Most people would be hard pressed to name a single fact about Mayan civilization other than that it was based in South America. And that would be wrong anyway, because it was in Central America.
So we should consider ourselves lucky because the National Museum of History appears to have used the full power of Taiwan's diplomatic ties to Central America to secure a moderately sized but immensely interesting exhibition on Mayan civilization.
Those who can't read Chinese would be best served by starting a tour of the exhibition with the English-language documentary located at the exit and then moving back through the show. The video tells the fascinating story of early exploration by American John Lloyd Stephens and other anthropologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries and provides the background visitors may otherwise not be able to glean from the Chinese and Spanish text on the walls.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF HISTORY
The show consists of artifacts that illuminate practically everything about Mayan life, from entertainment to funerary rites. These two seem to have often been intertwined, as well.
Several items on display provide evidence that the Mayans were, by modern standards, exceptionally cruel to their enemies, who, if they had the misfortune to fall into Mayan hands during battle, would later be sacrificed in religious rites.
The Mayans were also devotees of ritual scarring, tattooing and piercing, which is apparent in the many massive earrings on display that were once worn by the culture's aristocrats.
Some of the most exquisite items on display at the show are the obsidian daggers, which in the case of the king, served an especially shocking purpose.
In a ritual carried out frequently, the Mayan ruler would get ripped on hallucinogenic drugs, stab himself in the penis with an obsidian dagger, then pull a rope through the wound. The blood would drip onto paper, which would then be burned, and the smoke would provide a vision elucidating the kingdom's next task, be it a harvest or a campaign of war.
What has puzzled archaeologists even more than why the Mayan rulers did such things to themselves, is how the civilization also managed to master mathematics and astronomy and develop the most complex writing system in the Americas only to practically vanish into thin air some time in the 10th century.
They also built spectacularly large cities in the middle of the jungle, like Tikal, a scale model of which is on display at the show.
Many examples of Mayan hieroglyphs, that are only partly understood today, can be seen painted on the exhibition's terra-cotta incense burners and funerary urns or carved into beautiful jade and obsidian jewelry.
Archaeologists have found that the Mayans reserved a special reverence for the jungle's wild animals and paid tribute to them by painting or carving their likenesses on all possible decorative or ritual wares. Jaguars and snakes are common themes on bowls and urns. The most intricate item, though, is a mother-of-pearl carving of a monkey's head. The animal has a wonderful expression and fine details, like patches of its fur, have survived almost untouched to this day.
The exhibit is slightly heavy on the artistic and ritualistic aspects of Mayan culture at the expense of the culture's greater achievements, like its pioneering of the concept of zero, engineering feats that provided irrigation systems for inland territories and sports that doubled as human sacrifice rituals. Nonetheless, the work on view is astounding, and not least because it is only a tiny sliver of what remains to be learned about this mysterious jungle culture.
What: Maya: Mysteries in the Jungle (瑪雅叢林之謎)
Where: National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館) 49 Nanhai Rd., Taipei (北市南海路49號)
When: Until July 31
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