Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World premieres at the ROM on November 19

Dramatic journey through the mysterious Maya world showcases recently discovered, never-before-seen artifacts and riveting videos

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) premieres Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World on Saturday, November 19, 2011. On display in the ROM’s Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall until Monday, April 9, 2012, this original exhibition vibrantly brings to life the Classic Period (250 - 900 CE) of this ancient Mesoamerican culture.

The exhibition is an international collaboration between the ROM, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC). Nearly 250 artifacts have been assembled, including large sculptures, ceramics, masks, and jewellery, to illuminate the relationships between the Maya ruling class and the balance of its society. The objects also reveal numerous aspects of Maya life, which, until the end of the 19th century, had been shrouded in mystery. Maya city states, palace life, and rituals and beliefs, including a timely look at what they thought would occur in the year 2012, are all examined in the exhibition.

Most of the exhibition’s objects have been selected from numerous Mexican museums in the Yucatan Peninsula region where the Maya mainly live, while others are of the ROM’s own renowned holdings. Prominent institutions, including the British Museum, Princeton University Art Museum, and Toronto’s own Gardiner Museum have also loaned artifacts. Most of the showcased objects have never before been seen in Canada, and many, some only recently excavated, are recognized as among the most significant archaeological finds of the Maya civilization.

Janet Carding, the ROM’s Director and CEO, states, “This ancient culture, one of astonishing achievement. has long held deep fascination and its allure persists to this day. The more we learn of the Maya, the more our admiration grows. In collaboration with our partners, the CMC and INAH, the ROM is pleased to present a collection of notable artifacts conveying the Maya story, one that is evolving to the present day.”

Dr. Justin Jennings, Curator of New World Archaeology in the ROM’s World Cultures department and the ROM’s exhibition curator, says, “Our inclusion of recently excavated artifacts from the famed city centre, Palenque, is particularly exciting. Some of these have never before been publicly displayed, not even in Mexico. Others rarely travel; among these are two exquisitely carved stone doorway lintels, loaned by the British Museum, vividly depicting the blood sacrifices performed by Maya nobles.”


Widespread interest in the ancient Maya world first occurred in the mid-19th century with the discovery of foliage-clad temples and sculptures among extensive ruins at several sites in Mexico and Central America. Since then, archaeologists have unravelled numerous mysteries and resolved many questions regarding the Maya, even as more take their place. The first Maya villages are known to have been settled by approximately 1000 BCE, with sites growing in both size and intricacy as their populations increased. By 500 BCE, the Maya world was populated by the elaborate pyramids, intricate tombs, and other spectacular architecture so closely associated today with the ancient culture.

The Maya’s important artistic and intellectual achievements reached their height during its Classic Period (250 – 900 CE). During that time, Maya society was organized around rulers at cities such as Calakmul, Tikal, Copan and Palenque. Unlike other ancient civilizations such as the Aztec, the Maya civilization was never an “empire” united by a single governing body. Instead, numerous independent city states, sharing comparable traits, beliefs, and practices were all considered Maya. Spread across expansive areas, these sites were in constant conflict with one another. While the cities’ rulers ensured that many monuments were built in their honour, temples, plazas, and palaces were often built for the purpose of enticing groups of people such as farmers, traders, and artisans to inhabit or visit the city centres. Many reasons accounted for the people’s support of Classic Maya centres; the most likely explanation being the population’s core belief that the rulers performed duties essential for life.

Near the beginning of the ninth century, the people’s confidence in the rulers began to wane, with the total collapse of Classic Maya society occurring over nearly two centuries. Sparked by overpopulation, increasing warfare, environmental degradation and drought, the definitive end of Maya royalty was likely fuelled by a crisis of faith: an increasingly desperate people no longer believed that their rulers were linked to the divine. However, significant traits of Maya culture remain and are seen in contemporary Maya communities. The languages spoken, the ritual calendar followed, and their striking profiles, are among the characteristics linking today’s Maya to their ancient ancestors.


The exhibition takes a thematic approach through seven distinct sections: The Maya World, The City, Cosmology and Ritual, Writing and Timekeeping, The Palace, Death, and Collapse and Survival. Each area fully immerses the visitor in the Maya environment through significant artifacts and effective presentation techniques that dramatically recreate the environment in which the Maya lived. Shot on location in Mexico, numerous ROM-produced videos expand on integral themes including the deciphering of hieroglyphs; the Classic Maya cosmos; and the persistent mysteries surrounding the Maya Calendar Countdown to 2012.

Following a dramatic Introduction, The Maya World explores the manners in which the people lived, farmed and hunted. It also establishes that the Maya succeeded so well for so long by working with, rather than against, their often challenging environment, using a wide variety of techniques to sustain the population. The Maya are encountered through a number of objects including a collection of evocative stucco human heads, as well as a number of remarkable artifacts depicting the region’s animals. A charming lidded bowl with a duck’s head, and a ceramic whistle shaped as a bird, convey the respect accorded animals in Maya society.

Palenque, the renowned Maya city centre is highlighted in The City, making use of a touchable scale model, maps, photos, city site plans, murals, and a video on the archaeology at Palenque and its recent excavation by INAH’s exhibition curator Martha Cuevas García. The main traits of a typical Maya city are examined here, including a palace, temple-pyramids, tombs, public spaces, as are activities such as trade, warfare (and sacrifice), recreation, and fashion. Objects here include a whimsical ballplayer and the haunting figure of a captive—bringing into focus the Maya's goal of capturing an opponent in warfare. The section also highlights an important ancient Maya commodity: chocolate. Maya elite drank a wide variety of fermented maize-based drinks, augmented by chocolate (cacao) during festivals. Dated to 600 – 900 CE is a ceramic lid on which a quirky spider monkey sits, jealously guarding the prized cacao seeds that were likely contained in the long-gone pot.

Cosmology and Ritual highlights that ritual activities permeated all areas of Maya life. Most cosmological forces, significant earthly events, and religious rites were tied to deities, to time, and to celestial movements through the Maya calendar. Many rituals were reserved for monarchs, linking them to the gods, relationships indispensable to societal survival. Some of these rituals involved blood-letting, a form of auto-sacrifice to better commune with ancestors. Among the objects displayed in this section are large, striking incense burners, or censers, adorned with representations of ancestral and divine persons.

Writing and Timekeeping illustrates that, while the Maya did not invent writing or the calendar, they advanced these disciplines to high levels of sophistication. Most inscriptions on objects and monuments glorified rulers, commemorating significant events in their lives. A video highlights that nearly 80% of the Maya’s approximately 900 known signs have been deciphered, to date. This section includes a spotlight on the Maya calendar and the enduring 2012 end of days legend.

Courtly Life continues to explore the complex royal lifestyle of the Classic Maya elite. The rituals of courtly life are vividly depicted in scenes painted on ceramics, providing a rich source of information on Maya daily life. A beautifully decorated bowl, dated to 600 – 900 CE, portrays a person drinking at a banquet. Celebrating events such as births, marriages, deaths, harvests, and diplomatic alliances, these feasts showcased their organizers’ powers. This section demonstrates the Maya rulers’ constant engaging in rituals to justify their dominant roles in society and establish their relationships with gods and ancestors. Imposing limestone panels, dated to 600-900 CE, clearly illustrate these associations, combining the past and present, the dead and living, and the natural and supernatural.

In Death and Burial, a tomb-like atmosphere pervades. This section highlights the mid-20th century revelation that many Maya pyramid-temples were actually tombs. As in many ancient cultures, Maya elite were buried with goods meant as offerings to assist them on their journey into the afterlife. Discovered in these royal burials, these extraordinary artifacts underscore the Maya belief that, for the chosen few, death initiated a new phase of existence. Section highlights include a funerary mask, made of jade, shell, and obsidian, depicting a Palenque queen.

In Collapse and Survival, a broken altar and a shattered hieroglyphic panel are both poignant reminders of the once-flourishing culture. A limestone stela from Toniná displays the last-known Long Count date. By the end of the ninth century, many Maya cities were in rapid decline and the tradition of Long Count dating abruptly stopped. This stela’s eroded front depicts the city’s last ruler, while the glyphs on its back read or January 15, 909 CE. Soon after, Toniná’s royal dynasty fell, its palaces and temples abandoned. Other objects showcased include a stunning pedestal jar, unearthed in 1974 by ROM curator David Pendergast at the site of Lamanai, Belize. The object is adorned by an effigy combining features of K’awiil, the god of royalty, and Chaahk, the Rain God. Excavated from a pit associated with a man’s burial, this jar, found in pieces, has been meticulously restored by museum conservators.

The exhibition concludes with a positive message: while the Spanish Conquest had a shattering impact on the Maya, the culture has managed to preserve their language, land, and culture ever since. Today, modern Maya number approximately ten million, found in present-day Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The Maya, once again, are a vigorous culture, inspired by their ancestors’ great achievements.


Throughout the exhibition, the story of the Maya story is dramatically conveyed by numerous ROM-produced audio-visual installations. Shot on location in Mexico by a ROM team and featuring ROM curator Dr. Justin Jennings, as well as INAH curators, the installations expand on a number of the exhibition’s themes, including the deciphering of hieroglyphs; the Classic Maya cosmos; and the ongoing mysteries surrounding the Maya Calendar Countdown to 2012.

In the exhibition, the whole family will enjoy discovering the Family Adventure Trail. Maya-themed activities abound during ROM for the Holidays, this year taking place from December 27, 2011 through January 6, 2012. From Friday January 6 at 5:00pm to 10:00am the following day, ROM Sleepover: Maya provides the ultimate exhibition backstage pass. Additional family programming is to be announced.

Associated public programs accompany the exhibition prior to, and throughout its engagement. A series of lectures delivered by leading authorities explores many aspects of Maya society, including its political organization, its Royal Court, its rise and fall, and, of course, the Maya end of days mystery of 2012. Under the auspices of the William Thorsell Forum, the exhibition’s sold out lead lecture, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is delivered by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jared Diamond on November 1. A presentation of the Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC), the sixth annual Eva Holtby Lecture on Contemporary Culture, Carlos Fuentes on Contemporary Mexico, takes place on Monday, November 14 at 7:00pm. Fuentes is one of the Spanish-speaking world's most renowned novelists and essayists.

In its commitment to accessibility for all visitors, the ROM has developed an Accessibility Strategy outlining its promise to remove barriers to participation for visitors with disabilities. Throughout the exhibition, several enhancements will be encountered including touchable objects and captioned videos. For specific questions or concerns, call 416.586.8000 prior to visiting. For those who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, Bell Relay Service can be reached by dialing 711 or 1.800.855.0511.

ROM Members already know that the best way to experience the Museum is through Membership and its numerous benefits. The Maya Member Preview takes place on Friday, November 18. For additional information or to purchase a membership, call 416.586.5700 or visit

The exhibition’s special boutique will feature souvenirs, including the official exhibition guide, home décor, and jewellery, with a selection of these wares also carried in the ROM Museum Store. Both family-friendly Food Studio café and the elegant c5 Restaurant Lounge will feature Maya-inspired fare and the popular Green Gastronomy series will feature exciting menus created by visiting local and international chefs.

Weekday exhibition tours will be led by docents of the ROM’s Department of Museum Volunteers (DMV), with French tours scheduled twice a month. Spanish and private tours are available with prior arrangement. The DMV's ROMtravel offers Maya Civilization: Then and Now, a unique adventure departing on January 27 through February 9, 2012, led by ROM curator Dr. Justin Jennings. ROMtravelers will be entranced by the fascinating architecture, spectacular archaeological treasures, unmatched natural vistas, and regional delicacies as they explore lively towns in Tikal, Palenque, Campeche, among others. More details are available at or 416.586.8034.

Timed tickets to the exhibition are available at 30-minute intervals. Groups of 20 or more may call ROM Group Sales at 416.586.5801 (ext 2) or email for information on special rates, private lectures, guided tours and themed menus. School groups should visit or call ROM Education at 416.586.5801 (ext 1) for information on school visits.

Visit for full exhibition details.

This exhibition is co-produced by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) in collaboration with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (CONACULTA-INAH).