SALT LAKE CITY — When ancient Maya stonecutters crafted tall pillars and engraved them with glyphs and images of divine figures, they did so at the requests of kings who wanted to assert their authority and power.
Centuries later, Utahns will have the chance to experience the mystery and majesty of the stelae themselves when they come face to face with life-size replicas at the Natural History Museum of Utah’s latest exhibit, "Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed," which opens Saturday.
"It’s an amazing, immersive introduction to the culture of the ancient Maya," said Lisa Thompson, the museum's exhibit developer. "It also does a really good job of explaining how we know what we know about the Maya."
The exhibit originated at the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2013 and has been on the road since 2014, making stops in Denver, Austin and San Diego, among other cities across the country. It took four years for it to finally land in Salt Lake City, which will be the final city to host the exhibit in its entirety, according to Bill Maloney, who helped develop the exhibit.
Maloney said it was the scientific innovations of the Maya that first caught the museum’s eye — things like their study of the cosmos as well as their approach to math.
"There were many scientific aspects of the Maya that we thought were very interesting," Maloney said. "They had very advanced concepts in math, including the concept of the number zero, which apparently no other culture had (so) early in history."
"Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed" features more than 250 artifacts that come from every walk of ancient Maya life: figurines with religious significance, writing and art utensils, pottery, jewelry and woven tapestries. In some cases, the artifacts sit next to replicas housed in recreations of the environments where the originals were discovered, such as the dimly lit tomb of an ancient king.
But the exhibit packs more than just artifacts. The Maya were masters of creation, building massive pyramids and structures — all without the invention of the wheel. A major focus of "Hidden Worlds" is to peel back the mysteries behind the Mayans' feats.
"This is a time of great learning and knowledge about who these people were," Maloney said of recent discoveries. "It’s just a culture that some misunderstand … They were a sophisticated society."
The exhibit relies on modern technology to bring the ancient sciences of the Maya to life. Stations with interactive touch screens explain the process behind Maya writing, for example. Other interactive elements allow patrons to simulate tooth drilling — a tradition of the ancient Maya who would sometimes decorated their teeth with jade pieces.
And the artifacts on display, as well as the interactive activities, go beyond simply educating Utahns. Sharing the history and culture of the ancient Maya brings attention to the fact that the Maya people still exist today — something many often forget or don’t realize.
"It connects the ancient Maya to living Maya people today," Thompson said. "There are seven million Maya people living in Mexico and Central America today who are the cultural descendants of the Ancient Maya."
Belizean archaeologist Antonio Beardall of the National Institute of Culture and History helped bring the exhibit to life. He said sharing Maya history is also sharing Belizean history.
"(These pieces) tell a great story (about) a part of our history that is sometimes taken for granted," he said. "Usually when I ask kids in schools, 'When did the history of Belize begin?' they begin yelling, 'The day of our independence' … I tell them, 'People were living here for thousands of years before … Maya history is actually when Belizean history began.'"
At the press event Thursday, three sisters from the Cooperative de Hermanas Maya Lu’um of Chiapas, Mexico — who will be at the exhibit’s opening on Saturday — demonstrated the use of traditional Maya looms, stressing the importance of preserving the Maya culture.
"We are trying to show everyone that this is a living Maya tradition," Maria Elena Gomez-Sanchez said through a translator. "This is a Maya tradition that we’ve been carrying for hundreds of years."
"For me, as a Maya woman, it’s important … that future generations can save these traditions that our ancestors left us," Maria Josefina Sanchez added in Spanish. "It’s important to me so that it doesn’t all disappear."
Beardall said that reclaiming the Maya identity is at the heart of the exhibit’s purpose. One section of the exhibit features interviews with modern Maya who have come to accept and celebrate their heritage when they didn’t feel like they could in the past.Comment on this story
"We want to give them back a strong sense of who they are," he said. "We try to give them back that sense of cultural identity. … To learn the language once again, to learn how to do the food again, to dress the same way again. It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening."
If you go …
What: “¡Celebracion! A Tapestry of Culture“
When: Saturday, Nov. 10, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Where: Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way
How much: $7.95 - $12.95