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The Maya at the British Museum

I’ve been on another of my Archaeological Study Days with Andante Travels. This time it was behind the scenes at the British Museum, learning about the Mayan civilisation of the Yucatan peninsular, straddling today’s Mexico, Belize and Guatamala. It’s a civilisation I’ve been interested in ever since Christopher and I honeymooned in Mexico over 20 years ago and visited a number of fascinating Mayan archeological sites. I remember that many of the ruins were deep in the jungle, with tall pyramids just peeking above the tree-tops, and clearly lots more to be discovered still covered with vegetation. Since then, there has been huge progress in deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs, so much more is understood about the rulers and their preoccupations.

The day started in a meeting room in a hotel near Russell Square tube station. There was meant to be a total of 17 guests, but three were no-shows, probably due to the horrendous chaos caused by the Southern train strike that day. (I’d gone down the night before to stay with my parents, who fortunately are on a suburban rail line operated by another train company, so I wasn’t directly affected by the strike). Our first talk in the morning was from one of Andante’s guest lecturers, who has quite literally “written the book” on the Mayans. He was very knowledgeable, and gave us a galloping ride through the discovery and excavation of a number of Mayan sites by antiquarians in the 19th century, counterpointed with new information from recent excavations and new epigraphic analysis of the hieroglyphic texts. We then had a second lecture from a Research Fellow at the British Museum, a specialist in Central America, who covered one of the sites in more detail before telling us about a new project she is working on with Google to digitise many of the excavation records and photographs to provide wider access to some of the more obscure parts of the museum collections.

Lunch was a huge selection of mezes at a Greek restaurant literally just around the corner from the British Museum. It was absolutely delicious – I do love mezes, and the food reminded me of several good meals that I’ve had on holiday in Greece, particularly in Thessaloniki a few Christmases ago

After lunch we went “behind the scenes” at the British Museum, to the Anthropology Library somewhere in the basement. A couple of large tables had been reserved for us, and the lecturer had skipped half of lunch in order to pull together a selection of interesting books, maps, and artefacts from the Library’s collection. There were original (and very rare) volumes of photographs and drawings from the early explorers we had learned about in the morning, which we were invited to browse through, as well as a selection of ceramics, obsidian and granite tools, and textiles. Even better, one of the other staff members brought out a box of exquisite carved jade objects from the Mayan civilisation, which we were encouraged to handle, though he did watch us like a hawk to make sure we put the artefacts back! We were also given a sneak preview of the 3D immersive app that Google is funding, allowing us to “virtually teleport” to one of the archeological sites.

We then were taken on a guided tour of the Mayan collection in the British Museum. There’s only a couple of rooms (well, one main room and a staircase really) but it’s very good stuff. Some of it is original artefacts, donated to the BM by the early explorers, and some is plaster casts, made by those same explorers over 100 years ago, of stone carvings the originals of which are now sadly weathered away. 

All in all, it was a very interesting day, and I learned a lot.