PARIS.- With more than 160 exceptional items, most of which have never left their country of origin, this exhibition offers the opportunity to discover the Guatemalan Maya, one of the major civilizations that shaped the history of pre-Columbian America.
In an attempt to promote the protection of the Guatemalan national heritage, the exhibition highlights the latest significant archaeological discoveries on several recently studied sites such as El Mirador, which heads the list of the five sites selected to be nominated for UNESCO World Heritage site status.
This latest research enables the presentation of a broader and more complex concept of Maya civilization; one which describes the great variety and the development of its social organization, architectural forms and artistic styles.
Painted ceramics, stelae, finely carved stones, funerary elements, architectural remains and ornaments, all presented in chronological order, provide a complete view of the Maya culture of Guatemala: its origins and development, cultural climaxes and declines.
The exhibition also provides a portrait of the current state of this civilization by presenting photographs and a multimedia presentation on contemporary Maya culture.
The Maya civilization appeared at the end of the 3rd millennium B.C. and had had two periods of cultural peaks: between the 3rd century B.C. and the time of Christ, and again between the 6th and 9th centuries A.D. There is ample record of a major demographic decline by about A.D. 150 and again by about A.D.900, leaving behind the ruins of many ancient cities filled with palaces and temple-pyramids. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, the Maya were residing primarily along the coasts of Yucatan and in the Highlands of Guatemala. The Maya culture also developed a unique, integrated writing system found only in this region of the world long before the arrival of the Europeans, and are noted as one of the five "founding civilizations" of the world.
The exhibition offers a chronological route divided into four sections. The first three sections correspond to three primary periods, defined by experts on Maya culture, and which have marked the Maya civilization of Guatemala: Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic.
During its development, the Guatemalan Maya culture was originally thought to have undergone a geographical displacement during these three periods: from the Pacific coast and the Highlands (Preclassic periods) to the lowlands of the south (Classic periods) then to the lowlands of the north (Postclassic periods). However, recent discoveries show that the lowland region was also dynamic during the Preclassic period, and the greatest concentrations of Maya architecture are found in the Lowlands, particularly in the Mirador Basin and sites like Cival and San Bartolo.
Finally, the last section draws a portrait of contemporary Maya culture.
Section 1: the Preclassic periods (2000 B.C. A.D. 150)
Early Preclassic: 2000 B.C. 1000 B.C.; Middle Precclassic: 1000 B.C. 400 B.C.; Late Preclassic: 300 B.C. AD 150
The earliest Maya were pre-ceramic societies. Fluted points from the Pleistocene (Ice Age) periods have been found in Mexico, Highland Guatemala, and Belize, and the butchered remains of mammoths have been associated with human activities in the Guatemalan and Mexican highlands. However, by 3500 B.C., corn and manioc pollen is present in Belize and by about 2600 B.C., corn pollen is evident in the Mirador Basin of Guatemala.
During the Preclassic periods however, sedentary groups settled along the Pacific coast of Chiapas and Guatemala and produced the first ceramic vessels consisting of tecomates, bowls, food preparation and liquid storage vessels. By about 1000 B.C. to 800 B.C., the first large-scale ceremonial centers, particularly those in the Mirador Basin area were constructed in a relatively independent manner. The use of monochrome red, cream, black ceramic types, as well as a variety of forms and surface decorations such as incising, chamfering, and negative resist decorations symbolizes an emergent cultural unity of considerable economic, social, and political power. Recent research has determined that, between 400 B.C. and A.D. 150, Maya civilization underwent exceptional development in the fields of the arts and architecture as well as in social and political organization. Major sites multiplied and architectural activities intensified, indicating a significant population increase and extensive political and economic power. The first signs of hieroglyphic writing also appeared at least by the early part of the Late Preclassic period (300-100 B.C.), although bark beaters, representing the manufacture of paper, have been found in the Middle Preclassic period. Around A.D. 150, significant stresses apparently impacted the great cities of the Mirador Basin and many other sites in the Maya Lowlands and they were mysteriously abandoned.
Section 2: the Early and late Classic period (250 A.D. 900 A.D.)
During the Early and Late Classic periods, Maya culture underwent a brilliant artistic, social, and political development. The system of hieroglyphic writing, which had a particular significance within Maya culture, reached an advanced stage of execution and exhibition.
Contacts were made with the powerful civilization of Teotihuacan, situated in what is now central Mexico. There were significant exchanges on artistic, economic, and political levels between the two societies before the fall of Teotihuacan by about A.D. 600, which led to the dissolution of the relationship between the Maya and Highland Mexico. Two centers located in the Maya Lowlands were particularly powerful during the Classic periods: Tikal and Calakmul. These two rival cities acquired major sociopolitical importance in the region. The Maya culture developed around these two powers, which went to war on several occasions to extend their respective power bases.
In the Mirador Basin, other than Calakmul and Naachtun, some modest settlements reappeared after nearly 600 years of abandonment. Unequalled artisan productions were developed by the inhabitants living among the ruins of the great Preclassic centers; scribes, wise men and artists created a high quality ceramic style, known as the "Codex" style, consisting of black or red line paintings on a cream color background, which portrayed images of mythological and cosmological character with great finesse. In other examples, such as the small site of La Corona which had a strong connection with Calakmul, exquisite panels were carved depicting important historical events and some of the finest examples of Maya hieroglyphic writing in the Classic period. After this astonishing sequence of development, which marked the demographic climax of Maya civilization, the major centers were progressively abandoned by about A.D. 900, and the production of monuments and construction of architecture came to a halt. Several hypotheses for this collapse have been advanced such as endemic warfare, ecological disasters, droughts, or famine. However, none of these models have yet acquired the unanimous consensus of specialists on Maya culture. Vases with iconographic elements and examples of hieroglyphic writing, objects in stone, shell and bone, together with funerary artefacts are exhibited, highlighting the different aspects of Classical period Mayan culture.
Section 3: the Postclassic period (1000 A.D. 1524 A.D.)
A new social, economic, artistic and construction order came about in the Highlands of Guatemala after the abandonment of the various Lowland sites at the end of the Classic period. The Mirador Basin was almost totally abandoned while the cities of Topoxte and Tayasal in the Lowlands, and Q'um'arcaj and Iximché in the Highlands emerged and prospered. New production techniques appeared, such as metallurgy and the ceramic style known as "plumbate" due to its metallic external appearance. Artistic and architectural representations developed in parallel with the culture's changing political and social organization.
This period was also characterized by intense warfare activity, which was evidenced by the construction of fortified cities on Guatemala's islands and plateaus. This section of the exhibition presents ceramic and alabaster vases together with decorative metal elements which are characteristic of the Postclassic period.
Section 4: Contemporary Maya culture
A significant Maya population still exists today in Guatemala, comprised of 23 linguistic groups. The exhibition therefore finishes with a contemporary section which draws a portrait of the current Maya civilization, via a multimedia presentation and photographs. These enable the transmission of a broader vision of ancient and contemporary Maya culture, creating a link between the past and the present.