Maya Milestone

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

Maya Milestone


James, N., Antiquity


Fiery pool: the Maya and the mythic sea is a travelling exhibition of nearly 100 finds that, together, imply a specific concept of the environment, physical and spiritual, for the Maya of Mesoamerica. As usual, the majority are from 'public' contexts, more or less aristocratic; bur the exhibition generalises about Maya culture. Most of the exhibits are of the Classic period (c. AD 250-900), predominantly Late Classic, but there are some earlier pieces and several of the Postclassic (to the Spanish Conquest). Some are well known and there are striking new finds too. Curated by Daniel Finamore & Stephen Houston, Fiery pool draws from more than 40 collections in the USA, Mexico, Central America and further afield. It was shown at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2010, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, in 2010-11. It is now in Missouri, at the St Louis Art Museum, where its tour finishes on 8 May 2011.

'Fiery pool' refers to the sun's daily course from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico (Finamore & Houston 2010: 15-16). The opening panel did hint that the basic idea was probably about all forms of water but it was clearer in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself that, like other Mesoamericans, the Maya tended to conflate sea and water table. So 'fiery pool' could also evoke their concept of the sun's journey across the underworld by night. Thus encircling Earth and the world, the diurnal cycle was--and remains--a metaphor for life and the dead (Schele & Miller 1986: 42, 267-72). There is good archaeological evidence to show that the Maya sacrificed to maintain the cosmic action; and ethnography tends to confirm that it would have had much to do with the values ascribed to water. The catalogue reviews both sources of evidence (Finamore & Houston 2010; Miller 2010), although the ethnography rather too selectively.

The present review is based on the Kimbell's display. It was the first major exhibition of archaeology there since that conceptual milestone, The blood of kings: dynasty and ritual in Maya art, in 1986 (Schele & Miller 1986); and its scope and scale certainly do prompt comparison. Several of Fiery pool's exhibits were in The blood too.

Introduced with the cast of a great 'mask' ornamenting a temple at Caracol, Fiery pool is arranged to show four overlapping principles. The first is cosmography. Striking at once is the lid of a bowl modelled with 'the Iguana-Jaguar eviscerating humans' (the Mesoamerican jaguar commonly connoted night or the underworld). Second come depictions of water creatures modelled and painted in pottery. There is a fragmentary life-size sculpture of a crocodile from Kaminaljuyu, a painting of one of the early murals at San Bartolo, and also an alluring electronic depiction of sea creatures with the conventional ancient motifs for them. Third is travel, real or metaphorical, to the sea or on it. A panel of glyphs from Cancuen mentions a journey to 'the 3 turtle island'; it is explained by the curators in an accompanying set of video films. The fourth principle is the link between origins and the dead. Among other exceptional finds from the Sacred Cenote (sink hole) at Chichen Itza is the gold foil depicting combat in boats (difficult to make out even with Tatiana Proskouriakoff's drawing here) and, also from Chichen Itza, A.A. Morris's famous rendition of the mural of marines and villagers. From the putative necropolis on Jaina Island are seven of the well known terracotta statuettes and the model of a dinghy. There are stingray spines thought to have served for letting blood. A set of figurines from Santa Rita Corozal (some crude, reminiscent of contemporary Lakandon Maya figurines in rubber) includes depictions of men, standing on turtles, letting their own blood; and there is a group (not yet available for display at Salem) found five years ago at El Peru. A satisfying detail is the sign for wind in a green necklace from the Sacred Cenote, perhaps connoting mortal breath. …

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