'Eccentric Flint' talk at Ancient House Museum

The Sainsbury Centre ‘Eccentric Flint’
(This is the text of a talk given at the Ancient House Museum, Thetford on 9th August 2011).

I’ve been asked to talk to you this afternoon about one of the many fascinating objects in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. Called an ‘eccentric flint’ this artefact is between 1000-1500 years old; consists of 7/8 human heads-in-profile which extend from the central shaft and has traces of white stucco & red pigment suggesting that it was originally painted / decorated. It comes from the area now known as Guatemala and was created by the Maya, a people who inhabited the region of central or Mesoamerica which now includes Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan peninsula. Archaeological excavations in this area have unearthed eccentric flints in a variety of shapes, sizes & designs; many of them are abstracts, geometric designs, but, in addition to the human profiles (the most rare form of these flints), some depictions of animals and birds have also been found.


Although referred to as flints, geologically speaking I understand that many of these artefacts – including the Sainsbury Centre example – are in fact carved from chert, an older form of flint. There are limestone plateaux in the low hills of Mesoamerica which is where the raw material is found. It is an extremely brittle material to work but it will take a sharp edge. The Neolithic period provides us with many examples of worked flint arrow-heads, axes and other tools / weapons. It is possible that familiarity with flint used in this way led to the Maya artefacts being labelled ‘eccentric’ when first discovered – the weird and complex shapes into which they are fashioned would have been unfamiliar to those more used to flint arrowheads.


The Maya did use flint to fashion tools and weapons, and examples of both have been found. In particular, they perfected the art of chipping the material to create thin flat blades which were used for sacrificial purposes. But there are also examples of flint being used to create pieces, such as the Sainsbury Centre example, which could only have had ritual / ceremonial purposes. There are no worn edges on these artefacts & they have often been found in burials (usually of the elite) and in dedicatory caches. The existence of such items bears witness to the fact that the Maya developed great expertise in the art of flint-knapping. Indeed it has been suggested that the skill to create such intricately carved artefacts no longer exists. Whether or not that is true, it is certainly clear that the Maya greatly prized this skill and that the craftsmen themselves not only constituted an elite body but were probably drawn from the nobility, possibly even younger sons of royal families.


For the Maya, flint held both a practical application and a divine symbolism. They believed that flint was created when lightning struck the ground and so it was associated with the lightning God – K’awill (also known as God K). As I’m sure you’re aware, flint, when struck, creates a spark, so this link is not illogical. But as well as being associated with lightning, K’awill is also the God of fertility and dynastic descent. He represents the engendering force which gives life.


Ritual / ceremonial pieces carved from flint gave access to the God’s power and so were used to invoke / channel his influence. They were, moreover, associated with those who could be expected to act as his earthly representatives – the elite and, in particular, the ruler. They were also buried in offertory caches as part of dedication and termination ceremonies for buildings and stone monuments. (The Maya believed that buildings had a life-span of their own and at the end of that span a building would be ceremonially smashed to pieces.) Burying carved pieces of flint in this manner invoked the power of the God through the architecture.


The interpretation of the heads-in-profile flints is a matter of ongoing debate amongst experts. As the material is associated with the lightning God and some profile heads seem to be carved with a smoking torch / axe or sometimes a bifurcated smoking tube emerging from the forehead, it has been suggested that these may be intended as portraits of the God himself. One particular eccentric flint depicts a profile head within a circle from which other heads extend. It has been suggested that the space around the main head represents a portal, an entrance to the spirit world.


However, Linda Schele & Mary Ellen Miller have pointed out that other representations of the God depict him in zoomorphic rather than anthropomorphic form. Furthermore, they state that the only other known imagery showing this combination of human profile with emergent torch occurs in 2 posthumous carved portraits of rulers, one from the city of Palenque and one from Copán. It is possible, therefore, that these particular eccentric flints (ie those with emergent torches) were carved as part of royal funerary ceremonial. So, arguably, the Maya fashioned a material they believed was of divine origin into an object intended to focus power emanating from the souls of the dead.

These posthumous images also, as Linda Schele argues, suggest that the heads-in- profile flints may be intended as portraits of ancestors. They have certainly been carved with the sloping forehead and pouty (puckered) lips characteristic of depictions of Maya nobles and royals during the Classic period.


Other images at Palenque which record the ceremonial surrounding the accession of kings show the deceased royal parents handing symbols of kingship to the heir about- to-become king. One such symbol – in the process of being handed over by the mother – illustrates a personified eccentric flint and a flayed-face shield. This combination is one associated with war and symbolises the ruler’s rank as war-leader and giver of sacrifices.


Evidence from the ongoing archaeological excavations at Copán confirms the association between the heads-in-profile eccentric flints and kingship. The site, which has been of interest for over 150 years, has been the focus of archaeological investigation since the late C19th and this work has contributed much to the knowledge of Maya civilisation. The 1980s witnessed two discoveries of caches which contained heads-in- profile eccentric flints. One cache was discovered in 1987 underneath the altar that is the base of a temple stairway and was placed there as an offering when the stairway was commemorated. The main theme of the decoration of this particular temple is that of royal ancestor worship embedded within a context of war and sacrifice. It is possible that this links to an attempt to relegitimise the ruling order after some political disaster.


Amongst other items, this hoard contained 3 superb examples of heads-in-profile eccentrics, a lidded ceramic vessel, a flint knife, a shell, ash, sting-ray and sea-urchin spines. Each of these eccentrics, like the Sainsbury centre example, has 7 classic Maya heads in profile and the central shaft extends into a stem. Many, but not all, eccentrics have this stem feature and different functions have been suggested for it. In some instances the stem appears to end in a curl – which may represent the serpent with which God K is associated. It is possible that such flints were tucked into head-dresses or were bound to staffs (which have not survived) thus forming either a sceptre or a lance. Examples of all 3 uses of eccentrics occur in ruler portraits. William Fash, in his description of the Copán excavation, argues for the use of eccentrics attached to lances and states ‘These were symbolic weapons worthy of divine warriors, and I would argue that some of the stairway portrait figures carried lances topped with eccentrics such as these’.


The symbolism of the cache as a whole relates to ancestor-worship. The shell, sting-ray and sea urchin spines relate to the blood-letting ritual which would have taken place prior to the burial of the cache. Such rituals were connected both with royal ancestor worship and with war symbolism.

But the eccentrics found in the cache are not the only examples associated with this temple stairway – portrait images of rulers (identified by glyphs) show them holding flints. It is clear that different rulers contributed to the building of the stairway and one inscription, added by the 15th ruler, refers to his own accession to power and includes descriptions of his predecessors. A particularly moving account of Ruler 13’s death tells us that he perished ‘with his flint, with his shield’, informing us that he died on the field of battle in full regalia – the ultimate sacrifice for his people, which would have earned him a place in the hereafter.


The other cache was found in 1989 buried in a room in a monument referred to as the Rosalila Structure. This structure is a rare example of a temple buried, rather than broken up, when its life-span ended. The cache consisted of 9 eccentric flints, 3 flint spear heads, 3 spiny oyster shells, 1 jade bead, a stingray spine, baby shark vertebrae and the remains of a bright blue fabric in which the whole had been wrapped. The eccentrics range in size and are 18 inches or more in length. Six of them are particularly exquisite in detail and it is likely that these were the work of the same individual or school. It is possible that the 9 together represent the 9 divine Maya lords of the night.


The iconographical context in which heads-in-profile eccentrics are discovered makes clear links between the ruler and the divine. Above all, kings were required to act to maintain the balance of cosmic order. In the same way that burying eccentrics beneath architectural features would have channelled the God K’s power through the structure so the ruler, holding or bearing an eccentric would operate as a conduit of sacred authority.


So, to return to the subject of my talk, the Sainsbury Centre Eccentric Flint. What light can be shed on its possible role and usage? Well, it is more properly described as being carved from chert; it is a particularly exquisite example not just of the art of flint-knapping but of the Maya art of crafting eccentric flints and was obviously made by an expert craftsperson, probably a member of the elite.

There are 7 heads in profile with, maybe, an 8th intended on the top right-hand side. The plume carved below may represent feathers flowing downwards or a feather fan. The heads may, or may not, represent God K but the artefact itself invokes the power and authority of that God. The stem was likely attached to a shaft and may have been the lance of a divine warrior or, if a short staff, the sceptre passed to the heir about-to- become ruler during an accession ceremony. Or it may have been worn as part of a head- dress. But whatever its specific use may have been, it would have had royal & ceremonial connections.


Also, the heads carved into the central shaft may themselves be holding heads-in- profile sceptres - the heads which extend outwards from the shaft. But there is, as always with such artefacts, more work to be done. There is, I’m sure, symbolism in the number of heads depicted. Do they, I wonder show the number of individuals in a particular dynasty? And why are the heads looking in different directions? Are the heads only male heads or are women sometimes depicted? But these are issues for another day.


Andrea Oliver