Mérida Mayan World Museum
The Mayan World Museum in Mérida is state of the art. It was designed in the form of a ceiba, a sacred tree believed by the Maya to connect the living with the underworld and the heavens above.
The striking contemporary building was inaugurated in 2012 and offers an up-close look at some of the pieces found at the sites around Mérida. El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya has three mains sections.
- The Mayan World
- The fall of the Chicxulub meteorite and extinction of the dinosaurs
- Temporary exhibitions of paintings, art and handicrafts by Mexican artists
I came here with my friend Michelle in December 2017 and absolutely loved it. Whichever exhibition you choose, they are all excellent. This post covers exclusively the exhibition of the Mayan World. On entry, the exhibition starts in the first hall with the nature of the Maya lands, while the second hall concentrates on the Maya people today, their habits, clothes, ceremonies and Christian influence. The third hall brings to life the Conquest era and the fourth hall (subject of this post) is devoted to the ancient Maya. So here are my favourite pieces, in my usual structure: The People, The Focus, The Mystery and Don't Miss.
The people: The ancient woman
The fourth hall offers probably the best visual display of everyday life of the ancient Yucatec Maya that I have seen so far. Carefully made figurines tell us of the life of the common folks, starting with hunters. The Maya’s predecessors were nomadic hunters who followed large game animals across the Bering Land Bridge in migratory waves. They inhabited the Yucatán Peninsula and the southern highlands from 11,000 BC. They began farming 3,000 years ago on the milpa (cornfield), growing maize, squash and beans. The jungle had to be cut, cleared, and then set on fire in the dry season and sown during the wet season.
Cotton was one of the greatest of Yucatán's riches. Men participated in cultivating the plant and the treatment of dried pods. Women spun the cotton, winding the thread on the spindle. Cloth was a highly valued tribute paid to a conquering city by the vassal kingdom. The Maya always built their towns around a water source. In Yucatán it would be around a cenote and the caves were their sacred places where the God of Rain, Chac, dwelt.
Each city had a king, a shaman, and the nobles at the royal court (in charge of defence and administration). In the Classic period (250-900 AD), trade flourished and a new middle class started forming: the traders and artisans. For trade, they needed a network of roads. The important cities raised a white road called sacbé (made of white limestone and covered with white stucco), leading to their allied trading partner cities. They did not have horses and the goods were carried on foot along these jungle roads.I was delighted to fin here the maps of some sacbé roads (see below). The longest known sacbé from Cobá to Yaxchuná was 100km long.
All the Maya cities needed to trade with salt and obsidian for their tools. The salt production was concentrated in the coastal centres where they evaporated seawater. Controlling the zones of sea production was so important that it led to wars between inland groups and coastal centres. Other goods for trade included cotton, henequén, stingray spines, cinnabar, natural dyes, shells, jade, quetzal feathers, animal hides and ceramics. By the time of the arrival of the Spanish, Yucatán was divided into 19 chiefdoms. Indigenous town councils, known as repúblicas de indos, were organised, with the former caciques as the leaders. In addition, there were alguaciles (constables), scribes, mayordomos (chief stewards) and sometimes alcaldes (municipal officers) with legal functions. In the mid 18th century the elite were displaced by commoners loyal to the Spaniards.
And then there were scribes who invented the writing system, carvers who made stone stelae and reliefs to celebrate the king's life, craftsmen who made objects of sumptuary use, mathematicians who invented the concept of zero, astrologers who were able to predict the solar eclipses and count the Moon year, the Venus year and invented the calendars, warriors, war captives (doomed for sacrifice), shamans who could sew wounds with human hair, implant teeth and get themselves incredibly intoxicated (on mushrooms and morning glory extract), the wives and the concubines. And slaves, who served them all.
And then there were gods and worship. Here are a few examples of reliefs and sculptures from the display. The Pyramid of Masks in Kohunlich site tells us of the worship of the God of the Sun, K'inich Ajaw. I have been to Kohunlich but here the replica is in full colour, to complete the image. The Maize God created the Maya from corn and he added his own blood. He was the almighty one in the Maya religion.
What intrigued me most was the treatment of the human body in Mayan art, which denotes a quest to capture the body's scale, proportions, movement and power. Take, for example, the sculpture from the Puuc region, with bulging eyes and obese body, covered in hard scales, similar to armadillo scales. Who was he? A warrior? Is that armour?
Or the figure from Umán. The sign (in English) was very helpful, it suggests that this figure is a nobleman, wearing an animal helmet, ad carrying a sceptre and a rattle. Well, the kings carried sceptres, so perhaps a king?
The naked figure has his hands bound. Ok, this one is easy. So he is a captive. But he has bands of paper on his arms. It means that they would have taken his precious jewels away after the capture, perhaps a jade necklace. So that makes him a captive of high rank. This also indicates that his fate was to be sacrificed, because royal blood, that was to be given to the gods in a ritual, was more precious than that of the commoners.
The figure from Ek' Balam has a skull on his belt and a reptile helmet. They found him at Talol Acropolis, where the king Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' was buried, so that helps us a little bit. He represents death, perhaps.
Ok, your turn. How much can you read from an anthropomorphic sculpture? Try the seated figure from Chichén Itzá (1000-1250 AD). He is dressed in elaborate garb and a headdress; his arms are in a haughty pose. He has some bracelets on his wrists. What else do we know to help us? At that time Chichén Itzá was too large to have one ruling king and it is believed it was ruled through a council composed of members of elite ruling lineages. For example, Captain Solar Disc (K'ak'upakal) ruled the south of the city, and Captain Serpent (Kukulkán) ruled the north city. So this fits. Could it be a captain?
There is a whole room devoted to the Ek' Balam ruin site. And rightly so. It is an amazing site full of mysteries and it tells us about the Mayan creation mythology. For me the nicest thing was to see the reconstructed king's tomb entry in one piece, from a distance, which you can't get at the actual site. The tomb is on the fourth level of the Tolal Acropolis and when you climb up to it, you are too close to it to get a perspective. There is also a drawing of it in the Museum, which helps too.
The palace, called Sax Xok Nah (the White House of Reading), was built by king Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' (797-802 AD). It was the house of meeting of wise men and ultimately his burial place. The iconography alludes to the three levels of the Maya universe: celestial, terrestrial and underworld). The tree of life is on the side of the door, and elite members of his court preside on top. Well, some of them are angels. But the Maya did not believe in angels.
Celestial beings (gods) accompanied kings on their way to the Mayan underworld so that they could then be reborn afterwards. So the angels could be celestial beings. But they have deformities on their hands and feet – that was a sign of royalty (deformities were a result of the inbreeding between members of the royal family). So is it the King himself? But there are two angels. Is the second one his father? Deformities were also a sign of spiritual power, so could the winged angels be high-ranking priests? Mayan dancers wore large winged costumes, particularly for the Eagle Dance. So dancers? Or could they be Eagle warriors (they wore bird feathers). Would that be how the king's ancestors got to the throne, through military service?
As for the tomb doorway, it is in the shape of a monster-like mouth. The open mouth is the entry into the mountain (and its cave). The Mountain Monster called Witz has strong teeth (here they look like jaguar's teeth). The jaw part of the mask represents the underworld, with reliefs of water lilies, fish and possibly the Sun God. This is the place where the king died and then he entered the underworld, to be reborn again through the tree of life as the Maize God. Yes, the Maya believed in resurrection.
To my delight, the Museum also displays the capstone from the funerary chamber, with a painting of the king Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' in the attire of the Maize God (that he will be reborn into). Moreover, in the close-up you can see that the king is portrayed with a split upper lip. While most Maya kings were portrayed in an idealised manner, not this one. So it seems he had a deformity; the examination of the bones found in the tomb revealed that he had suffered from a bone disease on his maxillary area, creating an oddly shaped upper lip. Well, the Maya revered deformity, unlike our Western World.
The Atlantean figures from Chichén Itzá (photo on the left below) used to hold up the roof of the Temple of Warriors. You won't see them at the ruin site as they are now at the Museum. Atlantean here refers to the figures' supporting posture, alluding to the load-bearing Titan Atlas. These figures are considered to be massive statues of Toltec warriors. Such figures held up the roofs of their temples in their capital town of Tula.
I can't finish with anything else but the Maya worship of the jaguar. The jaguar had the ability to cross between worlds, and for the Maya daytime and nighttime represented two different worlds. The jaguar represented the nighttime and the underworld. Gods often had jaguar attributes and the jaguar's coat was desirable too. However, not all were allowed to wear the jaguar pelt as it became the identification of the ruling class for the Maya.
One visit to this lovely museum and you have the life of the ancient Maya in your palm. A brilliant way of telling their story in a visual way. A must for any fan of the Maya history and culture.
How to get there:
The Museum is open Wednesday to Mondays (Tuesdays closed) 8am to 5pm. There is a café and a souvenir shop.
It is located at Calle 60 Norte Unidad Revolución. You'll find it about 12km north of downtown on the road to Progreso. Public transportation running along Calle 60 will leave you at the museum's entrance.