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This eighth-century Maya incense burner depicting the jaguar god was found in a cave in central Guatemala. (Courtesy the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

Between the great Highland Maya cities of Copán and Kaminaljuyu and those of the lowlands such as Tikal and Uaxactun lies a swath of seemingly impenetrable terrain, crisscrossed by un-navigable rivers and barely accessible on foot. Yet, 1,000 years ago, Maya merchants negotiated this rugged but fertile landscape, harvesting cacao, annatto seeds, and sacred quetzal feathers. Little was known about the area's important economic role until the University of Pennsylvania sent Robert Burkitt to investigate Maya cities along the Chixoy River of Guatemala. Today, 150 of the artifacts he collected between 1912 and 1937--jades, figurines, musical instruments, and some two dozen painted pots--are on display in Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

The exhibition presents what is known of the ancient trade routes and the lives of those who traveled them. Studies of the ceramic vessels have revealed the substances they once held and the origins of the clay used to make them. Variations in their style attest trade between the Pacific Coast and Yucatán.

Throughout the gallery are quotes from Burkitt's field notes, including one, displayed with a crude vessel, that reads "...[it is] a simple scratched ornament, remarkably ill-done. It might have been done by a blind man." As a work of art, it is a poor example of what the Maya could produce, but it speaks volumes about the objects ordinary people used to make a living. Painted Metaphors is on view through January 31, 2010, when it will embark on a multi-city national tour.

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