This article about the book The Ancient Maya by Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler, is the first one of a series of articles about Maya books that I plan to publish during the next months.
Obviously, with 931 pages and a shipping weight of 3.5 pound, this is not the book you easily put in your backpack when travelling to visit the abandoned Maya cities in the jungles of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize or Honduras. And it is not the book you can read easily during a spring break trip to the beaches of Cancun.
In fact, The Ancient Maya is the book you need, if you want to dive deep, very deep into the ocean of the indigenous, precolumbian history of the Maya. Not only students of the Maya culture might benefit from this extensive work. Any kind of scholar looking for detailed information about the subject usually covered by “Mayanists” will find a comprehensive reference for this subject within this book.
The Ancient Maya – Sharer & Traxler – 6th edition – 2006
The origin of this book is far in the past. The celebrated archaeologist Sylvanus Grisworld Morley published the first edition in 1946, few years before his death. Since then, five additional editions have been published. The 6th edition released in 2006 is the newest and most actual one.
Between an introduction and the final epilogue, the book is divided in 13 chapters that shed light on different topics. Unusual is that the tables of figures, images, text boxes and color plates have been organized as additional tables of content at the beginning of the book.
In this introductory chapter, the theme of Maya culture is put in a broad historical context and a rough overview of the dangers that this cultural heritage is facing is given.
Chapter 1 – The Setting of Maya civilization
This chapter describes the Maya area. The different people and their languages and the natural environment. Geology, geography and climate which divide the area of a size of Montana or Germany in several sub regions with their own ecology and in consequence, a diversification in production and trade possibilities.
Chapter 2 – Archaeology and Maya Civilization
For more then 100 years, archaeological methods have been the only tools to examine the ancient Maya culture after its rediscovery in the 19th century. Deciphering and understanding the meaning of the many inscriptions in stone, the written records found on ceramics and the few remaining paper documents did not contribute to this body of knowledge for a long time. Therefore the largest part of knowledge about the Maya, is based on the field work of numerous archaeologists. This chapter describes their activities and the results, e.g. a rough chronology of larger periods of the Maya history, that can be derived from this work in general.
Chapter 3 – History and Maya Civilization
End of the 20th century, advances in decipherment of the hieroglyphs allowed a more precise reconstruction. The calendar was understood, and the key to understand the signs and language of the inscriptions was found. From now on, the names of rulers and places allowed are more precise analysis of the historical events and in some cases long lists of ruling dynasties were reconstructed. In addition it was possible to deduce political events, war or alliances between different cities. This chapter describes which steps were necessary to get at this place.
The following seven chapters describe the Maya history as a reconstruction of archaeological evidence for the Preclassic and additional written documents for the Classic and Postclassic. With nearly 500 pages, these seven chapters form the main part of the book, covering 2500 years of Maya history.
Chapter 4 – The Origins of Maya Civilization
Chapter 5 – The Emergence of Maya Civilization in the Middle Preclassic
Chapter 6 – The Origins of Maya States in the Late Preclassic
Chapter 7 – The Expansion of Maya States in the Early Classic
Chapter 8 – The Apogee of Maya States in the Late Classic
Chapter 9 – Transformations in the Terminal Classic
Chapter 10 – Reformulation and Revival in the Postclassic
Chapter 11 – The Ancient Maya Economy
An important factor in understanding the political events is the knowledge of the economic conditions prevailing at the time of the ancient Maya. Unfortunately, no written documents regarding this topic have been found except of some paintings of trade goods. Ethnological examinations of actual existing Maya communities and colonial post-conquest documents leave many gaps of knowledge that can be filled by archaeological finds to some extend only.
This chapter scheds some light on goods, markets and trade routes, that might have been motivation for political activities of the ruling class.
Chapter 12 – The Organization of Maya Society
The social and political organization of the ancient Maya society is the topic of this chapter. Adults and children, men and women, rulers and simple farmers. Archaeological finds provide some information, other aspects can be seen from inscriptions and some have been found still existing in today’s Maya communities.
Chapter 13 – Maya Ideology and Religion
What did they believe in? That’s the question the 13th and last of the numbered chapters tries to answer. Fortunately the Popol Vuh, a Maya text written in the 18th century, of which the Mayanists think, that it has a much older tradition, remained until today. In addition, some of the codices, that could be saved from the destruction of the catholic church, describe the pantheon of the Maya. Other post-conquest texts, eg. the books of the Chilam Balam add more information. But even after the inclusion of ethnological finds, white spots remain on the map.
Epilogue – The conquest of the Maya
The epilogue tells us the story of the Spaniards arrival and began to conquer the Yucatan Peninsula and neighboring regions inhabited by Maya people until the fall of Tayasal in 1697, the last independent Maya state at the Lago Petén in Guatemala.
The Appendix comprises 150 pages. It includes an extensive bibliography and an index.
The Ancient Maya by Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler is an extensive and complete work about the ancient Maya. As complete as a book about this dynamic field of exploration can be. It refrains largely from technical terms of the auxiliary sciences, which are used to obtain findings and concentrates on the central topic: The ancient Maya. Du to the scope of the book it is the most useful book I found to get more detailed information about the many aspects of the ancient Maya civilization.
The only negative point I found while reading the book is the size of some of the images. Sometimes, it literally requires the usage of a magnifying glass to recognize details in images. A workaround is to take a picture with the smartphone camera and watch the result on a notebook or PC monitor. At the same time there is a big unused margin between the content and the papers edge. It would be possible to print images and figures borderless.
The book contains 16 pages with color plates. This is nice, but not really required.
In total there are some more than 230 images and figures, nearly 30 table, around 60 text boxes and 16 color plates, that clarify the content of the book.
You can find new or used copies of the book at Amazon: