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Museums: Art of the Maya Uppercrust Volume 57 Number 4, July/August 2004
by Colleen Popson

A recently discovered relief from Palenque in Mexico dates to A.D. 736 and depicts the Maya king Pakal and his descendants flanked by two feline-faced creatures. (Museo Arqueológico de Campeche "Fuerte de San Miguel" - INAH, México; © Michel Zabé) [LARGER IMAGE]

It's a solemn scene. The Maya king Pakal sits cross-legged on a throne and extends a stingray spine to his grandson and heir to the throne, Ahkal Mo' Nahb ("The Great Sun Turtle Macaw Sea"). Ahkal Mo' Nab and his brother Upakal K'inich, seated to Pakal's left, both turn from their grandfather, distracted by twin, fearsome, feline-faced creatures wrapped in jaguar pelts. The creatures hand each young man bundles of cloth, paper, and leaves. The brothers look apprehensive--it seems a bloodletting ritual is in store.

This scene, in detailed relief--its calligraphic lines of glyphs, hands, and headdresses so smooth and fine they make the limestone look like clay--decorates a panel dating to A.D. 736 and discovered in Mexico just two years ago at the site of Palenque. It's the star of "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya," an exhibition of some 130 artifacts on view until July 26 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and at San Francisco's Legion of Honor from September 4 until January 2, 2005.

[image] Obsidian and shell decorate a jade mask from Calakmul (A.D. 600-800). (Museo Arqueológico de Campeche "Fuerte de San Miguel" - INAH, México; © Michel Zabé) [LARGER IMAGE]

The curators of "Courtly Art" have collected the best and brightest pieces--ornately painted vases, whimsical figurines, translucent alabaster bowls, and gleaming jade masks--from A.D. 650 to 800, a period when Maya art reached its pinnacle. Unfortunately, no photographs of actual court ruins accompany the pieces, save one shot of Palenque. The absence of such context will remind viewers that this is primarily an art show. Although many pieces on display were excavated from well-documented sites, some are of unknown origin and can't be assigned to any one court. Still, no one should miss the opportunity to view the show's spectacular artifacts, many of which are being exhibited in the United States for the first time.

Colleen Popson is ARCHAEOLOGY's Washington D.C. correspondent.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America