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Maya: Portraits of a People

Dates: July 11, 1998–January 4, 1999

Maya. The very word evokes a world of mystery and intrigue, of long-abandoned jungle cities, of a glorious past where ancient American civilization reached an apogee of intellectual and artistic achievement. The real story of the Maya people, as we are continually learning, goes far beyond the hyperboles of our traditional perceptions.

The cultural history of the Maya is interwoven with that of the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and other peoples who at various times and places made their own distinctive contribution to the greater cultural area that anthropologists call Mesoamerica. That area is defined by ancient ways of life involving maize agriculture; towns and cities of stone temples, palaces, and sculpted monuments; and complex writing and calendar systems. It consists of a mixed landscape of mountain and plain, of cactus stands and dense rain forest that stretches from the desert country of northern Mexico to the hills, valleys, and coastlines of lower Central America.


For the sake of convenience, archaeologists and anthropologists divide Mesoamerican cultural history into the following periods:

  • Preclassic (2000 BC–AD 250)
  • Classic (AD 250–900)
  • Postclassic (AD 900–1521)
  • Colonial (AD 1521–1821)
  • Modern (AD 1821–present)

The Maya saga began some 2,500 years ago, when the Preclassic pyramid cities Calakmul, Nakbe, and others began to rise among the farming hamlets in the rain forest of the central Yucatán Peninsula as centers of burgeoning regional states. Some of these failed by the end of Preclassic times as trade patterns or political power shifted, while others continued to thrive.

At its height during the Classic period, powerful lineage heads ruled a patchwork of city-states that stretched from Palenque to Copán, and from Cobá to Tikal. Such places thrived for centuries as prosperous hubs of trade and commerce, seats of royal dynasties, and sites of rituals of sacrifice and homage to a bewildering array of gods. All this took place in urban settings of painted plazas, pyramid temples, and palaces.

The Postclassic period saw a general shift of political power to new Maya centers such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá in the north, increased militarism, and expanded land and sea trade with other areas of Mesoamerica.

The discovery of the Maya by the European world began in 1502, when Christopher Columbus encountered a great sea-going Maya canoe laden with cloth, copper articles, and other trade goods off the coast of present-day Honduras. Only fifteen years later, successive Spanish expeditions of exploration and conquest began probing the Mesoamerican coastline from the Yucatán Peninsula to distant Veracruz. The southernmost Maya, in the Guatemala highlands, fell to the Spaniards shortly afterward. The northern lowlands followed in 1542, and the interior fell in 1697, when the Itza Maya of Tayasal, in the present-day Petén district of Guatemala, yielded to the friars and soldiers of Spain.

Despite more than five centuries of oppression and change that came with the European presence (including Maya rebellions in both the colonial and modern periods), traditional Maya culture and beliefs have endured in substantial part. Today, some six million living Maya, speakers of some two dozen Mayan languages, occupy their ancestral lands in southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the western reaches of Honduras and El Salvador.


The modern rediscovery of Classic Maya civilization by the outside world began some two centuries ago with the report of stone houses in the jungle near Palenque town. Since then the quest for knowledge has featured a cast of intriguing characters that ranges from the eccentric Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1784–1840) to the present roster of productive scholars—not only archaeologists but art historians, epigraphers, and others scattered from the Americas to Europe and Asia. At the present time Maya studies lie somewhere in the realm between anthropological archaeology and history. And the decipherment of the once enigmatic hieroglyphic script has fostered much new knowledge of the Maya. The modern study of these astonishing people has become a truly multidisciplinary effort, and our knowledge of things Maya continues to increase on almost a daily basis.


This exhibit displays objects and images of both the ancient and modern Maya to show the various kinds of individuals, from the talented farmer to the all-powerful noble, whose lives and social roles played out over the long span of Maya cultural history. The exhibition is one of warriors, of ritual ball players, of kings and courtiers, of merchants and traders, of weavers, painters, and scribes, of sculptors and architects, and, perhaps most important of all, of the basic Maya household then and now.

The artifacts in this exhibit range from ancient to modern and include some of the most beautiful and informative pieces that have survived the centuries: objects of stone and shell, of wood and bone; delicately painted vases and ornaments of polished jade; powerful carvings revealing to us much about their makers and their lives. 

Supplementing these objects are photographic images of the sites, both highland and lowland, and landscapes where the Maya found their greatness.

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