Latest science illuminates ancient Maya world

Mayan artifacts
"Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed" which opens at the Science Museum of Minnesota is the largest show of Maya artifacts ever shown in the U.S. Not only does the exhibit explore Maya culture over the centuries, it shows how up-to-the-minute scientific techniques are revealing more and more about this ancient culture.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The largest modern show of Maya artifacts opens at the Science Museum of Minnesota Friday.

The exhibit explores the complex society which built huge cities across Central America over a millennium ago. According to museum officials, the show contains objects never shown before, even in the countries where they were discovered.  

Mike Day, the Science Museum's vice president, gets excited when he talks about "Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed." He practically danced across a large floor map of an excavation site in Belize. Archeologists spent 25 painstaking years to map eight square miles of Caracole, an ancient Maya city that was hidden in the jungle for a millennium.

  "Then what happens?" Day asks with a grin. "LIDAR technology: it's a laser mapping system that you do from an airplane that basically can penetrate through the treetops. One week of mapping Caracole, now we have an 80-square mile city revealed to us."

And that's what the exhibit is about -- how the latest science is helping us understand a complicated ancient civilization.

Jaime Awe, Ed Fleming
Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archeology and Ed Fleming, the Minnesota Science Museum's curator of archeology collaborated on the Maya exhibit. The show includes pieces Awe discovered just recently during his own excavations.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"We are discovering Maya sites we never knew existed and sites that we were working in for decades have just been magnified," Day said.

Linguists say the correct term to use is Maya, as opposed to Mayan which is generally reserved for the Mayan language.

In their era, the Maya people spread from southern Mexico to as far south as what is now El Salvador. They built huge cities, explored science and math, and had a complex society based around monarchs who were regarded as deities.

Day notes that many Westerners brought up to respect the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, forget there were similar developments going on in Central America -- and kept going too.

"During the peak of Maya civilization -- the Classic Period -- in Europe it was the Dark Ages."

"You have to remember that during the peak of Maya civilization, the Classic Period, in Europe it was the Dark Ages," said Day. "Which is to say the cities of the Maya were more populated than the cities of London and Paris."

While there are good scientific reasons for doing this show now, the encouragement actually came from the public. Days said surveys inquiring Science Museum visitors of the kinds of show they'd like to see consistently returned with requests for something about the Maya. He admits that the Minnesotan tradition of escaping the winter for a few weeks to Cancun, Mexico, and the Yucatan peninsula, which has its own Maya ruins, may well be the inspiration for those requests.

Be that as it may, the Science Museum has responded to the task.

"I am amazed, and I think what they have done here is just incredible," said Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archeology.

Awe is a real-life Indiana Jones, plunging through the jungle to search out Maya artifacts. He said he is struck by the breadth of the Science Museum show.

"Most exhibits that I have been to tend to be very tightly focused on one aspect of the civilization," Awe said. "This exhibit here is just so full of information concerning so many aspects of Maya society, Maya culture."

Maya cities like Tikal in Guatemala were centers of religious, commercial and bureaucratic power and were imbued with symbolism as well as functionality.
Image courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota

Awe has been pivotal to the Science Museum show. The Belize Institute of Archeology provided a large number of the artifacts, including a prized inkwell which he found just last year in a royal tomb. Only a few of these inkwells, made from a carefully sliced seashell have been found before, he said.

"But the one we found in this tomb is the only one we found with the four pigments still in it," he said.

The Maya show will travel to partnering museums in Denver, Boston and San Diego after it closes in St. Paul in January. It will then visit six more venues in the U.S. At each venue, the show is being presented in English and Spanish given the interest it is expected to generate in the Hispanic community.

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