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Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World in original exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum has premiered Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World on Saturday, November 19, 2011. On display in the ROM’s Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall until Monday, April 9, 2012, this original exhibition vibrantly brings to life the Classic Period (250 - 900 CE) of this ancient Mesoamerican culture.

Bowl depicting a man drinking. Ceramic, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Late Classic Period (600-900 CE). Museo Regional de Yucatán Palacio Cantón, Mexico, 10-631806. Photo: © CONACULTA-INAH, Jorge Vertiz. Reproduction authorized by the National Institute of Anthropology and History [Credit: INAH]
The exhibition was unveiled to the media this morning at an event hosted by ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding. Special guests in attendance included the Hon. Michael Chan, Ontario’s Minister of Tourism and Culture, His Excellency Francisco Javier Barrio Terrazas, Ambassador of Mexico to Canada, and Ambassador Mauricio Toussaint, Consul General of Mexico in Toronto, as well as a number of representatives from the ROM’s collaborators, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC).

The exhibition is an international collaboration between the ROM, INAH, and the CMC. Nearly 250 artifacts have been assembled, including large sculptures, ceramics, masks, and jewellery, to illuminate the relationships between the Maya ruling class and the balance of its society. The objects also reveal numerous aspects of Maya life, which, until the end of the 19th century, had been shrouded in mystery. Maya city states, palace life, and rituals and beliefs, including a timely look at what they thought would occur in the year 2012, are all examined in the exhibition.

Most of the exhibition’s objects have been selected from numerous Mexican museums in the Yucatan Peninsula region where the Maya mainly live, while others are of the ROM’s own renowned holdings. Prominent institutions, including the British Museum, Princeton University Art Museum, and Toronto’s own Gardiner Museum have also loaned artifacts. Most of the showcased objects have never before been seen in Canada, and many, some only recently excavated, are recognized as among the most significant archaeological finds of the Maya civilization. Among these is the limestone Tablet of the Warriors from Temple XVII depicting a captured warrior kneeling in front of a king from Palenque. Following painstaking conservation efforts by ROM and INAH colleagues, the object’s three panels have been brought together for the first time and make their public debut at the ROM.

Janet Carding, the ROM’s Director and CEO, states, “This ancient culture, one of astonishing achievement. has long held deep fascination and its allure persists to this day. The more we learn of the Maya, the more our admiration grows. In collaboration with our partners, the CMC and INAH, the ROM is pleased to present a collection of notable artifacts conveying the Maya story, one that is evolving to the present day.”

Dr. Justin Jennings, Curator of New World Archaeology in the ROM’s World Cultures department and the ROM’s exhibition curator, says, “Our inclusion of recently excavated artifacts from the famed city centre, Palenque, is particularly exciting. Some of these have never before been publicly displayed, not even in Mexico. Others rarely travel; among these are two exquisitely carved stone doorway lintels, loaned by the British Museum, vividly depicting the blood sacrifices performed by Maya nobles.”

"Ontario welcomes this truly international exhibit presented at the ROM, a truly international museum! Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World will attract visitors from within our borders and beyond as audiences explore a civilization that has impacted, influenced and inspired generations," said Michael Chan, Minister of Tourism and Culture. "The McGuinty Government commends the international collaboration and cooperation undertaken by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the ROM for their efforts in sharing an ancient and honoured history with the people of Ontario."

Following the ROM’s engagement, the exhibition travels to the Canadian Museum of Civilization from May 18 to October 28, 2012.

Background

Widespread interest in the ancient Maya world first occurred in the mid-19th century with the discovery of foliage-clad temples and sculptures among extensive ruins at several sites in Mexico and Central America. Since then, archaeologists have unravelled numerous mysteries and resolved many questions regarding the Maya, even as more take their place. The first Maya villages are known to have been settled by approximately 1000 BCE, with sites growing in both size and intricacy as their populations increased. By 500 BCE, the Maya world was populated by the elaborate pyramids, intricate tombs, and other spectacular architecture so closely associated today with the ancient culture.

The Maya’s important artistic and intellectual achievements reached their height during its Classic Period (250 – 900 CE). During that time, Maya society was organized around rulers at cities such as Calakmul, Tikal, Copán and Palenque. Unlike other ancient civilizations such as the Aztec, the Maya civilization was never an “empire” united by a single governing body. Instead, numerous independent city states, sharing comparable traits, beliefs, and practices were all considered Maya. Spread across expansive areas, these sites were in constant conflict with one another. While the cities’ rulers ensured that many monuments were built in their honour, temples, plazas, and palaces were often built for the purpose of enticing groups of people such as farmers, traders, and artisans to inhabit or visit the city centres. Many reasons accounted for the people’s support of Classic Maya centres; the most likely explanation being the population’s core belief that the rulers performed duties essential for life.

Near the beginning of the ninth century, the people’s confidence in the rulers began to wane, with the total collapse of Classic Maya society occurring over nearly two centuries. Sparked by overpopulation, increasing warfare, environmental degradation and drought, the definitive end of Maya royalty was likely fuelled by a crisis of faith: an increasingly desperate people no longer believed that their rulers were linked to the divine. However, significant traits of Maya culture remain and are seen in contemporary Maya communities. The languages spoken, the ritual calendar followed, and their striking profiles, are among the characteristics linking today’s Maya to their ancient ancestors.

The Exhibition

The exhibition takes a thematic approach through seven distinct sections: The Maya World, The City, Cosmology and Ritual, Writing and Timekeeping, The Palace, Death, and Collapse and Survival. Each area fully immerses the visitor in the Maya environment through significant artifacts and effective presentation techniques that dramatically recreate the environment in which the Maya lived. Shot on location in Mexico, numerous ROM-produced videos expand on integral themes including the deciphering of hieroglyphs; the Classic Maya cosmos; and the persistent mysteries surrounding the Maya Calendar Countdown to 2012.

Following a dramatic Introduction, The Maya World explores the manners in which the people lived, farmed and hunted. It also establishes that the Maya succeeded so well for so long by working with, rather than against, their often challenging environment, using a wide variety of techniques to sustain the population. The Maya are encountered through a number of objects including a collection of evocative stucco human heads, as well as a number of remarkable artifacts depicting the region’s animals. A charming lidded bowl with a duck’s head, and a ceramic whistle shaped as a bird, convey the respect accorded animals in Maya society.

Palenque, the renowned Maya city centre is highlighted in The City, making use of a touchable scale model, maps, photos, city site plans, murals, and a video on the archaeology at Palenque and its recent excavation by INAH’s exhibition curator Martha Cuevas García. The main traits of a typical Maya city are examined here, including a palace, temple-pyramids, tombs, public spaces, as are activities such as trade, warfare (and sacrifice), recreation, and fashion. Objects here include a whimsical ballplayer and the haunting figure of a captive—bringing into focus the Maya's goal of capturing an opponent in warfare. The section also highlights an important ancient Maya commodity: chocolate. Maya elite drank a wide variety of fermented maize-based drinks, augmented by chocolate (cacao) during festivals. Dated to 600 – 900 CE is a ceramic lid on which a quirky spider monkey sits, jealously guarding the prized cacao seeds that were likely contained in the long-gone pot.

Cosmology and Ritual highlights that ritual activities permeated all areas of Maya life. Most cosmological forces, significant earthly events, and religious rites were tied to deities, to time, and to celestial movements through the Maya calendar. Many rituals were reserved for monarchs, linking them to the gods, relationships indispensable to societal survival. Some of these rituals involved blood-letting, a form of auto-sacrifice to better commune with ancestors. Among the objects displayed in this section are large, striking incense burners, or censers, adorned with representations of ancestral and divine persons.

Writing and Timekeeping illustrates that, while the Maya did not invent writing or the calendar, they advanced these disciplines to high levels of sophistication. Most inscriptions on objects and monuments glorified rulers, commemorating significant events in their lives. A video highlights that nearly 80% of the Maya’s approximately 900 known signs have been deciphered, to date. This section includes a spotlight on the Maya calendar and the enduring 2012 end of days legend.

Courtly Life continues to explore the complex royal lifestyle of the Classic Maya elite. The rituals of courtly life are vividly depicted in scenes painted on ceramics, providing a rich source of information on Maya daily life. A beautifully decorated bowl, dated to 600 – 900 CE, portrays a person drinking at a banquet. Celebrating events such as births, marriages, deaths, harvests, and diplomatic alliances, these feasts showcased their organizers’ powers. This section demonstrates the Maya rulers’ constant engaging in rituals to justify their dominant roles in society and establish their relationships with gods and ancestors. Imposing limestone panels, dated to 600-900 CE, clearly illustrate these associations, combining the past and present, the dead and living, and the natural and supernatural.

In Death and Burial, a tomb-like atmosphere pervades. This section highlights the mid-20th century revelation that many Maya pyramid-temples were actually tombs. As in many ancient cultures, Maya elite were buried with goods meant as offerings to assist them on their journey into the afterlife. Discovered in these royal burials, these extraordinary artifacts underscore the Maya belief that, for the chosen few, death initiated a new phase of existence. Section highlights include a funerary mask, made of jade, shell, and obsidian, depicting a Palenque queen.

In Collapse and Survival, a broken altar and a shattered hieroglyphic panel are both poignant reminders of the once-flourishing culture. A limestone stela from Toniná displays the last-known Long Count date. By the end of the ninth century, many Maya cities were in rapid decline and the tradition of Long Count dating abruptly stopped. This stela’s eroded front depicts the city’s last ruler, while the glyphs on its back read 10.4.0.0.0. or January 15, 909 CE. Soon after, Toniná’s royal dynasty fell, its palaces and temples abandoned. Other objects showcased include a stunning pedestal jar, unearthed in 1974 by ROM curator David Pendergast at the site of Lamanai, Belize. The object is adorned by an effigy combining features of K’awiil, the god of royalty, and Chaahk, the Rain God. Excavated from a pit associated with a man’s burial, this jar, found in pieces, has been meticulously restored by museum conservators.

The exhibition concludes with a positive message: while the Spanish Conquest had a shattering impact on the Maya, the culture has managed to preserve their language, land, and culture ever since. Today, modern Maya number approximately ten million, found in present- day Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The Maya, once again, are a vigorous culture, inspired by their ancestors’ great achievements.

Source: Art Daily [November 20, 2011]

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Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World in original exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum + travel