Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Exhibition At San Diego Natural History Museum Explores Ancient Maya

National Institute of Culture and History
Archaeologists found this mask in a tomb in Belize. During ceremonies, royalty wore masks on their belts or chests. This deified-ancestor mask linked its owner to the gods, vividly illustrating his power. This is one of more than 200 authentic artifacts included in Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.
New Exhibition At San Diego Natural History Museum Explores Ancient Maya
New Exhibition At San Diego Natural History Museum Explores Ancient Maya GUESTS: Dominique Rissolo, archeologist, UC San Diego Michael Wall, vice president of research and public programs, San Diego Natural History Museum

THIS IS "KPBS MIDDAY EDITION". I'M TOM FUDGE. THE LARGEST MAYA EXHIBITION IS MAKING ITS WEST COAST DEBUT IN SAN DIEGO. IT OPENS AT THE SAN DIEGO NATURAL ME US -- SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM THIS FRIDAY. IT'S CALLED MAYA: HIDDEN WORLDS REVEALED. THE EXHIBITION HAS 200 ARTIFACTS, THE WORK OF AN INDIAN CIVILIZATION WHICH HAS BECOME A SYMBOL OF MYSTERY FOR THE WEIGHT SEEMED TO VANISH LONG BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF THE SPANISH IN MEXICO AND CENTRAL AMERICA. JOINING ME IN STUDIO TO TALK ABOUT THE EXHIBITION ARE DOMINIQUE RISSOLO AND MICHAEL WALL. DOMINIQUE RISSOLO IS AN ARCHAEOLOGIST AND SPECIAL PROJECTS COORDINATOR FOR THE CENTER OF INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE, ARCHITECTURE AND ARCHAEOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SAN DIEGO. THANK YOU FOR COMING IN. AND MICHAEL WALL IS VICE PRESIDENT OF RESEARCH AND PUBLIC PROGRAMMING AT THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM. THANK YOU. THANKS A LOT. MICHAEL, THE EXHIBITION IS MAKING ITS WEST COAST PREMIERE IN SAN DIEGO. WHY DID YOU WANT TO BRING INTO A SAN DIEGO AUDIENCE? YOU KNOW, THE EXHIBIT, WE WERE APPROACHED BY THE SCIENCE MUSEUM OF MINNESOTA, THE CREATORS OF THE EXHIBIT. THEY WERE LOOKING TO SHOWCASE THE EXHIBIT ACROSS THE UNITED STATES AND APPROACHED US IN A PARTNERSHIP AND WE TOOK A LOOK AT THE IDEA THAT THEY HAD AND THAT IT WOULD BE REALLY INTERESTING FOR THE SAN DIEGO AUDIENCE, PARTICULARLY WITH OUR PROXIMITY TO THE BORDER, WE WERE HOPING TO ATTRACT A MEXICAN AUDIENCE AS WELL. MICHAEL, I UNDERSTAND YOU TRAVEL TO BELIEVE AS PART OF THE EXHIBITION. TELL US ABOUT THE WORK THAT YOU DID IN CREATING IT? TO FIND MISSING IS A WONDERFUL ORGANIZATION, WE WENT DOWN THERE TOGETHER AND GOT TO SEE THEIR MAIN MISSION ON THAT PARTICULAR TRIP WHICH WAS TO WORK WITH THE GOVERNMENT ON SECURING LOANS OF THESE 200 OBJECTS WITHIN THE EXHIBIT. WE ALSO HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO VISIT SITES, SOME PLACES THAT DOMINIQUE RISSOLO HAS DONE RESEARCH IN HIMSELF AND VIDEOTAPES WITH A LOT OF THE AUTHORITIES AND CONTEMPORARY MAYA THAT LIVE IN BELIZ. WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT THE MAYA CULTURE AND CIVILIZATION, WHERE ARE THEY LOCATED? THROUGHOUT CENTRAL AMERICA AND PORTIONS OF MEXICO, MODERN-DAY MEXICO, GUATEMALA, AND HONDURAS, THIS WAS A CIVILIZATION THAT SWEPT ACROSS TIME AND SPACE FROM THE VERY BEGINNINGS OF SOCIAL COMPLEXITY RIGHT TO THE TIME OF CONTACT. AND, WHAT IS IT ABOUT MAYA CIVILIZATION THAT LED TO THEIR RIGHTS AND INFLUENCE OF POWER? WHAT WERE SOME OF THEIR INNOVATIONS? CERTAINLY TREMENDOUS CONTRIBUTIONS TO HUMANITY AND TO MATHEMATICS, ASTRONOMY, A TRUE WRITING SYSTEM. THESE WERE DEVELOPMENTS THAT CAME INTO BEING INDEPENDENT OF THE OLD WORLD. SO, THESE WERE TRULY AMERICAN DEVELOPMENTS AND WE CAN EXPERIENCE THESE AT THE MUSEUM. IN FACT ONE OF THE THINGS THAT IS VERY EXCITING ABOUT THIS MUSEUM IS IT MAKES WHAT OTHERS MIGHT CONSIDER TO BE ARCANE AND ESOTERIC KNOWLEDGE, HOW THE MAYAN CAME UP WITH TIME OR MADE THEM INTERACTIVE THROUGH DISPLAY SPIRIT SOMEONE TOLD ME THEY INVENTED CHOCOLATE. WELL, THEY LOVED CHOCOLATE. AND THIS WAS ACTUALLY A PRESTIGIOUS GOOD TRADED THROUGHOUT MESOAMERICA. IT WASN'T THE MILK CHOCOLATE THAT YOU THINK OF TODAY BUT WAS RATHER BITTER AND MIXED WITH WATER AND WAS CONSUMED AS A DRINK, PARTICULARLY DURING RITUAL TYPE OF CEREMONIES, ACTIVITIES, THINGS OF THAT NATURE. SO THEY HAD A SYSTEM OF WRITING. IS THIS TODAY WHAT WE WOULD CALL HIEROGLYPHICS? IT'S A TRUE PHONETICS LAB AND WRITING SYSTEM. THE HALLMARK OF SOPHISTICATED WRITING SYSTEMS ARE THE ABILITY TO TRANSCRIBE UTTERANCES THAT ARE NOT NATIVE TO THAT LANGUAGE. AS LONG AS I FOUND EXISTED WITHIN THE MAYA LANGUAGE, PEOPLE WERE ABLE TO USE THESE TO CONSTRUCT WORDS. SO, IT IS A VERY SOPHISTICATED WRITING SYSTEM WHEN -- ONE OF THE FEW SYSTEMS DEVELOPED IN THE WORLD. WELL, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MAYA PEOPLE? CERTAINLY DID NOT DISAPPEAR. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF. WE SAW A SERIES OF EVENTS THAT RESULTED IN THE COLLAPSE OF MAYA CIVILIZATION AND WANT TO CALL THE SOUTHERN MAYA LOW PLANS. BUT IT WAS AFTER THAT COLLAPSE, WHICH RESULTED IN A NUMBER OF FACTORS INCLUDING MUTUALLY DESTRUCTIVE WARFARE, AND BY MIDDAY DEGRADATION, DROUGHT, INCREASE SECULARISM THAT PEOPLE LOST FAITH IN THE ABILITIES. DO KNOW THIS FOR A FACT ARE THEY COMPETING PEERS ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED? I THINK THERE IS A CONSENSUS THAT THERE WERE A NUMBER OF FACTORS. BUT WHAT WE SEE AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF CLASSIC MAYA CIVILIZATION IS THE RISE OF IT LATER PERIOD OF THE MAYA CIVILIZATION IN THE NORTHERN PART OF THE PENINSULA. AND YOU ARE LISTENING TO "MIDDAY EDITION". WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A NEW EXHIBITION THAT IS GOING TO BE OPENING IN BALBOA PARK ABOUT MAYA CULTURE. AND DOMINIQUE RISSOLO IS AN ARCHAEOLOGIST AND SPECIAL PROJECTS COORDINATOR FOR THE CENTER OF INTERDISCIPLINARY ART, SCIENCE FOR ART, ARCHITECTURE AND ARCHAEOLOGY. A BIT OF A MOUTHFUL. AT UC SAN DIEGO. MICHAEL WALL JOINS ME AS WELL, VICE PRESIDENT OF RESEARCH AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS AT THE NAT. LET'S TALK ABOUT THE EXHIBIT. MICHAEL, THE NAT IS KNOWN FOR ITS INTERACTIVE EXHIBITIONS. WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO OFFER AS FAR AS THAT GOES. EXACTLY. IN ADDITION TO HAVING LOTS OF AUTHENTIC OBJECTS WE HAVE INTERACTIVE CIVIL WORK ACROSS MULTIPLE GENERATIONS. SOME DIGITAL INTERACTIVE'S WHERE PEOPLE CAN GO ON THEIR OWN, VIRTUAL EXCAVATION OF A GREAT SITE, AND ALSO, THINGS THAT HAVE TO DO WITH BUILDING IN THE ARCHITECTURAL STYLE OF THE MAYA, HOW DID THE MAYA CARRY LOADS AROUND? THESE BIG BLOCKS THAT THEY BOTH THESE HUMONGOUS PYRAMIDS OUT OF. LOTS OF DIFFERENT INTERACTIVE'S FOR KIDS TO BE ABLE TO PLAY WITH AS WELL AS ADULTS. AND, DOMINIQUE, HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE WALKING THROUGH THIS EXHIBITION? WELL, IT LEADS YOU THROUGH THAT SWEEP OF TIME AND YOU EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE MAYA ERA, DIFFERENT DEVELOPMENTS OR HALLMARKS OF THE MAYA CIVILIZATION. IT CARRIES YOU THROUGH THE DIFFERENT REALMS, THE CELESTIAL SPHERE, BUT TERRESTRIAL WORLD, THE, SORT OF, LAND OF THE MAYA, AS IT WERE, AND INTO THE UNDERWORLD. SO YOU SEE THIS CAUSE PROGRAM OR THE INTERCONNECTEDNESS BETWEEN THE DIFFERENT REALMS THAT ARE PART AND PARCEL OF MAYA IDEOLOGY. WHAT WAS THE MAYA UNDERWORLD? A PLACE OF FREIGHT , AND THE CREATION MYTH IS TIED TO THE UNDERWORLD THAT THIS IS THE DWELLING PLACE OF GOD AND ANCESTORS. AND PLACE THAT WAS VERY MUCH A PART OF CONTEMPORARY MAYA IDEOLOGY AND RAINMAKING CEREMONIES THAT TAKE PLACE, TODAY FOR EXAMPLE, SORT OF TAPPING INTO THESE WATER FILLED SINGLES ACROSS THE NORTHERN PART OF THE PENINSULA. THESE ARE THE DWELLING PLACES OF THE RAIN GODS AND OFFERINGS ARE MADE TO ENSURE FULL HARVEST. MICHAEL, TELL US ABOUT THE ARTIFACTS THAT ARE IN THIS EXHIBITION. I GUESS QUITE A FEW OF THEM ARE ORIGINAL, NOT REPRODUCTIONS. YEAH, WHILE SOME OF THE LARGER TOUCHABLE OBJECTS, IF WE WERE TO BRING THE ORIGINALS, WOODWAY TIMES AND NOT BE ABLE TO BE SUPPORTED BY THE FLOORS. THOSE ARE REPRODUCTIONS BUT IN GENERAL, WE HAVE OVER 200 PLUS AUTHENTIC ARTIFACTS, MANY OF THEM FROM BELIZ BUT ALSO SOME FROM RIGHT DOWN THE ROAD, THE MUSEUM OF MEN. PARTNERSHIP WITH IN BALBOA PARK. WHERE DID THESE ARTIFACTS PERMANENTLY LIVE? MOST OF THEM PERMANENTLY LIVE WITHIN NATIONAL COLLECTION IN BELIZE, BUT THERE ARE OTHERS IN THE UNITED STATES. ONE THING I LEARNED IN TALKING ABOUT MAYA CULTURE IS THAT YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO TALK ABOUT THE MAYAN CULTURE OR THE MAYAN PEOPLE. IT'S ONLY THE MAYAN LANGUAGE, RIGHT? THAT'S CORRECT. MAYA IS BOTH A NOUN AND ADJECTIVE, AND MAYAN WOULD BE A TERM THAT WE WOULD APPLY TO THE DIFFERENT MAYA LANGUAGES OR MAYAN LANGUAGES. THERE ARE OVER 30 MAYAN LANGUAGES IN MANY OF THOSE ARE SPOKEN TODAY. OVER 800,000 YOU COULD TECH MAYAN SPEAKERS, FOR EXAMPLE, IN MEXICO. AT THE TIME THAT THE MAYA EXISTED, WERE THEY IN COMPETITION WITH ANY OTHER PEOPLES IN CENTRAL AMERICA? GOOD QUESTION. THEY WERE CERTAINLY NOT ISOLATED OR SORT OF CUT OFF FROM OTHER DEVELOPMENT HAPPENING ACROSS MESOAMERICA AND IT WAS A VERY CLOSE CONNECTION BETWEEN CENTRAL MEXICO, THE EMPIRE AND THE MAYA AREA, AND THIS IS EVIDENT IN SITES LIKE WOMACK, FOR EXAMPLE. AND YOU CAN SEE THIS SORT OF INCREASED INTERNATIONALIZATION, SITES BECOMING MORE COSMOPOLITAN AS YOU MOVE CLOSER TO THE TIME OF CONTACT WERE SITES WERE INTERACTING WITH ONE ANOTHER FROM PLACES AS FAR AWAY AS OAXACA AND CERTAINLY THE EASTERN COASTS OF MEXICO. THERE WAS INTERACTION WITH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST. LOOKING ALL THE WAY TO THE SOUTHEASTERN WEST CORNER OF MEXICO, WE HAVE TURQUOISE FROM THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST. SO YOU KNOW, THERE WAS A DIRECT AND INDIRECT INTERACTION BETWEEN PEOPLES ACROSS MESOAMERICA INTO THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST. YOU KNOW, DOMINIQUE, MAYBE THIS IS A QUESTION FOR YOU. I UNDERSTAND THERE IS AN ARTIFACT WITH THE KIND OF SAN DIEGO. THERE IS. IT IS THE BUENA VISTA VASE, WHICH SHOWS THE GOT ON HIS BACK, REPRESENTATIONS FROM THE UPPER WORLD, UNDERWORLD IN THE WORLD. THIS WAS DISCOVERED IN GUIDED BY DR. JOSEPH [ INDISCERNIBLE ] IN THE DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY AT SDSU. MICHAEL, HOW LONG WILL THE EXHIBITION BE ON DISPLAY AT THE NAT? A LITTLE OVER SIX MONTHS. YOU CAN VISIT IT FROM THIS FRIDAY AND JANUARY 3. AND DOMINIQUE, JUST A COUPLE MORE QUESTIONS FOR YOU. WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT THE ADVANCES OF THE MAYA CULTURE, THE FACT THAT THEY ACTUALLY HAD A WRITTEN LANGUAGE AND HAD ACHIEVED SO MUCH, FOR THE HISTORY OF SOUTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA HAVE BEEN QUITE DIFFERENT IF THAT CULTURE DID NOT GO INTO DECLINE? WELL, I HAD NOT REALLY THOUGHT ABOUT IT QUITE THAT WAY. CERTAINLY THE MAYA ARE VERY MUCH AN INTERNAL CULTURE. AND, MUCH OF MY IDEOLOGY AND WORLDVIEW IS PRESENT IN PEOPLES ACROSS CENTRAL AMERICA AND MEXICO TODAY. BUT, SEARCHING KEY THINGS WERE SORT OF LOST TO TIME, YOU KNOW, WHEN THE CLASSIC PERIOD OF MAYA CIVILIZATION WENT INTO DECLINE. AND WRITING WITH AN EXAMPLE OF THAT. THERE ARE MESSAGES OF THE WRITING SYSTEM THAT LASTED . BUT, THE WAY, THE CALENDAR, FOR EXAMPLE, SEARCHING PERVASIVE IN CERTAIN WAYS AND PERHAPS LOST NUMBERS THAT PEOPLE HAVE TO REFLECT ON THE DEMISE OR COLLAPSE OR SERIES OF TRAGIC EVENTS THAT SORT OF SPELL DISASTER FOR THE MAYA. BUT, YOU CAN ALSO REFLECT UPON THE SUCCESSES AND THE RESILIENCY AND INNOVATION THAT RESULTED IN A CIVILIZATION THAT COULD SURVIVE FOR CENTURIES. AND, IT CERTAINLY DID. AND THEY DID SURVIVE FOR CENTURIES. FINALLY, ARE THERE SOME MYTHS, POPULAR MYTHS, ABOUT MAYA PEOPLE? POPULAR MYTHS? YOU MEAN MISCONCEPTIONS? MISCONCEPTIONS. CERTAINLY. THIS NOTION OF HAVING DISAPPEARED, I WOULD THINK THAT WOULD NOT BE APPRECIATED BY MANY PEOPLE WHO REPRESENT THAT DESCENDENT POPULATION TODAY. THIS IS A LIVING, THRIVING CULTURE AND ONE WITH VERY CLOSE TIES TO THE PAST. AND BOTH MODERN AND ANCIENT AT THE SAME TIME. THAT IS WHAT IS SORT OF BEAUTIFUL ABOUT CULTURE. AND SO, I ALSO THINK, YOU KNOW, THAT THIS NOTION OF THE COLLAPSE AS SORT OF A MYSTERY, WHILE I MEAN, WE WON'T KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED, YOU KNOW, DURING THE SEVENTH, EIGHTH, NINTH AND 10th CENTURIES EVEN. BUT THERE ARE ANSWERS TO BE DISCOVERED AND THAT IS WHAT IS EXCITING ABOUT SCHOLARSHIP. WE ARE LEARNING SOMETHING NEW ABOUT THE MAYA ALL THE TIME AND IT IS JUST A MATTER OF GETTING INTO THE FIELD AND GETTING INTO THE BOOKS. AND WORKING WITH OTHER COLLEAGUES AND SCHOLARS AND WITH THE PUBLIC TO SORT OF PUT THE CLEAR PICTURE TOGETHER. OKAY. WELL, THAT MAYA EXHIBIT BEGINS FRIDAY AT THE NAT IN BALBOA PARK. MY GUESTS HAVE BEEN MICHAEL WALL, VICE PRESIDENT OF RESEARCH AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS AT THE NAT, THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM. THANK YOU. AND THANKS TO DOMINIQUE RISSOLO, ARCHAEOLOGIST IN SPECIAL PROJECTS COORDINATOR FOR THE CENTER OF INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE FOR ART, ARCHITECTURE AND ARCHAEOLOGY AT UC SAN DIEGO. THANK YOU. THANK YOU.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science/Rick Wicker
This brightly colored plate made for burial with the dead shows a warrior covered in black body paint, clutching a feathered spear. In his jaguar robes and headdress, he embodies the strength and power of the predatory jungle cat. This is one of more than 200 authentic artifacts included in Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.
Advertisement

The San Diego Natural History Museum is rediscovering another civilization Friday with the debut of one of the largest displays of ancient Maya life and culture.

Nearly two months after the end of the museum's King Tut exhibition, the museum will unveil Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.

“We are committed to bringing new content-rich traveling exhibitions to San Diego for locals and visitors to enjoy,” Michael Hager, president and CEO of the Museum, said in a news release. "Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed is the largest exhibition about the ancient Maya ever to be displayed in the United States. We are delighted to be able to offer this exhibition to our guests and hope they walk away feeling as if they’ve learned something new about this important and multifaceted culture."

The exhibition explores Maya architecture and art and includes more than 200 authentic artifacts.

It will be on exhibit through Jan. 3.

Advertisement

Dominique Rissolo, an archeologist at UC San Diego, said the Mayan people contributed tremendously to the math and writing systems used today.

“These were truly American developments,” Rissolo told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday. “You can experience these at the museum.”

For more information about the exhibit or museum, go to the museum’s website.