BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Framing the Mayan culture ...

I was very excited to “win” this from the “Early Reviewer” program. “Archaeological travel” had been a passion of mine in my 20's and 30's, and I was fortunate to be able to visit a good number of sites around the world. The Mayan sites in the Yucatan were especially attractive, largely due to their proximity (a fairly easy flight to either Merida or Cancun), and I tried to get down that way at least once a year for a while there. Needless to say, I have quite a number of books on Mayan subjects in my library (a major factor in how the “almighty algorithm” of the LTER program decides who gets what book), and I would have been rather put out had I not been selected to review this.

However, Cities of the Maya in Seven Epochs, 1250 B.C. to A.D. 1903, by Steve Glassman and Armando Anaya, is a bit of an odd bird, as it were. The authors are both college professors, one from the U.S. And one from Campeche, but they set out to produce a book that “would give an overview without getting lost in detail” for a non-specialist reader. Glassman elaborates:
Almost all good books on the Maya are written by archaeologists (or Maya art historians). They know what they are talking about. The bad news is that archaeologists, almost without exception, write for other archaeologists. So, unless you are already versed in the topic, such as a graduate student of Mesoamerican (Middle American) archaeology or art history, it is virtually impossible to understand what the authors are saying. The book in your hands meets the needs of those with an interest in the Maya, but who have not yet developed a professional interest in the topic.
I guess I should be flattered, as I'd never felt that it was “impossible to understand” what the authors of other books were saying, but I'd hardly say I have “developed a professional interest” in the Maya! Anyway, this goal on their part leaves the book out in something of a no-mans-land in terms of tone, more in-depth than what one might find in a popular magazine article or travel guide sidebar, but seemingly skittish when “in danger” of being too detailed.

The concept of the book is quite fascinating, however … taking one city to represent a particular phase of Mayan (or pre-Mayan) culture and looking at that city from various perspectives, cultural, political, economic, and, of course, archaeological. One thing that really stood out, “conspicuous in its absence” were the typical wealth of graphics … over 222 pages there were only sixty, of which 30% were maps, and while one graphic every four pages certainly qualifies as “illustrated”, it's nowhere near what one usually sees in a book on Mayan ruins (plus, a significant chunk of the images presented were from INAH, the Mexican Government's “Anthropology and History” oversight organization, or even snapped from museum signs). I don't know if they were trying to avoid too much “art history” or “archaeology”, but the dearth of author-originated images was hard to not notice.

Anyway, here's what's covered:

  1. The Proto-Maya Olmec Cities of San Lorenzo and La Venta, 1250-400 B.C.: If Not the Mother Culture, and Undisputed Similar Cuture.

  2. The Mirador Basin in Times Long Gone, 1000 B.C. - A.D. 150

  3. Tikal, the Eternal City, Early Classic, A.D. 250-550

  4. Calakmul and the Snakehead Dynasty, a Maya Superpower

  5. The Tale of Two Cities, Concluded, A.D. 695-869

  6. Terminal Classic in the Yucatan, A.D. 800-1000

  7. Mayapan, Tayasal, and Chan Santa Cruz

Obviously, in each of these “epochs” the information that's available is different. In the earlier chapters, there's pretty much just the archaeological record, when in later chapters, other sources are available. One of the more “less technical” aspects of the book is the biographical sketches spun out for various of the “discoverers” of ruin sites (I did not know that Charles Lindbergh had been a pioneer in aerial scanning for ruins, for instance), as well as background on a few Conquistadors whose fortunes were tied to those of assorted Maya cities. This was probably the “most valuable” information here (for me at least), as much of the discussions of the sites was more conjectural as to how they “might have been” when they were in their prime as opposed to heavy-duty analysis of the ruins.

Another fascinating bit is the events covered in the last part of the book. As you can see from the list above, there's no dating for the final chapter, but the sub-title indicates the span covered goes to A.D. 1903. This last section covers the time from the “post-Classical” Mayan world, through the invasion of the Spanish, and up into the revolution and temporary independence of the Yucatan in the mid-1800s. I had read a little about this latter phase, but nowhere near in as much detail as is presented here. Obviously, the authors believe that this was the most recent (final?) phase of Maya culture.

I would be interested to hear how somebody not particularly well-read on the subject of the Maya reacts to this book. To me, in trying to be non-technical, it also loses focus and is not for any particular audience (as one would think that somebody just discovering the Maya would want lots more pictures than are in play here). Cities of the Maya in Seven Epochs, 1250 B.C. to A.D. 1903 is also very steeply priced at $38.00 for an average length, no color plates, trade paperback. This is so expensive that I had to question whether this is being produced in typical press runs, or if it's coming out from a print-on-demand source. The on-line sources have this at full retail, and I'm wondering what sort of in-store distribution it's managed given the combination of factors noted here.

I enjoyed reading this, but I have hard time recommending it, especially at 3x what similar books might be going for. It's an “interesting” approach, with some very useful material, but unless you're a “Maya aficionado” (the very audience they were trying to not write for), I can't imagine this is something that you'd be happy with. “Your mileage may vary” (and it's certainly not a bad book), but it's sort of a book without an audience from where I sit.

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Tags: book review

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