The 11th Hour? History vs. Hollywood Hype, Maya: Secrets of Their Ancient World Comes to the ROM

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The ancient Maya civilization of Mexico and Central America has become more widely known in the past few years, partly because of two major films: Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) and Roland Emmerich's 2012 (2009). This current heightened interest in all things Maya owes much to the Maya Long Count calendar--the subject of 2012--which has been splashed across the Internet and every other medium of communication as a prophecy of doomsday, drawing attention away from the real mysteries of the Maya. While those big-budget films inject some essence of Maya culture into our popular culture, they also perpetuate myths and misconceptions, the most radical being that the Maya calendar is a harbinger of the end of time. This winter, the Royal Ontario Museum's Maya exhibition will shed a more balanced if less sensational light on the ancient customs and beliefs of this remarkable society.


Dave Hollands, head of Exhibits & Design, faced a challenge. One objective of the Maya exhibition was to convey--through displays of majestic architecture and elaborate lifestyles--the grandeur of an advanced civilization in a tropical rainforest setting. But how to create the illusion of magnificent temples and lush jungles in Toronto in winter? "The idea," says Justin Jennings, curator of New World Archaeology, "was to design the exhibition such that people get a sense of what it was like without feeling as if they are in a theme park."

To visit the exhibition, one must pass through a temple facade under the watchful eye of the Witz monster. This entrance represents a portal to the Maya underworld but it transports visitors into the vibrant everyday Maya world, where they are greeted by the statue of a king, the sounds of the jungle, and Maya voices. Many of the exhibition's artifacts are from the city of Palenque, which may not have been the largest of the city-states in the Mayan world, but serves as an exquisite example of a Maya city. The recreated images of Palenque in the exhibition's introductory section show it replete with a palace, temple-pyramids, tombs, and sculpture.

One showpiece of the exhibition is the Mask of the Red Queen. Discovered at Palenque in 1994, the Red Queen, a member of the Classic Maya ruling family, is so called owing to the red cinnabar powder that covered her remains. The mosaic mask that covered her face in her sarcophagus is comprised of more than 1,100 pieces of malachite, shell, and bone affixed to a stucco base.

The Classic Maya period (250-900 CE) was a time of divine rulers and city-states. Unlike Egyptian or Roman civilization, the Maya were not united under one ruler. There was no single empire, but their city-states stretched from central Mexico south to Honduras, eastern Guatemala, and northern El Salvador. One result of this wide distribution was that more than 30 languages evolved. A single court language, which allowed nobles throughout the Maya world to converse, was also used for most of the glyphs.


The Maya rulers, though human, professed to have special connections with their deities. Considered conduits to the gods, kings and queens were regarded with the utmost respect, in the belief that after death, they might rise to the heavens and become a part of the cosmos. To that end, it was important for them to maintain good relations with the gods--which usually involved the spilling of blood, including that of the royals themselves. In Jennings's view, the basis of this practice is a belief in "an essence" that moved through the world, and was released by the spilling of blood. Maintaining the flow of this essence was essential for maintaining good relations with the gods, and therefore was essential for life. Royalty would have more sacred blood and therefore more of that essence. The Maya practiced human and animal sacrifice by removing either the head or the heart, though decapitation was the more common. …