MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, a new look at the ancient Maya. Arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown reports.
JEFFREY BROWN: A well-dressed singer, a ballplayer in heavy padding, an old man pursuing a younger woman. Perhaps American culture hasn't changed as much as we like to think, for this is American culture of the 8th century, when Mayan civilization flourished in Mexico and Central America. "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya," an exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art, shows us the Mayan high life, a world that is both refined and raucous, blissful and very bloody. Mary Miller, a Yale professor, is one of the curators.
MARY MILLER: A lot of what is shown going on at court is about having a good time and that those who live there live really high on the food chain. It's the dwarfs and the musicians and the hunchbacks and the advisors. The women; the way we see the whole retinue at court. And that's really what we are trying to show in this exhibition.
JEFFREY BROWN: Some 60 Maya city-states have been slow to give up their secrets. They were built between 200 and 800 A.D. in the thick jungles of what is today parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Often fighting one another, each was a separate kingdom. This is Pakal The Great, who ruled the city of Palenque for 68 years. Hieroglyphs helped scholars learn some of the story, this one tells of three prisoners captured on Aug. 22, 783. The writing on this stone tells us of the dedication of a ball court in 591. The Mayan ballgame, said to be a mix of soccer and basketball, was played with a heavy ball and much padding and sometimes for very high stakes.
MARY MILLER: They must have played it as a sand-lot sport, but it's also clear that it is played at the heart of religious narrative and it's played for the highest stakes of all, which is human sacrifice.
JEFFREY BROWN: The losers...
MARY MILLER: The losers...
JEFFREY BROWN: ...could be sacrificed?
MARY MILLER: The losers could be sacrificed.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Maya had an elaborate mythology. At its heart was the maize god.
MARY MILLER: Annually, he grows, he flourishes, and then, loop, they harvest him, they cut off his head, plant him, then he comes back to life-- so this idea of regeneration.
JEFFREY BROWN: The maize god also figures in what a fashion magazine today might call the Mayan "look" and the art that captures it.
MARY MILLER: The Maya physical ideal, with these long, beautiful, and large tapering noses, the lightly tapered and not really pointy, but a long tapering forehead, and the model in all this is really the maize god. You know, you want to look like an ear of corn.
JEFFREY BROWN: Three stone lintels from the city of Yaxchilan are a highlight of the exhibition. They were panels over a doorway and haven't been seen together for more than a millennium. Commissioned in the 8th century by a powerful woman named Lady Xok, wife of a king called "Shield Jaguar," they tell a tale that begins with an unusual blood offering to the gods.
MARY MILLER: If you look at the first one, you can see that she's taking a rope studded with thorns and running it right through her tongue. There's a basket where she kneels, and in it are strips of paper that have dark spots on them, her very blood.
JEFFREY BROWN: On the second panel, Lady Xok calls on her ancestors to aid her husband.
MARY MILLER: We see the paper burning. We see curls, stylized serpents of smoke coming up from the bowl, and out of the mouth from the big serpent is an ancestor of hers. We know that she does this on the occasion of her own husband becoming king. And what do we see on the third lintel? But we see her now dressing her husband, "Shield Jaguar." We know that he has famous conquests all throughout the region, and she's handing him a jaguar helmet.
JEFFREY BROWN: This was a warrior culture, and scenes of battle and captives are everywhere.
JEFFREY BROWN: So war was a constant in Mayan life.
MARY MILLER: Well, we certainly see war as a steady feature of the eighth century.
JEFFREY BROWN: Miller has studied the murals found in a temple in a city of Bonampak. Recreated under her direction for the exhibition, they depict a bloody conflict from the end of the eighth century. It's all really hand to hand warfare we're talking about -- spears everywhere.
MARY MILLER: Oh, yeah, and trumpets being blown.
JEFFREY BROWN: Down here he's, like, strangling and holding a man.
MARY MILLER: Well, we see them ganging up two or three on a single individual, and that's in order to be able to capture them without really harming them.
JEFFREY BROWN: The taking of prisoners, says Miller, was of great importance in Mayan courts. The murals here show them being displayed and tortured.
MARY MILLER: He's either pulling off the fingernails, sticking something underneath the finger, or he is actually trimming those last little digits off the little joint of the digit off.
JEFFREY BROWN: Either way, the blood is splurt -- the blood is spurting.
MARY MILLER: And you can see it's arterial. Blood is spurting from this victim. The rest of these captives now, in fact, their bodies are in a state of collapse.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is the portrait of victory. This is the victors displaying their captives.
MARY MILLER: This is absolute triumph.
JEFFREY BROWN: But Maya civilization did not triumph in the end. Scholars point to possible reasons: Exhaustion from wars, drought, over use of limited natural resources. But no one knows exactly why by around 900 A.D. the great Maya cities were abandoned and reclaimed by tropical forests. Only in recent years have we been able to appreciate the full legacy left behind, says Beatriz de la Fuente, one of Mexico's leading Maya scholars.
BEATRIZ DE LA FUENTE, National Autonomous University of Mexico: It's part of the heritage of the art of the world, not only of us Mexicans or Central Americans, but a part of the American heritage and part of the world heritage, which is showing us different facets that have been forgotten or not known for more than five centuries.
JEFFREY BROWN: In these powerful, playful and often beautiful images, Maya artists portrayed a people from a rich American life of the past.
MARGARET WARNER: The Mayan exhibit will be at the National Gallery until July 25. It moves to San Francisco's fine arts museum in September.