This year's Slade Lectures: 'A Thing Of Wonder: The Hand-held Object Of The Ancient Maya'Joe hunt

Deep in a green jungle of cedar, mahogany and sapodilla trees, in the heart of Chiapas, Mexico, the majestic Temple of Inscriptions bestrides the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. The temple is a gem of Mesoamerican architecture, a pyramidal structure with nine levels symbolising Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

Its hieroglyphic inscriptions recount the remarkable life of the man who built it, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, the polymath ruler of Palenque, who died in 683AD. Pakal’s tomb was only discovered in 1952: after climbing the steep pyramid face and entering the temple precinct, Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier broke the seal around an unassuming limestone slab. Behind was a hidden staircase leading into the building’s core. Another slab revealed a further flight of steps descending to the crypt. The sarcophagus in its musty interior showed Pakal falling into Xibalba, ‘the place of fear’, through the jaws of a giant serpent. Pakal’s corpse wears a jade mask and bead necklaces, and holds a jade cube and sphere, the meaning of which eludes us.

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the ancient Maya, a pre-Columbian people whose civilisation flourished in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador around 4th-16th centuries CE. New discoveries, however, are creating constant excitement in the field. Professor Mary Miller has come from the Americas to share them with Cambridge. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Dean of Yale College until 2014, Miller holds this year’s Slade Professorship of Fine Art. The chair was founded by the art collector Felix Slade (1788-1868). The visiting Slade Professor, an international leader in his or her field, is elected every year. Miller’s predecessors include artist, art critic and member of the Bloomsbury Group Roger Fry; Sir Ernst Gombrich, author of the seminal primer The Story of Art (1950); and Anthony Blunt, director of the Courtauld Institute, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures and Soviet spy of the notorious Cambridge Five. In short, the Slade Professors are the titans of art history.

Holders of the Professorship give eight lectures and four seminars for students. Miller’s rich offering is “A Thing Of Wonder: The Hand-held Object Of The Ancient Maya,” which she will unravel each Monday at 5pm in Mill Lane Lecture Room 3. She promises titillation, revulsion and whacky New Age theories. Erich von Däniken believes the Temple was the work of an ancient extraterrestrial. Now is your chance to ask the eminent Professor Miller if she agrees.

The Slade Lectures are held every Monday until 9th March.

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