A vision of the vanished

Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens
November 24, 2000

Recent decipherments have revolutionised Maya studies.

A classic work does two things. It causes the reader to return again and again, for fresh and useful insights; and, to an unbecoming degree, it inspires envy. By definition, a classic prompts reviewers to wish that they had written this book or that article - but somehow, sadly, they missed out, lacking the time and talent to do so. This book on the Maya by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, although published only in October this year, already belongs to that lofty category, an instant classic, recognisable to specialists as an innovative contribution and to general readers as a gripping account of a vanished world.

The Classic Maya are among the most appealing of ancient peoples. Their ruined and now partly restored cities lie a short jump by jet from the United States, accessible to all who wish to savour both antiquity and the beaches of CancNon.

A more subtle appeal comes from the blending of strangeness, familiarity and paradox in their art and writing. The Classic Maya, who flourished between AD250 and AD850 in and near the Yucat n peninsula in southeastern Mexico and northern Central America, lived in settlements with gigantic public architecture. Yet these communities arose in tropical ecological zones that, to some scholars, do not seem especially hospitable to dense population.

Classic Maya art shows sensitive handling of human bodies and details of clothing, alongside - from an occidental perspective - a truly brutal delight in torture and the humiliation of war captives. If art is a mirror of the soul, then Maya sculpture and painting, properly understood, trouble and provoke at the same time as they evoke a more familiar milieu of kingly life. Strange and sometimes repellent, the Classic Maya are, perhaps, not too far from the glittering life and poisonous ambition of rulers and courtiers at Versailles, the Escorial, Hradčany, and Hampton Court.

A persuasive historical account of dynastic succession and intrigue among the Classic Maya could not have been written before now, nor could many other people but these two authors have penned it. Over the past decade, new decipherments have prised open many of the secrets of Mayan writing in a cascade. Martin and Grube were there at the outset, with chisel and crowbar, to decode many crucial glyphs. With this breathtaking synthesis, they construct a comprehensive history of individual dynasties, city by city, and their relations to one another, through war and alliance, from the early, enigmatic texts of the Classic period, to the latest, often pathetic scrawlings found at sites like Tonina and Calakmul. Martin, the lone British epigrapher working in the Maya area, brings his artistic gifts to the layout and conceptualisation of the book, Grube his authoritative control over Maya history and philology. Both have clearly become "past masters" in the literal sense, by sifting dozens of inscriptions and images, some known for centuries, others noted only within the last year. The inclusion of their volume in an established series on Chinese emperors, Russian tsars, popes and other figures of power and pomp may mislead the reader. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens presents an unprecedented compilation, while I doubt that its companion volumes identified new pontiffs or Holy Roman emperors.

The work of historical synthesis by Martin and Grube builds on sturdy foundations, patched up here and there by more robust decipherments. The scholar who inaugurated the historical approach in Maya studies, the late Tatiana Proskouriakoff, prepared a similar volume, issued posthumously. For all its acuity, her monograph failed to keep abreast of recent work and it stood less as an opening to further investigation than as a coda to a distinguished career. The framework devised by Martin and Grube returns cautiously and appropriately to an earlier trend in Maya studies that saw overarching political arrangements.

In the 1980s I was part of a counter-movement that sought to deepen understandings of local history by examining individual dynasties. Studies emphasising large-scale "states" seemed only poorly grounded in the minutiae of Maya inscriptions. By 1990, with the discovery of texts sketching the singular prominence of the large city of Calakmul, those small-scale formulations began to weaken. Something was missing; our histories did not coalesce with any coherence. A few Maya specialists had detected statements of "overlordship". They wondered aloud how the rulers of Tikal could possibly correspond to petty kings at smaller sites like Itz n, little more than an elevated palace and small pyramid complex. According to the small-kingdom perspective, the titles used by the kings of Tikal and Itz n indicated identical status: in modern terms, Bill Clinton would equate to Prince Hans-Adam of Liechtenstein. Both served as heads of state, yet, it appeared, showed entirely different reach and influence.

By contrast, Martin and Grube, little by little, have reconstructed a hegemonic view of Classic history that balanced local dynasties, an abiding component of the political fabric, against the twin poles of Calakmul and Tikal, large cities in the heartland of the Yucatán peninsula. The diagram published on page 21, evidently inspired by the map of the London Tube, takes the reader on a journey not to Hammersmith, but across a landscape configured by "overkingship" and dominated by these two large cities of the Classic Maya. Martin and Grube correctly note that the economic meaning of these diagrams and the flow of tribute along their networks of hierarchy, diplomacy and conflict remain opaque. They also point out that these hegemonies could not be "consolidated into more stable entities", for many disintegrated well before the Maya collapse. Elsewhere, Martin has suggested that the organisation of palaces, rare at many cities but abundant at the metropoles of Tikal and Calakmul, implies a different mode of organisation, a concentration of noble palaces, second homes for magnates at court or housing for an incipient bureaucracy. But why did these great dynasties not embrace larger areas? Why did they, in contrast to the Aztecs, neglect to penetrate other ethnic groups and ecological zones? The answers to these questions will reveal a good deal about the Maya body politic and the nature of its dynastic strategems. The fact remains: even in inclusive, hegemonic terms, the largest Maya state embraced a territory slightly smaller than the Republic of Ireland.

For this reason, Martin and Grube express regret at those who misunderstand their findings by speaking of "mega-states" or "empires". The reality of Classic Maya politics and its patterns of dominion and subordination was more historically fluid than that.

Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens offers more than an academic argument. It supplies a rich feast of images and charts that live up to the high standard set by other Thames and Hudson publications, and so seldom met on this side of the Atlantic. Most kings have portraits, moving testimony to their physical presence in the buildings illustrated here in informative "laser-cuts", and reconstruction views. The bibliography is full and accurate. Through endnotes, the more adventurous reader can launch into the daunting details of Maya epigraphy and archaeology, among the fastest moving and most competitive branches of archaeology.

As a critic charged with this review, I have looked hard for something to fault and challenge. But I would not change a word or picture. This is a rare book that can surprise and enlighten the professional at the same moment it guides the beginner into the intricacies of the Maya royal chronicle. It will surely find its way onto every Mayanist's shelf of favourite books. My hope is that it also opens the eyes and hearts of a more general public to the exotic, historical treasury of the Classic Maya.

Stephen Houston is professor of anthropology, Brigham Young University, Utah, United States.

Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya

Author - Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube
ISBN - 0 500 05 1038
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £19.95
Pages - 240

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