In the premier of the History Channel’s series,” America Unearthed,” esteemed Mexican archaeologist, Alfonso Morales, smiled like a Cheshire cat then pointed to the similarities between a stone bas relief at the Maya city of Chichen Itza and a copper breast plate found in the state of Georgia. The clues in this breast plate extend far beyond its artistic form.
Left unsaid by the television program is that several copper breast plates portraying a man wearing an eagle feather cloak have been found in North America. Most were discovered at Ocmulgee National Monument or Etowah Mounds National Landmark in Georgia, but they have also been found in other archaeological zones such as Cahokia Mounds National Landmark in southern Illinois. The “Eagle Man” is also a common subject for shell gorgets found in the lower Southeastern United States and Mississippi River Basin. Most are very similar to the copper plates in design. A few examples of the “Eagle Man” on painted pottery have also been discovered.
Both the Itza Mayas and the Muskogean mound builders of the Southeast believed that their elite were descended from the Sun God. The “high kings” of the Maya city-states were usually called Great Suns. The rulers of Muskogean provinces were called Great Suns. In Itza Maya and Itsate Creek “Great Sun” was hene-mako. In Muskogee-Creek the word was hese-meko.
The Eagle Man motif in the Southeastern United States is currently believed by anthropologists to have portrayed real Great Suns, dressed to resemble the Sun God. The Eagle Man breast plates are usually found in what appears to be royal burials. The Eagle Man breast plates portray the Eagle Man wearing beads, one or more gorgets and a cape made of feathers. There is no breast plate in the design. It is possible that the breast plates were fabricated solely for the burials of Great Suns, or perhaps as “coats of arms” to be displayed behind their thrones.
Archaeologists, antiquarians and museum directors collectors have know of the Eagle Man artifacts in the Southeast for at least 100 years. They were immediately associated with the period when Native Americans built large towns with pyramidal mounds in the Southeastern United States and Mississippi Basin. Inexplicably, virtually no thought was applied to the meaning the accoutrements of the Eagle Man in these fine works of art. They were essentially assumed to be “things” that Indian leaders wore back then, and left at that.
Had more analysis gone into the figures portrayed on Muskogean copper and shell art, the realization of a direct Mayan-Muskogean cultural connection would have probably occurred much earlier. It took the incessant “hammering” of Native American scholars in the People of One Fire research alliance to finally break down this psychological barrier and bring cultural reality to the attention of the world. Many features on the Eagle Man motif can be found in Itza Maya cultural traditions between 200 AD and 1500 AD. These include:
Crown of the Sun God
The pantheon of the provincial Itza Mayas was apparently much smaller than that of most Classic Period (200 AD -900 AD) Maya cities. The Itza’s had four principal deities. They were Kinich Ahau (Sun God,) Kukulkan Ahau (Feathered Snake,) Chak Ahau (Rain God) and Ixchel (fertility and moon goddess.) Kukulkan originally was conceived as a flying messenger between the gods and the nobility, but eventually became a principal Itza deity. It has been postulated by researcher Gary Daniels that the concept of Kukulkan was inspired by the appearance of meteorites and comets in the sky. Ahau means “lord” or “noble” in both the Itza Maya and Itsate-Creek languages.
As can be seen in the compared images above, the Itza Maya sun deity, Kinich Ahau, wears a multi-faceted crown, symbolizing the four directions. This same crown can be seen on all portrayals of Eagle Man in the Southeast and Mississippi Basin. It is believed that the Southeastern crown was made of copper alloy. An alloy of gold and copper (called red gold) occurs naturally in the Rich Mountains of Gilmer and Fannin Counties, Georgia. Another alloy of gold, containing zinc, occurs near Gainesville, GA. The Maya version of this crown may have been either copper or gold.
After around 900 AD the identities of Kinich and Kukulkan became increasingly confused. Itza art often portrayed Kinich as a serpent with eagle feathers. Perhaps by then the two deities were viewed as dual manifestations of the same spiritual being.
Raptor feather coat
Kinich was often portrayed with eagle wings. Kukulkan always had raptor feathers. All portrayals of the Eagle Man show him wearing of cloak of raptor feathers.
Cloaks made of raptor feathers was worn by the Great Suns encountered by Hernando de Soto, while traveling through present day Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee in the spring and summer of 1540. Principal chiefs of the Creek Indians continued to wear raptor feather cloaks in ceremonies until the late 1700s.
Nobility (ahau) of the Mayas and the Creek Indians’ ancestors are almost always portrayed in art, carrying scepters shaped like torches. Presumably, these scepters symbolized that the nobles were bring enlightenment to the commoners. Maya scepters were fabricated from wood and quetzal feathers. Those of the Creek’s ancestors were fashioned from wood and sheet copper. The link with torches can be clearly seen in the Itsate-Creek name for such a scepter, apalaha (torch-noble.) The ethnic name, Apalachee, comes from the Itstate word, Apalache, which means “bearers of torches.”
Many gorgets have been found in the Southeast with human figures holding human heads. Those from the ancestral areas of the Creek Indians appear to be holding carved wooden heads, mounted to wooden pegs. In contrast, Itza Maya art in the Yucatan Peninsula seems to show men holding severed heads of real people. (See the slide show.) One panel in the Chichen Itza Ball Court is particularly interesting because the Itza soldier is holding a severed head with his left hand and a bi-lobed weapon of some sort in his right hand. This same bi-lobed form is seen in Southeastern town sites, always associated with the elite.
Mark of the king
In the pubic guard of the Eagle Man or Great Sun in the drawing above, can be seen an abstract symbol. In fact, almost all human figures on shell gorgets found in the Lower Southeast, have distinct symbols on their pubic guards. These symbols are consistently the same for each type of human figure portrayed. All Eagle Men have the same symbol on their public guards.
These symbols are glyphs or a type of writing system. Several of these glyphs can also be found in the writing system of the Itza Mayas in Mesoamerica. The glyph worn by the Eagle Man meant mako in Itza Maya, which means “great” in English. The same glyph can be seen in the lower left hand corner of Boulder Six at the Track Rock Petroglyphs. There are four Itza Maya glyphs on this boulder. It is located about 100 feet (100 m) from the entrance to the Track Rock terrace complex.
The artistic portrayal of Eagle Men ceased in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee around 1375 AD. There were no more super-sized mounds built in the region after then. Also the temple mounds no longer faced the sunset of the Winter Solstice, but the sunrise-sunset of the Summer Solstice. This architectural change is strong evidence that the measurement of days shifted from the Maya calendar to the calendar used by the Creek Indians today, which begins on the Summer Solstice and has “leap days.”
Was there a rebellion of the commoners against the nobility of Maya descent around 1375? Did another ethnic group with different cultural traditions enter the region and depose the Great Suns of Itza Maya descent? These questions have not been answered.
Those readers who wish to ask Richard Thornton questions about architecture, urban planning or Native American history may email him at Native Question@aol.com .