Exhibit co-curators Loa Traxler and Simon Martin.

This “package of calamity and alignment of planets” didn’t originate with the Maya at all. “It’s a North American creation,” says Loa Traxler Gr’04, curator of the exhibit and the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Associate Deputy Director. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly how the process got started, but it involved the misreading of disparate pieces of evidence that were poorly understood or interpreted outside the actual cultures from whence they came, including the Maya, to the point where the mishmash of misinformation has taken on a life of its own—a purely North American one. “These threads are from all different areas and are being bundled and linked to a calendar that has nothing to do with [them].”

Traxler should know. Her affiliation with the museum and  the Maya goes back to 1989 when she began to turn her archaeological specialty toward Central America. From 1990 to 1998, she excavated every dig season at the Classic Maya city of Copan with the Penn Museum’s Early Copan Acropolis Program (ECAP), which operated from 1989 to 2003. (See the sidebar on page 44 for a primer on Maya historical periods.) She later supervised the museum’s program to publish its extensive Copan Acropolis research and oversaw publication of other monographs, as well as coordinating the Penn Maya Weekend conference before being appointed associate deputy director in 2009.

Thanks to the several decades’ long collaboration between the Penn Museum and the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH)— “the steward of Honduras’s cultural patrimony,” Traxler explains—ECAP excavations carefully dug some three kilometers of tunnels and revealed temples, palaces, and tombs containing physical remains of Copan’s royalty during its reign between 400 and 800 CE.

The Acropolis’s royal residences and temples were built on top of each other in a seemingly haphazard manner that made mapping the site more challenging. Serendipitously, the nearby Copan River had eroded portions of the eastern edge of the acropolis, offering a sneak peak of how the different sequential structures were related. This is where the team began their tunnels. (The river has since been redirected away from the archeological site.)

One of the most crucial finds was the Hunal tomb belonging to Copan’s first king, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, who founded the dynasty in 426 CE, and the tomb of his likely queen and the mother of Copan’s second king. For Traxler, another “lifetime” find occurred in March 1992 as her two-person excavation crew was investigating a plaster floor that ran underneath a staircase.

“We decided to follow the floor as a feature and came in a short distance to where the floor had been cut into in ancient times. The cut into the floor was part of a large pit excavated in a courtyard area in the mid-6th century CE. Following down through the fill of the pit, we came upon a ceremonial offering and capstones to a tomb,” she recalls. “When one of my workmen removed a small stone wedged between the capstones, he looked within a dark opening and could see nothing but the edge of a masonry wall … With my flashlight, we were able to see an entire chamber preserved and a burial in place with many offerings.” She and her team had uncovered the completely undisturbed tomb of Copan’s eighth king, Wi’ Yohl K’inich, who ruled from 534 to 551 CE.

Seated in her modest office at the museum—decorated with prints of royal stelae (stone markers) from Copan—Traxler explains how the MAYA 2012 show hopes to leverage the buzz generated by productions like the disaster-movie 2012 to offer a more accurate picture of the Maya culture, past and present.

“It was a natural fit to take this time of attention on the Maya—whether it has any bearing on the actual Maya—and to bring people into richer engagement” with them, she says. “It’s not only on the ancient Maya but the modern Maya; it’s not only what we understand about the ancient Maya but how they continue to contribute to the world—to give voice to contemporary Maya people. We decided to focus on the Maya, their calendar, and their civilization.”


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ECAP Program Director Robert Sharer examines the bones of Copan’s first king, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, in the Hunal Tomb, which he uncovered beneath a pyramid structure in the city.  The Hunal Tomb also contained this ceramic vessel, used to hold a food offering, that dates from around 437 CE.




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Last modified 05/01/12