New insights into the lives of Mayan people

Chama polychrome ceramic cylinders These painted cylinder vessels, circa 8th century CE, were excavated by the Penn Museum at the ancient Mayan site of Chama, in modern-day Guatemala.

For nearly a century, the Penn Museum has housed more than 1,000 Mayan objects uncovered by excavator and explorer Robert Burkitt.

Now, with the aid of technology, the Museum is helping to tell the full story behind some of these ancient wonders.

The new exhibition, "Painted Metaphors," includes a dozen Chama polychrome ceramic cylinders excavated from Guatemala—objects that offer new insights into the lives of the Mayan people who lived in the highlands, far from the more sophisticated and well-known centers of lowland Mayan culture. The exhibit also includes more than 150 other Mayan objects.

“In a sense, this exhibit had to wait until the technology was ready,” says Elin Danien, research associate in the Museum’s American Section and curator of the show. “For example, we’re able to test for residue analysis, which allows us to know that, yes indeed, chocolate was in these two pots. The neutron activation analysis tells us that Chama polychomes are really made in Chama. For a long time, people wondered if these pots with a style so alien to this site could … have been made elsewhere and been brought in. No, they were made right there.”

Danien didn’t have much first-hand information on which to base her hypothesis about the show, as the only explorers to traverse the Mayan highlands were Burkitt at the beginning of the 20th century, and Penn Museum artist M. Louise Baker around 1940.

“The question at the heart of the exhibit was why were these polychrome vessels—a style very popular in the lowlands—suddenly made in the highlands for a brief period of time—no more than 100 years, perhaps as little as 50 years,” says Danien. “I think that people came up from the lowlands and took over in a more or less peaceful manner and these polychromes ... are like newspaper headlines, letting everyone in the area know that there’s a new game in town.”

The exhibit also features ancient figurines, musical instruments and incense burners, among other objects. Danien, who completed her dissertation on the Penn Museum’s collection of Chama polychrome pottery, wanted the exhibit to highlight the incredible field work of Burkitt, and the watercolor rollouts painted by Baker. To this end, the show includes a display on Mayan languages, which Burkitt studied and documented extensively, and some of the elaborate paintings by Baker that have helped archaeologists understand the images on the ancient vessels.

The show also required the handiwork of Lynn Grant, the Museum’s Interim Head of Conservation, who worked with a team to literally reconstruct some of the objects.

The low-fired objects proved to be a challenge. “Not only is the material soft enough that it’s warped slightly during burial, but you’re missing a lot of the exact joinage,” explains Grant.

One object, which they coined “Bad Bat,” was in especially dreadful condition before the exhibition. “Every time you touched it, more and more pieces fell off of it,” Grant says. “I had to strengthen all the pieces, take it apart and make them strong enough to put it all together.”

To help restore crumbling objects, Grant uses a mixture of acrylic resin and lightweight, inert microscopic glass spheres called B-72. A kind of spackle can then be used to fill in missing areas on objects.

The lines where Grant joined pieces together are clearly visible—unlike objects on display at art museums. “If you saw these same pots that had been restored in an art museum ... they will cover over all the join lines and repaint because they’re looking at it as a beautiful work of art,” she says. “For us, because these are most important as data that tell us about the people who made and used them, we don’t want there to be any confusion between what’s my invention and what’s a Mayan invention. All the join lines stay evident.”

“Painted Metaphors” is on display at the Penn Museum through January of 2010, and will then travel to at least one other location—the Frank H. McClung Museum in Knoxville, Tenn.

“There’s a lot there to remind people that the Maya still exist, that there are four to five million of them today,” says Danien of the show. “There’s also the importance of museums because of their stewardship of the past through their preservation of the objects and the importance of scientific examination.”

For more information on the show, call the Penn Museum at 215-898-4000 or go to www.museum.upenn.edu.

Originally published on April 23, 2009