By: Stephanie Knight
I’ve been to several renown art museums over the years. The Met in New York, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and of course the Detroit Institute of Arts. This past week, I was fortunate enough to make it out to Denver. I wasn’t able to get to the Art Museum because practically everything is closed on Mondays in Denver! However, I discovered a unique art exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. It’s about the Mayans! Many of the pieces in the exhibit have never been displayed before. While I have a place in my heart for contemporary art, I have a real love of ancient art. And quite frankly, I thought it would make a great story for the gallery’s blog! So I’d like to share with you some images of the Mayan art I encountered on my trip.
Making a Statement with Art
Some of the most impressive pieces of art created by Mayans were stelae. Stelae (singular stela) were used by Mayan rulers to make a statement. This statement could be one of many things. Stelae could:
- Declare a ruler’s power. In a world without modern media, stelae could be used to make political statements.
- Proclaim the accomplishments of a ruler. Whether it was conquering a rival city state or building temples in the city, stelae documented the feats of those in power.
- Honor the gods and ancestors. Gods needed to be appeased and ancestors remembered. Human sacrifices were thought to appease the gods, but rulers could also evoke their power by depicting them in art.
- Prove their lineage. This was a world before birth certificates and computers. Rulers wanted to ensure that their lineage would remain intact, ensuring no one could challenge their authority. When they came to power, stelae and other work made it clear that this ruler was descended from powerful ancestors and even gods.
Even their writing is art in and of itself. Like the Egyptians, Mayans wrote in hieroglyphs. In fact, the Mayans have the honor of being the only culture in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica to have a fully developed written language. This language, as I learned, is hard to interpret. You see, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, which each have a tidy space around each character, Mayan hieroglyphs are layered over one another. So imagine if, in English, the “E” and “n” in the word “English” were written like this .
Now, two letters aren’t very hard, but imagine trying to read a whole sentence like that. Or a whole book! Unfortunately, it’s sometimes difficult to translate the writing because most of the Mayan books were burned by a Spanish priest in the 1500s. Ironically, the man who burned them is the very person who gives us clues to this ancient language. His extensive notes were used to help create the Dresden Codex and finally decode the Mayan writing. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, there were both sound characters as well as symbols. This means that some characters were used to sound out words, as we do in English. When children are learning to read, they sound out the words one letter at a time. Sound glyphs allowed Mayan writers to sound things out. But the symbol glyphs were meant to represent ideas with no sound associated with it. For instance, in text speech a colon and parenthesis, , conveys the meaning of a smiley face. You understand the symbol, but you can’t exactly sound it out. This is why the Mayan language was so difficult to translate. Archaeologists had to learn the symbols and the sounds.
According to the exhibit, the Mayans were created to honor the Maize god. His image appeared many times throughout the exhibit. One of the most interesting pieces that carried his image is this “eccentric.” Eccentrics were used as powerful religious symbols during ceremonies. This is an image of the Maize god. Many of these were carved from flint. He faces to the left, his
headdress pouring down his back. Religion was extremely important to the Maya. This is why they performed human sacrifices. The blood of the victim was an offering to appease the gods. Gods needed to be appeased for good harvests, rain, military victories, and many more reasons. The Maya believed that caves were underground entrances that led to Xibalba, the underworld.
Worshippers could also make personal sacrifices and offerings to the gods. This carving below shows a man shielding his wife from the sun while she runs a rope with blades embedded in it over her tongue. The blood droplets would have been collected, along with the paper they fell on, for use in a later ceremony.
Mayan Body Art
In today’s world, it’s not uncommon to see people with ear plugs and gauges. The Mayans were avid users of earplugs that would put our modern American take on them to shame. Some of the earplugs on display were the size of a small fist. But what
really caught my eye were teeth inlays. I had never heard of Mayans practicing this form of body art. Basically, they used a primitive drill to make a shallow hole in the surface of the tooth so they could fill it with jade and other precious stones.
Imagining this being done to me made me cringe. What would happen if something went wrong? After all, they didn’t have modern dentistry techniques. But according to the exhibit, the remains found indicate that it was very rare for someone to loose teeth from the drilling technique. To the right are examples of teeth found with these inlays.
Death in Mayan Culture
Like most other cultures, the Mayans had both cremation and burial. And like other cultures, the Mayans were buried with goods.
Pottery, jewelry, weapons, and clothing were placed in the tomb with the deceased. There were also elaborate cremation urns used to house the ashes of the dead. This is an image of a cremation urn.
Mayan Culture: Alive and Well
Despite smallpox epidemics, the burning of nearly all writings, and the abandonment of their temples and ancient cities, the Mayan culture survived and is flourishing today! Many Mayan languages are still spoken in southern Mexico and Central America. Many Maya still practice their ancient religions, albeit without the human sacrifices, and they still abide by their famous calendar. In fact, one of the videos in the exhibit told us that in order to be a bone setter or midwife, the person must be well versed in reading the calendar. These people are known as “daykeepers” and it is there job to keep track of the passing of time so they can perform the proper rituals depending on the day. This exhibit was very fascinating and I encourage you to visit it if you are in the Denver area.