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 Inca 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. 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 Maya are still very much with us today, living in Central America, the United States, and elsewhere.
The famous breaking of the Mayan code in the late 20th century revolutionized the study of these peoples and of ancient America. Humanities scholar George Scheper examines how interdisciplinary study of the Maya extends beyond the traditional archaeological focus 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 Mayan archaeology.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. The Dawn of the Maya
Fanciful speculations aside, the origins of Mayan civilization reveal a cultural evolution from a well-established foundation laid down by older Mesoamerican cultures, notably the Olmec. Identifying the rich Mayan culture that developed about 2,000 years ago as Preclassic gives the misleading impression that there was something preliminary or unfulfilled about it. But it was a fully developed cultural moment, which was followed by what is known as Classic Maya civilization.
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:45 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, and civic and religious ceremonies. Scheper reviews the period through the histories of the city-states Copan, Tikal, and Palenque and the mythic narratives of the 16th-century Mayan book, Popol Vuh.
3–4:15 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 Mayan survivalism ensured the continuity of the culture to the present time. Modern Mayan 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 Western Christian elements and Mayan 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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