Although it has long since vanished, evidences of its existence establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Maya civilization was among the most sophisticated and powerful of all early cultures. The Maya first made their appearance around 2000 BC, and ultimately occupied an area of more than 125,000 square miles in what is now Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. They built cities which were filled with towering pyramids, temples, palaces, shrines, and plazas, and were connected by paved causeways and roads. They developed a system of mathematics incorporating the zero. Their astronomers charted the movements of the sun, moon, and Venus, worked out tables for predicting lunar eclipses, devised a highly accurate calendar, and preserved all this information in remarkably sophisticated records.
Most outstanding of all, however, was their accomplishment in art. Their early polychrome ceramic vessels rivaled the finest pottery of the ancient world; their temples and palaces were decorated with powerfully designed murals and studded with gigantic stone monuments and ornate bas-reliefs; and their wood carvings, basketry, and textiles indicate that their artisans achieved a very high level of craftsmanship.
All this and a great deal more is brought dramatically to life in ``Maya: Treasures of an Ancient Civilization,'' currently on view at the American Museum of Natural History here. This first truly comprehensive exhibition of Maya art was organized by the Albuquerque Museum, and it will embark on a national tour after closing here. Among its roughly 275 items are artifacts made of gold, jade, wood, and shell, as well as works in various media including stone, ceramics, and metal. Other displays examine the Maya's achievements in astronomy, mathematics, calendrics, hieroglyphic writing, and architecture.
The exhibition is divided into five sections. The first introduces the visitor to the Maya region of Mexico and Central America; the second examines the development of Maya culture from its agrarian beginnings to its emergence as an elitist society; the third concentrates on the ``Golden Age'' of Maya Civilization; the fourth focuses on the survival of Maya culture in the north; and the fifth examines the ramifications of looting and the destruction of archeological sites.
The show's contents and intelligent display techniques make it a rare and rewarding viewing experience, and something of an eye-opener to those who perhaps aren't aware of the sensitivity and wit with which the Maya occasionally approached the creation of art. After its closing at the American Museum of Natural History on July 28, this excellent exhibition travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Aug. 27-Nov. 3); the Dallas Museum of Art (Dec. 15-Feb. 16, 1986); the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (March 22-June 15, 1986); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (July 19-Sept. 7, 1986); the Albuquerque Museum (Nov. 16, 1986-Feb. 8, 1987).