Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World by Lynn V. Foster

An awesome overview
The “Handbook to Life” series from Oxford University Press is an excellent collection of archaeology books. I own several of the volumes in the series, but this one on the ancient Maya world is the first that I’ve read from cover to cover. It’s a great all-purpose resource on the Maya, synthesizing research from hundreds of sources. The book starts with a general summary of the history of the Maya, from prehistory to the present. Then it breaks the information down into categories, with chapters on such topics as warfare, society and government, architecture and building, and daily life. This volume is particularly strong in its treatment of the religion and belief systems of the Maya, explaining their overall world view, providing mini-“biographies” of major gods and goddesses, and giving summaries of important myths and legends, including a rather detailed synopsis of the Popol Vuh. An in-depth examination of the sculptural carvings at Palenque provides an example of how the Maya expressed their beliefs through their art. The chapter on arithmetic, astronomy, and the calendar is probably the best concise explanation of the Maya calendar system that I’ve ever read. The chapter on hieroglyphics provides an abbreviated version of the history of decipherment found in Michael Coe’s book Breaking the Maya Code. Every aspect of Maya life is presented in this book, and it covers every strata of society. While a lot of books about the Maya cover the succession of kings and the religious rites of the high priests, The Handbook to Life also gives you an idea of what life was like for the foot soldier, the scribe, the traveling merchant, or the mother preparing food for her children.

The writing throughout is clear and accessible, and rich in fascinating detail. I wouldn’t exactly say it was exciting prose, but definitely more lively and engaging than the average textbook or encyclopaedia. I’m not a scholar in the field, merely an “armchair archaeologist” who’s been to Palenque, Chichen Itza, and other archaeological sites and anthropological museums in the Maya region. For me, reading this book was the equivalent of attending a full immersion Mayanist fantasy camp. I’m sure that in any further reading I do in the area of Maya studies the Handbook to Life will be a valuable companion.

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