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Looking for the Maya: Museums, Sites and Recent Notes on Guatemala

March 6, 2014

I first went to Guatemala in 1973 and experienced my initial significant exposure to Maya art and archaeology.  I recently returned – much has remained the same, much has changed.  I have long been chagrined by the fact that the Guatemalan government has never sufficiently recognized the rich, sustainable resource that archaeology is.  There are few countries with the astonishingly concentrated archaeological resources that tiny Guatemala holds.  Mexico, and to an increasing degree, Peru, do recognize the touristic potential of archaeological sites and have constructed sophisticated regional museums and infrastructure that encourages visitation.

On paper the Guatemalan government has set aside vast protected areas of the northern Peten, the heartland of Lowland Maya culture and location of the most spectacular archaeological remains. Environmentally this is the rich biosphere of ancient jungle and its myriad bird and animal residents.  A quick tour via Google Earth shows how ineffectual the management of this protected area has been. Uncontrolled deforestation continues as poor Highland farmers continue to migrate to Peten and surreptitiously carve out chunks of the forest for tiny, unsustainable farms.  That said, Tikal and its surrounding national park are spectacular and a joy to visit.  Much restoration has been carried out by Guatemalan archaeologists in the past several decades.  In particular the Mundo Perdido complex has been investigated and much restoration carried out.  Just recently, and funded by the Spanish Government, the façade of Temple V has been spectacularly restored.  Currently work is being done on Temple III and the massive Temple IV – a structure of incomprehensible size.  Even though one can no longer scramble up and down the temples as in times past, well-designed and unobtrusive wooden stairs have been constructed to still provide the visitors with the panoramic vistas only available from the pyramid summits.

Lidded Vessel with Day Names Guatemala, Tikal, Mundo Perdido, AD 300-450 Ceramic with slip 8 x 4 in. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

Lidded Vessel with Day Names
Guatemala, Tikal, Mundo Perdido, AD 300-450
Ceramic with slip 8 x 4 in.
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

Sadly, the museums at Tikal (there are two museums and one new research facility – more on that later) are rather pathetic and should be an embarrassment to the Guatemalan government.  The main museum in the crumbling visitor’s center contains important lithic monuments- altars and stelae- from the site.  Additionally there are well-done programs documenting the history of archaeological investigations at the site with wonderful photos of before-and-after restoration.  The only problem is that there are no lights in the museum and it is nearly impossible to see anything.  In fact local guides arrive with flash lights.  It was incredibly frustrating to be standing in front of astonishing stela (the large carved stone slabs erected over centuries marking historical events in the city) unable to make out anything.  It is very difficult to understand how such a basic thing as lighting could not be easily addressed.

The other site museum, the Museo Sylvanus Morley, contains masterworks of ceramics, jade, and stone.  The building itself barely suffices as a dilapidated garage let alone the repository of incredibly important and beautiful works of art.  Apparently there is little attention towards maintenance of the building which is semi open to the air.  An abandoned courtyard with a dry fountain and a clearstory opening wrapped in wire fencing afford little protection from the elements – and thieves.  That said, it contains a number astonishing things representing the nearly-one thousand year life of Tikal.  Rarely seen pre-Classic ceramics (circa 250 BC – AD 250) – sophisticated, fully resolved, and very appealing to a 21st century eye fill several cases.  The highlights are two miniature Late Classic (8th – 9th century) polychrome cylindrical cups with amazingly delicate and intricate scenes including men in hummingbird masks, a superb cluster of large, unrestored, cylindrical vessels for chocolate with complex scenes of palace intrigues, and a magnificent large platter, probably for serving tamales. A reproduction of the tomb of the builder of beautiful Temple I and Temple II is well-done.  One hopes that this small but important museum can achieve its potential in the future.

The third museum-research facility is a recent addition to Tikal.  It is an impressive, beautifully designed structure funded by the Japanese government – which seemed a bit odd to me.  It contains state-of-the-art facilities to research and restore artifacts discovered at the site although when we were there no one was working and the labs seemed unused.  There is a small display of ceramics on view.  I was told, and this was later unofficially confirmed, that the reason Japan gave this advanced facility to Guatemala was in exchange for whaling rights in the Pacific Ocean off the south coast of Guatemala.  A bad deal for everyone.

While the museums at Tikal fall far short of their potential I still recommend visiting them for they hold amazing treasures – if you can see them!

I visited the site of Yaxha about ten years ago which is located west of Tikal in the direction of the border with Belize.  Then it was a mysterious site of jungle-covered mounds and one partially cleared pyramid one could climb.  A decade later it is a sensational site to visit where the archaeologists have managed to preserve the mystery and magic of the site and at the same time reveal dozens of amazing structures.  The site is incomparably beautiful – situated beside two jungle-cloaked lakes.  A climb to its highest pyramid – again by a well-constructed, safe wooden stairway – offers the most beautiful view in Peten.  The archaeologists must be congratulated for the restraint they show in restoring the palaces, gigantic causeways, ball courts, temples and pyramids.  Unlike over-restored sites like Chichen-Itza (the Disneyland of Maya-land) Yaxha, and Tikal as well, celebrate the jungle as much as the ancient architecture.  The good thing and the bad thing about Yaxha is the road to get there.  It is a fair-weather road of sticky clay –thus few visitors which means that one has the site essentially to oneself.  The few other visitors we saw there included two Highland Maya women from Quetzaltenango in traditional dress.   I overheard them asking a guard why the city had been abandoned. After his explanation of various theories (I was impressed) they offered their own theory. No jobs – probably just like all the young men in their community, they said – all have to leave for El Norte (USA) to find work – leaving their communities increasingly empty.  Interesting point.

Stela II Guatemala, Kaminaljuyu, 200-50 BC Granite 78 x 26 x 7 in. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

Stela II
Guatemala, Kaminaljuyu, 200-50 BC
Granite 78 x 26 x 7 in.
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala

A short one hour flight from Flores, the capital of the Peten region, finds one in the impressive new (for me) airport of Guatemala City.  Nearby is the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia.  This is an absolute must for any enthusiast of Maya art and culture.  While the museum is little changed over the past forty years it is none-the-less well maintained with excellent labels in English and Spanish (in some galleries) that reflect current interpretations, particularly of the carved stelae, based on the decipherment of Maya glyphs over the past several decades.  I was slightly disappointed, however, to not see several of my favorite ceramics pieces.  The remarkable pre-classic ‘floreros’ from Peten and the sensational pieces discovered at Mundo Perdido in Tikal were missing, presumably on tour in one of the many recent exhibitions of Maya art traveling the globe.  However there is certainly enough other remarkable material on display to overwhelm even the most absorbent Mayanist!  The beautiful open air courtyard of the museum contains some of the masterpiece stone stelae from the northern lowlands (Peten), the great highland site of Kaminaljuyu and the enigmatic and little-understood sites on the tropical south coast (Pacific side) of Guatemala.  While I often lament the removal of art from the original archaeological context in this case it is probably good that the very fragile limestone stelae from Peten, which suffer rapid deterioration in the hot, wet jungle environment, have been relocated to the dry, sunny highlands. They are also thus protected from the chainsaws of looters who have cut some into more transportable sizes. (The next time you are in a US museum look carefully at the Maya stelae on display. Often one can see the restored saw cuts and also note the thinness of the slab where looters chopped of the back of the monument to reduce the mass.) One should take particular note of the very early carved stone monuments from Kaminaljuyu and sites on the south coast.  They are carved of hard basalt rather than the friable limestone and thus retain high detail in remarkable condition. Also the reproduction, and some real, wooden lintels from pyramid temples in Tikal and elsewhere are remarkable.   I have longed to get into the storerooms of this institution where undoubtedly mountains of incredible pieces are stored.  While surely underfunded (a matter of priorities like everywhere else) the museum should mount small, temporary, thematic exhibitions that are not expensive to produce and feature pieces rarely, if at all, seen. (As should the Field Museum in Chicago.)

The other significant museum of Maya archaeology is the Museo Popul Vuh on the beautiful campus of Marroquin University.  Named after the famed Popul Vuh, the 16th century K’iche Maya account of the creation of the world that miraculously survived centuries of Spanish Christian violence against the Highland Maya and is now safely in the vaults of the Newberry  Library in Chicago, the museum has an impressive collection of Maya artifacts.  The group of post-classic ( 9th – 14th century) funerary urns from the Highlands are remarkable and rarely seen.  (the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has an even more impressive group.)  Interestingly the exhibits open with ceramics from the periphery of the Maya area – El Salvador and Honduras -that are also rarely shown and worth a studied look.  Outside the museum, scattered along hallways and public areas, are impressive stone pieces mostly from Kaminaljuyu.  The cluster of huge abstracted parrot heads that once probably adored a ball court are tucked amid foliage at the entrance. They are quite marvelous.

Immediately adjacent to the Museo Popol Vuh is the Museo Ixchel, dedicated to the weaving arts of the Highland Maya.  For as long as anthropologists and textile enthusiasts have been studying and collecting Guatemalan textiles they have been predicting the imminent demise of the same – now for over a century.  Somehow traditional weaving still survives despite the devastating civil war (the genocide suffered by the Maya was funded and supported by the US and Israel) and the current attempts by the repressive and right wing Opus Dei and Accion Catolica to dismantle Highland Maya culture. This well organized and pro-active museum is well-worth a visit – and financial support.

The last, and newest museum visited was the Museo Miraflores in the western part of the capital. It is a new and modern museum tucked beside a massive and grotesque collection of shopping malls – three in fact with a forth under construction.  All of this sits atop one of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas – or better said – the former archaeological site – for almost all of ancient Kaminaljuyu has been needlessly destroyed by neglect, unregulated development, corruption and apathy.  The importance of this massive site cannot be overstated.  As modern archaeologists attempt to reconstruct the Mesoamerican past including the evolution of writing in ancient America, Kaminaljuyu is an essential key to unraveling this mystery.  Today all that remains of the hundreds of temple mounds, ball courts, palace complexes and sensational stone monuments are a few grass covered mounds poking out of residential areas, one behind a McDonald’s, one smashed up against a shopping mall, and a dusty, neglected couple of acres of mounds belatedly protected by the city.  The destruction is only exceeded by the destruction of thousands of mounds and earthworks in the American (USA) Midwest as at Cahokia (Illinois) and elsewhere.  The museum is modest as are its holdings. Nevertheless I recommend visiting it as it does have some marvelous things and an innovative reconstruction of the site as it once existed showing the overlay of the modern city.  Perhaps the most evocative part of this museum experience is standing atop the manicured ancient mound squished in between the enormous Miraflores Shopping Mall and the rear entrance to the museum.  If one can sufficiently suspend disbelief one can stand where once Maya priests and rulers stood and imagine a gigantic, sprawling city full of traders from the Valley of Mexico with loads of red obsidian from Teotihuacan, merchants from the Pacific coast with cargos of cacao and all the rare marine luxury goods bound for the northern Lowland Maya, bundles of Quetzal feather from the same Lowlands heading north to adorn Teotihuacan nobility – for it seems that ancient Kaminaljuyu was a entrepot of interchange between far-flung centers of civilization.  At times it was under the aegis of Teotihuacan whose powerful influence is easily seen in the superb lithic monuments and architecture.

Vessel Guatemala, Tikal, Structure 5D-Sub-I-1st, Burial 85 50 BC-AD 50  Ceramic with Slip 16.5 x 12 in. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Entologia, Guatemala

Guatemala, Tikal, Structure 5D-Sub-I-1st, Burial 85
50 BC-AD 50
Ceramic with Slip 16.5 x 12 in.
Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Entologia, Guatemala

Guatemala has changed significantly over the forty years that I have been traveling there – as has everywhere else in the world.   It should be a paradise as it has everything- fantastic landscape, ancient ruins, a relatively intact aboriginal culture, rich colonial history and art – and a most genial population.  If it can overcome the scourge of drug trafficking which exists to feed the insatiable appetite of North Americans (us!), the racist attitude towards the Maya people who remain uneducated and disenfranchised, the insidious effect of right-wing Catholicism and Protestant Evangelicals and the Papal injunctions against birth control then it might one day reach its potential.


From → Americas, Ceramics, Maya

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