Museum Center unearths mysteries of the Maya

Cincinnati Museum Center brings the secrets of ancient Central America to the United States for the first time by hosting Maya: The Exhibition, beginning March 14.

Featuring more than 300 original objects that detail daily life, religion, politics and innovations of the Maya, the exhibit features the famed stepped pyramids and the vibrant colors of Maya artwork, including preserved clay and stucco figurines and elaborate jade and gold jewelry. Hieroglyphs carved into massive stone slabs demonstrate their sophisticated writing and a passion for history. Large stone carvings and massive stucco sculptures portray the large pantheon of Maya deities. And tools and everyday items reveal the foods, work and play that defined daily life. Interactive elements allow guests to get a more intimate look at certain objects, and even to manipulate data from modern archaeological equipment that is allowing for greater discoveries.

“Discoveries of the last 20 years have transformed our understanding of the people and why the great Maya cities were abandoned in the heart of Central America,” said Dave Duszynski, vice president of featured experiences at Cincinnati Museum Center. “Never before has such a spectacular set of Maya artifacts traveled to North America. We are thankful that Guatemala is sharing these amazing national treasures with Cincinnati.”

The Maya flourished in cities of stone carved into the jungles of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Their civilization dates back to 2000 BC, but reached its height in 600 AD, a period when its population density surpassed every other in the world. Their understanding of science, astronomy and mathematics is thought to equal or surpass other world cultures. The Mayans were early disruptors – inventors, innovators and geniuses whose accomplishments continue to shape our daily lives.

By studying the stars they developed a calendar more accurate than any other in the world. Their utilization of the number zero opened the door for advanced mathematics. Rubber balls were essential to Maya sports centuries before the “discovery” of vulcanized rubber. And they introduced the world to chocolate.

“With the Maya we can explore and see how people without any contact to other civilizations in Europe, Africa or Asia came up with similar ideas, inventions and solutions,” said Dr. Nikolai Grube, curator of the exhibition and professor of anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn.

While the exhibition looks back at the height of the Maya civilization, it also reflects on the millions today who still speak a Mayan language and the many more who are direct descendants. Far from being a lost or ancient civilization, the Maya thrive today in renewed vibrancy.

“The Maya civilization was never lost,” said 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 exhibition also includes a section focusing on archaeological work the University of Cincinnati is doing at Maya sites in Central America. The local companion gallery will feature hands-on activity stations, images, international research and applied science that continue to enhance our understanding of how the Maya lived, managed resources, developed settlements and described and organized the environment around them. The gallery reveals recent discoveries and invites guests to consider how the strategies of Maya innovation and adaptation might apply to parallel changes we face today.

Maya: The Exhibition is produced by MuseumsPartner in collaboration with the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (MUNAE) and La Ruta Maya Foundation in Guatemala. It is supported by the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes de Guatemala.

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