Lectures focus on Maya period

As part of the Mexico Semester, Dr. Christopher Powell and Dr. Edwin Barnhart, directors of the Maya Exploration Center in Mexico, gave five lectures over the course of three days to students at Missouri Southern focusing on the ancient Maya culture.

Powell, an archaeologist with more than 20 years experience, gave the first lecture, “Maya History: Culture Origins to Spanish Conquest,” on Sept. 21. This lecture was the foundation for the four subsequent lectures, giving a background of the Maya culture.

Beginning with the Olmecs, precursors of the Maya, Powell gave an overview of what researchers currently know about the Olmecs, who lived between the years of 1,800-300 B.C. There are few skeletal remains due to the acidity of the soil.

“They exploded onto the scene almost fully developed,” Powell said, citing examples of sophisticated art forms and elaborate trade routes throughout the region. Their artwork, most of which was carved in jade, was described by Powell as “very realistic,” and sometimes weighed more than 30 tons. Many depicted different phenotypes, or ethnicities. This lead researchers to believe groups of cultures may have worked together. Other Olmec artwork was carved in basalt or black stone, and included many “Negroid” and “Asian-looking” portraiture.

Powell described them as the “finest examples of portraiture in Mesoamerica.”

The Mayan calendar also began with the Olmecs, and researchers have found toys with working wheels and axles.

During the Classic Maya Period, beginning circa 250 A.D., Tecal was the most powerful site of the Maya realm. Powell said there was a cultural explosion sometime close to 378 A.D., featuring carved jade, mosaics, funerary masks and ceramics. One of the earliest screw-top jars known to exist was also found from this time. The Maya were also masters of cotton clothing and embroidery. “Elaborate murals” and “monumental carved stone art” were also found from this time period.

“Maya Calendar Systems” was the second lecture in the series, given by Barnhart. Barnhart said during the lecture the Maya had the “most sophisticated time recording of ancient civilizations.” They were able to accurately track the years, and were only 1/10,000 of our modern best. Barnhart said their year was 365.2420 days, while our most accurate count is 365.2422 days.

A system of bars and dots were used by the Maya to depict numbers, and they also had “head variants,” which were faces with slightly different characteristics representing numbers.

“It was as much an artistic pursuit as it was a mathematical pursuit,” Barnhart said.

The Maya were the only ancient civilization with a placement system, such as ones, fives and tens, whereas other ancient civilizations used Roman numerals.

At one point, the Maya were using as many as eight separate cycles to record a single date. According to one Maya calendar, which is a cycle of 5,126 days, the beginning date was Aug. 13, 3114 B.C., and the end date will be Dec. 23, 2012. Some people think time will end on that day, but the Maya “Long Count” calendar goes up more than 5 million years.

Powell gave the third lecture in the series, “Maya Archaeoastronomy,” on Sept. 22, focusing on how astronomy influenced the Maya calendar systems, and how the Maya developed a system for predicting eclipses.

One of the most important times of year for the Maya, even today, is the Zenith passage. This is when the sun is straight overhead, and it only happens between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Many ceremonies are centered on the Zenith passage, many of which have to do with planting corn.

Maya buildings were constructed on platforms and aligned to the summer and winter solstices and the equinox. The Zenith passage splits the year into 105 and 260 days. From the Zenith rise, the winter solstice is 260 days and the summer solstice is 105 days. These are also the natural gestation period and the time it takes from planting to harvest corn, respectively. It is thought that these natural events coinciding with the solstices have greatly influenced the Maya calendar systems.

“Maya Sacred Geometry,” the fifth lecture in the series on Sept. 23, focused on the symbolism behind Maya geometry. The most common proportion in Maya architecture and in nature is the Golden Mean, Powell said during his lecture.

Squares, triangles and pentagons are used most commonly. These have a deep symbolic relationship and are highly related to nature, said Powell. Flowers and shells are found frequently in Maya architecture and art, and not without reason.

Powell said “flower” means “divine” in all 38 Mayan dialects.

All Mayan shapes begin with a square. When the arms and legs are fully extended, the human body also makes a square, something the Maya knew long before DaVinci’s drawings. Because of that, four human widths was usually the square used to build a house. The Mayans of today still use the same methods to measure and build as they did over 1,000 years ago.