Woman’s blouse, from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, woven from natural brown cotton and embellished with silk embroidery and taffeta appliqued decoration.
Today, some 10 million Maya live all around the globe, with the largest populations in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. The videos offer Maya perspectives on the world today and their place in it, as well as Maya views of 2012.
“We decided to use the hook of 2012 in popular culture to bring people in and to teach about the Maya,” says Kate Quinn, the Penn Museum’s director of exhibitions. “Throughout there will be expert kiosks, five experts on the Maya and six experts who are Maya. Part of the exhibit’s strength is it allows modern Maya to tell their experience in their own voices.”
The exhibit also has kiosks where visitors can learn about Maya glyphs, spell their names using them, and interactively investigate the numerical system (including working out their birthdays on the Maya calendar).
Quinn, who came to Penn from the Delaware Art Museum in 2008, has an extensive background in theater, film, and exhibit design and has worked with cultural materials for exhibits from all around the world, including the recent Penn Museum exhibits Secrets of the Silk Road [“Ancient Secrets, Found and Shared,” Jan|Feb 2011] and Iraq’s Ancient Past. Asked to name the highlight of working with the Maya materials, she says, “I can see the Maya better because I’m an artist and they are so visual. They are so expressive and visual it’s amazing.”
Traxler suggests that this may be a part of the general fascination with the Maya. “The artwork blends together a very humanistic and naturalistic quality, such as in the faces, and at the same time it’s bound with extremely complex and dynamic symbolism.”
She points overhead to a large image of a royal stela on her office wall. “For example, take a king’s portrait,” she says. “He’s regal and is holding up a sky bar and all around him swirls all this iconography and yet at the center is a very real human face. It’s exotic and at the same time recognizable.”
One of the objects on display that vividly demonstrates this is the lid of an incense burner, or censer, depicting Copan’s dynastic founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, who ruled from 426 to 437 CE. It shows a very hip-looking fellow by modern aesthetics, who today could be taken as a famous rapper, movie star, or daredevil pilot. His eyes are covered by what appear to be goggles or Gucci sunglasses, but which are in fact shell rings that, to the Classic Maya, represented a warrior. Along with other tomb finds related to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the object is a reminder that, back in the 5th century, it took some serious moxie to found this remarkable city-state, requiring the skills of a strategic warrior and politician who could also demonstrate his favorable standing among the gods.
The Maya also fascinate because of their intricate and complex culture, one that made accurate astronomical calculations using the naked eye; had a complex mathematics and numerology system; and constructed remarkable architectural monuments, cities, trade networks, transport systems, and irrigation systems.
Perhaps most stunning of all, “the Maya developed the only comprehensive writing system in the New World that we can read,” Martin adds. “In the New World, we have what the Spanish said about the Inca, the Aztecs, and a little about the Maya, and beyond that we have archaeology. With the Maya we have an inverted situation where we can now read what they have to tell us about themselves over 2,000 years.”
The Maya have always been great observers of time and the skies, as their mathematics, numerology, and astronomy attest. During the Classic period, Maya royalty used the Long Count as an instrument to weave themselves significantly into great stretches of time, but many other calendars are cyclical and shorter and have been in use from ancient times to the present. Among the most important are the Sacred Calendar, a cycle of 260 sacred days, and the Haab, a largely solar calendar of 365 days. Other calendars were based on the movement of other celestial bodies, such as the moon, Venus, and other planets.
MAYA 2012 elegantly demonstrates these systems graphically. The exhibit also clearly shows that the Maya were profoundly interested in the cosmic timing of everything, in the skies and in earth-bound affairs. Indeed, the sky and earth, as well as the underworld, were all connected in one great cosmic orchestration.
“The Maya loved numerology and were fascinated by temporal interconnections and intricacies of representing time,” says Traxler. “The exhibit highlights the Long Count calendar and its uses during the Classic period—and that it is the most formal way to represent time. It is written in extremely formal language. It would be like opening up a formal invitation and it being written—time included—in a very formal language. The Long Count was how Maya kings wrote about time. It was primarily used by kings to describe their place in time.”
A particularly important day on the Sacred Calendar was the day with the day sign Ajaw, which is not only a day sign but also the Maya word for king or lord. When an Ajaw day intersected with an important day on the Long Count and the Haab, kings took note. “The day signs were like ours, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, King, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, for example,” Martin explains. “Every time the day is Ajaw, they [the kings] would like to tell you. Any cycle worth its name ended in zero, and it is the day of King/Lord.”
The calendar was how a king expressed himself as a Lord of Time. “He was a part of the order of the cosmos,” says Traxler. “The king was exalted and the representative of the community. The king was semi-divine, but both representative [for the community] and able to intercede with the spiritual world and to help protect in relation to the cosmos, with the gods of the underworld.”
If the king interceded successfully, the majority could continue to thrive, to plant and harvest, gather and trade, build and create. It was a symbiotic relationship where each side—the royal elite and the majority non-elite—upheld their end of the bargain, so long as the cosmos backed the king.
The auspicious moment in 435 CE when Copan’s founder and his son celebrated the end of the ninth and the beginning of the 10th bak’tun of the current bak’tun cycle is recorded in two stone monuments at Copan, the Motmot Marker and Stela 63. The language speaks of their success in seeing this cycle of time through to fruition and the beginning of a promising cycle. There, they weren’t wrong. Copan would flourish for almost another 400 years. But there was no similar commemoration of the transition from the 10th to the 11th bak’tun—by then, the city-state was already in decline.
Commemorative events between bak’tun cycles often occurred in periods of 20 years, sometimes 10. Called a k’atun ending ceremony, these functioned more or less as a 20-year review, an opportunity to look back and reflect, “Hmm, seems like the events fulfilled that prophecy, right on. The gods are still working with us.” It was a way of keeping track of prophecies and understanding how they manifested, and that they did, and that the king had managed to hold his effective role as intermediary between the divine and mortal realms. Part of the reason for the decline of the dynasty around 820 CE was the advent of natural and human-induced disasters that made it appear that the kings were ineffective: the 20-year review didn’t look so good.
While the Long Count fell out of use more than a thousand years ago, time is still quite important to the Maya. In traditional areas the Sacred Calendar and the solar calendar are still crucial for picking dates to build a house, get married, or celebrate other important life passages. Moreover, Daykeepers—Maya shamans—are engaged with time as a guide to important individual and community rituals.
Even though the Maya don’t share North American delusions about 2012, that doesn’t mean the December date will go unnoticed in the Maya world. To the contrary, 2012 is planned as a celebratory year of the Maya culture, with festivities, tours, and exhibits planned throughout Central America. These celebrations are especially pronounced in areas where Maya culture is rebuilding its vitality after centuries of colonial and post-colonial silencing.
Among the Maya today, says Traxler, “there is continuous use of the Sacred Calendar in ceremony and divination because it’s still encapsulated by divining specialists [Daykeepers] and related to divination practices, such as asking, ‘What’s the right day to marry, to build a house.’ It’s still in use like this in really traditional communities.”
She smiles. “And then there are Maya here or there who keep track of time with their cell phones, like a lot of us. For most Maya, 2012 is hopefully a really good year. It’ll be like New Year’s.”
Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 is a widely published writer and anthropologist and frequent contributor to the Gazette. Fascinated as much by the ancient past as the unpredictable present, she is at work on a time-traveling memoir, Café Oc, excavating southwestern France’s past and present.
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Copan’s founder was also represented in this censer lid from 695 CE. What look like goggles are shell-rings that represented a warrior to the Classic Maya.