THE STELA AS A CULTURAL SYMBOL IN CLASSIC AND CONTEMPORARY MAYA SOCIETIES
In Classic Maya society, the stela was an important medium through which historical information was conveyed. Stelae are free-standing stone slabs carved in low relief that usually depict portraits of rulers, which are accompanied by hieroglyphic texts recording the rulers' identity and actions. Recent research has focused on the stela not only as a carrier of information but also as an important cultural symbol in its own right. In 1985, Linda Schele and David Stuart proposed that the Classic Maya called the stela a te'-tun, or stone-tree. This identification led to the recognition of cultural continuities among the Highland Maya in Chiapas who, on occasion, substitute trees for individual crosses on their cross shrines. In 1996, Stuart suggested that the ancient Maya word for stela was lakamtun, or big stone, emphasizing that the stela was an embodiment of the royal self in the sense that it shared some of the divine essence of the ruler. Drawing on epigraphic research, anthropological theory, the ethnographic literature, as well as personal field observations, I propose that certain spiritual and symbolic concepts of the stela continue to live in the crosses among the Maya today and that these concepts should be considered when we evaluate ancient contexts of meaning for the Maya stela.
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