They were scientists. They were mathematicians. They were linguists. They were astronomers. They were artists.
The Maya formed a complex culture, a sophisticated Mesoamerican civilization that originated a couple of millennia BCE and turned out to be ahead of its time. They didn’t originate the concept of a calendar, but theirs was as accurate as the one we use today. The Maya understanding of the heavens was advanced enough that they were able to predict solar eclipses. Their written language is believed to be unprecedented in the pre-Columbian history of the Americas.
That such an elaborate civilization could have existed so long ago — in an era that we 21st-century snobs like to characterize as primitive — has sustained the mystery surrounding the Maya people to this day.
“Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” an exhibit that opens at the Museum of Science on Oct. 12, will invite visitors inside this ancient, enigmatic culture. The 12,000-square-foot traveling show is filled with not just artworks and other artifacts but also immersive environments. There’s a colorful mural room where royalty would preside. A cave decorated with sacred objects, where the Maya believed they could commune with the underworld. A burial chamber that reveals how this culture honored a deceased person of a certain stature.
You’ve got kids? This is the stuff that engages.
“We’ve found with past exhibits that young people, especially, appreciate the opportunity to experience something beyond just looking at objects on display,” said Paul Fontaine, the museum’s vice president for education. “So there are a lot of hands-on opportunities.”
In exploring the ancient calendar, for instance, a visitor can try to find his or her birthday and print out the date in Mayan glyphs, the set of symbols that formed the civilization’s written language. How would your name look in Mayan? Print that out, too.
“Kids also love immensity,” said Fontaine. “So that’s where the giant stela comes in.” Think of this monumental stone piece covered with writing symbols, he said, as “the billboard of the ancient Maya.”
And then there’s the artifact that might take visitors on a mind-bending trip to a Boston cultural institution a few blocks away. Maya sportsmen are thought to be the first to use rubber balls in their games — Europeans used cloth or leather balls at the time. The Maya ball is shaped like the one the Celtics bounce on the TD Garden parquet, but it’s solid rubber, like the pucks the Bruins slap around the rink.
Before any of this exploration commences, though, the exhibit experience begins with a five-minute film that introduces the Maya through the story of the maize god. The corn crop was so essential to this civilization — like rice in Southeast Asia — that it forms an analogy for how these people saw their world. There was the planting, or birth, in the springtime, and the harvesting, or death, in the fall. “From this story, you learn a little about who these people were, where they lived and what their beliefs were,” said Fontaine. “We get a lot of family groups — moms and dads, and grandparents, with school-age kids and even toddlers. Each person arrives with a different amount of knowledge. Some know about the sophisticated math and astronomy. For others, it’s all new. This intro gives everyone some understanding of the Maya before they’re turned loose in the exhibit.”
We speak of Maya civilization in the past tense, because the elaborately built cities sprinkled from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula through Central America now lie in ruins, having been conquered by Spanish invaders centuries ago. But Maya culture is alive, its language still spoken and its weaving and pottery-making still practiced. This museum exhibit also tells that ongoing story. “The Maya continue to be an amazing civilization,” said Fontaine.
“Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” which was created by the Science Museum of Minnesota in conjunction with Boston’s Museum of Science and two museums in Denver and San Diego, is just the latest local opportunity for time travel into an ancient culture. In recent years, the Museum of Science has presented exhibits on Pompeii and the Dead Sea Scrolls. “The museum made the decision, oh, five or six years ago that we were going to periodically bring human culture stories, anthropology stories, to Boston,” said Fontaine. “As one of the biggest museums in New England, we thought it was important to expose this area to ancient culture.”
In two years, Fontaine added, the museum will present an exhibit on the Vikings. “We refer to these,” he said, “as our ‘world treasures exhibits.’”Jeff Wagenheim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org