The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

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9780684852096: The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

This unique and extraordinary guide to seven major sites of Maya civilization highlights the pioneering work of two great scholars of ancient America. For readers at every level -- from the casual tourist to the serious student -- The Code of Kings relies on Linda Schele and Peter Mathews's revolutionary work in the decipherment of the hieroglyphs that cover the surfaces of Maya ruins to give us a far clearer picture of Maya culture than we have ever had.
Richly illustrated with line art and the incomparable photography of Justin Kerr and Macduff Everton, The Code of Kings is a landmark contribution to our understanding of the Maya and a phenomenal guided tour of seven of the most awesome and magical spots on Earth.

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About the Author:

The late Linda Schele was the John D. Murchison Professor of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. Her books include The Blood of Kings (with Mary Miller), A Forest of Kings (with David Freidel), and Maya Cosmos (with David Freidel and Joy Parker). She died in the spring of 1998.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From Chapter 1: Pyramid-Mountains and Plaza-Seas

Maya scholars have participated in a revolution. The past four decades have seen the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic writing system and the reading of the history of one of the great civilizations of the world. This decipherment has recovered the names of kings, their families, members of their courts, and artists, artisans, and builders who served them. Growing understanding of Maya imagery has combined with increasingly subtle decipherments of the glyphs to give us new insights into court life, religious ideas, and the politics of the time, as well as the economies and social mechanisms that allowed Maya civilization to flourish. Excavations conducted by archaeologists not only have tested the "truth" of these histories in the ground, but also have sought to understand better the lifeways of the ancient Maya people, from the most exalted to the lowliest members of society.

As epigraphers who have participated in this revolution, we find that our personal relationship to Maya cities has changed forever. We can't now walk among the buildings without thinking about who built them and why. We now consider them not just as objects of beauty, but also as political and religious statements aimed at an audience of nobles and commoners. Maya buildings were instruments of state that registered Maya identity, religion, and history.

How different it is to walk through a ruined city when it has become a historical place -- to "read" a building and to know who looks out from a sculpted portrait. The ruins cease to be anonymous places admired only for their beauty and mystery. Instead, they become the works of people who had names and motivations that we can understand, even from our distant points of view. And the buildings and images created by these once-living people become their voices, telling us something about the agendas that guided their decisions, the larger political framework that conditioned those agendas, and the understanding of the world that gave meaning to both.

We have shared our vision of Maya cities as historical places with people who have toured with us over the years and in public lectures. When we were thinking about what to do in this book, we realized that many more people who visit Maya places and who love Maya art and archaeology might be interested in seeing their architecture through the lens of history. We wanted to show people how to "read" Maya political and religious art and architecture.

In designing this book, we deliberately picked some of the most famous buildings in Maya archaeology, partially because, famous though they are, they remain virtually anonymous to the people who visit them. Three are in Mexico, three in Guatemala, and one in Honduras, and we selected seven different kinds of buildings to serve as archetypes. These seven are a palace and family shrine center, a pyramid-temple and tomb, a plaza with stelae (upright, carved monuments), a building designed to celebrate the end of an important Maya cycle of time, a court for playing ball, a conjuring house and war monument, and, finally, a conquest period capital from the Guatemala highlands. Although there are other types of Maya buildings, these seven constitute the elements that the ancient Maya considered necessary to charge a city with religious and political meaning. Most cities had all these types of buildings, although their styles varied widely from place to place.

We have used the nuances of these buildings to explore the way Maya architecture worked and how the Maya generated sacred space within their cities through the use of buildings and the symbolic information contained in them. We have designed the book to operate on multiple levels. On one level, it serves as a guided tour through the buildings. Much of the information necessary to understand the layout and basic contents of each building can be gleaned from the maps and illustrations alone. We have included a map of each building with its components designated by letters or numbers. We have used the same designations as headings in the descriptive sections of the text. Readers can follow our suggested path through the building or they can go to any part of it by finding the section that corresponds to the letter on the building plan.

The texts discuss each building in progressively greater detail, moving from the general to the specific, so that readers can choose the amount of information they wish to consume and skip over the more detailed discussions when they so desire. The notes provide the scholarly background to our interpretations and add more detailed information to our discussions. We have also included a glossary of gods and supernaturals at the end of the book to serve as a quick reference for those who are less familiar with the Maya world.

Maya Society in Time and Space

The Maya lived in a large cultural area that archaeologists call Mesoamerica. Encompassing the region from the deserts of northern Mexico to the eastern third of Honduras and El Salvador, Mesoamerica refers less to geography than to the societies and cultural traditions that occupied this land until the arrival of Europeans. Like the people of Europe, Mesoamericans shared definitions about how to grow and distribute food, what constituted government, and how the world worked, both on the mundane and the cosmological level.

The land of the Maya occupies the eastern third of Mesoamerica, in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras. This area is covered by ruined cities from a cultural tradition that was 2,500 years old when the Spanish conquered the inhabitants and forever changed their world. The descendants of the Maya who built those ruined cities today number in the millions and speak over two dozen related Maya languages. They communicate with the world over the Internet, yet also live in direct contact with the beliefs and understanding of the world that lay at the heart of the cities built by their ancestors millennia before.

The topography of the Maya landscape varies enormously, from the volcanic mountains that form a spine along the Pacific coast to the tropical-forest lowlands that comprise the northern two-thirds of the Yukatan peninsula. Rivers cut through the mountains, draining into the Gulf of Mexico via the Grijalva and Usumacinta Rivers and to the Caribbean by the Motagua and numerous smaller rivers. The swampy southern lowlands receive up to 120 inches of rain a year, while the northern lowlands are drier and have no rivers. There in the north, people get their water from cenotes (tz'onot in Maya), sinkholes that dot the limestone terrain of Yukatan. The high-canopy forest that covers the southern lowlands transforms into pine forest in the highlands and into low, scrub forest in the north.

Archaeologists divide the later history of Mesoamerica into three great periods -- the Preclassic (1500 B.C.-A.D. 200), the Classic (A.D. 200-910), and the Postclassic (A.D. 910-1524). The first of these periods, the Preclassic, saw the rise of the Olmec, the first great civilization that modern scholars recognize in Mesoamerica. Occupying the swampy lowlands surrounding the Tuxtla volcanos in southern Veracruz, the Olmec built the first cities in a landscape that can be described as mountains surrounded by swamps. This extraordinary people created the first kingdoms and developed the templates of worldview and political symbolism that formed the basis of all subsequent societies in Mesoamerica. In a real sense, they invented civilized life in this region of the world.

By 1000 B.C., the Maya had begun to build villages in the mountainous highlands and lowland forests of eastern Mesoamerica. These early villagers built houses that were much like those still used by their descendants today. They used pole frames and thatched roofs to construct houses with a single room. In some regions, villagers favored houses with oval floor plans, while in others they preferred rectangular forms. The center of the house was always a hearth made of three stones set in a triangle to allow wood to be fed into the fire while cooking. The hearth was the center of family life, where women prepared food and did the work of the household. Men worked in agricultural fields called kol, where they planted maize, beans, squash, and chile. They planted fruit trees of many kinds around their houses and near their cornfields.

Households consisted of several related adults, and could include couples with young children, adolescents, young adults, and grandparents. Large families provided the people required for farming, a labor-intensive activity that involved yearly cycles of preparing the fields, planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Moreover, large families could help in other activities, such as the building and refurbishing of houses, kitchens, and storerooms, the collection of firewood, the preparation of food, and the repair and maintenance of tools. More specialized crafts included weaving and decorating cloth, the manufacture of tools and household objects of all sorts, and the making of pottery. The Maya could use these products in their own households or exchange them for other goods and services within their communities. As their families grew, villagers built additional houses around courtyards to form compounds. Four houses around a courtyard became one of the characteristic forms of Maya architecture.

Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the Maya adopted Olmec innovations in symbolic imagery and social institutions. By 500 B.C., the Maya began to build cities in the lowland forests and in the highland mountains. They amplified the traditional layout of the family compound into a square plaza surfaced with plaster and surrounded on three or four sides by pyramids with temples on top. They used tamped earth to build their pyramids in the highlands, and earth and rubble in the lowlands. Some of these very early structures are the largest ever built by the Maya. People flying over them today often think they are natural hills rising ...

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