Six years ago, Professor Bryan Just and a team of 10 students embarked on a journey to Chiapas, Mexico as part of the seminar course ART 468: The Art and Politics of Ancient Maya Courts. This upcoming spring semester the course will be offered again.
ART 468 is an expansive seminar covering different aspects of ancient Maya courts from the seventh and eighth centuries. The class focuses on the visual culture of the courts and gives students the opportunity to learn about the ancient Maya from their expressions in hieroglyphic texts. Additionally, the curriculum analyzes performance as a way of defining court culture, expanding beyond traditional definitions of art. According to Just, the main focus of the course is to “guide students into a rich and surprisingly nuanced world of visual expression.”
Just is a curator and lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas, and teaches primarily in the Department of Art and Archaeology in the University, although his courses are cross-listed with the program of Latin American studies and anthropology. He said that the inspiration for the curriculum of ART 468 came from his own academic focus and a similar class he took as an undergraduate.
The course material includes a “crash course in another writing system,” Just noted, although there is a specific focus on linguistics. By learning these language skills, students will acquire basic literacy of hieroglyphics before traveling in the spring. In this way, the group will be able to apply their language comprehension to analyze monuments and other artworks while at the site.
Just says that a significant portion of the class will be taught next to the storage area for the Princeton Art Museum collections. In previous years, Just would bring out objects relating to the day’s lecture so that students could directly engage with original works of art.
While the classroom lectures require an in-depth research of the subject matter, the spring break trip to Chiapas allows students to experience the scale of the architecture in person and become even more engaged with the rich past of the ancient Maya. According to Just, interaction with the environment is especially important in understanding the course material. A crucial part of ART 468 is Mayan mythology and explanations of culture in relation to the rainforest ecosystem.
Throughout the course of a week, the group will visit archaeological sites such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, Plan de Ayutla, and Lacanja. Trips will also be made to museums, the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and Tzotzil Maya communities. The itinerary includes time for recreational activities such as a traditional Maya cooking class, whitewater rafting, and waterfall excursions.
Zoë Saunders '10 took the course in the spring of her junior year. The trip had lasting impressions on Saunders, as she noted that, “it made the ancient past come alive and developing a stronger relationship with the material.” As an art and archaeology major, she was able to include research from the course into her later research. In fact, she noted that her master’s thesis at Oxford utilized information from Just’s class in a cross-cultural comparison of Chinese and Mesoamerican usage of jade.
Just says that one of his favorite memories from the 2010 trip was gazing at the stars at a campground in the Lacandon rainforest.
“We saw it in such a different way than we do here, because of the isolation, and being able to talk about how the Mayans saw the sky and the constellations they perceived was pretty amazing,” he said.
This coming spring promises similar experiences, but with a new set of diverse perspectives and research from the team of students selected for the course.