New at theNAT: The Ancient World of the Mayans

DR. Michael Hager, the NAT president/CEO stands in front of the replica of the altar from Copan, a Mayan site in Hondurus.
( / Linda Hutchison)

The mystery of the Maya — how they built, and then abandoned, up to 40 stone cities in the jungles of Mexico and Central America — has fascinated people for close to 200 years. Now, thanks to “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” a new exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT), we can see how explorers and archeologists dug into and uncovered those ancient, beautiful cities. And we can dig in ourselves, learning more about what has emerged.

At 10,000 square feet, “… it is the largest Maya exhibit to tour the United States and the first on the West Coast,” explained Michael Hager, president and CEO of theNAT. According to Hager, theNAT partnered with science museums in St. Paul, Boston and Denver to develop and finance the exhibit. It appeared in those cities first, and was planned to be part of Balboa Park’s 2015 centennial celebration (along with the “King Tut” and “Coast to Cactus” exhibits).

“The Maya culture has always fascinated me,” said Hager. “It was a very advanced society, with multiple calendars that intersected (including lunar and solar), advanced mathematics, great astronomers, excellent craftsmen, beautiful designers and spiritual beliefs.”

The earliest Maya settled around 1800 B.C. in what is now the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, as well as the Central American countries of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. During their golden era, or what is called the Classic Period (250 A.D to 900 A.D.), they reached an estimated population of two million.

Despite having no large wheels, horses or oxen, the Maya managed to erect stone buildings and monuments for the ruling class, surrounded by smaller homes for those who farmed, fished, traded or made goods, such as wood tools and weavings. They also developed an intricate writing system and were the only fully literate Native American people.

“This New World was as complex as the Middle East or Europe,” explained Hager. “The Classic Period rivals Europe, the time of King Arthur in England, the Roman Empire, when Mohammed was born and died. They were among the great cultures of the world, even if not as well known.”

Many of the Maya who lived in coastal areas became excellent seafarers and maritime traders, according to Dominique Rissolo, an archeologist with the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology at UCSD.

“They were called the Phoenicians of the New World,” said Rissolo, who was a consulting subject matter expert for the Maya exhibit. Rissolo has spent 20 years studying the caves and sinkholes that are prominent in the coastal region and that the Maya used for rituals and fresh water.

In approximately 900 A.D, many Maya began migrating away from the large cities. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, the Maya culture had survived, but most Mayans were living in small villages.

The Spaniards had no idea that great cities lay under the vast tropical forests. It wasn’t until the 1830s that explorers began uncovering them.

There is still much to learn and many questions to answer.

For example, what caused the Maya to leave? Was it a collapse, as it has been called, or a series of events?

Most likely the latter, said Hager. “There was a huge population, overused natural resources, deforesting, soil depletion, drought and warfare. Something, like a slight variation of climate, tipped the balance. It happened everywhere, even Iceland. There is a lesson in this for us, that if we are at the edge of our resources, even a slight variation of climate can tip the balance.”

Hager said he hopes families on both sides of our border will come and enjoy learning about the Maya and maybe budding archaeologists will be inspired. All parts of the exhibit are in English and Spanish, and in keeping with school curriculum for all grade levels.

The exhibit includes 238 genuine artifacts, including vases, vessels, plates, incense burners, masks, figurines, clothing, jewelry, an inkwell and a rubber ball. The Maya loved their ball games and in some, the losers were sacrificed.

Other instructive elements of the exhibit include videos and interactive activities such as exploring a tomb, deciphering glyphs (language symbols), understanding Maya math and astronomy, building an arch, and exploring temple walls, altars and monuments. Up to 60 team members contributed to developing and setting up the exhibit.

“I was very impressed with how everything is communicated,” said Rissolo. “Complex topics have been made accessible in very innovative ways.” As both he and Hager explain, the mysteries of the ancient Maya are still being unraveled, while an estimated 6 to 8 million modern Maya survive today.

“The Maya did not disappear, they continue to flourish and continue their traditions into the present day,” said Rissolo. “They are so much alive today in Central America and Mexico and live in ways not dissimilar in architecture, ideology, world view — a living tradition.”