Who would have thought that someone would have been skilled enough to translate the writings of an extinct culture? As a result of new artifacts being discovered and break through in translating their hieroglyphs archeologists are rewriting the books about the Maya Culture of Middle America. An exciting exhibition of this work has been gathered from eight countries and five Mexican Museums and is drawing large crowds to the St. Louis Art Museum and will be there until May 11, 2011. The crowds are large so visitors must buy a ticket to see the exhibit at a certain time.
The Maya culture covered what is now the Yucatan Peninsular in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and part of El Salvador. It was a complex culture with writing, a calendar, math and astronomical systems. The culture really came together around 2000 BC with bustling cities, massive pyramids, temples and palaces. For unexplained reasons the culture fell apart a thousand years ago. At the entrance to the exhibit we were greeted by an imposing 10 foot high façade of a temple in Belize with three masks depicting Water Lily Serpent.
The culture was very water orientated and saw the surrounding water on three sides of culture as alive and filled with sacred objects like turtles and alligators. The objects on display are covered with fish, frogs, birds and legendary beasts. An island, Jaina, off shore to the west was where the sun went down and into the underground from which it reappeared in rebirth from the east every morning. The title of the exhibit the “Fiery Pool” refers to the how the sun looks as it rises out of the sea.
We were equipped with iPods for an audio tour and in our case had to have the lesson in how to work them twice. Experts, with background sounds for atmosphere, than gave us detailed explanations of 25 of the exhibits the other 65 exhibits were plainly labeled to give a good introduction to the culture that produced them.
Only one display used a modern digital device. A large round table with a viewing screen on which objects could be moved around. Among the animals on display were waterbirds, conchs, and sting rays. Each was surrounded by icons that when touched gave an explanation of what it meant, what the Maya word for it was, what the implications were, what its icon in their language looked like etc.
Some of the items on display were quite large, like the incense burner that when let made the deity appear as if it were peering out from the smoke. Some of the objects were a bit weird. A number of them were bowls with covers that an animal with its mouth open and deity heads coming out of them. One image had a man smoking a cigar. There was a chocolate container designed for drinking at the same time your nose would be dipping into the foam. There was a carved Taino Vomit spoon used in purification rites. Several hammered sheets of gold, from Chechen Itza, that were almost impossible for me to make out but that they had a clear drawing of so you see how complicated and sophisticated their art could be.
One amazing piece was a ten pound piece of jade that had been carved into a deity’s head that appears on all one dollar pieces in Belize. It was an agricultural based society so theme of water keep showing up and frogs were important icons because of their connection with water and rain.
The turtle was considered the base of the universe and several items used that as their theme, especially bowls. Fiery pool was what the sun rose out of each morning from the Caribbean Sea. Sea and water imparted all life. Water was animate and intelligent. Chahk God of Rain and showers. Canoes were important.
The show was arranged by Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. If you are interested about the complex cultures that existed in the America before the Europeans came Fiery Pool is the show to see.
Pictures are from Peabody Essex Museum press release