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.

The Terra Cotta Army at the ROM

The Royal Ontario Museum’s latest big exhibition, The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terra Cotta Army, builds you up to an odd sort of crescendo, one of quiet, almost reverent contemplation and more than a little awe.

The exhibit is located in the Garfield Weston space in the lower level of the recent Crystal renovation at the museum. I’ve praised this space before, with its strange shape and angled beams, as being perfect for unusual and creative displays. And it shines again as the setting for this journey through Chinese history.

Visitors start at the beginning, before the Qin (or sometimes called Chin) dynasty even began, in the third century BCE. I’m always surprised at how much can be known about a civilization that existed so long ago. But we are able to trace changes in the art and pottery associated with the Qin, for example, as opposed to the Zhou dynasty that preceded it. And much of that fine work applies particularly to things like the bridles or other accessories of horses. The Qin were a military-oriented state.

In fact, progressing through the exhibit, we watch the ruling family of the Qin state start out controlling just a small area in the eastern region of what we know as China today. But we see the holdings of this state grow. And grow. And grow. Until it creeps north, east, and south, swallowing everything in its path. At the height of its power, twenty percent of the Qin citizenry were military.

Once the exhibit establishes the background and context, we finally meet the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang Di, in 221 BCE. Not only did he geographically unify most of what we now think of as China, but he extended that unity into everything: currency, a national road system, and a sometimes cruelly enforced national belief system as well. It was also during this period that the first stretches of the Great Wall were laid, as the Qin consolidated and protected the lands they had won.

By this point, we are almost two thirds of the way through the exhibit, and have not yet seen what, supposedly, we have come to see. But the signs are building, as we now examine the building of Shihuang Di’s tomb. His giant, grass-covered pyramid and its attendant funerary centre is the most massive tomb complex in the world. Yet the full extent of the other buildings, rooms, and even planned gardens buried in the acres around the pyramid is still not fully known.

But in 1974, for the first time in almost 3000 years, we learned about the gigantic terra cotta army Shihuang Di created as guardians of the tomb and of his political administration in the afterlife. Comprising about 8000 warriors, 130 chariots, and more than 500 horses, the army was discovered by accident, as some local farmers tried to dig a water well.

And ten of these figures are here.

We come upon them probably as suddenly as those well-diggers did: rounding the slanting beams angling from ceiling to floor, and entering a large area of the hall that has been draped in black, with white figures of Chinese writing projected onto the drapery. And placed all through this space are – at last – some of these ancient warriors.

Each one stands on his own pedestal, surrounded by low barriers and illuminated with his own special lighting. You can walk completely around any figure and see the details: the tread on the sole of an uplifted boot, the thin scales of armour that some of them wear, the curl of a moustache, or the unusual hats, made of large, elaborate bows and tied under the chin, that only the high-ranking officers could wear.

Terra cotta archer

It is darker in this space, and the isolation and separate illumination of the figures creates an almost reverential atmosphere. Here you stand and contemplate the weight of history. This tall, stern general with his hands folded as though resting on a sword with its point on the ground was buried for 3000 years, yet still he stands silent guard. That horse, with its flared nostrils, braided tail, and charioteer close by, looks almost ready to charge.

All that buildup of history, information, and context, fascinating as it was, was just a prelude to this. This space was truly the crescendo toward which we’d been working. The sensitive and creative arrangements made by the ROM curators enhanced the majesty and power of the terra cotta figures themselves. And the final result, an almost sacred space, served to draw us and the people in the Qin Dynasty’s time closer together for a profound and fleeting moment.

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.)