Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Water and the Maya

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Water and the Maya

Article excerpt

A GROUNDBREAKING exhibit on Maya art and cosmology opens at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, on March 27th. In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, the Museum has organized a presentation of Maya art objects that will give visitors the opportunity to discover for themselves the water-centered nature of Maya art and society.

Work on the exhibit began in Salem in late 2006 when Daniel Finamore, the Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the PEM; and Stephen Houston, the Dupree Professor of Social Science at Brown University; convened a group of fourteen progressive thinkers on the Maya, drawn from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the United States. Their objective was to reach consensus on recent decipherments and excavations from Mayan sites with themes related to water and the sea. Previous maritime scholarship had focused on trading objects. These scholars converged instead around the hydrologically accurate view of the world possessed by the Maya--their understanding of how all water is connected, its cyclical nature, and its relationship to dally life and political power. Indeed, the Maya had a more sophisticated world view than scholars had heretofore believed. The group's discussions led directly to assembling the works of art displayed in Salem and to depicting the overarching cosmology that the viewer will experience in this large exhibit.

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To find items for the exhibit, Finamore and Houston cruised the back roads, visiting museums in Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. They asked to view artifacts that featured water-related subjects like crocodiles, waterlilies, turtles, sea creatures, and boats, as well as shell pendants and other shell objects. The proffered items were often kept in back rooms or bodegas (basements) because they hadn't been considered important. But the overall response, says Finamore, was incredible, and when objects are put together, they tell a clear, revolutionary story about the Maya that changes how we must think about them.

The Mayan glyph for "sea" was not deciphered until the late 1980s. It translates to "fiery pool" in English, but its significance for years went unappreciated. To put the term in context, Finamore describes the red morning sun rising over the sea and setting, once again in a red-hued horizon, over the coastal waters that surround much of the Maya homeland. Moreover, Finamore adds, because Maya art is so difficult to read, many museologists had been looking at objects incorrectly. …

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