Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations

New exhibition in USA – “Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya”

Category: News reports

USA, University of Pennsylvania Almanac, April 07, 2009. A world-renowned collection of ancient Maya painted pottery, excavated by the University of Pennsylvania Museum nearly a century ago and reinterpreted in light of recent research in the field, provides the centerpiece for Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya, a new exhibition now at the Penn Museum. Painted Metaphors runs through January 31, 2010, before beginning a multi-city national tour.

The new exhibition at the Penn Museum explores daily life during politically tumultuous times. Like so many pieces of the famous Chama pottery that conservators meticulously put back together at the Penn Museum, Painted Metaphors yields new clues to understanding everyday life—and changing politics—of the ancient Maya of Guatemala 1,300 years ago. At the center of Painted Metaphors are almost two dozen recently conserved Maya painted vessels from Chama, a Maya village in the highlands far from the more sophisticated lowland centers of Maya culture. It was here that Penn Museum archaeologist Robert Burkitt discovered this brilliantly painted pottery, unlike anything else the region had ever produced. Why were these ceramic cylinders, painted with elaborate scenes, made in this out of the way spot? Exhibition curator Dr. Elin Danien, research associate at the Penn Museum, provides a provocative explanation: these are Painted Metaphors, or pictorial narratives, reflecting the sudden introduction of people and ideas from the lowlands of the Maya world. The exhibition includes a rare focus on the ordinary Maya, with material that reflects the ancient way of life—more than 150 ancient artifacts, including figurines, jade carvings, musical instruments, weaving implements, burial urns, cave offerings, and more. Additionally, the exhibition features photos and video of Maya life in the village of Chama today.

Maya civilization is one of the great ancient civilizations of the world. At its height, it was a densely populated, culturally dynamic society, with cities throughout the region that is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Renowned for their once enigmatic written language (the most fully developed known written language of the pre-Columbian Americas), the Maya developed complex art and architecture, as well as mathematical and astronomical systems. Maya civilization began in the Preclassic period (circa 1500 BCE), reached its height during the Classic period (circa 250 to 900 CE, at the time the Chama pots were created), and continued throughout the Postclassic period, until the arrival of the Spanish in Yucatan in 1512. After the arrival of the Spanish, Maya civilization collapsed, though Maya culture continued and its traditions are practiced today by more than four million descendants in Mexico and Guatemala.

Though much has been learned in the last 100 years, much remains a mystery. The history of the ancient Maya continues to be reconstructed, piece by piece, not only by archaeologists in the field, but also by laboratory scientists, epigraphers deciphering ancient inscriptions, and researchers delving into the Museum collections and archives. Through field notes and records, behind-the-scenes conservation video, and more, Painted Metaphors offers a window into the process of reconstruction, and discovery, of the ancient past.

The exhibition includes a world premiere of a documentary on contemporary Maya weavers (presented by the producer), and Maya musical instruments. This new traveling exhibition opened this past weekend and runs through January 31, 2010. On April 28, at 6 p.m., Dr. Danien will lecture at the Museum’s Curator Party for Sustaining Members. Explore the world of chocolate as she relays tales of ancient chocolate from Maya world.

Science and Archaeology in Painted Metaphors

In earlier years this exhibition might have been only a display of interesting objects. Now, breakthroughs in our ability to read Maya hieroglyphs, new data from new archaeological discoveries, and new scientific techniques allow us to look at the artifacts in this exhibition from a fresh perspective. Scientific research leading up to and incorporated in to this exhibition include:

Looking for Chocolate: Residue Analysis

Dr. W. Jeffrey Hurst, Senior Food Scientist with Hershey Foods Corporation, conducted residue analysis on samples from the inside surface of a number of the pottery vessels in this exhibition in order to identify the almost invisible organic remains in some of them. Two of the vessels were found to have held theobromine and caffeine—two elements that occur together only in cacao seeds—suggesting that these pots at some point contained chocolate.
What does this tell us? With proof that chocolate was indeed present at Chama, Maya scholars can use other sources of information to surmise what this would mean to the region. Cacao was a trade item, a symbol of wealth, and an important ingredient in rituals, since it was believed to be one of the foods the gods bestowed on the Maya. The temperamental cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) will only bear fruit when grown no more than 20 degrees above or below the equator, in lands that receive at least 60 inches of rain annually, and where the temperatures do not dip below 60˚ Fahrenheit. That the tree could grow in Chama’s environment helped the site achieve greater importance than other villages along the Chixoy River. It was still grown at Chama as a valuable trade item into the 20th century.

Clues to Vessel Origins: Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis

Dr. Ronald L. Bishop, Curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology, together with M. James Blackman, Senior Research Chemist, and Erin L. Sears, Research Collaborator (all in the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution), took small samples (about 200-400 milligrams) from some of the ceramic objects in this exhibition in order to try to identify the clay source from which they were made.

The samples were subjected to a bombardment of neutrons in a nuclear reactor, transforming the nuclei of certain elements into unstable radioactive isotopes, which give off gamma rays of characteristic energy as they decay. These gamma rays are detected and counted, then compared with a reference material—including, in this case, natural clay from that same region, collected by curator Elin Danien during a trip to Chama—that has been treated in the same manner. In this way the concentration of several elements can be determined. This provides a chemical profile or “fingerprint” for the sample that, hopefully, when compared to the 30,566 samples in the Maya Ceramics Project database, will tell us the likely source of the clay from which a particular ceramic was made.
What does this tell us? The results from their analyses indicate that most, but not all, of the detailed polychrome vessels were manufactured in Chama—important information for the curator, reading the vessels’ storyline “headlines” as local news. Just as important, however, were results that indicate the various other ceramics of this site came from a wide variety of clay sources, clearly indicating extensive trade and exchange of these objects rather than a local origin.

Examination and CT Scans of the Human Record

Early in the 20th century, archaeologist Burkitt collected skeletal remains of 24 individuals from the site of Chama, and these specimens, primarily teeth and mandibles, were sent to the Penn Museum. In 1978, Dr. Janet Monge, then a first year graduate student working with Diane Chase and Stuart Eldridge, researched and reported on the collection. Now Acting Curator in charge of the Physical Anthropology section of the Penn Museum, she recently (2009) collaborated with the Radiology Department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to CT scan the collection, as part of an extensive CT project, funded by the National Science Foundation.
What does this tell us? Bones contain information about age of death, diet and disease. This collection has a story to tell. Many teeth were lost early in life from periodontal disease and cavities. The people of Chama seem to have suffered the effects of a primarily nutrient-poor carbohydrate diet of very soft foods, based on maize. Village life was tough and short – the average age at death of these people was probably 27 years of age.

Multispectral Imaging

Dr. Gene Ware, Brigham Young University, undertook multispectral imaging of a number of the pottery vessels in this exhibition during the conservation process in order to detect faint or missing designs. This method involves viewing these pots at different wavelengths within the electromagnetic spectrum from near ultraviolet through visible light to infrared.
What does this tell us? Different details become clear at each of the 11 different wavelengths recorded for each vessel, providing new and better information about the painted scenes. Because the carbon-based slip used to outline the figures is partially transparent to light at the longer wavelengths, we can pick up very fine details, including information that tells us how the artist worked—information that may help art historians to identify individual artists. In some cases, material identification becomes possible: with one vessel (object NA 10835), this technique helped explain an irregular brown line running down the vessel, as dark brown slip probably applied along a hairline crack on top of the painted scene, just before firing.

Source: University of Pennsylvania Almanac – April 7, 2009, Volume 55, No. 28.

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