The fascinating and slightly macabre Mayan exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau is the first public showing of many of the artifacts on display.
The Mayan civilization reached its apex around 1,500 years ago, then faded away as mysteriously as it arose, leaving jungle cities, crumbling pyramids, hieroglyphics, and stunning artifacts that have boggled the minds of archaeologists and scholars for centuries.
One of the most important tribes of Central American Indians, the Maya were an agricultural people occupying what is now Yucatan, Chiapas, and Tabasco in Mexico, all of Honduras and Guatemala, Belize, and western El Salvador.
They were famous for their architecture, their astronomical and mathematical knowledge, and their aesthetic excellence. They were also the only pre-Columbian Indians who had developed a written language, now approximately 80 percent deciphered.
The exhibition not only displays the artifacts but explains some of the most recent findings and significant archaeological discoveries about these jungle people and what is called the Mayan Classic Period (250 to 900 CE).
Visitors will learn that recent discoveries shed light on the unique written language of the Maya people and their complex calendar system.
They will also find that it debunks the end-of-days prophecy that worries many people who think the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012.
The exhibition features a calendar explaining how the Mayans calculated time and that their way of measuring time shows a new beginning due to start towards the end of this year, rather than a cataclysmic ending.
Culture of Complexity
Theirs was a culture of complexity, a culture different from ours in that it had divine rulers with sacred roles, a complex palace life, labourers, artisans, farmers, and slaves (war prisoners and criminals).
There were human sacrifices and bloodletting as well as scarification and other cosmetic oddities such as ear enlargement and artificial forehead slanting as a way of beautifying themselves.
Before the decline, Mayan art was highly developed.
During the ninth century CE, many Mayan cities were abandoned, but the end of this civilization did not come about suddenly, as in warfare, but happened gradually over a century.
One explanation is that they experienced soil exhaustion because without agricultural tools, the Maya burned off the brush and replanted corn by seeding with pointed sticks in the same fields, a method that is hard on the land.
Drought and shifting trade routes are other possible reasons for the decline. It is also possible that disease and social decadence were problems. The arrival of the Spanish was definitely a factor.
The exhibition has some stunning examples of Mayan sculpture, which reached its best expression between 317 and 987 CE when magnificent carved stone steles marking calendar periods were erected. They were usually painted dark red, but sometimes blue and other colours. In fact, traces of this paint may be seen on several pieces in the exhibit.
Examples of jewellery in jade, shells, and pearls round out the display, along with cunning little whistles, bowls made of alabaster, stone, or ceramic, and beautiful stucco works.
The exhibition continues until Oct. 28, 2012. Visit www.civilization.ca.
Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among many others. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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