Saturday, December 6, 2014


Chaco Canyon, trail to Penasco Blanco, San Juan county,
New Mexico. Photograph Peter Faris, May 1994. 

A familiar convention in Mesoamerican art is the speech scroll, a curved line or shape in front of the mouth used to indicate that the possessor is speaking. We do know that the rock art creating peoples of Mesoamerica, including Aztec, Maya, and Zapotec, all had symbols to represent speech or sound. These we generically lump together under the title “speech scrolls”. Examples exist in stone sculpture, on painted pottery, and in the few remaining books that survived the Spanish destruction, the codexes. We also know that these peoples had influence on the cultures and rock art of the American southwest. With this in mind I have kept an eye out for the general shape of a Mesoamerican speech scroll in rock art.
Aztec god Xochipilli, p.4, Archaeoacoustics
 Graeme and Lawson, 2006.

Aztec Codex Boturini, Fig. 11, p. 39, The Road To
AztlanFields and Zamudio-Taylor, 2001. 

The Mesoamerican speech scroll was a curved line or scroll found issuing from the mouth, or in the general area of the mouth. My assumption is that a speech scroll connected to the mouth would represent a sound being made (speaking) where a speech scroll that is not connected to the mouth would represent a sound that had been made (previous speaking), but this might just be over thinking the problem. They could, in fact, just be two variations of exactly the same thing, a generic vocalization.

The petroglyphs at the top of this posting are to be found in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and bear an uncanny resemblance to many examples of the Mesoamerican speech scroll. Do they actually represent speech? I do not know, and we probably cannot know.  Indeed, without a figure in the picture to represent a speaker I must assume that it is unlikely that this was actually intended as a speech scroll. We do, however, know that there were contacts between the people of Chaco Canyon and Mesoamerican civilizations so there is the possibility that some of the imagery also made it to New Mexico. In any case it is fun to speculate.

Figure with speech scroll, carved
Mayan stela, from

Mayan pottery cups with Camazotz, the bat god.

I have included some examples of Mesoamerican speech scrolls above for comparison, and below I have also included a European example of the same thing.

Figure with banderole (speech scroll),
Bernhard Strigel, 1506, Wikipedia.

As a side note, this phenomenon is also represented in our European art history as is explained in this comment from Wikipedia. “A speech scroll, also called a banderole or phylactery in art history, is an illustrative device denoting speech, song, or, in rarer cases, other types of sound. Developed independently on two continents, the device was in use by European painters during the Medieval and Renaissance periods as well as by artists within Mesoamerican cultures from as early as 650 BC until after the 16th century Spanish conquest. While European speech scrolls were drawn as if they were an actual unfurled scroll, Mesoamerican speech scrolls are merely scroll-shaped, looking much like a question mark.” (Wikipedia)


Fields, Virginia M., and Victor Zamudio-Taylor,
2001    Aztlan: Destination and Point of Departure, pages 38 – 77, The Road To Aztlan: Art From A Mythic Homeland, edited by Fields, Virginia M., and Victor Zamudio-Taylor,
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

Scarre, Chris and Graeme Lawson, editors
2006    Archaeoacoustics, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.


No comments:

Post a Comment