‘Maya 2012’ exhibit at Penn Museum focuses on the people, their calendar and the myths


From the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya 2012: Lords of Time,” this massive stone monument called Altar Q presents the royal succession of 16 kings from the dynasty of Copan. (Kenneth Garrett)

Type in “Maya” and “Doomsday,” and search engines dredge up a ready supply of millennial bunkum. According to some fear mongers and fantasists, 2012 marks the end of one of the long cycles of the ancient Maya calendar and this naturally means we are in the end days of time. Forget Nostradamus, forget Y2K, forget that octogenarian evangelist who pegged the rapture to May 21, 2011, then updated it to Oct. 21, 2011 and then, well, ate some crow. This is the real thing.

Or maybe not. A new exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology uses the pop-culture meme to explore the more substantial subject of how the Maya related to time. “Maya 2012: Lords of Time” focuses in particular on the 16 kings of Copan, a Maya ruin in what is now Honduras. Reigning from 426 C.E. to sometime after 800 C.E., these Classic Era kings used the Maya Long Count Calendar (which had various cycles, including one that corresponds roughly to our year, and another called a Bak’tun that ticked by every 144,000 days) to legitimize their rule. The Long Count, a cumbersome but fascinating calendar that projected time back trillions of years (older than the universe itself), fell into decline around the same time that the kingdom ruled by these “Lords of Time” disintegrated.

The current Maya Doomsday prophecy, as the exhibition patiently explains, is predicated on a Long Count calendar cycle made up of 13 Bak’tuns—about 400 years each— that began on Aug. 13, 3114 B.C.E. and will end (according to some calculations) on Dec. 23 of this year. Yet as the exhibition also makes clear, Maya arithmetic was immensely complicated and it’s not certain what sort of events are associated with the passage of the 13 Bak’tun cycle. There also are Maya references to dates well past next December, which doesn’t make sense if they firmly believed the world was ending then. As one of the curators puts it in an article published in the museum’s magazine, “This date has far more relevance for us than it appears to have had for the ancient Maya.”

The exhibition curators and designers use interest in the supposed Maya Armageddon to focus on Maya culture and Copan excavations in which the University has participated. Visitors encounter first a blitz of cinematic destruction, borrowed from movies about civilization-ending earthquakes, tsunamis and other planetary mayhem. This is cheap, but it quickly yields to an explication of the Maya counting system (bars equal five, dots stand for units), and the Maya writing system, which used signs to stand for both words and phonetic sounds. Interactive screens walk the visitor through the construction of Maya names.

It may feel gimmicky if you’ve never spent time in a Maya archaeological site. Maya carving is dizzyingly complicated, and it isn’t always easy to sort the weathered bumps and ridges on an old stela into human and animal forms, feather, hair, ornament, jewelry, clothing and marks that may indicate names or dates. The curators have chosen to help visitors build a basic visual literacy. One of the best features of the exhibition is the use of slides projected onto carvings. The bright white lines of the slide help visitors pick out details that are easy to miss when looking at stone. Unfortunately, some of the objects thus deciphered are reproductions of objects that were too heavy to move.


This immense stone monument, shown here in situ where it was found in Copan, Honduras, was commissioned in 776 CE. (Kenneth Garrett)

The centerpiece of the exhibition, an object known as Copan Altar Q, is one of the modern replicas. It is a large square block on which are carved portraits of all 16 of the classic kings of Copan, including K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the founder of the dynasty whose portrait is set face to face with the 16th king, connecting the dynasty in a hermetically sealed circle of power extending from past to present. K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ laid the city’s foundations on a date corresponding to the beginning of the 10th of the 13 Bak’tun cycles.

The original must be a magnificent object, with its march of autocrats, each one slightly distinguished from the others. But the reproduction nonetheless furthers the lesson in visual discernment, and helps demonstrate the main thrust of the exhibition: The connection between political power, chronological systems and the larger cycles of time that govern our lives (celestial, seasonal and sacred). It is also used as a key to some of the more impressive objects in the exhibition, identified by their association with particular kings represented on the altar.

The most intriguing of these, from a purely visual point of view, are elaborate ceramic censer lids associated with the burial objects of the 12th king. One, depicting the founder of the dynasty, wears what appears to be giant round goggles. Another figure is still covered in bright paint. They are vivid representations.

Throughout the exhibit you sense the double duty it is performing. On the one hand, it is arguing with ordinary, innocent forms of ignorance — teaching people about something they don’t know. On the other, it is arguing with the more powerful forces of misrepresentation, distortion and willful indulgence of myth. The 2012 prophecies fall mainly into the latter category. Throughout the show are panels debunking popular misconceptions. In several cases, it’s a matter of distinguishing the Mayans from the Aztecs (who had their own millennial ideas).

“Though the Maya practiced human sacrifice, there is no evidence of mass killings as attributed to the Aztecs or as depicted in the Hollywood movie ‘Apocalypto,’ ” reads one text panel.

Among the last of the myths to be confronted is one that vexes so many exhibitions devoted to native peoples: That the Maya civilization collapsed or disappeared with the arrival of European conquerors. It certainly suffered, but the final room is devoted to documenting the contemporary Maya, alive and vibrant in communities throughout Central America. Some of the most striking objects in the exhibition are masks made in the last century, used by contemporary Maya in dances that feature famous figures from the era of the Conquest.

For anyone still jittery about the 2012 prophecy, the exhibition has this reassurance: “Most contemporary Maya pay little or no attention to our fascination with 2012, and they do not believe that it will result in destruction for anyone.”


From the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya 2012: Lords of Time,” a ceramic Deer Effigy Vessel, circa 437 CE, from the Hunal Tomb, Copan, Honduras. (Kenneth Garrett)

Maya 2012: Lords of Time

is on view at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia through Jan. 13. For information about tickets and timed entry, visit www.penn.museum/2012.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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