Ancient Symbols in the New World, Part I
Editor's Note: Our guest writer Byron Augustin is a retired university professor who lives in Valladolid. Every once in awhile, he indulges his interest in local history and investigates and writes about something that has caught his eye. This article is a result of just that. As usual, you will come away from Byron's article delighted and just a little bit smarter. Enjoy Part One!
My first visit to the Yucatan Peninsula was March of 1978, almost 40 years in the past. I brought a group of 28 university students on a short spring break study abroad program. It was such a success that over the next three decades, more than 500 students participated in that program. The students fell in love with the history, geography, and culture of this very unique location, as did I. Many of them are now in their 40’s or even 50’s, and they are now bringing their children and even grandchildren to a place that created a host of wonderful memories. I did them one better! In 2008 my wife and I bought a home in Valladolid, and became “residentes permanentes.”
Part of the attraction in selecting Valladolid included the city’s central location on the Yucatan Peninsula, the mixture of Maya and Spanish colonial cultures, and the warm and tranquil environment created by Vallísolétanos. After settling in, we turned to our favorite pastime of trying to learn everything we could about our new home. The past few years have seen us crisscross much of the Yucatan Peninsula on voyages of discovery.
On the Road
Our son, who lives in New Braunfels, Texas, came to spend the Christmas holidays with us in late December and early January of 2014-2015. When he visits, we make it a habit to take him to a Maya ruin site he has not visited. On this occasion we selected Mayapan. We all enjoyed Mayapan immensely and we had difficulty dragging our son away from the site. However, the sun was dipping on the western horizon and we had reservations at one of our favorite Yucatan hotels, the Hacienda Uxmal.
We spent a lovely evening and restful night at Hacienda Uxmal At breakfast the next morning, we had the good fortune of meeting Bersaín Velazquez Nájera, the hotel manager. We invited him to join us for a cup of coffee. Charming, witty, and professional, he told us that the hotel was now called the Hotel Hacienda Uxmal Plantation & Museum. It included not only the hotel, but also a chocolate museum and agricultural plantation devoted to growing high quality fruits and vegetables. Guests who eat in the hotel’s dining facilities consume a considerable portion of the crops. The owner, Don Fernando Barbachano, one of Yucatan’s brightest and most successful entrepreneurs, was the man responsible for facilitating these changes.
Due to my “farm roots” in south-central Nebraska, and an agricultural geography degree from the University of Kansas, I maintained a considerable interest in agriculture. The Maya who lived in the region surrounding the Uxmal ruins before the arrival of the Spanish, engaged in simple agricultural practices. They cleared small patches of jungle, burned the dead vegetation, and planted their traditional crops of corn, beans, squash, peppers, and a variety of fruit. It was their land.
The Arrival of the Spanish
Then, it all changed. A man they had never seen before arrived and announced, that by the power of the King of Spain, this was all his land. The man’s name was Lorenzo de Evia. He was a wealthy ship’s captain and a city council member from Merida. He was born in the Basque region of northeastern Spain. The Spanish monarchy granted him a block of land centered on the ruins of Uxmal. The land stretched one league in each of the four cardinal directions. A league was defined by how far a man could walk in one hour. It was a subjective unit, but usually measured about three miles, and its use as a unit of measurement was largely abandoned after 1700. Subjective or not, Lorenzo de Evia became the owner of a block of land containing approximately 6,000 acres. He built a hacienda about one kilometer from the Maya ruins and began raising cattle.
In 1763, Don Alonso y Manuel Peón Valdés purchased the entire hacienda. Descendants of the Peón family still own the property, which was reduced to a small fraction of the original land grant by the Mexican land reforms of Lázaro Cárdenas. The most famous Peon that operated Hacienda Uxmal was Don Simon Peón Cano, who lived in Mérida in the original home of Francisco de Montejo. Don Simon was owner of Hacienda Uxmal, as well as numerous additional haciendas, during the time when early explorers began to visit the Yucatan to study Maya ruins and culture. Many of these explorers, including Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck, John L Stevens, Frederick Catherwood, Emanuel von Friedrichsthal, and Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, were guests at Hacienda Uxmal. The books, reports, and photos that they published after their return eventually lead to an explosion in tourism in Yucatán.
Don Simon continued to use the hacienda lands to raise cattle, but he also engaged in the cultivation of sugarcane and corn. I asked Bersaín if any of the hacienda structures were still standing and he noted that much of the site was in ruins, but some of this once expansive estate was still visible. He invited us to tour the plantation and visit the remains of the old hacienda. What a unique experience! Walking around the grounds, I closed my eyes and tried to recreate the image of Empress Carlota’s visit as she passed through the large entrance gate to the hacienda in her carriage.
An Ancient Symbol
Three chimneys used in the processing of sugarcane are still standing and quite magnificent. The entrance gate that Don Simon built is stunning. Additionally, what caught my attention was the smaller entrance gate built by Don Lorenzo Evia almost 350 years ago. The gateposts had weathered time and the elements quite well. I took photos of the gateposts from both the entrance and exit sides. My wife, Rebecca pointed out a most unusual, but very attractive symbol on both sides of the gateposts. We had never seen this symbol before, so we asked Bersaín what it represented. He was not sure of its origin and we were left puzzled as to what it was and where the concept came from.
After we returned to the hotel, we visited the Chocolate Museum that is located within short walking distance of the hotel. We found the tour to be extraordinarily educational and interesting. On the path to the museum’s entrance, we noted pots of flowers with the strange symbols that were on the hacienda gateposts. What did they represent? No one at the museum could tell us.
Puzzled, but tired after stomping all over the hacienda and taking the museum tour, we decided to have a cold beverage and light lunch at the hotel. As I was sipping, well, more like guzzling, a frosty Dos Equis, I glanced at two stunning pieces of stained glass features displayed in the dining room. One represented Empress Carlota’s visit to Uxmal. The other was a representation of Don Lorenzo de Evia’s original gateposts with those mysterious symbols. Why were they placed on the gateposts? We asked the waiters and they did not know.
I am not sure if I am a type A personality, but it has been suggested by a number of friends. If I am not a type A, I am pretty sure I have a type B-plus personality. It absolutely drives me nuts when I want the answer to something, but cannot find it. As soon as our son returned to Texas, I fired up my computer, put on my Indiana Jones hat and started the search. I surfed the Internet until there were no more waves to ride. Beaten, humiliated, and no closer to an answer than I had been when my wife first noticed those unexplained symbols, I gave up. As it turns out, the answer was out there; I just had not found the right website yet!
A New Road Trip
The better part of a year passed, and it was time for our son to return for his annual visit. This time we decided to explore the Maya ruins at Aké and Dzibilchaltún. Both sites were impressive. Aké was small and intimate. Dzibilchaltún was sprawling and contained features we had not seen at other sites. The cenote (pictured in the banner above) at the site was different. We could walk straight from the land surface into the water. There was a Catholic chapel built in the center of the ruins between 1590 and 1600, indicating the Maya were still using this site at that time. In addition, the sacbé (white road) leading to the Temple of the Seven Muñecas (dolls) may be the best-preserved sacbé in all of Yucatán. It was impressive!
With the annual ruin tours accomplished, we headed for a night in Mérida. After a good nights rest we drove south to tackle Hacienda Yaxcopoil. The architecture of this hacienda is superb. Once again we came into contact with a ghost from the past. On her visit to the Yucatan, Empress Carlota had given gifts of silver and china to the daughter of the hacienda owners as a wedding gift. They were on display in the dining room.
The Mystery Deepens
We spent nearly three hours entranced by the life style that must have existed at this luxurious hacienda. One of the last buildings we visited was not identified on the map provided by employees when we entered the hacienda grounds. I focused on the side of this particular building with the entrance doors and I was shocked at what I saw. The frozen wasteland in the part of my brain where I had stored the unexplained symbols observed at Uxmal, began to thaw. Above each doorway, two of the very same type of symbols came into focus. I called my wife to my side and in a few moments she had spotted six more symbols on roof decorations above those on the doors. Oh yes, we had hit the mother lode of unexplained symbols!
We tracked down a couple of employees and asked what the symbols represented. They said that they had not noticed them before and they had no idea why they were there. Careful! That type B-plus personality trait was starting to kick in. It was time to get home and fire up the computer. Once again failure raised its ugly head and I found nothing to help understand what story these symbols held. I was more frustrated then ever.
As I pondered over what those symbols could possibly be, a statement made by Sir Winston Churchill in October of 1939, came to mind. Churchill stated in regard to the role that the Soviet Union might play in World War II, “that the country was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That is exactly how I felt about trying to decipher how to explain what these symbols were and how they ended up in the Yucatán.
The Canadian Factor
A few days later, our Canadian friends, Ron and Dee Poland arrived for their winter stay at their Hacienda Santa Inez, near Dzitás. We invited them to supper one evening and I explained the frustration with my inability to find an explanation for the now mysterious symbols. Dee’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, and she exclaimed, “I have seen those markings on gateposts at an abandoned hacienda near Cenotillo.” I thought, “Uxmal, Yaxcopoil, and now Cenotillo. Maybe aliens brought them. If you cannot explain something, you can always blame aliens!”
Two days later we met the Polands at their hacienda and switched cars to their high clearance Jeep. The trip to the hacienda took about 40 minutes to cover four kilometers. We could have made better time, but wanted to keep the oil pan, transmission, and muffler attached to the Jeep! Ron dodged large outcroppings of limestone in the road and slowed for branches hanging over the path. The jungle was working successfully to reclaim its past territory.
Finally, there it was, the elegant entrance to the Hacienda Santa María. A dramatic gatepost more than 15 feet high, stood majestically on the left side of the road with our secret symbol clearly exposed. On the right side of the road was an equally majestic pillar covered with tree branches and vines. Ron attacked the vines and branches with his trusty machete and was soon able to expose another of our secret symbols. I murmured out loud, “What in the dickens do these things represent?” Not a single bird, insect, or reptile, all of which know the answer, would speak up. There was only silence. Time to fire up the computer.
In Search of an Expert
After returning to our home in Valladolid, I sat at the computer and tried to analyze what my next step should be. The symbols were not Maya. Who came next? The Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Yucatán in the early 16th century. Were these symbols Spanish in origin? Were they Moorish or Islamic symbols from Andalucía? I searched the Internet for specialists in the art and architecture of southern Spain, and discovered an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina who fit the right description. I contacted Dr. Glaire D. Anderson, Associate Professor of Early Medieval Islamic Art and Architecture in the art department at UNC. The e-mail I sent her included four photos of different symbols as well as a detailed message explaining my lack of success in determining the history of the origin and meaning of the symbols. Eight days later, she contacted me stating that these symbols were not associated with either Moorish or Islamic culture. I thought, “woe is me, if I did not have bad luck, I would not have any luck at all.”
At this point my hopes were pretty well dashed regarding success in my pursuit of my original goal. This was negative thinking on my part. I had forgotten how inquisitive a university professor could be when challenged with a search for the truth about an unexplained phenomenon. Much to my surprise, two days later I received a second e-mail from Dr. Anderson with attached photos. The mysterious symbol was a Basque lauburu, common in the Basque region of northeastern Spain and southwestern France. I immediately opened my Google search site and typed in, 'Basque lauburu'. The information flooded out of my computer like a giant tidal wave. It was time for some serious surfing.
In the second article regarding, “Ancient Symbols in a New World,” the author will elaborate on the Basques and how the Basque lauburu reached the Yucatán.