A few weeks back, however, there was a half-off sale at the very charming Open Books (a used book vendor on the outer fringes of “my neighborhood” which is a fund-raising vehicle for a number of very worthy literacy programs), and I treated myself (and my daughters) to a few books. One of these was Michael D. Coe's authoritative The Maya, here in the “fully revised” Fourth Edition. While I had read other books by Coe, I'd somehow missed this one, and it was a treat to pick it up.
First of all, it is lavishly illustrated, with few pages not sporting some photo, chart, map, illustration, or hieroglyphic reproduction to bring home the points of the text. While I have both read a lot on the subject, and traveled extensively in the Yucatan, visiting many of the sites covered here (and spent many days at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, where much of the art, pottery, and carvings is housed), I was frequently amazed at some of the material that was unfamiliar to me (such as Stela D from Quiriguá Guatemala, which is huge at nearly 20' tall!) depicted here.
The book is largely structured chronologically, going from the earliest pre-civilized traces in the region, on up through the Conquest, when the glory years of Mayan culture were long gone, but the people still persevered (a condition that could well be argued is still the situation today in various parts of Mexico). One thing to note here is that Coe disciplines himself to really only be considering the Maya, cultures such as the Olmecs, while arguably the seed of Mayan (and other) cultures, are only dealt here to the extent that specific objects, words, and concepts found their way into the Mayan world. Similarly, the Toltec influence is only covered in terms of its influence, rather than as a separate group. One thing that I found fascinating here (and had not heard in numerous trips there), is a theory that the true seed of Mayan culture came from the Teotihuacan culture, suggesting a closer relation between the Mayan and Toltec cultures than just a later-period conquest of the former by the latter. One of the fascinating things in The Maya is the use of maps to detail linguistic/cultural zones, political/cultural alignments, and migration/invasion routes for numerous groups in the area. Some of these seem, on the surface quite odd and unlikely, but do seem to be supported by both concrete and linguistic artifacts.
The closing section of the book is also interesting as it tries to frame “the world view” of the Maya, from their theology to cosmology, and their astronomy, number system, calendars, writing, etc. In the current anticipation (thanks to Arguelles and McKenna) of the “end of the Mayan calendar” in 2012 (although it's not “ending” any more than the western calendar “ended” in Y2K), there was a rather juicy bit here that I'm surprised that's not been snatched up by the alarmists (especially in relation to recent world geological events) … that the “fifth age” (our current one) is prophesied to be destroyed by earthquakes!
Anyway, this is a splendid book for learning about the Maya people and their culture, for both readers quite familiar with the subject, and ones who are just starting to become familiar with it. As noted, the copy I have here is the Fourth edition (from 1987), I see that the one currently in print is the Seventh edition (from 2005). The 4th is available from the new/used guys for very little, but if you're interested, you should probably go for the newer edition, as the field of Mayan studies has been going through very rapid growth over the past decades (especially in being able to read the glyphs), and so the later versions are likely far more useful read!