"Fiery Pool" is a revelatory exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum that reinterprets the significance of water in Maya art and civilization.
Pointing to strange figures carved in a limestone panel, Professor Stephen Houston began translating the ancient tale of a Maya king whose journey to the sea had been forgotten for 13 centuries.
"Nahb ahk peten. Yohl ahk," read the Brown University professor of archaeology. "It says the king traveled, or made a pilgrimage, to 'three turtle island in the heart of the turtle."'
Houston's deciphering of complex glyphs provided crucial insights for "Fiery Pool," a revelatory exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum that reinterprets the significance of water in Maya art and civilization.
Co-organized by Houston and Daniel Finamore, PEM curator of Maritime Art and History, it provides an extraordinary window into Maya culture.
Comprising objects loaned by eight countries and five Mexican museums, this exhibit showcases 90 fascinating and often recently excavated artworks, including sculptures, murals, ceramic vessels and glyph-covered stele which Mayans called "tree stones."
Visitors will see singular art featuring their panoply of fierce deities, sculpted panels depicting bloodletting rituals and a 15-century-old ceramic dish decorated with a band of swirling water and images of an aquatic serpent and other sea creatures.
It includes interactive stations that let visitors learn about some of the 800 glyphs of the Maya writing system. And there is an imposing cast, perhaps 10 feet tall, of the facade of a temple in Belize featuring three superimposed masks depicting Water Lily Serpent.
Subtitled "The Maya and the Mythic Sea," it runs through July 18. The exhibit will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the St. Louis Art Museum.
As a result of a "fresh decipherment of Maya writing," Houston said "Fiery Pool" contains rare objects and advances new ideas that will "take us into a remote and distant reality."
In a catalog accompanying the show, he and Finamore jointly wrote the exhibit's title comes from the Maya concept of "K'ahk' Nahb," the "fiery pool" the life-giving sun made as it rose from the Caribbean and set in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We discovered Mayans thought about the sea ceaselessly," said Houston, a 2008 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
Situated in what is now southern Mexico and parts of present day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, Maya civilization flourished from 300 to 900 and continued through the arrival of Spanish conquistadors until today.
PEM Executive Director and CEO Dan L. Monroe called "Fiery Pool" an "extraordinary exhibit that provides a groundbreaking perspective of Mayan art and culture."
But who wants to see a 1,200-year-old figurine of Jaguar God riding a turtle or a carved door lintel showing a bloodletting ritual? Who'd enjoy learning about a writing system called hieroglyphs that looks a bit like ancient Egyptian except it's got lists of kings with names like "Torch-Sky-Turtle" and exact dates when they lived, fought and died?
Didn't Mel Gibson cover it in "Apocalypto" which had great chases and a Mayan hottie?
The answer is simple: "Fiery Pool" is for anyone with a spark of curiosity about art of extraordinary craft and beauty, a complex society with a writing system, calendar and math and astronomical systems and one of the greatest mysteries of contemporary archaeology.
And about Gibson's movies: stick to "Mad Max" and "Braveheart."
Finamore said "seeds (for the exhibit) were planted four years and 11 months ago" when Houston wrote in an e-mail, "The Mayans were obsessed with water."
"The sluice gates were opened. We made exploratory trips through Mexico and Central America asking probing questions," said Finamore, who worked in Mayan archaeology at the start of his career. "We consulted with Maya specialists, sharing with them our theory that the sea and water were actually central to Maya, even those who lived far inland. Many artistic motifs called this out but no one recognized it before."
Incorporating a new understanding of Mayan hieroglyphs, Finamore said the initial concept for the show broadened into a reassessment of the basic elements of its art, theology and cosmography.
"The show had been elevated from a traditional maritime exhibit into a reassessment of the Mayan world-view," he said.
The exhibit is organized into four thematic sections: "Water and Cosmos"; "Creatures of the Fiery Pool"; "Navigating the Cosmos"; and "Birth to Rebirth."
Leading an opening-day tour, Finamore said numerous objects reflect the Maya belief "water was a force that had to be controlled, propitiated, conjured with, reasoned with."
He said ancient Mayans believed water was the primordial element and envisioned their world as "turtle island" floating atop the sea, its curved shell representing their fields and forests.
After the tour, Houston used the limestone panel from Guatemala to explain how a new king, whose name remains unknown, ascended the throne on Dec. 9, 685, under a cloud that threatened his legitimacy.
Only recovered in 1980 and never exhibited before in the United States, it bears eight double columns of glyphs meant to be read top to bottom and from left to right.
Houston compared glyphs to Japanese characters since some elements convey its meaning while others determine pronunciation.
While some parts elude translation, the panel recounts a "king's pilgrimage to the sea" that, Houston said, when read aloud sounds "like poetry, like song."
Was the arduous trek an actual pilgrimage to the sea to buttress his claim to kingship? Since Mayans believed the sea contained both "spiritual and corporal realms," did the nameless king make a "metaphoric journey" into "the heart of the turtle" that holds the key to further mysteries to be revealed.
The Peabody Essex Museum is at East India Square, Salem. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and Monday holidays. It is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
General museum admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and $11 for students; children 16 and younger and Salem residents are admitted free.
Additional admission to the 200-year-old Yin Yu Tang House, brought intact from rural China to the museum, costs $5 in addition to museum admission. Members, youth 16 and under and Salem residents enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang.
A catalog, "Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea," has color photographs and informative essays. It is for sale in the PEM gift shop.
Several special events are being offered in conjunction with the exhibit. They include:
Saturday, May 22 and Sunday, May 23: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Weekend Festival for "Fiery Pool" featuring weavers, dancers, puppet masters, hieroglyphic experts and artists illuminate Maya culture of Mexico and Guatemala.
Thursday, July 8: "Beer & Chocolate equals Food of the Gods." Members, $75; non-members, $85. Make reservations by July 1.
For more information and to take a virtual tour of the Yin Yu Tang house, visit www.pem.org or call 866-745-1876.