Sunday, October 3, 2010


We were all intrigued by Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and then the controversy that it stirred. Many agree that while the movie seemed a hodge-podge of several different Maya eras, it did make its point. First, it was theater and second, while entertaining us it prompted a reemphasis on one of the great cultures of the world. In keeping with Hollywood tradition it catered and played to our 21st century sensitivities and perspectives by highlighting and exaggerating some of the more visceral and violent aspects of Maya culture – human sacrifice. Now while the Maya weren’t nearly as prolific in their sacrifices as the Aztecs (The Tenochcas) they weren’t the “noble savages” that some purists insist. The Maya from their mind’s eye were engaging sacred ritual to appease their gods and guarantee that the sun would rise yet one more time – the only way they knew how. Indeed, they believed that the ultimate fate of their world and its inhabitants and the natural order of all things depended in part on bloodletting and human sacrifice.

The previously held ideal that the Maya were a contemplative and peaceful religious society is a bunch of hogwash and all the PC in the world won’t change that reality. We know now that the Maya practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism and we have much evidence to include the murals of Bonampak and countless other artifacts that document these behaviors. We neither condemn nor praise these practices – the ancient Maya were who they were like the Olmecs before them and all the other great Mesoamerican cultures.

Indeed, Mesoamerica spawned many great cultures and that time line starts as early as 30,000 BP (maybe earlier) and we are still in process of putting all the pieces together. In reality, we have only just begun this quest.

When I was in college in the sixties we were told that while the Maya demonstrated a sophisticated written language via their glyph system, no one had yet deciphered any significant part of it. In short, we were totally in the dark. We studied the magnificent Maya culture (as best we could) and the trappings and architecture in Copan, Tikal, Uxmal, Tulum and Chichen Itza among many other city states and I sometimes felt blind - incapable of truly understanding and embracing the totality of their universe. That was an accurate statement then though we know now that Mayan was, “a written language much more complete and complex than any other practiced in the ancient Americas.” Now, it is the most understood of all the Mesoamerican languages and that didn’t come easy.

It took an army of linguists, anthropologists, archeologists, mathematicians, an architect, a few brilliant hobbyists, and one twelve-year-old child prodigy glyphs expert, to solve the riddle of the Mayan written language. Those folks included Constantine Rafinesque, Ernst Förstemann, Alfred Maudsley, Eric Thompson, Yuri Knorosov, Linda Schele and David Stuart in the 1980’s (among many others) to unravel the Mayan language puzzle.

Couple that with the incredible archeological discoveries of the last few decades and we see other substantial pieces of the Maya puzzle revealed. We need to put the Maya civilization in perspective with some of the other great cultures on our planet. The Maya had one of the most densely populated and culturally dynamic societies in the world and if we combine the Maya Pre and post classic with their Classic period we have a timeline roughly from 2000 BCE to 1521 CE. That puts the Maya squarely contemporary with Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, Ancient Ghana, Axum, Phoenicia, Persia and India among many others.

Now comes along Daniel Finamore, the Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA and Stephen D. Houston, the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Archaeology at Brown University in Providence, RI who put together a Maya exhibition (Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea) that is more of a cultural celebration touching on the water elements of Maya society without exaggerating the aforementioned “dark side” of the Maya. That exhibition started at the host Peabody Essex Museum, is now at the Kimbell Arts Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (August 29, 2010 through January 2,2011) and will ultimately travel to the Saint Louis Art Museum( February 13, 2011 - May 8, 2011).

Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea delves into the Maya’s physical realm (they were surrounded by water) and their spiritual relationship with that element. “Fiery Pool” is the phrase the Maya used to describe the sea and when the glyph for water was deciphered (yea only about 20 years ago) it opened up a whole new train of thought and new and now accurate meanings of artifacts that previously misinterpreted - led us down the primrose path. This new scholarship has lent new meaning to, “I once was blind but now I see” and, indeed, we now do.

We expect nothing but a first class experience from The Kimbell and they have not disappointed us. The visual aids in this exhibition are superb with plenty of stimulus and opportunity for every age and scholastic level. From the casting of the Maya temple at the start of the tour to detailed drawings, audio visual explanations highlighted by superb graphics and dialogue to a large table top and circular interactive screen of the sea/ocean where guests can touch the screen and select an animal from the water such as a shark, frog or turtle, associate it with its glyph and then discover the significance of that creature in Maya culture.

We now know that the ancient Maya viewed their world as inseparable from water as the element not only necessary to sustain life, but the vital medium from which the world emerged, the sun rose and set, their gods arose and through which their ancestors spoke. Water in all its myriad forms from fog/clouds to rivers and streams to cenotes to sea shaped their whole existence – they were all connected.

My favorite piece in Fiery Pool is an elaborate ceramic incense burner from Palenque, Mexico (700–750 CE) which portrays a deity central to the Maya creation myth. Not surprisingly, he is of the water world. A shark serves as his headdress which is topped by a toothy crocodile. It is magnificent…

I suspect that perhaps tonight a Maya elder in Yucatan will gather young children around a fire and relate the Maya creation myth just as it has been told for thousands of years. Another generation of Maya will be educated and motivated to celebrate and preserve their culture. No, the Maya didn’t go away. Not unlike the Italians after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Maya did not disappear. They stayed and now number over six million in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are alive and well

So, whatever you’re doing or wherever you’re from, make plans to go to the Kimbell Arts Museum in Fort Worth and treat yourself to a once in a lifetime chance to see and experience this great culture – revealed for the first time. While you’re in Fort Worth saunter on over to the Stockyards and take in Billy Bob’s, the world’s largest honkey tonk and Joe T. Garcia's Mexican Restaurant - since 1935 the worst kept secret and one of the greatest Family celebrations in Tarrant County. Be forewarned - like the ancient Maya they don’t accept plastic.


Ned Buxton

1 comment:

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