When archaeologists present the obscure complexities of their research, they rarely get a marketing boost as big as the end of the world as we know it.

Upon entering "Maya 2012: Lords of Time" at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, visitors are confronted with a wall jammed with monitors blaring news stories and pop-culture movie clips related to an apocalypse believed to be coming this year.

That belief is based on a misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar, which ends its 5,125 year cycle Dec. 23.

"This is fantastically exciting material, in a fantastically challenging story," said museum director Richard Hodges. "Enjoy the story. But, actually, really savor the material."

The expansive gallery behind that video wall is filled with Mayan artifacts which Penn researchers have been digging up in Honduras, Mexico, San Salvador, and Guatemala for the last century. They include art, architecture, manuscripts, jewelry and statuary representing various Mayan gods and demigod kings.

Many of the artifacts come from recent digs in Copan, what had been a major Mayan city in the classical era, roughly between the years 400 and 900. During that time the kings -- the Lords of Time of the title -- were believed to be in communion with the past and future, well beyond the human lifespan.

The Mayans had at least three interlocking calendars, a 260-day cycle representing gestation and harvest; a 365-day system representing the cycles of the sun; and a long-count system extending over thousands of years. The current long count, the bahk'tun, began in 3114 B.C. and ends on Dec.23, 2012. It is the last of a 13-calendar cycle extending trillions of years.

"Mayans loved intricacies and numerologies, they were keen observers of the natural sky and celestial phenomenon," said curator Loa Traxler. "They had a love for interlocking mechanisms and observation, and it all comes to fruition in these amazingly complex calendar systems."

The calendars will baffle many viewers. Even through an animated video using step-by-step instruction, the calendars are difficult to grasp.

For example, their days are numbered one through 20 (the Mayans had a 20-based numerical system) while rotating through 13 day names. That asymmetrical rhythm was embedded inside a 260-day year, which cycled in concert with a concurrent 365-day year.

The exhibition features some objects never seen publicly before, including hieroglyphics and stone carvings as intricate and complex as Mayan perspectives on the order of the universe.

The exhibit opens May 5 and continues through Jan.13, 2013.


Photos by Emma Lee