UMaine's world-renowned collection of Maya artifacts provides clues
about one of the most complex civilizations in the ancient world
the William P. Palmer III Collection
A sample of Maya artifacts hints at the scope of the Hudson Museum's
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Long before Columbus encountered the
New World and the Spanish conquered Mexico, Maya civilization thrived in
Archaeologists define Mesoamerica, which includes El Mundo Maya, or The
Maya World, as part or all of the countries of Guatemala, Nicaragua, El
Salvador, Belize, Honduras and Mexico. It is a diverse geographic area
with common cultural traits: agrarian economy with maize as a primary
crop; leadership by priests and elites; religious worship involving
human and animal sacrifice; architecture that included pyramids and ball
In the Classic Period, A.D. 250900, the Maya had one of the most
sophisticated civilizations in the ancient world, exhibiting such
advancements as writing, mathematics, astronomy, a series of calendars,
sculpture and ceramics, and the concept of the number zero.
They created urban centers with temples, palaces and halls; hierarchical
social and political systems; and complex trade networks. Competitive
ball games, considered to be the first team sports in human history, had
elements similar to soccer, but were usually reenactments of warfare,
with the losers often put to death.
Many aspects of Maya life are depicted in Precolumbian hieroglyphs and
art. Today, some of the finest of those Mesoamerican artifacts are found
at the University of Maine's Hudson Museum, the only museum in the state
to showcase non-Western material culture. The museum helps foster
understanding of world cultures a particularly important focus in a
post-Sept. 11 world.
The artifacts are part of the museum's 8,000 ethnographic and
archaeological objects representing traditional cultures from different
geographic locations and periods.
The world-class assemblage of more than 2,800 Precolumbian ceramics,
lithics (stone carvings) and goldwork dating from 1500 B.C. to the
Spanish Conquest are part of the William P. Palmer III Collection in the
museum, located in the Maine Center for the Arts. The premier collection
was donated to UMaine in 1982 at the bequest of Palmer, a resident of
Falmouth Foreside, Maine.
The UMaine alumnus purchased the artifacts from 196570 from art
dealers. Like all collections of the Hudson Museum, the Palmer
Collection is in compliance with antiquities laws.
"Most museum collections pick only the finest (artifacts) and thereby
limit our understanding of who the artists were who made them.
Fortunately, Mr. Palmer collected figurines of all qualities, thereby
showing archaeologists that lots of different people not just a few
elite artisans were making these objects 2,000 years ago," notes
physical anthropologist Robert Pickering, a Hudson Museum visiting
research associate, and deputy director of collections and education at
Wyoming's Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
Pickering is among several internationally recognized scholars who use
the collection. He is researching nondestructive methods of
authenticating West Mexican tomb figures.
In the United States, UMaine has the largest institutional collection of
West Mexican tomb figures sculptures buried in shafts with the dead
dating from 300 B.C.A.D. 200. The 550 tomb figures depict many
subjects, such as a mother holding a child, musicians blowing panpipes
and a warrior with a horned headdress. Also in the collection are 1,150
solid ceramic figurines that were used in household rituals.
Maya polychrome (multicolored) and incised vases from the highland sites
of Nebaj and Chamα in Guatemala depict scenes of the Underworld and
aspects of palace life; glyph panels offer clues for deciphering Maya
Since 1998, the Palmer Collection has been the foundation for the Hudson
Museum's nationwide traveling exhibits, including Worldviews: Maya
Ceramics from the Palmer Collection and Images for Eternity: West
Mexican Tomb Figures. A permanent installation based on the collection
is Realms of Blood and Jade: Prehispanic Mesoamerica.
In the past decade, public awareness of the Palmer Collection has grown
exponentially. The Precolumbian artifacts are unique educational and
cultural resources, annually attracting thousands of visitors of all
ages to the Hudson Museum.
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.