Secrets of the Maya. Ed. by The Editors of Archaeology Magazine. Preface by Peter A. Young. New York: Hatherleigh Press, 2004. Paperback, 203 pages.
This volume, consisting of thirty-one essays published during the preceding sixgteen years, extends over the entire history and culture of the Maya—from 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. It introduces not only Maya history and culture but also the key researchers who, piece by painful piece, extracted the data from the complicated hieroglyphic inscriptions—a colorful world indeed.
Since the progressive decipherment of Maya writing starting in the 1960s, archaeologists and linguists have made great strides in reconstructing the social life, history, cosmology, and language of the Maya. But even with the recent breakthroughs, only about 60 % of the hieroglyphic texts have become decipherable. The rest is still a matter of guesswork.
Much of our early somewhat idyllic picture of the Maya was shown to have been blatantly wrong. Contrary to the opinion of pioneer Mayanists, the Maya did indeed indulge in warfare and human sacrifice. Tikal (now in Guatemala) and Calakmul managed to fight their way to the top among the diverse warfaring states.
The Maya appear to have been obsessed with calendrics and astronomy, but only since the inception of the new discipline of archaeoastronomy have the secrets of their elaborate cosmology become more intelligible. From warfare to the torture of enemies, human sacrifice, and self-torture (“blood-letting”) to “extreme sports,” the Maya seem to cover the spectrum of cruel behavior, which will come as a shock to those who would rather idealize them.
This book also tells a story of great personal sacrifices on the part of researchers and intrepid explorers who, in their unquenchable thirst for knowledge, have made their way into inhospitable jungles and spent countless hours digging, bent over books and manuscripts, or in front of the computer. Contrary to public opinion, researchers are as passionate as the next person, maybe more so. Hence every scientific discipline has built into it a fairly high degree of competitiveness, but it was refreshing to learn that the recent advances made in the study of the Maya were largely due to an exemplary collaboration between individual Mayanists.
However difficult it may be for a sensitive reader to relate to the Maya’s cruelty, he or she cannot fail to also be impressed by their ingenuity. This exciting, richly illustrated book is as much about the Maya as it is about those adventuresome men and women of our own time who, with utmost dedication and courage, voyaged into the past and made the Maya ruins and artifacts speak for us.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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