Though Central and South America are often described familiarly as the United States' back yard, we actually know far less about the pre-Columbian cultures that once flourished there than we do about, say, ancient Egypt.
Perhaps that's why a new long-term exhibition opening today at the Walters Art Museum looks so strange to modern eyes. Titled Art of the Ancient Americas, the exhibit presents more than 100 objects spanning some 3,000 years of pre-Columbian history. The show is made possible by an extraordinary 10-year loan from the Austen-Stokes Ancient Americas Foundation, which owns one of the world's premier collections of ancient American art.
But though much of pre-Columbian art is contemporaneous with the art of ancient Egypt, we have only recently begun to penetrate its mysteries. By contrast, scholars have been reading Egyptian hieroglyphics -- and interpreting Egyptian art -- ever since Napoleon's armies in North Africa stumbled onto the key to translating them with the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799.
It's only been in the last 50 years or so, for example, that scholars have begun to decipher the hieroglyphic writing of the great civilization of the ancient Mayans, who ruled a vast empire stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.
The Mayans built monumental temple complexes and enormous stepped pyramids that rivaled those of Egypt's New Kingdom. They were also skilled stonecarvers, painters and metal-workers who built cities that, at their height, housed as many as 70,000 inhabitants.
Yet it was only last week that, according to a New York Times report, archaeologists finally unraveled the inscriptions on a grand staircase of the Maya pyramid at Dos Pilas in northern Guatemala. The newly translated glyphs revealed that Mayan culture had been riven by protracted warfare between two rival city-states whose conflict may have led to the eclipse of Mayan power well before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century.
Even less is known about earlier civilizations, such as the Olmec, whose capital at Teotihuacan in what is now the Mexican state of Veracruz flourished from about A.D. 350 to 650, or the Andean empires of the Paracas and Nazca cultures, whose weavers, dyers and embroiderers created some of the most technically complex cloths ever made.
Most of the objects in the Walters exhibition are small-scale ceremonial and domestic pieces fashioned for the ruling elite -- ceramic vessels and figurines representing animal deities and dynastic rulers, tomb figures, small statuary related to various fertility cults, stone axes, ceremonial masks and exquisitely wrought gold jewelry.
These works speak of an intricate royal culture that revolved around the figure of the ruler and the nobles, warriors and merchants who supported him. But despite the great number and diversity of such objects, viewers may still find themselves having a hard time imagining what daily life was like for the peoples of these ancient civilizations.
Perhaps that is because, unlike the Egyptians, the civilizations of ancient America have yet to be fully integrated into the historical imagination of the modern world.
Recall that it took nearly a century after the discovery of the Rosetta stone for the art and culture of ancient Egypt to seep into the modern Western mind -- the European craze for "Orientalism" began in late 19th-century painting and sculpture and has continued unabated down to the present day in everything from the "Sheik of Araby" and Camel cigarettes to The Mummy, Scorpion King and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Now that scholars are finally figuring out how to read the written records left by America's ancient civilizations, it may be only a matter of time until they too are incorporated into the voracious multicultural maw of mass culture.
Until then, however, the fierce faces of ancient Olmec masks and the writhing, serpentine figures of the Mayans' cruel animal deities, with their aura of esoteric ritual and human sacrifice, are likely to remain deeply strange to modern sensibilities.
The virtue of the Walters show is that it does not try to explain away ancient America's strangeness. Instead, it simply offers us its mysteries -- and rewards us with the awe and wonder they deserve.
What: "Art of the Ancient Americas"
Where: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Calvert St.
When: Opens today; on permanent exhibit (through 2010).
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 students