The ancient Maya left behind evidence of a sophisticated and complex culture. Using cycles of the moon, sun, and planets, they were able to develop accurate calendar systems. More than a thousand years ago, they used unique hieroglyphic writing to carve important dates, names of their rulers, and ceremonial events on stone monuments in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Photo by Stacy Keck.

The huge Maya monuments, or stelae, displayed in the Rotunda Gallery are casts of the original monuments in Quirigua, a site in Guatemala. The casts were made for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and have been on display since then, except during World War II, when the Navy turned the Museum into a hospital. Today these casts are studied by researchers tracing the history of the Maya through their hieroglyphic writing. The casts are in better condition than the original monuments, which have suffered some weathering and erosion since the casts were made.

The current exhibition includes archaeological discoveries highlighting the creativity and beliefs of the ancient Maya: masks, bowls, figurines, etc. Also on display is a 42-foot-wide mural of a rainforest set in the time after the Maya Classic Period (250–900 CE), after which the great ceremonial centers became overgrown by the jungle. In the center of the mural is the lofty ceiba tree, the sacred model for the Maya cosmos. Brilliant birds and animals such as quetzals and jaguars, are represented, as well as elements from many Maya sites.

Countless San Diegans, tourists, scholars, and students have been awed by the skill and artistry of the ancient Maya. A frequent misconception is that the Maya no longer exist. Not so—more than seven million descendants continue to carry on many of the traditions and cultural traits of their ancestors through weaving, woodcarving, and ceramics. The Museum’s conservation of the monumental casts offers us a way to present the Maya as a cultural continuum.