It’s 2012 — time to get to know Mayan culture

The whimsical lid of this piece that dates to 600-900 CE probably depicts a spider monkey wearing a collar of cacao pods. Sitting upon a now-lost jar, the monkey jealously guarded the cacao seeds that the vessel likely held. (©CONACULTA.-INAH.-MEX. Jorge Vertiz)

Story by Matilda Miranda

They sat around, eating chocolate while watching ballgames. They sound like your regular couch potatoes, but these were the ancient Mayan people.

It’s hard to believe the classic Mayans — who many believe predicted the end of the world — were regular folks just like us.

Fresh off its appearance at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World exhibit arrived at the Canadian Museum of Civilization on May 18 and will run until October 28. To promote the film Mystery of the Maya and its theme, a stylized Maya pyramid-temple was erected outdoors on the Museum’s Plaza containing several exhibits. These include  a reproduction of the sarcophagus of the priest-king Pacal and a scale model of a Maya settlement, used in the making of the IMAX film.

As this is the showcase exhibition for the summer, the Museum of Civilization is hoping to draw around 140,000 visitors.

Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon, the in-house curator of the exhibition, says it’s a major achievement for the museum to present this collection of magnificent Maya artifacts during such an important year as 2012.

“Much has been attributed to the ancient Maya including alleged predictions of the end of times in December of 2012,” says Pilon. “Visitors of this exhibition will be provided with much-needed facts about ancient Maya civilization. These will allow them to better understand some of the basic structuring elements of their civilization, which included several ways of reckoning time. Most importantly, they will learn that the Maya perceived time in cycles such that when one ends, another immediately began.”

Visitors will feel a little overwhelmed by the artifacts. Large stone-carved faces stare down at you, as you slowly make your way around. Almost all of them are elaborately carved, right down to their headpieces and earrings. The same goes for the jade and shell jewelry that is so beautiful, it’s no wonder you can still find Mayan-inspired earrings and necklaces in stores today.

While many visitors will spend time observing these lovely finds, even more are clamouring around the Mayan calendar countdown clock that ticks ever closer to December.

Dr. Justin Jennings of the Royal Ontario Museum, who was co-curator of Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World during its previous stop, says people’s fascination with the Maya is nothing new — it’s just been growing more because December 2012 is just around the corner.

“Basically, it’s from the 1970s when a lot of new-age ideas about astrology and astronomy were being born. It’s always had the sense of well I’ve got an idea about the stars and ancient knowledge. People get excited about it so they’ve been really pushing it since,” he said.


When you look closely at their time-keeping techniques, you can’t help but see that it’s closely related to our yearly cycle. Jennings says the ancient Mayan would be shocked if they knew we thought they predicted the world’s end.

“It turned out to be that 2012 wasn’t a really big deal to them. It was the end of one of their calendar cycles; it wasn’t the end of time,” he said. “The ancient Mayan we’re talking about — those were the folks who were using 2012 as part of their conventional cycles — they would be shocked. This was just like me and you celebrating on December 31 and January 1. We have a little party, maybe we’ll feel a little bad about what we did the last year, but it’s not the end.”

It’s not hard to imagine that some people will be disappointed with this revelation — there are people out there with a bizarre fascination to witness the earth blow up into a million little pieces. Dispelling this myth, as this exhibit does, comes with an upside beyond assuring us there will indeed be a 2013. You can put the long-count calendar aside and look at the Mayans’ other accomplishments, from their cities (small-scale replicas showcase the greatness of their civilization) to their advanced weapons.

One of the things that will probably shock you the most is that the Maya still survive to this day. The Maya (now 15 million strong) live in Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and many other Latin American countries. They speak Maya languages and you can view great footage about them.

When you think about it, it makes sense that they didn’t “die off.” We have to remember that the cities fell into ruin, not the people. Jennings says people know about the Maya culture, but not the Maya collapse.

“The Maya collapse was the end of Maya cities. It’s if people left Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. It would be quite a change, but it wouldn’t mean the end of Canadians,” Jennings said. “People did leave those cities. They did change some ideas about politics, economics and even religion, but they’re still here.”

If you have the slightest interest in the Mayan people or want to know about the Mayan collapse or the long-count calendar and its significance to 2012, this exhibit is for you. It’s interactive, engaging and sure to raise your admiration for the ancient Maya culture.

Contact: Telephone: 1-800-555-5621; TTY for people with hearing disabilities: 1-819- 776-7003
Main address: 100 Laurier Street, Gatineau Quebec
Hours: May 1 to October 8, 2012
Monday to Wednesday: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Thursday: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (in July and August: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Saturday and Sunday: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Exception: July 1, Canada Day, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Adult $12, Seniors and Student $10, Child 3-12 $10, Families 5 – max. 2 adults, $30.
Click here for a full admission information:

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Vicky is the worldly publisher of Having graduated from McGill University in Montreal, she has set about building a talented team of travel experts to deliver to you words and images of the very best places to see and experience in Canada. Based in Yorkville in Toronto, Vicky regularly jet sets around Canada — be sure to catch up with her when she's in your part of the country.

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