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Book Review


Foster, Lynn V. Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). 402 pp, $19.95.

     Lynn V. Foster's Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World is a comprehensive introductory guide to the ancient Maya. The intended audience of the work is students, though the work is accessible enough to provide a good introduction to the Maya to any educated reader. The work would best be put to use as a supplement in undergraduate course on the Maya, though it may appeal to others who wish to be better versed in Mayan culture or to incorporate Mesoamerica into introductory course lectures in history or archeology. New discoveries by archeologists and Mayanists continue to advance the field, such that one has to pay constant attention in order to stay current. The last few years have seen a number of good textbooks on the Maya including the sixth edition of the standard classic The Ancient Maya, in its current incarnation written by Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler. The Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World uses a thematic approach that examines various aspects of life for the Maya rather than a historically linear approach. Works such as these are essential components of world history as undergraduate programs increasingly shift from western civilization offerings to world civilization selections. This work offers an introduction to one of the most dynamic ancient civilizations in the western hemisphere that rivaled those of the Europe and Asia. At the same time this work offers key links between the civilization of the Maya and the whole of Mesoamerica, particularly the Aztec.

     The first chapter provides an introduction and deals with methodology and evidence thereby providing the reader with a familiarity with the both the Mayan world and archeological evidence. The second chapter is the largest in the text and covers the entirety of Mayan history from its early origins to the present. This is the keystone chapter of the work as it traces the changing nature of Mayan society, economics, art and thought, which subsequent chapters will build upon in greater detail. The third chapter provides an exploration of the geography of the Mayan world before contact with Europe, demonstrating the wide variety of environments in which Maya culture operated. The chapter also reveals the manners in which the environment changed overtime, with the growth of Mayan cities resulting in massive deforestation and larger irrigation projects, which altered swamps in the lowlands. In addition, the chapter provides an alphabetical list of major Mayan cities with brief descriptions. This list is of greater use in encyclopedic searches than as part of the narrative, but it comes in handy as one encounters place names.

     The fourth chapter traces the development of Mayan society and government from small tribal chiefdoms to larger political units. Given the ambiguous nature of archeological evidence it is difficult to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt the exact level of political complexity within Mayan cities, but it seems clear that before the classic period that Mayan society evolved to a point where large city states ruled their regions. These city-states had tripartite divisions with an elite class that extended well beyond the ruler and his family. Under this elite, which made up some ten percent of the population, was a larger class of low level officials, merchants, soldiers, and lesser priests as well as artisans who passed skills down through their families, and below them an even larger class of commoners: farmers, workers, servants and slaves. The Mayan city-states never developed a dominant cross-city political structure and as a result city-states were in a constant state of flux with confederations and alliances shifting over time. Rather than evolving into even greater political units, it appears that fragmentation was actually far more the rule as time went on. By the time of the late post classic period it is possible that rulers in some states had become far more limited and that they had to share power with local elites. Some northern Mayan cities may even have become Aztec dependencies.

     Given the absence of a uniform political order, warfare was an aspect of Mayan daily life between city-states, and this is examined in the fifth chapter. The first Mayan rulers were warriors, though as states evolved politically it is likely that while rulers remained commanders and garbed themselves in military fashion, they probably did not participate directly in battle. Instead, armies began to be led by a series of officers with elite members dedicated to the practice of war and administrators of major cities at the top. In addition, Mayan rulers and elites could also recruit from common citizens as well as mercenary soldiers from other cities. The Maya fought wars and engaged in raids for ritual reasons to capture sacrificial victims, but increasingly students of Mesoamerica have begun to argue that most wars were fought for material reasons: to gain control of territory and commercial routes and also to destroy their commercial or political rivals. The chapter also comprehensively examines the manner in which the Mayans fought, their weapons, wardrobes and tactics as well as the religious basis for wars.

     In the sixth chapter, Kaylee Spencer-Ahrens and Linnea H. Wren introduce Mayan religion, cosmology and art. The chapter explains the three realms of the Maya world-view with upper and under worlds and the manner in which the two were connected to the middle realm of the earth. Mountain and caves were sacred objects that connected the realms. As a result the Mayans mimicked these in art and architecture through pyramids and temples. Spencer-Ahrens and Wren provide a list of major deities with brief explanations before moving on to illustrate their earlier argument as to the manner in which gods were used in art through a number of tables, provided in the work through photographs. The seventh chapter builds on the sixth by describing Mayan funerary customs, which became far more complex as Mayan society and the power of rulers and the elite grew. The eighth chapter examines Mayan architecture, a subject touched on in previous chapters exploring history, politics, and art. As with so many other chapters it traces the growth of Mayan architecture and then its declension. The chapter also includes a list, with brief explanations, of the various regional styles of building. Due to their political fragmentation and diverse geography, the Maya developed a variety of styles, in which they built temples, baths, shrines, and simple and complex homes with numerous courtyards.

     The ninth chapter explores Mayan arithmetic, astronomy and the calendars, which reflect the Mayan system of mathematics and cyclical view of time. The Mayan calendar was far more accurate than the contemporary European Gregorian calendar. The tenth chapter written by Ruth J. Krochock covers written interpretations of the Maya from the first studies in the nineteenth century to the present, giving a good summary of Mayan archeological paradigms and historiography. The eleventh chapter covers the Mayan economy, industry and trade, which spread well beyond Mayan borders to the whole of Mesoamerica. The chapter examines products created by the Maya as well as methods of trade and tribute by which the city-states traded with one another and outsiders. The final chapter briefly describes the daily life of Mayans dealing with personal relationships, values and their violations, food and consumption, ideals of beauty, and free time.

     Each chapter concludes with a section on readings that direct one to further information. In addition there is an excellent index and a chronological chart that covers the whole of Mayan history, with separate sections for each geographic area. The work throughout has a number of helpful illustration and maps. On the whole the Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World would be an excellent textbook or supplement for courses on Mayan history, archeology or religion and art. In addition, it offers real insights across cultures that deal with the development of civilizations as well as the links across the whole of Mesoamerica.


Michael Beauchamp
Texas A&M University


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