A blockbuster show at the Science Museum of Minnesota uses modern science to explain an ancient civilization.
Asked what they’d most like to see at the Science Museum of Minnesota, visitors overwhelmingly said a show about the Maya, the ancient Central American civilization whose monumental stone pyramids and temples slumbered for centuries under rain forest jungles.
Four years and $4 million later, “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed” opens today at the St. Paul museum.
With its serpentine galleries, dramatic lighting and sound effects, priceless artifacts, up-to-the-minute scientific discoveries and kid-friendly activities, “Maya” is the largest and most complex show the Science Museum has produced in decades. Layered with information, it illuminates the lives of people whose astronomy, agriculture, calendars, mathematics and trade systems were as sophisticated as any in the world during their “Classic Period,” from 250 to 900 A.D.
“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that no other museum in the world could do this,” said Mike Day, the museum’s senior vice president, during a preview tour. Other museums have shown Maya art or archaeology, he said, but no others have the capacity to include activities for young people, or to recreate murals, monuments and even a cave in which the Maya communicated with their underworld gods.
In conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada, the museum also updated an Omnitheater movie about Maya sites and their 19th-century rediscovery, including re-enactments of archeological expeditions. The Science Museum organized the show in cooperation with museums in Denver, Boston and San Diego, to which it will travel when its Minnesota run ends Jan. 5.
“People always think that Maya civilization collapsed and the Maya disappeared after Europeans arrived, but that’s not true,” said Ed Fleming, the Science Museum archaeologist who co-curated the exhibit with Dr. Marc Levine of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “They changed, but they did not vanish, and there are between 6 million and 7 million Maya people living in Central America today.”
Into the jungle
Foliage rustles, birds call and monkeys howl as visitors enter via a gallery lit to evoke a shadowy jungle glade, hike past a modern archaeologist’s field camp (note the Coleman lamp and yellow plastic water cooler), and then spy two massive, mossy pillars in a clearing. The theatrical effects smartly ramp up the Indiana Jones drama of the 14-foot columns (known as stele) incised with grimacing figures surrounded by hieroglyphic writing.
Scholars first assumed the figures were Maya gods, but in the 1950s architect-linguist Tatiana Proskouriakoff deciphered the hieroglyphs and realized that the carvings depict real kings and their historic exploits. Rivals for power and control of the jade trade, one king captured and beheaded the other in 738 A.D.
“All stele are propaganda pillars,” explained Fleming.
The stele and an elaborately carved altar are plaster reproductions of artifacts too heavy to transport. But the show includes an authentic, very cool, life-size sculpture of the beheaded guy, Waxaklajuun U’baah K’awiil, that once graced a temple in Belize and has never been exhibited before. The exhibit features more than 300 authentic artifacts on loan from museums in Belize and elsewhere, including elaborately painted pottery, a rare conch-shell inkpot and a priceless jade mask that probably once dangled from a ruler’s necklace or belt.
There was never a single, all-powerful Maya ruler equivalent to an Egyptian Pharaoh or Roman emperor. Instead, the Maya territory — encompassing what is now Belize, Guatemala and neighboring regions of El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico — consisted of many city-states of varying significance and power.
Cities were ruled by elites whose responsibilities included propitiating the gods, typically with blood offerings on ceremonial occasions (harvest festivals, births, deaths). Reproductions of temple murals show a surprising array of body types, from slender athletes to portly characters, most with the strangely pointed heads that were achieved by binding an infant’s head to mold the still-soft bone. Maya of the era also drilled holes in their front teeth and inset bits of jade and other decorative stones.
Maya science and art
Keen astronomers, the Maya had a 365-day calendar, could predict eclipses, and accurately calculated the movements of the moon, Venus and other planets. Their base-20 math system included the important concept of zero, which Europeans didn’t grasp until centuries later when they adopted the Arabs’ number system. Ancient Maya made their accordion-fold books from fig-bark paper, though only four of them survive, and the exhibition example is a reproduction.
A Master Builder’s gallery showcases remarkable Maya achievements in architecture and agronomy, including a reproduction of a huge temple frieze and a floor-map that traces the remains of agricultural terraces and compounds that once extended for miles around a partly excavated temple complex.
New aerial scanning technology enables archaeologists to virtually strip away the trees and jungle that now cover the area, revealing hundreds of still unexplored building sites. At a microscope station, kids can examine pollen and lake sediment to see how scientists study diets, climate change, erosion patterns and other factors affecting ancient people. Additional displays explore Maya crafts (jewelry, weaving, pottery), games, religious beliefs, burial practices, cosmology and the underworld.
By the time Europeans arrived in the 1500s, life in the Maya’s great stone cities was already changing. Some cities were still thriving, but others had been virtually abandoned for complex reasons including the stress of overpopulation, soil exhaustion and changing trade patterns. With the Spaniards came smallpox, which decimated populations, and priests who burned books in an effort to stamp out the old gods and traditions.