Maya exhibit busts myths amid tour of ancient world

The ancient Maya continue to intrigue the public today, though most still find theirs a mysterious and challenging civilization — notions the curators of a new Toronto exhibit hope to dispel.

Maya at the ROM

10 years ago
Curator Justin Jennings talks about the new Maya exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, highlighting nearly 250 artifacts, many of them never seen before in Canada and some only recently excavated. 5:20

The ancient Maya continue to intrigue the public today, though most still find theirs a mysterious and challenging civilization — notions the curators of a new Toronto exhibit hope to dispel.

The Royal Ontario Museum teamed up with the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) to assemble an original show that dives into the Maya world at its peak, classic period: from 250 to 900 AD.

"The ROM, INAH and the CMC have worked collaboratively on the intellectual development of this original exhibition to show these stunning artifacts, many for the first time. Together, we are bringing these artifacts to life and we’re telling a fascinating story of the Maya," said ROM director and CEO Janet Carding.

Though many people have a basic grasp of who the Maya are, most don’t really understand the ancient Mesoamerican civilization, according to Justin Jennings, the lead ROM curator behind the multi-institution exhibit.


"It’s a culture that people get so excited about, but there [are still] a lot of preconceptions," he told CBC News.

For instance, until the 1950s, even contemporary Maya believed that their ancestors were a peaceful society.

"We now know that they were as warlike as most societies around the world. We can read about what they talked about in the glyphs, we see murals from places like Bonampak that show big battles occurred. That’s one of the big myths we bust in the exhibit," Jennings said.

"Another big myth, of course, is the 2012 myth: that the Maya were saying on Dec. 21, 2012 the world’s going to explode, the world’s going to end. The Maya didn’t think that way."

The ROM show addresses the "end of world" controversy in an area devoted to Maya writing and timekeeping, one of the show’s seven sections (other topics include cosmology and ritual, city living, life in the palace and the civilization’s collapse and survival). A large-scale projection on one wall shows a countdown clock displaying the Maya long-count calendar.

"2012 is the end of one of the cycles of time in the Maya world," Jennings explained.

"What they thought would happen on Dec. 23 actually — a couple of days after the 21st — [is that] the next cycle would happen. It would have been a big deal. It would have been a big party, probably. But it wouldn’t have been the end of the world."

Exploring Maya society

Another challenge facing the curators was that — unlike previous high-profile ROM exhibitions such as the Terracotta Warriors or the Dead Sea Scrolls — when one says "Maya artifact," a specific object or image doesn’t instantly come to mind.

Wrapping one’s head around the people, the artifacts, the society and the culture can be daunting, Jennings admitted, so the exhibit was structured as a tour through the ancient Maya world.

"The Maya is a tough subject because it’s, in some ways, so foreign to people. You get excited about the imagery, but it’s hard to unpack what all the art meant," he said.

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"What we try to do … is take you from the beginning: almost from the fringes of Maya society, from the jungles [and] from the mountains through the fields and into a Maya city, into the plaza to learn about things like trade and [their] ball game, into the palace to learn about [their] kings, into the temple to learn about cosmology. So it’s almost like a trip, a guided tour, as if you were living in the eighth century."

The civilization’s story is explored through nearly 250 artifacts — spanning sculptures, ceramics, jewelry, masks, carvings and sacrificial objects — much of which came from the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the objects have never before been seen in Canada, with some considered the most significant Maya finds ever.

The display includes objects just recently excavated, including the massive, multi-panelled limestone Tablet of the Warriors from Temple XVII. It depicts a captured warrior kneeling before a king of the ancient city-state of Palenque, with the three pieces united for the first time for the new exhibit.

Organizers also managed to snag pieces that rarely travel, including a doorway lintel depicting a somewhat gory auto-sacrifice ritual that regularly resides at the British Museum.

These artifacts are bolstered by tactile displays (like reproductions and scale models), newly created audio and video components, maps, photos and murals.

A complex people

The wide-ranging relics paint a portrait of the Maya as a complex people, with one object highlighting a sense of humour, for instance, while another shines a light on an intense piety.

One capricious example is a lid, for a vessel long gone, that is topped by a greedy spider monkey guarding cacao beans — a joke by an ancient potter about how both the Maya elite and wild primates grow fat from consuming too much of the highly valued crop, the main ingredient for chocolate.

Conversely, the lintel from the British Museum depicting a woman partaking in auto-sacrifice (in order to communicate with her ancestors) highlights the extreme importance and common nature of ritual sacrifice and bloodletting to the Maya.

"You have this sort of whimsical pot on one hand that sort of says ‘They’re just like us, making the joke with the spider monkey.’ And [with] other things, you see how… they’re quite different, [for instance] with the auto-sacrifice," Jennings said.

Ultimately, the goal is for people to appreciate the "cool" artifacts, while also gaining context on the Maya people, their way of life and their beliefs. The exhibit itself will be bolstered by outreach activities and features, including an accompanying lecture series and a graphic novel created for the show and aimed at children.

"We hope to use the objects to unpack, little by little, [the Maya story]," Jennings said.

"So not only are you astounded by the art and say "This is cool stuff," but you also say "Ok, I get it. I understand why they did the blood sacrifice. I understand why they played that ball game."

Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World opens to the public Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and continues through April 9. The exhibit then moves to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., where it will be on display from May 18 to Oct. 28.