Peabody Essex Museum Organizes Rare Glimpse of Ancient Maya Culture

Mary Bucci McCoy
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An exhibit of ancient Maya art may seem like a puzzling choice for a museum, located in an historic New England seaport and best known for its collections of maritime and Asian art. But the relatively recent deciphering of the Maya hieroglyph for “sea”—literally the ‘fiery pool’—in the late 1980s, has radically changed the understanding of Maya culture and mythology: water and the ocean have been revealed as central to the Maya understanding of self and universe, whereas previously, their civilization was considered to be land-based. And so, Salem, Massachusetts, with its seafaring history, together with the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), whose focus is on art of the sea and the inseparability of that art from the culture in which it was created, offer an ideal setting for this revisionist exploration of Maya art.Fine Arts Magazine 

 (Left) Incense burner with a deity with aquatic elements; AD 700-750; Palenque, Mexico; Ceramic; Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes – Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Museo de Sitio de la Zona Arqueológia de Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico; Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photograph © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara.  

Jade sculpture of deity (550–650 AD); Altun Ha, Belize, Jadeite; National Institute of Culture and History, Belize. Photo: National Institute of Culture and History, Belize.

Five years in the planning, this impeccably scholarly exhibit is curated by Daniel Finamore, the PEM’s Curator of Maritime Art and History and Stephen D. Houston, archaeologist and professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. It is somewhat unusual that, while the exhibit opens at the PEM (it will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and to the Saint Louis Art Museum), none of the works on display are from the museum’s own collection. 

In an extraordinary feat of scholarship and cultural diplomacy, Finamore and Houston traveled throughout Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, and also worked with American, Canadian and British museums, to bring together over ninety works from 300 B.C.  to 1550 A.D., many seen here for the first time. Consulting with specialists while traveling through the native lands of the Maya, they shared their scholarship and vision of an exhibition that would introduce a new understanding of the Maya as a maritime culture. The result was an incorporation of many newly-excavated, not-yet-published objects. Securing loans of treasures not previously viewed in the United States, the curators included artifacts such as a carved jade sculpture of the Jester God, a Belize national treasure that offers one of few colorful focal points in an exhibit that is largely earth-toned. 

The exhibit is manageably divided into four parts: ‘Water and Cosmos’, ‘Creatures of the Fiery Pool,’ ‘Navigating the Cosmos’, and ‘Birth to Rebirth’. It is accompanied by a comprehensive 328-page catalogue, with expanded text and stunning full-page photographs of each piece on view, as well as a number of informative background essays. Videos and a seductive touch table also enhance the visitor’s experience. 

In the world of the Maya, the sun rose over the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico and set over the Pacific Ocean. This explains the concept of the sea as the ‘fiery pool’. Maya lives were shaped by a relationship with the sea that was more mythic and spiritual than physical; most remarkable is that many, if not most, Maya never saw the sea. Yet for them, water formed a cosmic matrix. It was a generative medium that gave rise to the world itself and its gods: Chahk (the Storm God), the Sun God, the Jaguar God of the Underworld, the Maize God, God L (the as yet un-named god of trade), and God N (a god of the earth whose name also remains unknown.) 

Lidded bowl with Iguana‐Jaguar eviscerating humans (c. 500 AD), Becan, Mexico, Ceramic. Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes-Inst. Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Museo Fuerte de San Miguel, Campeche, Mexico; Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photo © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara.

An imposing 7-foot tall carved limestone sculpture of Chahk welcomes visitors to the exhibit at the entrance to the ‘Water and Cosmos’ section. Here is a fearsome god, threatening his subjects with an axe, symbolic of lightning and apparently shouting in anger. In this first area, we not only experience Chahk in his larger-than-life form, but also as a small steatite statuette, carved with some of the oldest known Maya writings. This storm god is also depicted in relief on a stele fragment. 

God N and the Maize God are then introduced, with representations of the former emerging from a snail shell. The Maya concept of the universe is concisely depicted in a lidded vessel of a world-turtle, one of many accomplished examples of ceramic work found throughout the exhibit. This finely crafted piece is decorated in earth tones of black, tan and reddish-brown, with a bird representing the sky, perched atop a turtle which, in turn, symbolizes the earth. A horizontal band of shell-shaped volutes rings the turtle. This complex form suggests the waters underlying all. 

Vessel, face of old man; 900–1250 AD; Jutiapa region, Guatemala; Tohil Plumbate ceramic; Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City; Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photo © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara.

If ‘Water and Cosmos’ evidences the Maya belief that the sea gave rise to the gods, then the ‘fiery pool’ became home to a rich array of real and mythic creatures, represented here by artworks ranging from a stucco pelican head (all that remains of the original sculpture) to a crustaceous effigy cache vessel, the only known Maya depiction of a lobster. Experiencing these artifacts is enriched by using the oval touch table, supplying myriad images and information on a variety of Maya-world animals. Museum goers of all ages are spellbound, compelled to touch and drag their way through an ever-changing pool of images. 

In the here-and-now of the museum setting, the exhibit decontextualizes and then, successfully recontextualizes the artifacts. In addition to the touch table, a video piece imaginatively animates shell tinklers and water birds on a lidded vessel. The video cleverly nuances the ceramic piece to life, illustrating the attendant sounds and actions imbued within the figures portrayed, as many of the objects in this exhibit were handled, worn, or otherwise used in functional and spiritual roles for the Maya. The life breathed into them here allows the visitor to appreciate the objects beyond the mere visual, even though, in the museum setting, the pieces are beyond our reach. The result is the genesis of a multi-sensory experience, offering a blueprint for meaningfully experiencing much of the exhibit. 

Lintel, bloodletting rite (723 AD); Yaxchilan, Mexico, Limestone; The British Museum, London; Photo K2888 © Justin Kerr.

The third grouping, ‘Navigating the Cosmos’, examines the Maya conception of the relationship between all bodies of water, from rivers to cenotes (inland pools) to the sea itself. A limestone cache vessel boasts a jadeite carving of the Maize God, surrounded by shells indicating the cardinal points; interspersed with other jadeite carvings, the suggestion is one of a symbolic cosmic diagram. Another compelling piece is a remarkably intact limestone panel carved with hieroglyphics chronicling the story of a King’s pilgrimage to the sea. An accompanying four-part video, narrated by Stephen Houston, explains the text and deciphers specific hieroglyphics, bringing the story to life, illuminating the relationship between Maya rulers and the water. All bodies of water were seen as interconnected, as indeed they are and, as a pathway to other-worldly realms. 

The exhibit then seamlessly flows into the last section dealing with the Maya view of cosmic cycles, ‘Birth to Rebirth’. With the sun’s daily rising and setting over the fiery pool, these waters ensured continuity, not only because they were a source of ongoing life, but also a portal providing the Maya access to their ancestors—their past. One particular ancestral connection was accomplished through ritual bloodletting, a responsibility that fell to their kings, in fulfillment of covenants with previous generations. This section houses several pieces that reference bloodletting, with figures and carved depictions. None does so as directly as a set of toothed stingray spines averaging a length of 4″, with interchangeable carved bone handles. One handle is in the form of the god Chahk, which brings the ‘Fiery Pool’ exhibit full circle. He is truly fearsome in this context, holding a functional bloodletting implement, rather than a symbol of lightning. This may indeed be the exhibit’s smallest three-dimensional representation of the Storm God, but to a contemporary audience, it is perhaps the most arrestingly memorable! 

By Mary Bucci McCoy, Contributing Writer 

Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea 

Now at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas  

August 29, 2010­–January 2, 2011 

Organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA 

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