Lots of time to learn about Maya

Posted: December 21, 2012

By Julian Siggers

It's Dec. 21, and for some, that means it must be the end of the world.

At the Penn Museum, where we've been presenting the exhibition "Maya 2012: Lords of Time" since May, talk of apocalyptic prophecy and consequent media coverage has been building steadily. We've certainly had our own fun with the "phenomenon," even going so far as to bring DJ Scribble out tonight for a final countdown dance party (no word yet on what that last song will be).

"Maya 2012: Lords of Time" draws upon the Penn Museum's own extensive Maya scholarship and recent archaeological discoveries at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Copan, Honduras, to examine what the ancient Maya understood about time, the calendar, and the cycles of life. It turns out they understood a lot.

Theirs was an extraordinarily sophisticated culture, advanced in mathematics, in astronomy, in creating one of the most complex written languages ever devised by humans. One thing they did not believe - not in ancient times, and not today (many people are surprised when they learn the Maya continue today, 7 million strong) - was that the world would end Dec. 21, 2012. That particular mythology is all our own.

We live in a complex, highly interconnected world, one where people are daily encountering, and trying to make sense of, "the other" - now closer to us than ever before. Technology, first with transportation, and now the Internet, has sped up the process - and with it, the misunderstandings, a thousand-fold.

The process of trying to understand "the other," however, has been going on for as long as human cultures have existed. One of the great themes that emerges at the Penn Museum, a repository of art and artifacts from so many human cultures, is just that - cultures encountering each other, and the resulting borrowing, rejecting, assimilating, and ultimately, reimagining, that results.

So what exactly happened when curious Westerners encountered the mysterious, and clearly highly sophisticated, ancient Maya culture? How do we explain the persistent rumors, eventually rising to such a crescendo of fear that leaders in Russia, and even scientists at NASA, felt the need to reassure the public that there will be a Dec. 22. The answer, like so much of human cultural interactions, is complex, multifaceted, and somewhat illusive. Perhaps it is sufficient to acknowledge that the end-of-the-world predictions speak far more about our contemporary Western culture than they do about the ancient Maya.

On Dec. 22, we fully expect to open up "Maya 2012: Lords of Time" to visitors for another day - actually, for 23 more days, until the show closes Jan. 13. But the really valuable story - the one we are still engaged with, in expeditions, in laboratories, in passionate debates carried out in the museum café - is the story of what the ancient Maya really believed, what they understood about the world and the cosmos, and their place in it. That's the story we are only beginning to understand. That's what I hope our visitors have explored, or will begin to explore, in "Maya 2012." It's well worth our time.


Julian Siggers joined the Penn Museum as its new Williams Director in July. For more information, visit www.penn.museum.

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