Book review of Maya Art and Architecture by Mary Ellen Miller and Megan E. O’Neil


This new edition is a beautifully illustrated and in-depth presentation of the majesty and beauty of Maya art and architecture for over a thousand years in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras (though we should not forget El Salvador). Maya art, especially in the Early Classic, was traded as far south as Costa Rica.

Soft cover, Second edition, Thames & Hudson, 256 pages.

There are several excellent general books on Mayan culture and archaeology

•Robert Sharer’s update of the venerable early opus of Sylvanus Morley.
•Michael Coe’s experienced discussion of Maya archaeology based on decades of experience
•And now a Second edition of Maya Art and Architecture by Mary Ellen Miller and Megan E. O’Neil.

What I first noticed was the literally massive quantity of photographs.

Has an introductory glossary. I find glossaries a helpful tool; too many books lack them, so it is nice to see a starter glossary here.

Bibliography: I work on bibliographies sometimes day and night. It is probably the publisher who put the bibliography chapter by chapter. Would have been helpful to have also an A to Z so one can really see what are the all the sources.

The photographs are of high quality

The majority of the photographs are great. It was nice to see photos of mine from 1995! (Tikal Burial 196, Tomb of the Jade Jaguar, page 193).

The photo of page 110 could have used color balance (it is too greeny) and the photos of pages 122 and 123 need professional handling in imaging software (both are too dark). Otherwise the quality of photos is better than average, especially considering how many photographs are used.

Ladders or steps on the side of Tikal temples?

Since at Tikal I excavated one complete base side of Tikal Temple I, plus two sides of a nearly identical pyramid terraced architecture facing the south side of Temple II, I can comment that the “ladders” of the graffito in figure 40, page 48, are diagonal stairways inset into a terrace (and thus not actual wooden ladders). These are inset stairs, diagonal (as shown correctly in the graffito).

I know of these inside steps on the sides of temples primarily from Temple I, Temple II (which I did not excavate but which are still visible) and Str. 5D-73, the pyramid over the Tomb of the Jade Jaguar (Burial 196). You can see the complete design from my Harvard undergraduate thesis, about 193 pages of text and about 200 pages of drawings and photographs (in the PDF version available as a free download).

Since these inset steps are not typical (yes, they can be found on other pyramids, but they are not common; indeed “side facing steps” were also on another structure I excavated, facing the East Plaza). And in the graffito they do look a tad like ladders. But having worked at Tikal for 12 months straight, and having studied, in-situ, Maya architecture for about 30 years, including working at Santa Rosa Xtampak (Chenes, Rio Bec area), this is why I can spot the inset stairways.

Lots of fresh new material (which is not in other general introductory books)

What I really liked about this book was the photo in her Fig. 38, page 46. I had never seen this shrine (the ruins of Plan de Ayutla, near Bonampak). I saw structures vaguely similar to this in a remote area of Iran which I visited about a week after I received this Maya book courtesy of Dr Mary Miller.

We traditional look at the Lowlands: Peten, Chiapas, etc, and Copan

This book is focused on the Classic Maya primarily of the Lowlands, plus appropriate introduction to diversity of Maya in other areas and other centuries. What is traditional in most books is the understandable focus on what we know best: the core cities, the great projects. Just two days ago I stood in front of the pyramid façade of Chijolóm, in a remote area deep in the mountains of Alta Verapaz. The road was close to intransitable even for a 4WD Toyota pickup. I had never been aware of this site; it was frankly remarkable (and totally abandoned; not even the plaza grass was cleared; totally overgrown).

I have always been amazed that in the vast territory of Alta Verapaz there are so few major ceremonial centers (I am trying to learn Q’eqchi’ Mayan language so I spend weekends with Q’eqchi’ families in Verapaz).

It is helpful that the title of the book specifies art and architecture, since every aspect of the Maya is so complex you could write an entire book just on one topic. Indeed Mary Miller has recently published a remarkable monograph on Bonampak murals.

The introductory chapter which goes through material by material of what substances the art was created from is innovative for a book on Maya art.

Interaction among the Maya and neighboring civilizations

Mention of the Olmec origin and then Teotihuacan influence are present in the book. It would have been helpful to have shown the large, well-preserved, frontal Tlaloc warrior sculpture from Yaxha. FLAAR has excellent photos with side-lighting (with an electric generator). In discussions of Teotihuacan influence it would also be helpful to remind the world that much of the influence came through the Costa Sur (Tiquisate and surrounding area): Kaminaljuyu was not really the “avenue,” Teotihuacan influence at Kaminaljuyu was indeed a stopping point, but the real impact was in a substantial area of the Costa Sur.

Influence from Classic Veracruz is also a valid research focus for a study of Classic Maya art, especially for ballgame yokes and hachas and handstones (again, common in the Costa Sur but also present in the Late Classic on the ballgame sculptures of Copan).

I am often interested in the relationship of Xochicalco to influences on Maya art.

For Maya influence in the opposite direction, Cacaxtla comes to mind. I spent a week here with permits, doing night photography of the murals with sophisticated lighting in the 1970’s (published in a coffee table book in Japan, authored by Yoshiho Yasugi). Yes, this is a unique subject matter (the border of sea creatures) but the heart and soul of portions (such as God L as a merchant) is nonetheless “Maya” even though other portions of the murals clearly had local influences (after all, Cacaxtla is not that far from Mexico City). But you can cover only so much in an introductory book and Miller cites a study which tries to separate Cacaxtla and move the murals to a more local audience.

For a general audience, for people who visit archaeological sites to experience the Maya civilization, and for an introductory course which features Maya art and architecture, this is a good choice.

It would be helpful if more authors could comment on the destruction of Maya vase paintings by over-restoration. Indeed the word “restoration” is a dubious term, since most is simply repainting to pump up the imaginary dollar price of the vase or otherwise try to recreate an “original” vase.

It is especially sad when archaeological projects also repaint their vases because they see all the vases in other museums already repainted.

Repainting destroys the original image. Repainting changes the style (no matter how well done). And repainting is a farce; if your goal is to study (or exhibit) and pre-Columbian Maya art, there is no legitimate excuse for repainting.

It is also helpful on the page even before the book chapters start to remind the reader that “Maya” is both a noun and an adjective. So it is Maya art and archaeology not Mayan art and archaeology. Mayan is only when the language is the focus: Q’eqchi’ Mayan language, for example. Exceptions to the rule are Yucatec Maya language (and its offshoots Lacandon Maya and Peten Itza Maya) tend to use “Maya” and not “Mayan” even though a language is being discussed.

But out in the real world, Mayan is the adjective understood by the general public and Maya is the noun. Languages evolve. France is a great example of lack of reality: the French language itself is a mishmash of a dozen local languages of past centuries and past millennia. All of a sudden to say that the French language should not use words such as computer, or software, are sad and pathetic. So English also evolves and the word Mayan is part of this evolution.

But for scholarly works, including a thesis, dissertation or peer-reviewed journal article: Maya is adjective as well as noun, and Mayan is primarily for the languages.

this book by Mary Miller and Megan E. O’Neil is worth purchasing

I rarely have time to write a review of any new book, but this one is worth purchasing, both for students, scholars, and the interested lay public.

Posted August 29, 2014.