MayaBY BEEBE BAHRAMICrossing the Mesoamerican galleryNo, the ancient Maya did notpredict that the world will end inDecember 2012. Yes, the PennMuseum is taking advantageof the popular fascination withthat distinctly North Americanmisinterpretation of the Mayacalendar to mount a wide-rangingexhibit examining Maya notions oftime and much more about thisrich, still-thriving culture.40M AY J U N E 2 0 1 2T H E P E N N S Y LVA N I A G A Z E T T Eon my way to interview the key players in the Penn Museum’s new exhibition on the ancient and modern Maya—MAYA 2012 Lords of Time, which runsthrough January 13, 2013 (assumingour world is still around then)—I see adignified elderly docent herding a flock of three-dozen orso restless, distracted fourth graders visiting the museumon a field trip. With theatrical aplomb, the docent changeshis voice so that it’s just loud enough to rise over the dinof chatting and texting.“What is going to happen when the big cycle of theMaya calendar ends in December 2012?” he says, raising one eyebrow and drawing out his words, placingparticular emphasis on ends.A hush falls over the school group. No one looks attheir phones, all eyes on the prophet of the moment. Afew other gallery visitors move closer. The floor perhapstrembles a little beneath our feet.The eyebrow relaxes.“Nothing.” He smiles innocently, his voice normal again.“A whole new long cycle will begin.”The kids look bummed. The other visitors move on.No cataclysm? No great cosmic shift of consciousness?No John Cusack outracing the apocalypse in a batteredRV? What gives?I L L U S T R AT I O N B Y R I C H L I L L A S H
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The Acropolis’s royal residences and temples were built ontop of each other in a seemingly haphazard manner thatmade mapping the site more challenging. Serendipitously,the nearby Copan River had eroded portions of the easternedge of the acropolis, offering a sneak peak of how the different sequential structures were related. This is where theteam began their tunnels. (The river has since been redirected away from the archeological site.)One of the most crucial finds was the Hunal tomb belonging toCopan’s first king, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, who founded the dynasty in 426 CE, and the tomb of his likely queen and the mother ofCopan’s second king. For Traxler, another “lifetime” find occurredin March 1992 as her two-person excavation crew was investigating a plaster floor that ran underneath a staircase.“We decided to follow the floor as a feature and came in a shortdistance to where the floor had been cut into in ancient times.The cut into the floor was part of a large pit excavated in a courtyard area in the mid-6th century CE. Following down through thefill of the pit, we came upon a ceremonial offering and capstonesto a tomb,” she recalls. “When one of my workmen removed asmall stone wedged between the capstones, he looked within adark opening and could see nothing but the edge of a masonrywall With my flashlight, we were able to see an entire chamberpreserved and a burial in place with many offerings.” She and herteam had uncovered the completely undisturbed tomb of Copan’seighth king, Wi’ Yohl K’inich, who ruled from 534 to 551 CE.Seated in her modest office at the museum—decorated withprints of royal stelae (stone markers) from Copan—Traxlerexplains how the MAYA 2012 show hopes to leverage the buzzgenerated by productions like the disaster-movie 2012 to offera more accurate picture of the Maya culture, past and present.Exhibit co-curators Loa Traxlerand Simon Martin.42M AY J U N E 2 0 1 2T H E P E N N S Y LVA N I A G A Z E T T ECANDACE DICARLOThis “package of calamity and alignment of planets” didn’toriginate with the Maya at all. “It’s a North American creation,”says Loa Traxler Gr’04, curator of the exhibit and the museum’sAndrew W. Mellon Associate Deputy Director. It’s hard to putyour finger on exactly how the process got started, but itinvolved the misreading of disparate pieces of evidence thatwere poorly understood or interpreted outside the actual cultures from whence they came, including the Maya, to the pointwhere the mishmash of misinformation has taken on a life ofits own—a purely North American one. “These threads are fromall different areas and are being bundled and linked to a calendar that has nothing to do with [them].”Traxler should know. Her affiliation with the museum andthe Maya goes back to 1989 when she began to turn herarchaeological specialty toward Central America. From 1990to 1998, she excavated every dig season at the Classic Mayacity of Copan with the Penn Museum’s Early Copan AcropolisProgram (ECAP), which operated from 1989 to 2003. (See thesidebar on page 44 for a primer on Maya historical periods.)She later supervised the museum’s program to publish itsextensive Copan Acropolis research and oversaw publication of other monographs, as well as coordinating the PennMaya Weekend conference before being appointed associatedeputy director in 2009.Thanks to the several decades’ long collaboration between thePenn Museum and the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología eHistoria (IHAH)— “the steward of Honduras’s cultural patrimony,”Traxler explains—ECAP excavations carefully dug some threekilometers of tunnels and revealed temples, palaces, andtombs containing physical remains of Copan’s royalty duringits reign between 400 and 800 CE.
KENNETH GARRETT“It was a natural fit to take this time of attention on theMaya—whether it has any bearing on the actual Maya—andto bring people into richer engagement” with them, she says.“It’s not only on the ancient Maya but the modern Maya; it’snot only what we understand about the ancient Maya buthow they continue to contribute to the world—to give voice tocontemporary Maya people. We decided to focus on theMaya, their calendar, and their civilization.”MAYA 2012 Lords of Time uses the popular and romanticnotion of 2012 as a doorway into the real Maya universe—oneordered terrifically by time and observations of time throughremarkably accurate astronomy, mathematics, and calendars. Like changing base metal to gold, the exhibit transforms pop-culture ideas into the truth about the fascinatingMaya culture and civilization, an earthly presence of some3,000 years and still going strong.The museum is partnering with IHAH to mount the exhibit.More than 74 artifacts—the majority of those on display—areon loan from IHAH, supplemented by more than 50 objectsfrom Penn’s own collection as well as materials from Harvard’sPeabody Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.“This exhibition builds on the long-standing research collaboration between the Penn Museum and the IHAH,” Traxlersays. “Together these institutions have carried out over twodecades of research on the archaeological history of theCopan Acropolis and the royal dynasty of the ancient Copankingdom. This generous loan of outstanding pieces fromrecent excavations allows the Penn Museum to showcase thecollections and research of the IHAH and to promote the cultural heritage of Maya people and the nation of Honduras.”Throughout the show’s run there will be all manner of events,from kids’ tours led by experts (such as a glyph expert, anastronomer, an archaeologist, and a conservator); to adulttours, including self-tour options narrated by Traxler and cocurator Simon Martin, an expert on deciphering, reading, andinterpreting Maya texts; to lecture series. In addition, RicardoAgurcia Fasquelle will visit the Penn Museum throughout theexhibition. Agurcia is a Copan expert, Honduran archaeologist, and the executive director of the non-profit AssociaciónCopan, a private research, education, and conservation organization dedicated to Copan and Honduras’s cultural andnatural heritage. His collaboration has enriched the programof events at the Penn Museum. (For more information on programs and to order tickets, visit the Penn Museum website:http://www.penn.museum/maya2012.)MAYA 2012 uses calendars, monumentalitems, time periods, and even colors to showthe passage of time. The first gallery is adark-walled space, a “twilight” world (if youwill) in which visitors will be privy to thefull range of pop culture theories about theend or transformation of the world in 2012—on December 23 to be exact, the curators say, according to thenearest Gregorian reckoning of the relevant Maya calendar.At which point, as the disappointed fourth graders learned, anew cycle starts. But not to spoil the fun too soon: among themore inventive yarns are theories about galactic alignmentsthat may bring about the end, or that instead may offer a newbeginning, a great shift of human consciousness. To offer allthe evidence and set the record straight, the exhibit is fitted outwith engaging panels, some called Debunkers and others MayaMisconceptions, that aim to test, tease, and educate at once.The Debunkers ask questions (and offer answers) such as,“Did the Maya predict the end of the world? Did the Mayaforesee a rare galactic alignment with disastrous results forEarth? Does the Maya calendar contain ancient predictionsfor the future?” And, “Are predictions for the apocalypse in2012 different from predictions in the past?”ECAP Program Director Robert Sharer examines the bones of Copan’s first king,K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, in the Hunal Tomb, which he uncovered beneath a pyramidstructure in the city. The Hunal Tomb also contained this ceramic vessel, used tohold a food offering, that dates from around 437 CE.T H E P E N N S Y LVA N I A G A Z E T T EM AY J U N E 2 0 1 243
Likewise, Maya Misconceptions challenge popular misinformation and enticingly offer the truth. For example:“Maya Misconceptions: The Maya recorded their calendar ona circular ‘calendar stone.’ Truth: There is no such thing as aMaya calendar stone. This was a creation of the Aztec culture.”Part of the fun is the treasure hunt for the fascinatingtruth about the Maya that these panels offer.The show’s next section deals with the Maya calendar system—which is actually several calendars, each tracking its own specialrelationship with celestial timing, from solar to lunar to planetary rhythms. But the one responsible for all this 2012 businessis the long and largely linear calendar called the Long Count.The Long Count’s units, called bak’tuns, are around 400 yearslong, and a large single Long Count cycle runs 13 cycles of bak’tununits, so about 5,125 years. Within a bak’tun are smaller units:a k’atun (approximately 20 years long), a tun (around one solaryear), a winal (20 days), and a kin (a single day).These five units, transliterated from Maya numbers into Arabicnumerals, show December 23, 2012 as 126.96.36.199.0. (December 24,2012, would be 0.0.0.0.1). It’s not unlike turning the page fromDecember 31 to January 1, only on a much longer calendar. OnDecember 23, 2012, a Long Count cycle is completing its 5,125year journey, one that began around August 11, 3114 BCE.The Mayain HistoryArchaeologists and historians regardthe sweep of the Maya’s dynamicpast in terms of the Preclassic, theClassic, and the Postclassic periods.The Preclassic stretches from somewhere around 1000 BCE, before the timeof the Maya kings, to about 250 CE.The Classic period, from around 250 CEto 900 CE, is considered the point whenthe Maya civilization exhibited the mostsocial hierarchy, with the rise of eliteminorities governing over non-elitemajorities, as well as the most architectural, artistic, and written output, thelargest population centers, trade networks,and dynastic centers. “There was classdivision,” says MAYA 2012 co-curatorSimon Martin, “and it was hierarchicallyorganized. Everyone had a sense of placeand it was very rigid.”This was the time of city-states suchas Copan, Palenque, and Tikal. TheClassic period in Maya history is theapex of the ancient Maya universeexpressed in complex and stunningastronomy, mathematics, calendricalsystems, architectural and agricultural feats, trade networks, and complex44M AY J U N E 2 0 1 2T H E P E N N S Y LVA N I A G A Z E T T EThat seems like a long time, but it wasn’t enough for theMaya. According to co-curator Simon Martin—senior researchassociate at the museum and associate curator of theAmerican Section; and one of the world’s few epigraphers ofMaya, specializing in deciphering, reading, and analyzing thehistorical records left in stone, painted on vessels, or inbooks—there are texts indicating that there are at least 19more names demarcating even higher time places on the LongCount, above the 5,125 year cycles.This idea of time cycles greater than five thousand yearsreverberates in my head. What does that mean? I finally ask.That rather than time stopping, he says, “it goes on for upto trillions of years.”Which sounds rather optimistic to me.“The Maya didn’t associate the Long Count with apocalypticideas,” Traxler says. “They did acknowledge destruction, but notin the Long Count. They didn’t see the end of the bak’tun as theend—it just completed it—and then started [a new] bak’tun.”Once visitors have learned that all the Long Count was reallydoing was tracking time, long stretches of it, and marking theend—and the beginning—of cycles, based on astronomicalobservations, they enter the ancient Maya world as seen atCopan. Here, the exhibit’s wall colors shift to the palette of apolitical, social, and cultural systems.A lot about the Maya can be understoodthrough this window, one where the LongCount calendar was in full use, the verycalendar whose misinterpretation by usmoderns has got us in this 2012 bind.The Postclassic period (900 –1500 CE)describes the aftermath of both naturaland human-induced decline of thesedynastic Classic centers when overpopulation, environmental degradation, a longperiod of recurring droughts, crop failures, famines, and deaths from diseasesand violent conflicts emptied the cities.Traxler explains that we can view thePostclassic as an era of transformation.The Maya actually recovered from thenatural and human-made disasters andopened up new and wider trade withother Mesoamerican peoples, creating amore pan-Central American network oftrade and influences between the Mayaand non-Maya world. They also developed new crafts and established lesshierarchical communities.With the decline of the dynastic centers, the Long Count stopped being usedbecause it was really the device of thekings and equated with them and theirtime of power on earth. The last knownLong Count date comes from a stela atToniná, Mexico, carved with the date 909CE. But time did not cease just becausethe Long Count stopped being employed.The many other calendars, especially thetwo all-important Sacred Calendar andHaab (solar) continued, and time trackingwas still important, as it remains today intraditional Maya communities.From European contact around 1500to the present, not only have the Mayapersisted in their distinct language andculture, but they are in the midst of aserious cultural flourishing after centuries of suppression. Martin thinks thatthis success may in part have been fromthe lucky circumstance that “the Mayaarea didn’t have gold and that mighthave helped keep their culture intactwith [Spanish] contact.” Language alsoplays an important role. “Language isthe best continuing and defining characteristic of the Maya. They have a strongsense of identity [through] language[and] art styles, and [these] make astrong distinction between themselvesand other [Central American peoples].”The exhibit gracefully elaborates onthese time periods, from the ancient,to contact and colonization, to themodern era where some 10 millionMaya live in the world today, mostly inGuatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Belize,and El Salvador, but many in immigrant communities throughout theworld, including Philadelphia.—B.B.
KENNETH GARRETT; EARLY COPAN ACROPOLIS PROJECT, PENN MUSEUMdawning day, and the focus is on who the ancient Maya reallywere—and who they were not (namely, Aztec and Inca).Copan offers a particularly compelling case study of the ClassicMaya period (250-900 CE), when the civilization was characterized by city-state polities with extensive trade relationships andcomplicated, hierarchical social and political organizations,ruled by dynastic kings who inherited their role as semi-divineleaders of their community—aka the “Lords of Time.”Copan is remarkable for many reasons, and not least becauseit offers a nearly complete archaeological and historicaldocumentation of the Classic Maya from around 400 to 800CE, from the city’s beginnings to its decline. Rarely doarchaeologists discover a site that is undisturbed enough toafford a complete survey of its existence, from its foundingto its abandonment.Carved tripod vessel and lid, c. 437 CE.“The fact that I can stand in the West Court of the CopanAcropolis and truly envision the evolution of that locationover generations of kings and queens, complete with theirceremonial buildings, artistic programs, and remains oftheir lives, is a remarkable feeling as an archaeologist,” saysTraxler. “Few locations offer the same richly detailed historyin the Americas.”MAYA 2012 conveys the drama of being at Copan by replicating several pieces of life-size monumental architecture that weretoo large to transport from Honduras. Notable among these arethe Margarita Panel and Altar Q, which are something of thealpha and omega of monuments at Copan. Measuring ninefeet high and 12 feet wide and carved around 450 CE, Margaritacommemorates Copan’s first ruler, while Altar Q was dedicatedin 776 CE by the last king of Copan to the founder of thedynasty 348 years earlier. The remarkably well-preservedMargarita Panel, found buried deep within the CopanAcropolis, shows the name of the king (K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’)as represented by an intertwined quetzal bird (K’uk) andscarlet macaw (Mo’), with crest elements that mean first orgreen (Yax). Altar Q has a portrait of each king, with his nameand reign, in a chain of succession. The founder hands thescepter to the 16th king, while the founder’s son, the secondking, sits behind his father, and behind him, the third king,and so forth. It is an archaeological gem but also a mythmaking piece, bringing these 16 rulers to life.Subsequent galleries introduce the Maya of today in theirown voices—in Mayan and Spanish with English subtitles—through videos gathered by Traxler while on the ground inCentral America.Today, some 10 million Maya live all around the globe, withthe largest populations in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras,Belize, and El Salvador. The videos offer Maya perspectives on theworld today and their place in it, as well as Maya views of 2012.The originals were too big to move, but replicas of the MargaritaPanel (below, left) and Altar Q—the alpha and omega of Copan monuments—are featured in the exhibition. The panel, carved around450 CE, honors Copan’s first king, while the altar, commissioned byCopan’s 16th and last king in 776 CE, shows the royal successionover the course of the dynasty.T H E P E N N S Y LVA N I A G A Z E T T EM AY J U N E 2 0 1 245
Copan’s founder was also represented in this censer lid from 695 CE.What look like goggles are shell-rings that represented a warrior tothe Classic Maya.“We decided to use the hook of 2012 in popular culture tobring people in and to teach about the Maya,” says Kate Quinn,the Penn Museum’s director of exhibitions. “Throughout therewill be expert kiosks, five experts on the Maya and six expertswho are Maya. Part of the exhibit’s strength is it allows modernMaya to tell their experience in their own voices.”The exhibit also has kiosks where visitors can learn aboutMaya glyphs, spell their names using them, and interactivelyinvestigate the numerical system (including working outtheir birthdays on the Maya calendar).Quinn, who came to Penn from the Delaware Art Museum in2008, has an extensive background in theater, film, and exhibitdesign and has worked with cultural materials for exhibitsfrom a
Maya—whether it has any bearing on the actual Maya—and to bring people into richer engagement” with them, she says. “It’s not only on the ancient Maya but the modern Maya; it’s not only what we understand about the ancient Maya but how they continue to contribute to the world—to
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CURRICULUM VITAE : ANN SUTHERLAND HARRIS EDUCATION B.A. Honors (First Class) University of London, Courtauld Institute 1961 European art and architecture, 1250-1700 PhD. University of London, Courtauld Institute 1965 Dissertation title: Andrea Sacchi, 1599-1661 EMPLOYMENT 1964-5 Assistant Lecturer, Art Dept., University of Leeds. 1965-6 Assistant Lecturer, Barnard and Columbia College. 1965-71 .