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From art to algebra in Maya studies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2015

Christopher S. Peebles*
Glenn A. Black Laboratory for Archaeology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA


These books are about time: Maya cosmological time, measured by a multiplicity of eternal cyclical calendars, and our time, measured in mips (millions of computer instructions per second). One springs from an often-ending but eternal narrative; the other is expressed in differential equations and the language of systems analysis. One signals the complete rupture of an intellectual frontier and the birth of research tradition; the other seems the ultimate expression of a mature analytical tradition that is temporarily on the wane. One is anchored in Maya historical consciousness, the other in contemporary ecological anthropology. As such, one focuses on sequences of events judged important by the Maya themselves, the other on the cumulative implications of events that went unperceived by the Maya, even after their world was destroyed. Both demolish the ‘myth’ of the Maya as docile theocrats who spent their time cultivating their swiddens and their rituals. Both are contributions to our history of the Maya. In the final words of Schele and Miller: Maya ‘material culture was encoded with information about the nature of the world and the history of man. Although these messages were never intended for us, they speak across the centuries; once again we can utter the names of their kings and remember their actions. We do not share their beliefs, but we can perceive what they believed’ (p. 305). One can hope that we get it more or less right this time.

Special section: the archaeology of Maya decipherment
Copyright © Antiquity Publications Ltd 1988

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