To learn about the indigenous peoples of the Americas, scholars draw on the rare texts that survived the European encounter, as well as objects used by indigenous peoples. The richest source of Pre-Columbian historical information comes from the ancient Maya, who developed the most sophisticated writing system in the Americas. The Maya and other native cultures often embellished their texts with illustrations, recording or carving them on objects of stone, ceramic, wood, and other surfaces. This section of the exhibition draws on select artifacts in the Kislak Collection and presents them as objects that, like books or documents, provide us with information about ceremonies, wars, court life, alliances, astronomy, calendars, and the reigns of kings. Reflecting the strengths of the Kislak Collection, this area deals principally with the pre-contact cultures of Mesoamerica, a territory that includes most of the modern countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador.
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Long before 1492, great civilizations rose and declined in the Americas, completely unknown to the rest of the world. One of the earliest was the Maya, which reached its height between AD 300 and 900, a period that included the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe. The Aztec of Mexico and the Inca of Peru flourished during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries before being destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. These and other civilizations built sophisticated and complex cities comparable to urban centers in other parts of the world at that time. They included large stone buildings, such as temples, athletic facilities, and large spaces for public ceremonies. This section compares views of two Native American cities, the Inca capital, Cusco, and the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), with fifteenth- and sixteenth-century urban centers from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Read more about Urban Landscapes »
Ritual, Ceremonies, and Celebrations
Cultures across the world and throughout time have marked life’s important moments by rites of passage, special celebrations, and ceremonies. In this section a select number of pre-Columbian artifacts provide glimpses into the diverse ways that native cultures held such observances. Read more about Ritual, Ceremonies, and Celebrations »
Language and Context
Writing was independently invented in five areas of the ancient world: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus Valley, and Mesoamerica. Among these systems of writing, the Maya glyphic system stands out, according to one scholar, “for its creation of syllabic and pictorial writing, in one of the most visually diverse scripts ever conceived.” Maya writing was recorded on a wide variety of media that include ceramics, stone, wood, shell, textiles, animal hides, and screen-fold codex books. Read more about Language and Context »
Maya recorded the history and lineage of their rulers on architectural elements, ceramic vessels, stone implements, and even wooden boxes. This section of the exhibition presents several artifacts on which the Maya documented dynastic history and other aspects of their culture, as well as two volumes in which European scholars recorded Maya cultural and social matters.
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The Heavens and Time
Like other cultures around the world, the pre-contact American peoples developed methods of measuring time based on astronomical observations of the movements of heavenly bodies. Because the moon is easily visible and changes in appearance each day, it became the basis of calendars in many ancient societies. Solar calendars also arose for measuring the length of the day and year. Development of accurate calendars requires sophisticated mathematical calculations.
The system developed by the ancient Maya civilization was astronomically more accurate than the Julian calendar used in Europe at the time of the first encounters between early explorers and native cultures. The Maya used three interrelated calendars, two of which were used simultaneously. Like the Maya calendar, the Aztec calendar consisted of a ritual cycle of 260 days and a 365-day civil cycle.
This section provides examples of Maya and Aztec calendars and European texts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that demonstrate the relationship between astronomical observation, mathematics, and the measurement of time. Read more about The Heavens and Time »