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Mayan exhibit celebrates calendar cycle and royal jade

Published: Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 9:26 a.m. CST

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — If you’ve outlived the apocalypse and still are interested in Mayan culture, drop in on a new exhibit about the Mayans in Washington.

Using the beginning of the 14th bak’tun, the new cycle of the Long Count calendar, as a hook, the “Heavenly Jade of the Maya” exhibit at the Inter-American Development Bank is small in space but rich in culture.

The artifacts are from the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City, and it’s the first time they’ve been on display outside Guatemala. The relics, largely done in jade and created for both the living and dead, were the possessions of royalty.

Debra Corrie, the manager of the Inter-American Development Bank art collection, says, “Jade was more valuable at that time than gold or other minerals, the most treasured object.”

It might take years to carve and polish even a small piece of jade. The elaborately carved, palm-sized green jade piece from a royal diadem would have taken much longer.

“Only the king and queen had access to the jade. It was the most precious stone and material that the culture had at that time,” said Soledad Guerra, exhibitions coordinator. There were “rivalries, or worse, between the different tribes, and the symbol of victory was the more jade they could collect from others.”

Necklaces include those made of jaguar teeth, jade and polished agate, and delicately pierced white-seashell skulls.

There are two large displays. One is small figurines found in a tomb that dates to A.D. 600-800. Each distinctly carved clay figure serves as part of the dead man’s court. Next to the deceased king, a deer spirit guide stands alertly. A hunchbacked scribe stands ready to take notes. Boxers, complete with removable headgear, stand ready to entertain the king.

The “World Tree” exhibit hangs nearby. Four large reconstructed jars hang at the cardinal points of north, south, east and west above a pile of polished jade pieces. In the center of the polished jade, a corn plant — vastly important in Mesoamerican culture — would have been planted.

Despite the long history of the Mayans, Corrie noted that they’re far from a dead culture. “Mayans live on in five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize,” and many more Mayans live around the world.

The bank has posted a new documentary, “Mayas, The Flight Through Time” on its website, at http://bit.ly/WxhjJz.

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