The ancient Maya, whose civilization spanned more than 3,000 years, developed an amazingly accurate calendar, encompassing 360 days with an additional five presumably “unlucky” days thrown in for good measure. According to many modern calculations, that original calendar expires this year – on Dec. 21, to be precise – and there are many theories as to the meaning of that portentous event. Some say that to the Maya, the end of one calendar would simply mark the beginning of another; others say the date is doomsday, the end of the world as we know it.
Should you want to commemorate the occasion, which falls on a Friday this year, either as the beginning of yet another happy weekend or the last chance for a big party before the world goes dark, the State Museum has an attractive suggestion. The staff is hosting an “End of the World Party” on that date with Latin music, dancing, cash bar and a special tour of the museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition “Secrets of the Maya.”
Of course, there is no reason to wait until Dec. 21 to see the current show. In fact, I drove up to Columbia this past Saturday to spend a couple of hours touring this exhibition, which features artifacts from six different cultural institutions in North Carolina, Colorado and Florida. The show, housed on the museum’s second floor, is organized roughly into five parts.
The first room features stunning photographs of the impressive ruins of the various city-states of the ancient Maya, who inhabited southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and western El Salvador from 2000 B.C. to the advent of the Spanish in 1524. Most of the great cities with their temple-pyramids surrounding a central plaza, however, date from what is now known as the Classic period between 250 and 900 A.D. In display cases in this room are also impressive earthenware vessels fashioned during this period when the Maya developed their imposing stone architecture, distinctive hieroglyphic writing and advanced mathematical system – they were one of the earliest people to use the zero.
The second room is devoted to the cosmic imagery of the Maya, who were ruled by kings who were thought to maintain order in the heavens by being able to open portals between worlds through ritualized bloodletting. This shedding of blood presumably induced in the royal personage an altered state of consciousness by which he could connect to the supernatural realm and commune with the gods. In the culture of the Maya, these gods were both male and female, and each had specific gender roles. Itsamnaaj, the father of the gods, was the great teacher, who presided over the gifts of writing and science. His wife Chak Chel was the deity to whom one prayed for a successful childbirth; she also inspired weavers – weaving is still principally a female art among the descendants of the Maya.
The third space in this exhibition contains material related to the landmark excavation of the ancient city of Chichen Itza. Until the 20th century, very little archaeological research had been conducted on the cities of the Maya. However, in 1924, a team led by newlyweds Earl and Ann Morris began a four-year dig in the Yucatan to uncover and partially reconstruct one of the great urban centers of this ancient culture. Their story, which is told in a number of informative placards, reads like an Indiana Jones adventure, complete with finding hidden chambers and buried treasure.
Finally, through a passageway lined with reproductions of some of the 4,000 rubbings made by Merle Greene Robertson of the low-relief sculpture of the Maya, visitors arrive at the last space, which features a reproduction of a Maya hut and photographs by Jeffrey Jay Foxx of the modern descendants of the Maya, particularly the female members of a weaving cooperative in Chiapas with whom the photographer has established a bond over time.
According to Dr. Victor Manuel Duran, a native of Belize and the chair of USCA’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, the basic domestic architecture of the Maya has not varied much over millennia; one can still find in Belize today traditional wood-frame family residences composed of one large living space with rounded corners, no windows, one central door facing east (toward the direction of the spirit of the sun), and a thatched roof. Although in the mistaken pursuit of progress, some residents of Belize have opted for more “modern” construction materials, such as concrete, Dr. Duran asserts that the classic building practices of the Maya remain even today more suitable to the Central American climate.
On view until June 9 – the museum is obviously betting that we are all going to make it past Dec. 21 – the “Secrets of the Maya” offers a fascinating glimpse into one of the great civilizations of the Western hemisphere, an ancient culture that survives to this day through the lives of descendants in southern Mexico and Central America. For more information, call (803) 898-4999 or visit www.scmuseum.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).
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