Maya: The Quality of 'Cultural Diplomacy'

By James, N. | Antiquity, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Maya: The Quality of 'Cultural Diplomacy'


James, N., Antiquity


Archaeologists and Mesoamericanists had a precious opportunity to enjoy a large exhibition from Guatemala in Paris, from June to October 2011. Shown at the Musee du Quai Branly, it was intended, of course, for an audience much wider than that; bur what were less expert admirers expected to gain?

The answer probably lay in the opening panel (slightly amended here from the museum's otherwise tine English). The Maya, it declared, were 'one of the most eminent pre-Columbian cultures', with 'monumental edifices ... art ... social development ... writing, calendar and numeration' just 'a few of its unique contributions to the history of humanity'. Archaeology 'has revealed' its 'complex ... pre-Hispanic history': 'inherited from the land of the Quetzal--Guatemala's emblematic bird', the exhibition's 'Magnificent ceramics.., and jewellery' gave 'ah insight into the history of ... Guatemala', rounded out by 'photographs ... of the ... Maya ... today', their 'vivid ... clothing and magnificent ceremonial practices'. Skimming the archaeology and characterising the surviving Maya as "anachronistic relics", such glib patter belongs in the National Geographic magazine (Lovell 2000: 393- 4).

Archaeological

For a specialist, the exhibition must have been highly rewarding. Maya de l'aube au crepuscule: collections nationales du Guatemala ('Maya from dawn to twilight: Guatemala's national collections') comprised some 160 archaeological exhibits, several of multiple items. Ali but ten were from the National Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology (MNAE). They started alluringly with Stela (stele) 1 from La Amelia (quetzal plumes and all) and a cast of mythological plasterwork in a conduit found recently at E1 Mirador. Following a good, simple map and timeline, the exhibits were presented in order from the Preclassic period to the Postclassic and then came the contemporary photographs. The sequence was used tersely to introduce (in French and English) a series of apt themes including religion, farming, writing and counting, the aristocracy, and the 'Collapse of Classic civilisation'; and (in English with French subtitles) there were short films on calendrics, the excavations at El Mirador, and the decipherment of hieroglyphs.

For a sense of the selection, superb both for representativeness and most of the exhibits in themselves, a brief list must suffice: the inscribed (and painted, shows closer inspection) Panel 1 from La Corona and a dramatic fragment of Piedras Negras Stela 7; a ball-court marker from Cancuen; polychrome Classic crockery, including specimens of the types (both tetrapod and basal flange) with lid handles moulded as wildlife; the jade plaque from Nebaj carved with a courtly scene; a couple of the Pacific coast's elaborate 'theatre' censers in the style of Teotihuacan and a censer from La Lagunita topped with a spiky lizard and spiked, surreally, over the rest of the pot too; an intense set of 'greenstone' jewellery from Kaminaljuyu; big enigmatic figurines from Uaxactun, one in green stone, one of black pottery; a flint 'eccentric' from Quirigua; and metalwork, including a 'Soconusco' disc of gold alloy (tumbaga).

It was interesting to test the proposition, in another recent display, that the Maya were preoccupied with water (Finamore & Houston 2010): at first sight, 20 of Maya's exhibits bore that out more or less unambiguously. There were revelations of less familiar taste too, such as a Preclassic vase painted a la late Kandinsky or the startling piece that was chosen to advertise the exhibition (Figure 1).

Maya was laid out and lit exceedingly well. The black figurine from Uaxactun looked portentous. A little stone vase from Kaminaljuyu sparkled insistently; and it was placed so that an adult could spot the rotary scratches from hollowing it out. The catalogue's photographs do not reveal such qualities; but it should have been feasible to provide references to previous publications of the exhibits; and a final editorial scan would have picked up slips such as a red pendant described as "pierre verte" (Michelet 2011:168)--doubly odd considering the Mesoamerican significance of green. …

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