In the first decade of the twentieth century, one whole and seventeen fragmentary gold foil disks with repoussé imagery were found sixty-five feet below the water’s surface in the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico, as part of a dredging and diving effort sponsored by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum that yielded thousands of artifacts from this natural sinkhole. Each gold disk had been burned, leaving carbonaceous, sooty smudges; after burning, most disks were ripped into small pieces. These pieces, along with the whole disk, were then crumpled and crushed before being hurled into the water. Today these disks and other gold offerings constitute nearly all the known gold from the Maya world and about half the known pre-Hispanic gold of Mexico, among the few works to survive Spanish sacking of the country. When the Maya first encountered gold in the ninth century, they saw the power of the sun in its material. They, like the later Aztec culture, understood it to be solar excrement, buried in the earth to be rediscovered as nodules that would wash out of stream beds, to be reconstituted in forms that would engage the sun.
Maya artists learned to work gold from lower Central American masters, who brought plain disks to Chichen Itza in the later ninth century, probably during the reign of K’ak’upacal, a king who presided over the introduction of new art forms and new religious forms and practice. The imagery of the disks suggests unsettled times, even for artists, who juxtaposed subtle renderings of the human form, old-fashioned by this date, with new sky deities.
Usually considered in isolation because of their material and the seeming novelty of their imagery, the gold disks have a provenience within the vast stew of the Sacred Cenote, among the detritus of a
Many rituals would have been performed there, invocations to rain
and maize deities among the most common; hundreds of dancing, chanting, and singing