“This is an account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence, all motionless, quiet and empty was the expanse of the sky. Turbulence ensues, and the world and its living inhabitants emerge from the emptiness.”
These words are translated from the famous ‘Popol Vuh’ inscription which is in K’iche, a Mayan language found in Higher Guatemala. They refer to the history and mythology of the Mayans.
This is but one priceless treasure of the wonderful Mayan Collection in the British Museum. The Museum has been collaborating with Google Arts and Culture to digitalise the entire collection; the past in all its astonishing glory meets the latest technology of today.
Mayan cities in South Mexico and Northern Central America have long been abandoned and lost, but many Mayan descendants live on, their culture having survived centuries of Spanish cruelty and colonisation. Paintings show the proud beauty of their women with their colourful patterned dresses and jewellery. (Frederick Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Collection).
Early Mayan settlements appeared in 1800 BC. Buildings of limestone and sandstone have been found in South Mexico and Higher Guatemala. Mayan El Mirador was one of the largest cities in the world at that time. The ruins of Tikal and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan are popular with tourists. The latter has a ruined observatory and a temple of Kukulkan. A familiar feature of Mayan cities were the high stepped pyramids used for religious ceremonies. They also had irrigation systems and cut through the jungles with raised roads. The Mayans traded and exchanged cultural ideas.
Their society was hierarchical; Kings ruled with divine right and there was a small noble class. The rest were writers, musicians and workers.
The Mayans were the only people who had writing in the early Americas, but only a few Mayan scripts remain. They are most important, because they are the only pre- Columbian, Mesoamerican scripts which have been fully deciphered.Their language is unique consisting of glyphs which are representative of image and sound, known as logograms and syllograms. They mostly appear on stelai, lintels and ceramics. They have all been digitised. The computers can cope!
The Mayans were very sophisticated. They understood Mathematics, having a vigesimal number system, based on 20. Their mathematical work was very precise and they used it for Astronomy to watch the heavens which really interested them. They were advanced in their studies, observing the movements of the planets, the stars and the sun and they succeeded in charting the passage of the sun and almost measured the solar year and the length of the lunar months accurately. The British Museum houses the ‘Long Count’ Calendar stela from Quirigua which numbers the days from the creation; invaluable for chronology. The Mayans wrote books called “codices”, but they only survive from later times. e.g., the “Dresden Codex” in the British Museum.
The Museum has a fine collection of Mayan masks, which are still used in ceremonies today, and are used by the Mayan Lords to impersonate their gods; The Museum is fortunate in having the ‘Olmec Mask’ made of hard serpentine rock.
A very important part of the Mayan Heritage treasures in the British Museum are the casts of monuments, stelai and scientific documents relating to excavations in Mayan cities. They are in the Alfred Maudslay collection. He was a 19th Century explorer and collector who took many photographs. The casts have a special value because they often outlive the original monument.Serious preservation work has been carried out on the casts. The Google Programme shows how the laborious and meticulous conservation work is done. Many tools are needed with preparations and chemicals. The casts have metal dowels and the plaster cracks around them. Salt efflorescence is damaging and leaves the cast pitted so much detail is lost.
Digitalisation has brought the Mayan story to life. Google Arts and Culture has a dedicated page with exhibits online. It also has Google Street View Tours which take the viewer to Guatemala to view the original sites and provenance of the objects. They use Google cardboard to visit Quirigua and Tikal, the UNESCO World Heritage sites of two Mayan cities.
Many glass plate photographs taken by Alfred Maudslay have been digitalised together with his diaries. Several casts scanned in 3D and scholars can adjust distance and lighting to obtain a perfect view. Gone are the days of hunting in dusty stacks of libraries for material and finding another student had taken it!
This project, a collaboration by the British Museum with Google Arts and Culture gives the world a new understanding of Mayan culture and their great cities.The Mayan cities are no longer lost. They are safe from the damaging wear and tear of the years and the flight of the ages in Cyberspace!