It took a combination of archaeology, technology and simple grunt work to reconstruct the history of one of Central America’s most powerful civilizations.
The current “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed” exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science offers a complex historical story. The ancient Maya civilization that flourished more than 1,000 years ago spanned thousands of miles, included dozens of powerful city states and comprised a population of more than 7 million. The culture made remarkable advances in art, architecture and science. From massive temples to accurate astronomical readings, the Maya matched the output of the Western world’s greatest ancient civilizations.
For modern historians, recovering that story has hardly been straightforward. Thanks to environment, conquest and time, it’s taken innovation and persistence to uncover the true legacy of the Maya civilization.
“We really focused on how we know what we know about the Maya,” said Michele Koons, curator of DMNS exhibit. “There’s a lot about discovery through archaeology, through interpreting the writing system. It’s different from something you’d see in an art museum.”
The massive exhibition takes up more than 20,000 square feet in the museum’s Phipps Gallery and its brand new Anschutz Gallery, a 7,000-square-foot space that opened with the launch of the Maya exhibit. The collection features more than 250 objects ranging from massive altars to reconstructed grave sites. Interactive displays detail an archaeological dig at an ancient Maya grave site; films explore the rediscovery of sacred Maya caves; and massive replicas of stone slabs show how modern archaeologists reconstructed an ancient language.
“We have a lot invested in this exhibit,” Koons said, adding that the installation is a collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota. “This is the largest exhibit that’s ever been shown in the United States on the Maya … The entire exhibit is bilingual, not only because of the subject matter, but also because of our population in Denver.”
The collection with placards in English and Spanish includes sections on the Maya’s advancements in architecture, art and astronomy. They’ve dedicated an entire room to the ancient culture’s signature sport, a game with a heavy rubber ball that carried religious and spiritual significance (some games would end in human sacrifice). A tour through a simulated series of caves offers insights into the ancient Maya perception of the underworld, and a reconstructed temple from the archaeological site of Bonampak in Mexico focuses on a single mural. The massive piece features detailed images of rulers and rituals from more than 1,000 years ago. Another stretch focuses on the everyday lives of the civilization’s commoners.
Combined, all of these displays reveal a culture that knew its share of brutality and violence. Along with the stories of sacrifice and war, however, the show offers insight into a society with to-the-minute accurate astronomical calendar that faced surprisingly modern problems, including climate change. Those revelations did not come easy -— historians didn’t have a firm grasp on Mayan hieroglyphs until the 1980s.
“We’ve really only known how to read them for the last 20 years. It’s been a really long process and there’s been breakthroughs here and there,” Koons said. “There is still a lot that’s being deciphered.”
The Maya alphabet wasn’t the only element of the culture that remained a mystery for more than a millennium.
For centuries, the rain forests served as a perfect camouflage for the archaeological treasures at Caracol, a site in the western stretches of modern Belize. More than 1,500 years ago, it was one of the most important urban centers in the ancient Maya civilization. At the peak of the ancient Mesoamerican culture, Caracol was home to more than 100,000 people. The site includes massive temples, giant altars and a complex network of terraced homes.
Long after the collapse of the Maya civilization in the 9th century, it took the piercing eye of a laser to finally uncover the true breadth and range of the ancient city-state.
Planes flying above the site deployed “lidar,” a technology that relies on lasers and light reflection, to cut through the jungle screen.
“They can get within a few centimeters of an accurate relief of the terrain,” said Bob Newton, a DMNS volunteer who was decked in colorful Central American garb on a recent Monday morning. He stood on top of an interactive relief map of the area that takes up a big chunk of the floor in a large exhibition hall. Newton pointed to the traces of homes, roads and terraces revealed by the mapping technology. “They can figure out what was here, as if the tree weren’t there.”
Such technology has also revealed important information about the larger fate of the entire society. A sprawling site like Caracol required fuel. Deforestation was a factor as the Maya burned through the jungle for materials to build their massive temples and vast infrastructure.
“This deforestation led to local climate change. Without the canopy, there was less rainfall,” Koons said. “Drought was a contributing factor to the downfall of the classic Maya historical period. I think that’s very relatable. A great knowledge of your environment or lack thereof can have significant consequences.”
But the story in this massive exhibit isn’t entirely ancient. The collection includes input from modern Maya descendants, people living in the same areas who still speak Maya languages. Interviews with members of a still thriving culture and a quote from contemporary Maya archaeologist Victor Montejo reveal a culture that’s persisted, despite the toll of time.
“Our ability to be Mayas is not limited to any one place or time,” Montejo writes. “It is not forever rooted in the past. It can be our identity and strength, wherever we are.”
“Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed” runs until Aug. 24 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd. in Denver. Tickets start at $22. Information: 303-370-6000 or dmns.org.
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or firstname.lastname@example.org