Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science introduces a new generation of explorers to what is known about the Maya and what more can be discovered.
Dr. David Stuart, the Director of The Mesoamerica Center at The University of Texas at Austin, was drawn to the Maya from an early age. His parents, an archaeologist and an expert writer about the Maya civilization, introduced him to this sophisticated ancient civilization by taking him on archaeological digs and expeditions.
“I was just intrigued by the mystery of everything very early on, the romance of archaeology. Then I realized there was still so much to find and to study. A lot of kids think things are all studied and everything is known and everything is figured out. It became clear to me part of it was known, part of it is studied, and there is more to do,” Stuart said.
Stuart deciphered an important part of the Maya code when he was 15 years old and at age 18, he received the MacArthur Fellowship for his work on the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs.
“The Maya have this reputation for being mysterious and very esoteric. Their art and writing is very odd looking to our eyes. But what I realized early on is that what they are writing and what they are depicting is the same kind of thing other ancient civilizations do. It’s like Egypt. It’s like Greece. They are recording their myths. They are recording their kings. It’s kind of exciting history, but these are universal human concerns so it made the Maya a lot more human. They’re not that mysterious. They’re as human as other civilizations,” Stuart said.
The Perot Museum’s 10,000 square-foot, bilingual exhibition showcases the humanity of the Maya with interactive stations and more than 200 artifacts.
Patrons can try deciphering hieroglyphs, find out what their birthday looks like on the Maya calendar, and investigate a Maya tomb. Visitors can examine codices, the lost library of the Maya scribes who recorded predictions based on calendar cycles, and learn more about Mayan ideals of beauty, dentistry and clothing.
The exhibition includes several replicas of stelae from the plazas of Maya cities with inscriptions tracing royal successions, political conflicts and battles. Stuart is pleased to see a seated altar he worked on earlier in his career is part of this exhibition.
“It’s a great summary of ancient history from a particular Mayan kingdom. It tells a huge epic story about dynastic politics,” Stuart said.
Stuart explains much of what is now known about the Maya civilization has only been discovered in the last three to four decades.
Scans from LiDAR, airborne laser equipment, revealed unknown Maya cities covered by jungles. By studying the LiDAR scans, visitors can understand what archaeologists are discovering now, but Stuart hopes this exhibition shows exploration is about more than unearthing another city.
“It’s not just about digging pyramids anymore or finding tombs or reading hieroglyphs. It’s about studying communities, studying the environments. It’s a combination of the sciences and humanities,” Stuart said.
Patrons also have an opportunity to learn about the latest research into why the Maya civilization declined so rapidly. The Maya Collapse is one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries and there are several theories about why Maya cities were abandoned during the eighth and ninth centuries.
Stuart stresses the cause of the Maya Collapse is still being studied as he elaborates on a couple of leading theories: collapse of the political system and climate change.
“They were not really invested in their kings the way they used to be. Without that glue, that ideology, they scattered and moved on to better lives,” Stuart explained.
The Maya civilization’s experience with climate change is something modern society can appreciate.
“We do know that their climate was changing. We have good hard scientific data for that. A lot of the Maya cities were abandoned because of drought, because of climate change. This is something everyone is talking about these days. I think it’s really relevant to see how ancient civilizations adapted because they did adapt sometimes or they didn’t adapt to these forces. The more we study, I think the better off we will be these days,” Stuart said.
Stuart took time to talk to a young boy with dreams of becoming an archaeologist.
“I really love seeing the kids who come through here. It resonates with me. I was a kid once. I didn’t have an exhibit like this to go to when I was little,” Stuart said.
This exhibition might inspire the next generation to further unravel the mystery of the Maya and understand their essential humanity.
Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed continues through September 4
Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.