New Exibition Opening - Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya

Penn Museum Explores Daily Life During Politically Tumultuous Times

Known as “The Chama Vase,” this vessel from the 8th century CE was found in a stone-lined tomb at the ancient Maya site of Chama (in modern day Guatemala) at the end of the 19th century. Height: 23.5 cm; diameter: 15 cm. (Penn Museum object number 38-14-1) Photo: Penn Museum. A world-renowned collection of ancient Maya painted pottery, excavated by the University of Pennsylvania Museum nearly a century ago and reinterpreted in light of recent research in the field, provides the centerpiece for Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya, a new exhibition opening at the Penn Museum 05 April 2009. Painted Metaphors runs through 31 January 2010, before beginning a multi-city national tour.

Like so many pieces of the famous Chama pottery that conservators meticulously put back together at the Penn Museum, Painted Metaphors yields new clues to understanding everyday life—and changing politics—of the ancient Maya of Guatemala 1,300 years ago.

At the center of Painted Metaphors are almost two dozen recently conserved Maya painted vessels from Chama, a Maya village in the highlands far from the more sophisticated lowland centers of Maya culture. It was here that Penn Museum archaeologist Robert Burkitt discovered this brilliantly painted pottery, unlike anything else the region had ever produced. Why were these ceramic cylinders, painted with elaborate scenes, made in this out of the way spot? Exhibition Curator Elin Danien, Research Associate at the Penn Museum, provides a provocative explanation: these are Painted Metaphors, or pictorial narratives, reflecting the sudden introduction of people and ideas from the lowlands of the Maya world.

The exhibition includes a rare focus on the ordinary Maya, with material that reflects the ancient way of life— more than 150 ancient artifacts, including figurines, jade carvings, musical instruments, weaving implements, burial urns, cave offerings, and more. Additionally, the exhibition features photos and video of Maya life in the village of Chama today.

Maya civilization is one of the great ancient civilizations of the world. At its height, it was a densely populated, culturally dynamic society, with cities throughout the region that is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Renowned for their once enigmatic written language (the most fully developed known written language of the pre-Columbian Americas), the Maya developed complex art and architecture, as well as mathematical and astronomical systems. Maya civilization began in the Preclassic period (circa 1500 BCE), reached its height during the Classic period (circa 250 to 900 CE, at the time the Chama pots were created), and continued throughout the Postclassic period, until the arrival of the Spanish in Yucatan in 1512. After the arrival of the Spanish, Maya civilization collapsed, though Maya culture continued and its traditions are practiced today by more than four million descendants in Mexico and Guatemala.

Though much has been learned in the last 100 years, much remains a mystery. The history of the ancient Maya continues to be reconstructed, piece by piece, not only by archaeologists in the field, but also by laboratory scientists, epigraphers deciphering ancient inscriptions, and researchers delving into the Museum collections and archives. Through field notes and records, behind-the-scenes conservation video, and more, Painted Metaphors offers a window into the process of reconstruction, and discovery, of the ancient past.

The presenting sponsor of Painted Metaphors is Rohm and Haas, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2009. Media sponsor for the exhibition is The Philadelphia Inquirer, celebrating their 180th anniversary in 2009. Additional funding for Painted Metaphors is generously provided by the Selz Foundation, LLC, the Seth Sprague Charitable Trust, Diane vS. Levy and Robert M. Levy, A. Bruce and Margaret R. Mainwaring, and Annette Merle-Smith. Painted Metaphors travels on to the Frank H. McClung Museum (Knoxville, Tennessee) in fall 2010, and the Hilliard University Art Museum (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) in winter 2011, with additional venue opportunities available.

The official website of the exhibit is http://paintedmetaphors.org

Photo: “The Chama Vase,” found in a stone-lined tomb at the ancient Maya site of Chama (in modern day Guatemala). Height: 23.5 cm; Diameter: 15 cm. (Penn Museum object number 38-14-1)

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at http://www.penn.museum.

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