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Smithsonian Associates - Entertaining, Informative, Eclectic, Insightful

The Maya: Ancient Splendors, Modern Legacies

Weekend All-Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, August 14, 2021 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2148
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Painted bas relief in Palenque (Photo: George Scheper)

The Maya, Aztec, and Inka are the best-known of ancient American civilizations. The Aztec and the Inka flourished late in the pre-Columbian era on the eve of Spanish contact, but the Maya arose as a distinct civilization more than 2,000 years ago, and the Maya are still very much with us today, living in their southern Mexican and Central American homelands, as well as in the United States, and elsewhere in diaspora.

During the Classic period, from about 300 to 900 A.D., the Maya had a fully developed writing system, partly hieroglyphic and partly phonetic. The famous breaking of the Mayan code in the late 20th century revolutionized the study of these peoples and of ancient America generally. Humanities scholar George Scheper examines how interdisciplinary study of the Maya extends beyond traditional archaeological studies to comprise political and social history, art, comparative religion, and ecology

9:30–10:45 a.m.  Romancing the Maya

The Maya have become a fixture of popular culture through museum exhibits, tourism, television documentaries and films, New Age spirituality, and the Mayan calendar doomsday myth of 2012. Scheper offers an anthropological look at modern romanticized versions of Mayan culture, contrasting them with what systematic study has revealed, especially in light of new scientific techniques applied to Maya archaeology.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  The Dawn of the Maya

Fanciful speculations aside, the origins of Maya civilization reveal a cultural evolution from a well-established foundation laid down by older Mesoamerican cultures, notably the Olmec. Identifying the rich Maya culture of this early period (c. 1000 B.C.–250 A.D.) as "pre-Classic" may give the misleading impression that there was something preliminary or unfulfilled about it. But this was a fully developed cultural moment, which, after it had its day, was followed by what is known as Classic Maya civilization.

12:15–1:15 p.m.  Break

1:15–2:30 p.m.  Splendors of the Classic Maya

Classic Maya civilization flowered in the form of the rise and eventual fall of a network of interconnected city-states, each with its own storied dynasties of ruling elites and court culture. The relations among these city-states ran the gamut from rivals to allies and from subordinates to enemies. Their interactions involved trade, warfare, treaties, diplomacy, royal marriages, and civic and religious ceremonies. Scheper reviews the period focusing on the histories of the city-states of Copan, Tikal, and Palenque, and the mythic narratives of the 16th-century Maya epic, the Popol Vuh.

2:45–4 p.m.  The Maya in Modern History and Today

The Spanish conquest of the Maya over the 16th and 17th centuries was not a singular decisive event, and it could be argued that it was not a conquest at all, as Maya survivalism ensured the continuity of the culture to the present time. Modern Maya history is a story of colonization and resistance, and of cultural revivals striving to maintain a place in an increasingly globalized world culture and economy. Today’s folk cultures in Guatemala, Yucatan, and Chiapas reflect a fascinating blend of Christian religion and Maya traditionalist practices.

Scheper is a senior lecturer in Johns Hopkins University’s advanced academic programs and a former director of the Odyssey Lifelong Learning Program.

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This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.