Walking through the Cincinnati Museum Center’s “Maya: The Exhibition,” I came across a painted drinking vessel excavated from the ancient Maya site of Uaxactun. The headline reads: “Polychrome Vessel for Serving a Cacao Beverage.” Intrigued by the mention of cacao (the fundamental ingredient in chocolate), I continued reading:
“The dedicatory text tells us this cylinder was created for serving tzih te’el kakaw (“fresh tree cacao”) … The painting and text refer to an event that took place in the third century BCE involving a king from the Kaanul dynasty.”
Wow! What’s not to like about a people who gave the world the gift of chocolate and elevated its consumption to a royal level? (Full disclosure: This reviewer loves chocolate!)
Granted, the “chocolate” the ancient Maya consumed was not the sweet concoctions we enjoy today, but rather a bitter drink brewed from the seeds of the cacao plant. But, still! Chocolate!
All culinary achievements aside, “Maya: The Exhibition” explores many other accomplishments of this famed Central American culture, including their monumental architecture, sustainable agricultural, glyphic writing, and astronomical knowledge — and even the mathematical concept of zero.
Much of the story is told through the 300+ objects featured within the exhibition, all originating from the collections of Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The vast majority of these objects have never left Guatemala, and Cincinnati is the first U.S. stop on this traveling exhibition’s tour.
The quality of the artifacts on display is startling. From painted ceramic vessels and clay figurines to sculpted stone stelae and carved glyphic texts, the objects look like they were created yesterday.
Each was excavated from one of Guatemala’s famed archaeological sites. Perhaps the best known is Tikal. Its iconic stone pyramid, rising from the rainforest, is featured in the photographic mural at the beginning of the exhibition. Archaeology is at the heart of the show, and much of what we know about ancient Maya cities was gleaned from decades of scientific research.
That said, the exhibition also acknowledges the contributions of present-day Indigenous peoples of Guatemala. Most are descendants of the historic Maya, and many still speak the 30 or so Maya languages which all descend from a common root. The peoples’ linguistic knowledge has helped scientists crack the code of the Maya glyphs.
Nikolai Grube, the distinguished German epigrapher and curator of “Maya: The Exhibition,” acknowledges the role of Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples in our understanding of their forebears.
“The Maya civilization was never lost,” says Dr. Grube. “This was a very romanticized 19th century European perspective on the Maya. What was lost were the big cities in the rainforest. The Maya of today preserve many ideas, languages and forms of living of their ancestors.”
The last gallery of the exhibition confirms this. Titled “Kawinaq,” or “We’re Still Here,” the space presents images, masks and ceremonial outfits created by today’s Indigenous Guatemalans, while local music plays in the background. The whole effect gives a real sense of a living, vibrant culture.
This vibrancy aligns with the charismatic objects on display in the exhibition’s earlier galleries, all devoted to the ancient Maya. A few highlights of these extraordinary artifacts include:
Bowl with Jaguar-Shaped Lid
This painted ceramic bowl from the Early Classic Period (250-600 CE) is capped by an amazing modeled head of a jaguar. It’s one of many objects on display in the exhibit’s first gallery which feature the plants and animals of the rainforest, giving an environmental context for ancient Maya society.
Nearly seven-feet tall, this imposing limestone stela dates from the Late Classic Period (600-900 CE) and features the image of Itzamnaaj K’awiil, a ruler of the Maya kingdom of Naranjo. The stela dramatically ends the axis of displays within exhibition’s third gallery and serves as a kind of monumental exclamation point to the space.
Shell Belt + Jade Masks
Wow! It’s amazing that this ceremonial belt from the Late Classic Period (600-900 CE), made of 40 Olivia porphyria shells, survived the past 12 centuries in such pristine condition. Displayed next to the shell belt are two small — yet impressive — jade masks, used to adorn deceased royalty.
Complementing all this high craftsmanship are a series of videos and digital interactives detailing different aspects of Maya culture. One of the best is titled “A Day in Uxal.” It imagines what the Maya city of Uxal looked like at its height and how its citizens lived on a daily basis. It presents a realistic reconstruction of ancient life based on scientific evidence, while its large-scale format immerses museum visitors in this past world.
The exhibition is truly a showcase for the exceptional objects on display and the scientific discoveries these artifacts have helped to inform. To illustrate this further, Museum Center staff and curators developed an addition to the exhibition highlighting the work of University of Cincinnati archaeologists and professors who study the ancient Maya and conduct fieldwork at sites throughout Central America.
“With a lot of our exhibits, we always try to incorporate something that tells the Cincinnati story,” explains Erica Wainwright, Director of Featured Exhibits at the Cincinnati Museum Center. “With this exhibition, we focused on the amazing research being conducted at UC on the Maya culture.” But it’s not just about showcasing Cincinnati’s contributions to this field of research. It’s also about inspiring students who come to see the exhibit.
“A big part of this [exhibition] is showing kids, who live in Cincinnati, that these things are actively happening in their own town,” continued Wainwright. “And these are real careers they can pursue … it’s something achievable they can actually get involved with.”
So what’s the consensus of scholars here in Cincinnati and around the world? What happened to the ancient Maya’s once-thriving cities? Why did they collapse?
Perhaps not surprisingly, climate change and subsequent social unrest brought down these cities. Essentially, the theory states that around 800 CE long periods of drought brought about starvation. Conflict ensued, and the once strong social structures collapsed, with many of the survivors leaving the rainforest in search of more fertile lands.
This would be a pretty tragic ending to the exhibition, if it wasn’t for the final gallery and its message of “We’re Still Here,” celebrating the vibrant cultural traditions of the Maya today which are rooted in the glories of the past.
And luckily, for all of us, the cacao trees have survived — and there is chocolate in the Museum Shop — so visit “Maya: The Exhibition” and eat up! You won’t go hungry for answers to the ancient mysteries of the Maya and their world.
Franck Mercurio is an independent curator, exhibition consultant, and writer/editor based in Cincinnati and Chicago. In his free time, Franck likes to geek-out by exploring used bookstores, visiting museums, making art, and watching pro baseball (even when stands are empty!) You can learn more at Mercurio-Exhibits.com.