SAN DIEGO – The splendor of Mayan civilization is captured in a compact exhibit here at the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.
“Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed” blends authentic artifacts, paintings, photographs, true-scale replicas of architecture and statuary and interactive modules to bring into sharp focus a civilization that still holds mysteries today.
“Hidden Worlds Revealed” will remain through Jan. 3, 2016. It’s the second exhibit in less than a year at the NAT, as the museum is known, to feature ancient civilizations half a world apart. An exhibit about King Tut ended a six-month stay in April.
Mayan territory spread across lush jungles and highlands that extended over southeastern Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula, and included all of Guatemala and Belize and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.
The rise and decline of the Mayans was typical of other pre-Columbian cultures such as the Olmecas, Aztecs, Incas and the ancient Puebloans in the Four Corners of what is now the United States.
The Mayans were known for their striking architecture, advanced mathematics and their predictions of eclipses and other celestial events based on centuries of meticulous record-keeping involving the position of sun, moon and stars.
The Mayans also had the only fully-developed writing system in pre-Columbian America.
The story of the Mayans is told here with artifacts, photos, to-scale replicas and recorded interviews supplemented by numerous interactive devices to entertain and educate kids of all ages.
Visitors learn that Mayan life centered on city-states that formed alliances, traded and warred endlessly with one another. Lack of navigable rivers, beasts of burden and wheeled vehicles prevented any single ruler from unifying his authority over a vast area.
Mayan society was closely bound to belief in dieties and life/death/after-life existences. Legend holds that creator gods sacrificed the maize god and created people from its dough. In turn, Mayans offered music, food, incense and blood-lettings to appease the gods.
The first contact of the Mayans with Spaniards came in the early 16th century, with the last Mayan city falling in 1697.
Exhibits, videos and informational panels in English and Spanish offer details. The exhibit is contained in 10,000 square feet.
Among the 240 authentic artifacts are a stucco bust, a skull, bones, spear points, pots and serving dishes, jewelry, beads and shells. The materials used in adornments differentiated the elite from commoners. Jade and obsidian were reserved for members of the upper society; commoners made do with shells, clay and mother of pearl.
Paintings at one stop on the museum’s self-guided tour depict a Mayan ball game reminiscent of soccer in which hands were not used.
Visitors are invited to heft an eight-pound, solid-rubber ball similar to one used in the game. Nearby, under glass, is a U-shaped belt made of volcanic tuff that was worn around the waist by ball-game participants to protect their innards from the impact of the ball.
The ball, formed from a mixture of latex and juice from the morning glory vine, amazed Spanish adventurers because in Europe at the time, balls were made of wood, cloth and leather.
Hernan Cortes reportedly was so taken by the game that he returned to Spain in 1528 with native players who performed for King Carlos V.
Curious visitors can try their hand at stacking building blocks to create Mayan-style structures. Mayans used stepped layers of blocks, each layer protruding only slightly from the one below it in order to maintain balance without the use of a cement.
The exhibition brings together contributions from the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Peabody Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the San Diego Museum of Man, the Museum of Science, Boston, and the National Institute for Culture and History in Belize.
The NAT constantly is on the lookout for new exhibits, museum spokeswoman April Tellez said.
Next up, “Whales: Giants of the Deep” is scheduled to run from March 19 through Sept. 6, 2016.