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'Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed' Goes Beyond Anthropology into History & Culture

Denver Museum of Nature and Science
On this incensario, or urn, a god emerges from the jaws of a fanged creature. Fish barbels at the corners of his mouth indicate that he’s surfaced from the watery underworld. His filed teeth form a T-shape — the Maya sign for “wind” and “breath.”";s:3:"uri";

The largest exhibition on the ancient Maya ever to be displayed in the United States is currently on view at the Milwaukee Public Museum. This pre-Columbian civilization flourished in what is now Central America, and had advanced mathematics, a complex written language, and sophisticated art and architecture.

However, Carter Lupton, the former curator of ancient history at the Public Museum, says the question the  Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealedexhibit hopes to answer is not only who were the Maya, but who are they - because they’re still around.

"The Maya make up one of the largest groups of native speaking pre-Columbian American Indians that are still extent," says Lupton. "There are several million of them living in the Maya area which includes the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, all of Guatemala, all of Belize, portions of Honduras and El Salvador."

Maya people are defined as a people of who speak the Mayan language, which consists of many different dialects according to Lupton. The Maya are also part of a larger cultural group of Meso-Americans who share similar cultural patterns such as crops, architecture, and sport.

Lupton says the exhibit is very broad and covers almost all major aspects of Maya culture, including life size replicas of sculptures and the stories behind them - something that was not possible to do decades ago.

"The Maya actually have a complete written language which we could not, 30 years ago, really translate very much of - now we can translate most of it," he notes.

Credit Bonnie North
"Altar Q" in Copán, Honduras taken in 1987 (left) next to the reproduction of "Altar Q" at the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit.

Lupton admits that there were many obstacles to studying the Maya from a historical perspective in the past. "You knew the culture in general, you knew what they built, but you didn't know much about them as a people. So it was more of an anthropological look you could have, but you couldn't have a historical look," he says. "Now you can look at them historically almost with the same detail you can look at ancient Egypt or ancient Greece."

Although the decline of ancient Egypt or Greece can be traced with greater detail, Lupton says there isn't one explanation as to the decline of the Mayan civilization. Instead of looking at the broad picture of the entire civilization, he says researchers study the decline of individual Mayan sites. Some of the factors contributing to such declines include environmental collapse, deforestation, erosions, drought, and loss of crops.

Lupton says you can approach the exhibit from a historical, chronological, or cultural perspective. Because no matter where you start, "it's a total change in how you look at it."

Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed was created by the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Museum of Science in Boston.  The research of Dr. Takeshi Inomata into the origins of Mayan society will be featured at the next Science on Tap lecture at the Milwaukee Public Museum, March 29th at 7 PM.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.