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Ancient Prophecy Or Modern Myth? Penn Museum's Exploration of Origins of Maya 2012 End of World Predictions

February 28, 2012, Volume 58, No. 24

logoDid the Maya believe the world would end in December 2012?

With MAYA 2012: Lords of Time—a world premiere exhibition opening May 5—the Penn Museum confronts the current fascination with the year 2012, comparing predictions of a world-transforming apocalypse with their supposed origins in the ancient Maya civilization. The exhibition runs through January 13, 2013.

MAYA 2012 leads visitors on a journey through the Maya’s time-ordered universe, expressed through their intricate calendar systems, and the power wielded by their divine kings, the astounding “lords of time.” Visitors explore the Maya world through a range of interactive experiences and walk among sculptures and full-sized replicas of major monuments while uncovering the truth behind these apocalyptic predictions.

The all-new exhibition is presented in partnership with the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia of the Republic of Honduras. MAYA 2012 features more than 100 remarkable objects, including artifacts recently excavated by Penn Museum archaeologists at the site of Copan, Honduras, and on loan from the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia. Visitors follow the rise and fall of Copan, moving across the centuries to discover how Maya ideas about time and the calendar have changed up to the present day. Contemporary Maya speak about their own heritage and concerns for the future. 

MAYA 2012 offers visitors a rare opportunity to view spectacular examples of Classic Maya art—some of which have never before been seen outside Honduras—and delve into the Maya people’s extraordinary, layered and shifting concepts about time,” noted exhibition curator Dr. Loa Traxler. “MAYA 2012: Lords of Time uncovers a history and culture far richer and more surprising than commonly supposed.”

Dr. Traxler, Mellon Associate Deputy Director of the Penn Museum and co-author of The Ancient Maya (Sixth Edition, 2006), is an archaeologist who excavated at the site of Copan with Penn Museum’s Early Copan Acropolis Program (1989 through 2003). Simon Martin, associate curator of the Museum’s American Section and a leading Maya epigrapher, is co-curator of the exhibition.

What is the 2012 Phenomenon?
In recent years, the media have been filled with claims that the ancient Maya predicted a cataclysmic event at the end of their calendar. Some believe that a celestial alignment will bring a series of devastating natural disasters. Others argue that this event will bring enlightenment and a new age of peace. As December 2012 draws closer, new predictions continue to emerge. But what did the Maya really believe?

The Maya and their Calendar
The ancient Maya civilization has long fascinated scholars and the public alike. For 2,000 years, the Maya flourished in southern Mexico and parts of Central America, their grand cities featuring temple pyramids, palaces, ball courts, and intricately carved stone monuments bearing royal portraits and a complex hieroglyphic script. They excelled in art, architecture, astronomy, and mathematics—developing a calendar system that amazes and intrigues to this day.

The exhibition invites the visitor to explore the ancient Maya’s complex, interlocking calendar systems, which were based on an advanced understanding of astronomy and the night sky. Their most elaborate system, the Long Count, encompasses trillions of years, and one of its important cycles comes to a close on December 23, 2012 (some scholars say December 21, 2012). This is the origin of the Maya 2012 “end of the world” phenomenon.

Highlights of this section include an immersive re-creation of a Maya pyramid, and opportunities to create your own Maya name in hieroglyphs and to calculate your birth date within the Maya calendar.

Copan and the Lords of Time
The ancient Maya believed that their kings were embodiments of time. At the site of Copan, Honduras, a dynasty of 16 kings ruled for nearly four centuries, from 426 to after 800 CE. Discoveries from recent excavations—including work by Penn Museum archaeologists—provide new insights and remarkable artifacts to tell the story of these lords and their unique understanding and use of time. Tunneling deep under the pyramids of Copan, archaeologists uncovered the tomb of the founder of the Copan dynasty, “Radiant First Quetzal Macaw.” The exhibition features jade jewelry and sophisticated ceramic vessels that accompanied the king on his journey into the Underworld. 

Several important artifacts too massive to travel outside Honduras have been reproduced at full scale using state-of-the-art 3D scanning technology. These include the historically significant Altar Q, the ultimate symbol of the Copan dynasty that carries portraits of all 16 kings, and the Margarita Panel, a vibrantly painted architectural panel featuring the emblematic name of Copan’s first ruler, shown as two elegantly entwined birds.

In all, 75 Classic period Maya artifacts excavated at Copan are featured. An interactive multimedia touch-table allows visitors to explore the extraordinary tunnels and tombs under the pyramids at Copan using the actual drawings and images from the archaeologists who first uncovered them.

The “Lost” History of the Maya
The fall of divine kings and the abandonment of a great number of Maya cities are referred to as the Maya “Collapse.” This exhibition connects the missing pieces of the Maya story following its still mysterious decline, taking visitors to the present day. The Maya did not disappear. Today, more than seven million Maya, speaking a variety of Mayan languages, live in Central America and Mexico, with more Maya people living around the globe. 

Many aspects of Maya culture were lost during the Spanish Conquest. Only four Maya books remain from this period. Two reproductions, the Dresden and Madrid Codices, are partnered with an extremely rare manuscript written just after the Conquest, revealing the extent to which Maya concepts of time were altered. Fine ethnographic textiles and 20th century folk art masks from the Penn Museum’s own collection lead the visitor to meet the Maya in the contemporary world. 

Throughout the exhibition, visitors are able to “meet” experts on the ancient Maya to hear their perspectives through a series of interviews. In the final section of the exhibition, several Maya people speak for themselves, sharing their perspectives on the end of the world predictions—and on the contemporary concerns of the Maya.
MAYA 2012: Lords of Time is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. A. Bruce and Margaret Mainwaring and The Selz Foundation are Partnering Underwriters. Renee and Carlos Nottebohm and the Mexican Society of Philadelphia are Supporting Underwriters. The Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation, Annette Merle-Smith, PNC Foundation, and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation are Education Partners. Host Hotels and Resorts is the Hotel Partner. Global Arena is the Language Services Partner.

Ticket and Tour Information for Maya 2012: Lords of Time
General admission timed tickets (includes admission to the rest of the Museum) for individuals are now available for purchase.

• Adult: $22.50
• Senior (65+)/Military: $18.50
• Students (full-time with ID)/Children (6 to 17 years): $16.50
• Penn faculty and staff: $10.50 (at Warden Garden entrance)
• Penn students: one free timed ticket with PennCard

Special exhibition timed tickets may be purchased online:  www.penn.museum/maya2012, or by phone: 1(888) 695-0888. 

Penn Museum Members receive complimentary tickets for MAYA 2012: Lords of Time. For membership information please call (215) 898-5093 or email membership@pennmuseum.org

Discounted group timed tickets for groups of 10 or more are available.

Call or email about extended group hours, tailored package options, and reservations: (215) 746-8183 (K-12 student groups) or (215) 746-4174 (all other groups) or email  grouptickets@pennmuseum.org

Museum hours during the MAYA 2012: Lords of Time exhibition are Tuesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; and Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 

Individuals and groups can receive update emails about MAYA 2012 by signing up at www.penn.museum/maya2012

Almanac - February 28, 2012, Volume 58, No. 24