This book is a tour de force about Classic Maya political history, largely from a top-down perspective, as would be expected for a study relying on inscriptions written by the royals themselves. Many archaeologists typically view Maya inscriptions with a grain of salt because of a couple of nagging questions: Did Maya kings actually do what they said they did, and, what does their history signify to the broader society as a whole? Martin seeks answers from a political-anthropology perspective, incorporating archaeological evidence when suitable. His strategy is to detail what the inscriptions signify beyond their literal meaning. In other words, he attempts to convey not only what they said they did but also the broader political significance of it.
Networks of political machinations reveal the nature of Classic Maya political systems, assisted through theories from political anthropology and political science, as well as cross-cultural case studies. In the end, Maya kingship consisted of hegemonic relations maintained through common ideas about kingship and its roles. Martin convinces us of the utility of this model, chapter by chapter, by addressing key questions: “How could a system of multiple polities persist essentially unchanged for hundreds of years, and why were none among them willing or able to create larger and more unified formations?” (4). He uses fourteen case studies sprinkled throughout the book to bolster his arguments, as well as to illustrate inscriptions as history.
Setting the stage for the roadmap to a clearer understanding of Maya politics are the three chapters in Part I (“Agendas in Classic Maya Politics”), which, after a brief foray into the history of Maya studies, largely focus on political theory and the insightful power of the written word, specifically its patrimonial rhetoric.
Part II, “Epigraphic Data in Classic Maya Politics,” is the meat of the book. The themed chapters flesh out the literal interpretations and the broader significance of hieroglyphs: “Identity”—royal and noble titles, emblem glyphs, and their significance; “Constitution”—royal life and the instantiation of authority; “Transcendence”—the importance of divinity, deities, and patron gods; “Matrimony”—and its influence on “legitimacy, succession, and power relations” (173), including polygyny; “Conflict”—the challenges of determining the nature, scale, and significance of “warfare”; “Hierarchy”—the “asymmetrical relations of power (237); and “Coda”—the whys and hows of Maya kingship’s demise of by 900 c.e. in the southern Maya lowlands, and the complexity of the urban diaspora that ensued.
In Part III, “A Political Anthropology for the Classic Maya,” Martin uses various strategies to synthesize what he presented in Part II, including network analyses in Chapter 12, “Classic Maya Networks.” In the final three chapters, he adroitly ties in the evidence that he has presented to lay out his interpretation of Classic Maya politics and their implications for understanding how hegemonic systems work without an overarching monarch. The analysis is complicated, but Martin takes the time to discuss and argue that “the evidence consistently supports a hegemonic system, one in which an enduring multitude of polities were arranged within waxing and waning hierarchical orders” that heavily relied on political patronage and a membership within an “ideological commonwealth” (383–384, 385).
No book is perfect. The top-down approach leaves out the majority of people—the laborers, service providers, merchants, etc., who provided the backbone to the political system through the accumulation of surplus wealth. Moreover, scholars working with “unprovenanced” or looted items would do well to acknowledge the ethical issues of including such items in their scholarship. Looters have destroyed far too many buildings and displaced far too many human remains from the tombs and houses that they have violated.
This book justifiably belongs on the shelf of Mayanists, political theorists, archaeologists, and historians. Maya inscriptions are history indeed, inevitably mixed with some propaganda. After all, what politician does not exaggerate?