I continue to be a fan of San Antonio’s art museums. The Witte has been on Broadway since 1926; I remember going there on field trips as a child and every few decades since. After hearing about the new Mays Family Center exhibit Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed I decided to see how much it had changed. I was impressed.
Many of the stations were interactive, fun for all ages. And in the fine tradition of Curly, the maitre d butler at Earl Able’s restaurant, the Witte has a robot who greets you with “Como etas.”
Entering the world of the Maya means opening your imagination to a remarkable culture that knew as much about the stars as it did the Earth and built pyramids and cities in the jungles of Mexico and Central America. Like Atlantis, it vanished mysteriously, leaving behind monumental cities, sign and numeric alphabets with sound and picture hieroglyphics and an ongoing farming tradition featuring corn, squash and beans called the three sisters. Mathematically and astronomically, they established epochal calendars without a telescope, based on centuries of recorded observations. The model city and pyramid below are from the city of Caracol, thought to have had a population of around 150,000.
There were hundreds of villages and cities, trading, warring and forming alliances, with a peak population of more than 2 million. Rulers were Gods, they gave their blood to ensure continuing prosperity while priests observed and recorded the movements of Venus, the moon, sun and stars using a 13 month calendar crafted over hundreds of years. Caves and other sacred portals to the underworld conveyed the God of Maize from death to rebirth in an ongoing cycle of resurrection, a theme common to cultures the world over.
Mayan folk paid taxes in woven textiles, an artisanal tradition alive and well today. They mined jade, used for making beautiful jewelry and as adornments embedded in teeth by dentists, whose practices flourished alongside other healers and surgeons. Advanced mathematical, architectural and astronomical insights are preserved in the few remaining codices, rescued from destruction by conquistadores and Catholic priests, who considered them the devil’s handiwork. Like the Library of Alexandria, the loss is incalculable.
Some credit the Maya with inventing the game of basketball. While there are some similarities, the stakes were much higher for the warriors at their ball courts. The ball was made of rubber, drained from trees and layered until it was an 8-10 pound missile. The players strapped on 20 pound stone waist guards and used their amazing core strength to keep the ball in play. Losers were often sacrificed and winners were richly rewarded with the losers’ wealth. The game changed over centuries of play, with some suggestion that it served as a ritual substitute for warfare. Hero Twin myths point to the origin of the game as a transitional space between the underworld and the land above. The court was a place to work out the disputes and manage competition that allowed for alliances and trade to flourish.
I highly recommend this great end of summer day trip for the whole family. It will be interesting to see how the Witte integrates the programs at the Mays Center into exhibits that have kept Texans informed and entertained for almost a century.