This Just in: World Doesn’t End in 2012 (or, the ROM and the Maya)

El Castillo

There's more to Mayan culture than this! (Photo courtesy Flickr user Herkie)

All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).

Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.

Palenque

The Tower in the Palace at Palenque (Photo courtesy Flickr user Sachavir)

The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.

One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.

But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.

Coba stele

Stele at Coba; part of the Mayan calendar? (Photo courtesy Flickr user snackfight)

The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.

That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.

For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.

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Those Trypilians could show Egypt and Sumer a thing or two

Trypilian Pot 2I must say, I’m not used to thinking of the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians as latecomers in the “civilization” department.

But after visiting the Royal Ontario Museum last weekend and seeing the exhibit, “Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: The Remarkable Trypilian Culture,” I’m forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the beginnings of history.

To say this was a sophisticated society is an understatement. Where I expected perhaps some bits of primitive pottery and rough arrowheads (the culture went back to 5000 BCE, after all), there were large, elaborately painted pots, small models of houses, detailed figurines, bowls and cups, and other sculptures. The Trypilians were already living together in surprisingly large numbers, with a surprisingly complex society of art and culture, when the Egyptians and Sumerians were only starting to stir.

trypilian-figureThis culture was the first to build what can only be called cities, the biggest settlements with populations as large as 15,000 people. They were both hunters and farmers, living in large dwellings, some of them two storeys high. According to the posted information, there’s nothing yet that reveals their political structure, and strangely, no one has ever found cemeteries or discovered their funerary arrangements. But every three or four generations, they would burn down their settlements and move elsewhere.

The Trypilian culture is still not well known in the wider world, even though it was discovered in 1896, near the village of Trypillia, by archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika. Perhaps political matters in that area overshadowed archaeology for a few decades, meaning that the world didn’t get a chance to become familiar with this society.

trypilian-potWhatever the case, we’ve had a good look at it now, thanks largely to the request of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. During his election to office in 2004, he met with the chair of the ROM’s board of directors, James Temerty, then in the country as a Canadian observer. Yushchenko, who has himself collected some pieces of Trypilian pottery, asked Temerty if the ROM would put this exhibition together, so the world would finally become aware of Ukraine’s deep cultural roots.

And so it transpired, four years later, with the ROM having the distinction of organizing the entire exhibit, and being the first museum in the world to bring this culture out of Ukraine on such a scale.

trypilian-binocularsThe atmosphere in the exhibit is warm and intimate. Curving corridors walled with lattices of dark wood imitate the complex sworls that decorate the huge pots, each short hallway curving into another section of the exhibit. The largest pots, several loaned by Yushchenko himself, stand on pedestals so observers can circle them and take in the detail of their painted designs. Smaller objects are placed in well lit cases, the figurines gazing distantly back through the glass, and the odd “binoculars” (like two tankards connected together, but with open bottoms) providing an unsolved mystery, since no one knows what they were used for.

My friend and I are always sceptical when some ancient artifact is automatically deemed to be of a religious nature. And I mused, wandering from case to case, whether having a look at Ukrainian cultures that succeeded this one might give a clue to the real beliefs of the Trypilians. Some ideas do survive through folk tales, songs, and so on.

trypilian-playhouseThis fact struck us as we looked at the miniature houses, thinking of them as doll houses rather than ritual objects. We were mystified about why these miniatures were all on stilts or legs, when real Trypilian dwellings stood firmly on the ground.

Then my friend remembered the Slavic story of the Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Could we have been observing the truly ancient root of that old folk tale? It’s an intriguing idea.

The exhibit’s last day is this coming Sunday (March 22, 2009). Rumour has it that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City now wishes to show this Trypilian collection, and has engaged in negotiations. If true, Victor Yushchenko’s wish is coming true. The world is finally discovering that its earliest great civilization may have originated in Ukraine, and not farther south. This could force historians the world over to rethink their assumptions about humanity’s early history.

Egypt and Sumeria, move over!

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(For an account of the exhibit’s opening, and more information about it, see this article originally published in the National Post.)

Wedgwood – more than just the “blue stuff”

The stuff is gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful, and so well-crafted. Not that I would know, of course, whether any particular pottery or china is expertly crafted or not. But I recently visited the Wedgwood: Artistry and Innovation exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, and it’s probably safe to make some assumptions.

I grew up with the idea that “Wedgwood” just referred to those blue vases and plates and plaques with the white reliefs depicting classical mythological figures. My family didn’t have a lot of china or other valuables, so I didn’t get much exposure to the finer things. It was only in the last few years that I reached the vague realization that Wedgwood actually makes more types of china than just the “blue stuff.”

And now that I’ve seem the exhibit at the ROM, to my surprised I’ve discovered just how extensive and varied Wedgwood pottery and china really is, and always has been.

The displays contained samples of the company’s artistry throughout its history, from a  “Husk Service” plate of the pattern sent to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1770, all the way down to 2008, with an elegant cup, saucer, and oil-and-vinegar set from the “Night and Day” pattern. 

There is earthenware with transfer printed designs and coloured glazes, and bone china with roses and other patterns, similar to the types of products you’d see from other companies.

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Charles Darwin: a very human scientist

Charles Darwin was such a scientist that he made a “Pro” and “Con” list when deciding whether or not to get married. And he was so human that one item on the “Pro” side was that in marriage, he’d have someone to humanize him, so he wouldn’t spend all his time thinking only of theories and experiments.

These two themes – his science and his humanity – braided delicately together at the Darwin exhibit that finished its run at the Royal Ontario Museum last Monday.

The Exhibit, called “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution,” suffered controversy in every North American city where it appeared. (This was the last of the North American showings; it now heads to London, England, for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 2009.) Or rather, the exhibit suffered from fear of controversy. Because all the exhibiting museums’ usual corporate sponsors and patrons (40-50 of them, in the ROM’s case) were afraid to support it, afraid the big bad North American creationists would get mad at them.

Fortunately for the ROM, two organizations believed this quaking fear was not just unseemly for rich, powerful patrons, but was insulting to the integrity and freedom of science. So both the Humanist Association of Canada and The United Church Observer magazine kicked in with large donations, followed thereafter by the Blyth Academy, and Zinc Research. What was sad was that the controversy was ultimately unnecessary. During my hours at the exhibit, my constant thought was how utterly non-threatening it was.

Through letters, artefacts, and notebooks, we were shown Darwin’s life in great detail, from childhood until his death in 1882. We learned of his interests and scholastic achievements as a young man, the relationship of the Darwin and Wedgewood families (yes, those Wedgewoods), how he would have abandoned plans to voyage on the Beagle if his father remained unconvinced he should go. How he cared for his wife Emma and their children, and what a rich, happy family life they had. How deeply and genuinely he grieved that he caused pain to Emma, a devout believer, by the conclusions of his scientific studies. We learned a great deal about Charles Darwin, the man.

Running parallel to his personal life were displays of his notebooks, specimens, charts, and letters. I walked from case to case, following the development of his scientific theory as he wrote and recorded data in those notebooks – from the germs of the idea to its final expression. What was obvious throughout was that Darwin based his theory on mountains of evidence, collected in a multitude of experiments conducted in both the plant and animal worlds.

Yet this exhibit was never confrontational. Whenever his interpretation of the evidence differed from the standard view of his time, the meta-narrative acknowledged this and presented the opposing viewpoint. You never had the impression the message was, “How stupid those people were!” Rather it was, “Those scientists held a different view, so Darwin had to justify his theory with evidence.”

In fact, if anyone was confrontational in Darwin’s time, it was one of his defenders after The Origin of Species was published – Thomas Huxley. As Huxley said, “I am sharpening my claws and beak in readiness.” And it was actually Darwin who tried to tone him down.

The only place where the exhibit’s tone grew harder was its ending statement. It mentioned that today’s objections are the same ones made 150 years ago. But it states unequivocally that “Creationism, including intelligent design, does not offer a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. By invoking the act of a Creator or an intelligent designer as the explanation for life’s diversity, creationism invokes a cause that lies outside our powers of observation and thus outside the realm of scientific inquiry.”

And that was what the entire exhibit was about – scientific inquiry. That alone would have made me realize yet again that what I had been taught as a fundamentalist – that Darwin was virulently “anti-God” and tried to use science to rebel against him – was utterly false. Most attendees would already have known this. But what we might not fully have realized was Darwin’s warm, compassionate humanity. For me, that was a large gap that this wonderful exhibit finally filled.