April 2, 2009 / 2:55 PM / 10 years ago

Mayan politics depicted in Penn Museum show

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - In a lighted display case, an ancient pottery cylinder depicts a naked man kneeling before two menacing figures, one of which is holding a spear-like object topped with a large blade.

The kneeling figure, archaeologists say, is about to be put to death for his defiance of the other characters on the vessel who have invaded the victim’s land, and wish to demonstrate control of their new territory.

The cylinder, part of a new exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, tells the story of the takeover of a remote area of what is now the Guatemalan highlands by lowland Mayan invaders some 1,300 years ago.

The show, which runs from April 5 to January 31, 2010, assembles pottery, jewelry, figurines, burial urns and other artifacts to describe the invasion of the isolated village of Chama by a more advanced civilization.

“We’ve confirmed that elite groups of Maya did indeed travel to take over small sites,” said Elin Danien, the curator of the exhibit. “This fills in a segment of the Maya universe.”

Entitled Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya, the exhibit draws on about 150 items from the university’s collection, many of which have never before been on public display.

They were gathered in 1916 by the Penn Museum archaeologist Robert Burkitt and have, in some cases, been reconstructed from pottery fragments gathered on site.

Visitors are invited to reconstruct their own vessels by using magnetized replicas of pottery fragments in a special case in the museum gallery.

One of the ochre-hued cylinders shows three figures beneath a glyph which has been interpreted to mean that the territory in question is being divided between the old and new rulers, said Danien.

The presence of two hummingbirds, symbols for both war and sex, indicate military conquest and suggest marriage is being discussed between the opposing groups.

Such objects show how life in what Danien called the “boondocks” of the Mayan empire was changed by the arrival of people from the lowlands who introduced the art, architecture, mathematics and other advances that characterized one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, which was at the height of its powers at around the time of the takeover of Chama.

The show also includes a range of everyday items such as weaving implements and cooking pots that were used by inhabitants between 600 and 800 CE.

Despite the signs of subjugation by the lowland invaders, there is no evidence of any warfare in the materials gathered by Burkitt, suggesting that the rural population capitulated to the more sophisticated newcomers, Danien said.

“It was a lot easier to be taken over than to die,” she said.

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