by Roderick Conway Morris

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Daniel Schwen
El Castillo at ChichÉn Itzá, Mexico, 800-900 AD

The Maya Brought Back to Life

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 26 September 1998


Until recently the Maya were a classic lost civilization, their abandoned cities and stupendous ziggurats buried in remote jungle, bearing mute witness to a vanished culture and a society about which little was known. In the 1950s the breakthrough came with the first success at the decipherment of Maya script. This painstaking work has progressed steadily since then, and as a result the ancient Maya have been brought back to life, their silent cities peopled once again with kings, queens, priests, warriors, artists and craftsmen with names, titles, dates of birth, death and even more detailed personal histories.

The Maya are now accepted as having been the most advanced civilization in the pre-Columbian Americas. Their writing system, mathematics (they invented the concept of 'zero' hundreds of years before it was independently formulated in India), astronomy (they measured the solar cycle with an error of only 17.28 seconds and in their complex set of calendars there was one of 365 days) and architecture reached levels of sophistication unparalleled elsewhere in the New World. The Maya civilization flourished for more than 2,000 years in an area of more than 325,000 square kilometers (about 125,000 square miles), now divided among southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Palazzo Grassi on Venice's Grand Canal is hosting an impressive exhibition titled 'The Maya.' It consists of 600 pieces that bring together for the first time under one roof artifacts from every period from all these countries, with additional works from collections in England, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. The show, which continues until May 16, 1999, is accompanied by a lavish catalogue, including some beautiful photographs of the sites, in which nearly 30 experts present a wealth of fascinating material and many new revelations in succinct and readable essays.

While sharing a common culture, the Maya were divided among a number of kingdoms often at war with one another. Lack of unity put them at a severe disadvantage when the Spanish launched their conquest. Yet, whereas the Aztec Mexico City fell after two years in 1521, the Maya, who were first invaded in 1527, put up such a ferocious and sustained resistance that the capital of the last kingdom to fall, that of the Itza at Nojpeten, was not captured until 1697.

The extraordinary story of this little-known 170-year war, during which the Spanish, even after having established a colony were at one point ejected, is told by Grant D. Jones in the catalogue. The strategy of the Itza included the establishing of a broad buffer zone between themselves and the enemy and a protracted campaign to retain, by violence where necessary, 'the hearts and minds' of the Maya, who were forcibly or by persuasion being brought under Spanish control. And, as Jones makes clear, had the Maya not at an early stage been decimated by new diseases such as chicken pox and measles, the Spanish conquest in this region might have ended in total defeat.

One of the greatest crimes perpetrated against the Maya was the destruction of their thousands of books, a campaign spearheaded by the Franciscans, who while preaching harmony and brotherly love presided over a cultural scorched-earth policy, backed up by the threat of the physical extermination of any who dared to resist it. So complete was the friars' success that only four books in Maya script have come down to us. Fortunately these have proved sufficient to help unlock the legion of other inscriptions in stone and on ceramic and other materials. Consequently, we now know infinitely more about the Maya view of the universe and their religious beliefs than we do, for example, about those of the Celts, who left no written records of their own.

The Maya saw human sacrifice as an activity essential to keeping the world and heavens running smoothly, regarding humankind not as passive observers of the cosmos but as mechanics entrusted with its maintenance. Indeed, some scholars see the endemic warfare between kingdoms as motivated substantially by the need to take prisoners and keep up the supply of fodder for human sacrifice. This bloodthirsty aspect of Maya culture undermines the fashionable claim - avoided by this exhibition - that, in view of their achievements in writing, science and architecture, the Maya were 'the Greeks' of the New World.

In fact, the Maya more closely resembled the Romans, who combined a high level of civilization and expertise in building and practical infrastructure with the horrors of the Roman circus, which was not only a form of entertainment but an assertion of the power of the state and the circumscribing of disorder within a controlled ritual arena - something with which a hypothetical Maya visitor to ancient Rome might well have been able to empathize.

For all the centuries of destruction, pillage and neglect, a sumptuous range of Maya art and artifacts has survived and their variety is well represented in the Palazzo Grassi show. Thanks to the decoding of Maya texts, we understand the significance of these objects as never before. And, although Maya design seems at first characterized above all by static, stylized and symbolic representation, the exhibition also reveals the great delicacy of some Maya art and the naturalism and dynamism of which it was capable, notably in ceramic portraiture and models of human figures in motion.

The direct descendants of the Maya today number more than 5 million spread over a wide area. Most are poor peasants and live in Guatemala, where they constitute more than half the population, and in Honduras, Belize, El Salvador and Mexico, where the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas has won them worldwide attention. The coming of peace to much of the rest of this area of Central America has made Maya sites and the Maya themselves more safely accessible than they have been for many years.

This is therefore a timely exhibition, laying before the public much that is new in an exciting field in which important archaeological sites are yet being located and major discoveries still being made.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023