Rubbings of Mayan Stone Stelae

Rubbings from Seibal
Click on images for larger version and description.

Stela 1

Stela 1 - AD 869
Stela 8

Stela 8 - AD 849
Stela 9

Stela 9 - AD 849
Stela 10

Stela 10 - AD 849
Stela 13

Stela 13 - AD 731
Stela 19

Stela 19 - AD 870

Trips to Seibal


James A. McBride II in front of Temple A-3 with rubbing of Stela No. 10

   My first trip to Seibal occurred in 1970 as a scouting mission when Joan Patten, Jea, and myself took our first trip to Aquateca, and briefly previewed the restored ruins which are located approximately ten miles from Sayache. The restored ruins by Harvard University presents a striking pyramidal complex of stela placed at the periphery of the pyramid temple structure A-3. Today the site has a thatched roof placed above each of the stone stela for the protection of this stelae which looses the impact of the site.


Accomodations at Flores


Ferry crossing at Sayache

   My second trip to Seibal was my most important trip. Jea had departed Guatemala in November 1970 to return to Colorado. Madeline and Al Ravelli were my companions on this trip which occurred as a 5-day weekend during New Year's of 1970/1971; what a fabulous adventure!

   Al Ravelli was also a member of R.O.C.A.P. and was responsible for the academic educational advancement in Central America. Madeline was a beautiful refined woman of French-Canadian ancestry. Again a four-wheel drive vehicle was obtained for our trip. Instead of spending the night in Sayache, we spent the night in Flores at a charming thatched roof hotel on the lake, and then drove to Seibal the next morning. It was necessary to cross the Rio Sayache by a hand rope ferry crossing.

   Approximately 1 1/2 miles from our destination of the Seibal site, we encountered a muddy area on the jungle road, and our 4-wheel drive vehicle became stuck and bogged down. Al and I tried every technique that we could think of to drive out of the mud. After two hours of jacking up each wheel and placing small rocks and tree cut branches under each wheel, we finally drove out of the muddy part of the roadway, which reminded me of muddy rural farm roads in Texas during the rainy season.

   The 1964 Harvard Expedition had constructed three thatched roof enclosed dwellings to accommodate the team of archaeologists. We selected the best unit for our supplies and sleeping bags and made camp.

   I had previously obtained letters of approval to make the rubbings at Seibal from Sr. Lujan Munoz, Director of the Anthropological and Archaeological Museum in Guatemala City. When we arrived to the site our excitement intensified about the setting of this restored pristine temple and stela in the midst of a cleared area of the tropical jungle. I was inspired by each of the stela, as each monument had different and unusual carvings as compared to the stela at Tikal.


Harvard Expedition shelters constructed in 1964

   Stela No. 10 and No. 11 are the largest two monuments in the complex and No. 10 is an elaborately carved stone approximately 5 feet wide times 12 ft. tall. I saved stela No. 10 as my final rubbing at Seibal, as it was to require the most time; it was necessary for me to construct a temporary scaffold to reach the top of the stela.


My companions Madeline and Al Ravelli

   We spent three nights in the tropical jungle around a campfire listening to the calls in the night of the animals and birds while we gaze upward at the starry night. What a wonderful adventure. We were experiencing as though we were in the "Out of Africa" movie setting made fifteen years later. Here we were in our own backyard of the United States, Mexico, and Texas encountering a unique setting with stimulating companionship between Al, Madeline and myself. Jea was missed from this adventure.

   Each night we enjoyed the French-Canadian cuisine prepared by Madeline with two or three bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. This was "As good as it gets" in a remote setting of the jungle.

   I started the rubbing of Stela No. 10 about ten in the morning; it took about two hours to set up the scaffold and to stretch the cotton sheeting and taping over the stone due to the size of the stone. After lunch, l began to work and by nightfall, l saw l would not be able to finish the rubbing.

   After dinner I attempted to work by candlelight as a "Jungle Van Gogh", however, the mosquitos were too bad. Fortunately, I had a roll of plastic with me to cover the rubbing and protect it from the moisture of any fog or rain which might prevail. Al was there to assist Madeline and I to make rubbings and to assist us, in whatever we needed. Al, also had a shortwave radio, so in the temple plaza on January 1, 1971, we listened to the radio broadcast of the National Football championship game won by the University of Texas, so this added immensely to my celebration of the 1971 New Year.

   As I made the rubbings, I had no knowledge of the hieroglyphic meanings carved in stone. It would be necessary to attempt to decipher the stone carvings at a future date. I became obsessed with each rubbing as I performed the work with black paste shoe polish, wrapped in a cloth to act as a screen to provide graphics on white sheeting as my method to produce a representation of the information from each stone Stela, for future study.

   As it turns out my life evolved into other commitments in architecture, and other academic scholars have devoted a life time in translating these mysterious carvings of the Maya language in stone.


Early morning mist and fog rising at Temple A-3 Seibal
(Photo damaged in the Houston 2001 flood)


Early morning sunlight Stela 10 at Seibal A-3
Harvard Expedition restoration 1964

   In the year of 1895, the Swiss explorer Teobert Maler visited Seibal and published his discoveries in a memoir of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University in 1908. A distinguished Mayan Epigrapher, Sylvanus G. Morley arrived at Seibal in 1914 and 1915 and while there, directed his attentions primarily to the stone monuments and their inscriptions. In 1938, Morley's summary of the site was published combining his own observations with those of Maler which is the most complete account available prior to World War II. After Morley's work, Seibal received no special archaeological attention for almost fifty years.

   R.E.W. Adams and John A. Graham, members of the Peabody Museum, of the Harvard University Expedition at Altar of Sacrificios in 1961, discovered a new Stela at Seibal. This discovery reinforced what had long been known about Seibal: "Many of the figures and hieroglyphics on these monuments had a curiously alien or non-Maya aspect and were of a very late date in the Maya classic Period". The excavations at Altar de Sacrifices were concerned with apparent intrusions of foreign influences or peoples or a combination of the two being introduced to the Pasion Valley."


Stela No.9 at Seibal

Stela No.13 at Seibal

   Therefore, an intensive study was planned of the Seibal ruins as a Harvard Excavation conducted by Gordon R. Wiley and Ledyard Smith and initiated in the Winter of 1964, with the generous help of the National Science Foundation. Seibal saw the peak period of dedication of stone Stelae, after the decline of a host Maya centers in 800 A.D. such as Tikal, Piedras Negras, Palenque, Copan, Altar de Sacrificos, and others. "These facts led the 1964 expedition to wonder to what extent the very late florescence of Seibal might have been an expression of foreign vigor, and, in broader perspective, if Seibal might not be a key location in the study of the whole perplexing problem of the Maya collapse, or abandonment of the southern lowland centers."

   "The Maya ruins of Seibal rest on several steep hills on the left bank of the Pasion River, above the village of Sayache of the Peten Area of Guatemala. The archaeological site is located a short distance inland, just above the great bend of the Rio Pasion and the lowland tropical forest."

   "The Principal Ceremonial Center at Seibal is composed of three architectural groups, designated as "A", "C", and "D". These groups occupy different hilltops and are so separated from each other by small, but often steep valleys or ravines; a system of causeways, however, connects the three groups." Group "A" was the only group known by Maler in 1895. The Harvard Expedition team in 1964-1965 discovered groups "C" and "D" during the course of mapping and clearing the area.

   My particular interest was the best known Stelae of Group "A" numbers 8, 9, 10, and 11. The location of this restored site for a multitude of reasons holds some of the most compelling interest of mystery, intrigue and romance.


Stela No.8 at Seibal

James A. McBride, II
June 2001
Research From ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 4 October 1967