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May / June 2003

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Before Columbus

Photo courtesy of Hudson Museum

Before Columbus
UMaine's world-renowned collection of Maya artifacts provides clues about one of the most complex civilizations in the ancient world


Artifacts from the William P. Palmer III Collection
A sample of Maya artifacts hints at the scope of the Hudson Museum's Precolumbian collection.

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Long before Columbus encountered the New World and the Spanish conquered Mexico, Maya civilization thrived in Central America.

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 courts.

In the Classic Period, A.D. 250–900, 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 1965–70 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 language.

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
May-June, 2003

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