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Penn Museum Maya Scholar’s Brush with a Heavy Metal Band

March 29, 2016

Jill DiSanto, Public Relations Director


Is that a bird? A plane?

Is that ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing on the tail of that rocking private 747 jet decked out for Iron Maiden’s The Book of Souls World Tour?

As a scholar of the ancient Maya, and a renowned expert in Maya hieroglyphs, Dr. Simon Martin, Penn Museum’s Associate Curator of the American Section, doesn’t usually get involved with contemporary culture—yet alone heavy metal rock music. So he was a bit surprised when the English heavy metal band Iron Maiden contacted him.

The band was developing artwork for its newest album, The Book of Souls, with an ancient Maya inspired theme, and they wanted a Maya scholar to translate the song titles into authentic ancient Mayan hieroglyphs.

Easier said then done.

Translating the concepts behind song titles like “If Eternity Should Fail,” “Empire of the Clouds,” and “The Great Unknown,” from English to what we know of the ancient Maya language could only be approximate at best. Dr. Martin chose to take a multi-language approach to reach the final product: first translating the titles into Spanish, then into the Yucatec Maya language of today, and from there, into Maya glyphs. The translating and hieroglyph drawing took him several days.

The final art for the album features Iron Maiden’s fearsome mascot Eddie in a variety of jungle settings surrounded by fallen temples and monuments, some featuring the faces of the band. Each of the song lyrics are accompanied by their hieroglyphic titles, and reprised on a page of their own at the end.

Dr. Martin’s take? “The Maya were very big on souls. As a title, its appropriate to ancient Maya culture—but its very much Iron Maiden’s own thing.”

Iron Maiden’s management surprised him recently, sending along a photo of the band’s tour plane, a 747, whose tailplane features his hieroglyphs writ large. He hasn’t seen the Jumbo itself yet—but the management team say they’ll be sending him a diecast model. The hieroglyphs chosen for the tail are two of the song titles: “If Eternity Should Fail” and “Speed of Light.”

The Book of Souls, the band’s 16th studio album and its first studio double album, was released in September 2015, to rapid critical and commercial success, topping the album charts in 40 countries. In the United States, the album rose to number 4. Judging by early sales of the album, the world tour promises to be a towering success. It began in February, and runs through August, with a March 30 night at Madison Square Garden in New York City (no stop in Philadelphia). Look up in the sky—maybe you’ll get a glimpse of that world tour jet.

Photos courtesy Iron Maiden.


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