Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Gods and Rulers Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005
by David Cheetham

[image] A jadeite mosaic funerary mask from the Classic Maya site of Calakmul (A.D. 200-600) (© Jorge Perez de Lara) [LARGER IMAGE]

Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship is an exciting new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that brings together a magnificent array of objects related to the theme of sacred kingship among the Late Preclassic and Early Classic Maya (300 B.C.-A.D. 500). More than 150 items are on display--nearly half of which have never before been shown in the United States--including elaborately painted ceramic vessels, carved stone monuments, and jade masks.

Through vivid imagery, each object speaks to the inseparability of early Maya courtly life and sacred ritual, whether to guarantee a safe journey into the afterlife, explain the creation of the earthly and cosmic realms, or ensure the prosperity of all society by interceding with the gods. Several outstanding Olmec (1200-500 B.C.) artifacts from the Gulf Coast area, such as anthropomorphic jade masks and a large carved stone monument, trace the royal use of jade and the depiction of sacred themes to an era before state society emerged in the Maya region. Other items call attention to interaction between early Maya kings and the leaders of distant cultures; richly painted stucco vessels from royal tombs at the Maya cities of Kaminaljuyu and Copán, for instance, demonstrate contact with the great metropolis of Teotihuacan and the adoption of foreign deities and concepts of warfare.

The exhibition also features displays that pull the viewer into the ancient Maya world, including a life-size drawing of Tikal Monument 31 and the translated text of its glyphs. A film about modern Maya peoples and practices is a welcome reminder that millions of these people thrive today despite the famed "collapse" of Maya civilization in the ninth century A.D.

Overall, the show succeeds by conveying the notion that spectacular objects were valued both for their aesthetic appeal and as instruments essential to the practice of sacred kingship by the early Maya, their neighbors, and their predecessors.

Lords of Creation is at LACMA through January 2, 2006, then travels to the Dallas Museum of Art (February 12-May 7) and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 11-September 10).

David Cheetham is an archaeologist with the New World Archaeological Foundation.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America