of the ancient Mesoamericans, there are some beautiful photographs of designs from the American Museum of Natural History in Stacy B. Schaefer’s Huichol Woven Designs: Documenting the Encoded Language of an Ancient Mesoamerican Artform (FAMSI ©2002) available online at: Schaefer wrote in the Introduction that the “Huichol Indians, more so than most other indigenous groups in Mesoamerica, have maintained beliefs, customs and traditions with antecedents dating back to Precolumbian times.”
According to Bunsons’ Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica (1996), the making of textiles likely began with the weaving of baskets and petites, coiled mats used anciently. However, to quote from the Athena Review Image Archive online, “Textiles from Precolumbian Maya sites are rare, with most examples coming from underwater deposits such as the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza... (and) these cloth pieces found in a Postclassic era cave deposit in Chiapas show colors comparable to those used in wall frescoes.”
Cloth fragments from Cueva de Chiptic, Chiapas Museo National de Antropologia, Mexico City
We are indeed fortunate today that so much has been carried down to the present times by the people of Mesoamerica.