For those worried about an apocalypse supposedly predicted by the Maya calendar and coming at the end of the year 2012, there's very good news at a spectacular exhibition that opens in the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology this weekend.
That notion of the world's end is firmly debunked in "Maya 2012: Lords of Time." So those stressed about what might happen come late December can exhale, thanks to the scholars involved in this fascinating study of the Maya culture - and their calendar.
And even if you'd never heard of that dire prediction, a walk through this world premiere exhibition, copresented by the Instituto Hondureño de Antropologia e Historia of the Republic of Honduras, provides a memorable lesson in the rewards of archaeological exploration.
The origins of intricate Maya timekeeping systems are an integral part of this exploration of a civilization that flourished, with cities already in existence by 500 B.C., in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. But that emphasis is by no means the whole story.
"Maya 2012" is loaded with impressive artifacts that reflect the massive temples, pyramids, and palaces that flourished until the Spanish conquest of the New World. And what makes this exhibition hit very close to home is that some of the artifacts were excavated by Penn Museum archaeologists at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Copan, Honduras, between 1989 and 2003.
"Copan is essentially a monumental civic center, arranged around a great plaza and attached ballcourt," explains Richard Hodges, director of the Penn Museum, who visited the site in preparation for the exhibition that opens Saturday. "This place has truly been sprung from the heart of darkness," suggests Hodges, noting the remarkable buried treasures that tell the epic stories of Copan's kings.
The display of 150 items is deeply personal for Loa Traxler, exhibition curator of "Maya 2012," and Andrew W. Mellon, associate deputy director of the Penn Museum. Traxler, who holds a Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, was a member of the team at the Copan site.
"It was an absolutely fascinating project with extremely dedicated people working very hard," recalled Traxler, who is an expert in Maya society and its long and rich history. The Penn anthropologist uncovered several items herself, handling them with the utmost care. "It's an awesome moment - and a somewhat terrifying one - when you come upon antiquity."
The section of the exhibition that explores the time of the Mayan kings is likely to be the most arresting for visitors. Carved monuments such as Altar Q, for example, originally painstakingly created to honor the succession of kings, have been recreated through modern laser scanning technologies in the display.
Traxler explains that the 16 kings who ruled for nearly four centuries in this culture (from 426 A.D. to after 800) were regarded as semidivine, and belief was that they connected and interceded with the supernatural forces of the world all around them.
Several of the other tombs and monuments, too large to travel from Honduras, have been reproduced at full scale in the exhibition.
Original artifacts are encased in transparent coverings for preservation and include amazingly unscathed ritual objects, art, jewelry, and statuary. Among them are a ceramic censer lid from 695 A.D. and a jade figurine of a maize king from 541-42 A.D. Remarkably preserved, too, is a black dish with the head of a jaguar as its lid, circa 300-500 A.D.
While these items are obviously untouchable by visitors, there is ample opportunity for interactive experiences throughout the exhibit.
Those fascinated by language should not miss the Maya Glyph Writing touch screen that will allow them to carry off their own names in glyphics. Maya calendar stations enable visitors to manipulate special gears that transform their birthdays into Maya dates.
Also not to be missed is the Maya Archaeological Exploration Touch-Table, a station that allows exploration of parts of the 1.8 miles of excavation tunnels and tombs discovered at Copan.
Then, there's a kind of exhibition treasure hunt that allows visitors to visually experience the tombs as archaeologists first saw them, and then try to find hidden and rare objects within them.
Even museum-resistant children should be delighted by the special "assistantships" that are offered during their tours. They can become instant conservation assistants, glyph-writing assistants, archaeology assistants, and calendar assistants by following cues and clues provided to help uncover more information about the Maya culture.
In the final section of the exhibition, visitors can listen to the thoughts of modern Mayans and their perspectives on those end-of-the-world predictions.
It's reassuring to explore the Maya past with the comforting knowledge that there is, indeed, a future for the world - ancient rumors and misconceptions notwithstanding.