Mexico and Central America  Signature Gallery at the Penn Museum

The Mexico and Central American Gallery at the Penn Museum holds objects from the area encompassing most of southern Mexico, all of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, known as Mesoamerica. Exceptional Mayan stone monuments from Piedras Negras in Guatemala and Caracol in Belize stand central in this gallery with hieroglyph inscriptions glorifying Mayan rulers. Most notable of the stone monuments is Stela 14 (758 CE) from Piedras Negras, whose inscription depicts the accession of Ruler 5 wearing an elaborate headdress featuring a Celestial Monster-head mask. Other highlights in this gallery include exquisite figurines crafted of jade or ceramic made by the peoples inhabiting the Valley of Mexico in the Classic Period.

Gallery Highlights

Figurine, Late Classic Maya, Mexico.
Museum Object Number: 54-6-6

Effigy Urn, Zapotec, Mexico.
Museum Object Number: 29-41-726

Xipe Totec Figurine, Aztec, Mexico.
Museum Object Number: 97-82-285

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In parts of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, farming villages grew into towns and cities, tribal chiefs were made kings and emperors, trade networks became more complex, stone monuments and pyramids were erected, a calendar and writing system developed, and devotion to nature spirits developed into state ceremonies in honor of the gods and ancestors.

Anthropologists recognize that civilizations such as those in Mesoamerica cannot develop without adequate agricultural surpluses. Excavations have documented growth of farming villages in the millennia before the first Olmec monuments were carved. Maize, beans, and squash became the domesticated staples of life, and these were supplemented by an enormous variety of fruits, roots, chilies, and other foods. The transformations toward civilization in Mesoamerica began in the Early Formative Period in several parts of the area. Perhaps the most famous of these early developments was the Olmec of Veracruz and Tabasco, with its earthen pyramids, great stone monuments, jade carvings, and exquisite figurines.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Mesoamerica was divided into the Maya area to the east and the Aztec-dominated area to the west. The Aztec had not conquered the Maya, but they depended heavily upon Maya trade to supply them with the luxury goods -- chocolate, cotton, tropical feathers, and jade -- which helped to bind together their powerful state. This economic interdependence between east and west can be traced back to the Formative Period and was especially evident by the Classic Period as well, when Maya centers such as Tikal flourished in the east and the much larger site of Teotihuacan near Mexico City prospered in the west.

Maya Hieroglyphic Writing

The earliest hieroglyphs in Mesoamerica date to about 600 BCE. The earliest Maya inscriptions date to 36 BCE. Thousands of Classic Period (250 - 900 CE) Maya texts have survived on stone, bone, shell, pottery, stucco and wood, while 4 Maya bark-paper books devoted to astrology, divination and ritual instruction have survived from the Postclassic period (900-1519 CE). The Maya were still writing in hieroglyphs at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1519; afterward they continued to write Mayan with the Spanish alphabet.

Examples of Maya hieroglyphic writing can be seen in this gallery on large stone stelae and altars from Caracol and Piedras Negras, on painted pottery from Guatemala and on shells from a burial at Piedras Negras. It is made up of recognizable objects such as hands, birds and animals. These signs can be ideographs, representing the meanings of whole words, or they can be syllables, representing the separate sounds that make up a word. The illustration shows hieroglyphs as the whole words yax kin kan pakal, and as the separate sounds pa ka la and mu kaah that make up the king’s name, Pakal, and the word mukal, meaning “he was buried.”

The 1566 Spanish manuscript of Diego de Landa is the only known document in which a message in Mayan hieroglyphs is repeated in alphabetic signs, making it the “Rosetta Stone” for deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs. In 1886 Ernst Foerstemann deciphered Maya numbers and dates from a Postclassic bark paper book kept in Dresden, Germany. In 1952 the Russian Yuri Knorosov showed that hieroglyphs could be read as phonetic syllables and in 1960 Tatiana Proskouriakoff was able to identify major events in the life histories of the ancient Maya rulers. By now, over ⅔ of the contents of Mayan inscriptions can be understood, thanks to the work of various scholars.

Proskouriakoff’s breakthrough study proved beyond doubt that Maya monumental inscriptions did indeed record historical events. Prior to her work, Maya inscriptions were thought to consist essentially of only calendrical notations and rituals connected with calendrical phenomena. Careful analysis by Proskouriakoff, which began during her work with the Penn team excavating at Piedras Negras in 1936-37, showed that each of several groups of monuments contained a sequence of dates that were spaced at such intervals that they could correspond to the births, accessions, and deaths of a sequence of rulers. From her analysis Proskouriakoff identified the glyphs for events in each ruler’s lifetime and proposed a 7 ruler dynasty for Piedras Negras that is still largely accepted by epigraphers today. Although most subsequent epigraphic research is based on phonetic decipherment unrecognized by Proskouriakoff, her pioneering work was the foundation for the reconstruction of dynastic histories at Tikal, Palenque, Copan, Caracol, and other Maya sites. The stela that she used to decode these royal life histories was Stela 14 from Piedras Negras, which now stands in this gallery.

Linda Schele was instrumental in analyzing the semantic and structural nature of the of the inscriptions, to reveal the history contained in them.

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