Earthenware jaguar effigy cache vessel, ca. A.D. 650-850
OBVIOUSLY, THE WORLD DID NOT meet its apocalyptic end last Dec. 21, as some folks believed the Mayan calendar predicted.
Guess we outsmarted those ancient Maya, huh?
Not so fast.
Those Maya were pretty darn clever, on closer inspection. And the fact is, they had multiple calendars, one of which was more than 5,000 years long and ended on Dec. 21, 2012. That was never meant to mark “the end of the world”—only the end of that calendar, just as our calendar ends on Dec. 31 each year and starts over again on Jan. 1.
Thousands of years ago, the Maya already understood time as both linear and cyclical. They recognized patterns in the seasons, in the heavens and in nature and shaped a civilization around that knowledge.
They grasped the concept of zero in their mathematics, and they created the most sophisticated system of hieroglyphic writing in Mesoamerica. They managed to build gargantuan pyramidal temples with the crudest of tools. They left a legacy of art, weaving, sport, religion and culture that carries on in modern Maya communities.
Impressed? There’s plenty more to learn about those clever Maya at the South Carolina State Museum, where Secrets of the Maya is on exhibit through June 9.
“We all think about Greece and Rome as being centers of the ancient world,” says JoAnn Zeise, the museum’s curator of history.
“But there was this beautiful world and fascinating civilization right here on the American continent.”
Secrets of the Maya merges—for the first time—three separate exhibits that, together, reveal astounding details of how the Maya lived, worked, worshipped and played in the tropical jungles of Central America, beginning in 2000 B.C.
Images of life-or-death ball games, brightly painted ceramics, musical ocarinas shaped like animals, casts of stone monuments, restored ruins, ceremonial masks—these are among the hundreds of artifacts, reproductions and photos that reveal how the Maya lived and what they achieved.
Visitors will discover the cosmos as the Maya understood it: a harmonious relationship of earth, sky and underworld. Stage two of the exhibit explores how a husband-and-wife archaeology team excavated the buried and grand Temple of the Warriors— literally unearthed from below a mound of dirt in Yucatan—in a 1920s expedition.
The finale showcases vivid photos of modern Maya in Chiapas in southwestern Mexico, where the people have blended their historical culture with contemporary influences.
“Usually in an exhibit you see just a moment in time, but here you see the whole story, from ancient times o modern times,” Zeise says. “The Maya culture is still around—people are surprised by that.”
Pick a day to visit when you can give yourself at least a couple hours to absorb the Secrets of the Maya. You may want to check a calendar.
The South Carolina State Museum is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia. Secrets of the Maya runs through June 9. Exhibit hours: Monday– Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
ADMISSION: Tickets, which include general museum admission, are $15 for adults (ages 13–61), $13 for ages 3–12 and $11 for seniors.
DETAILS: (803) 898-4921; scmuseum.org.