Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya. Vol. 1: Theory, Comparison, Synthesis. (Book Reviews: Anthropology and History)

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INOMATA, TAKESHI & STEPHEN D. HOUSTON (eds), Royal courts of the ancient Maya. Vol. 1: theory, comparison, synthesis. xix, 292 pp., maps, tables, illus., bibliogrs. Oxford: Westview Press, 2001. [pounds sterling]18.50 (paper)

Not so long ago, Classic Maya sites (c.300-1000 AD) were seen as vacant ceremonial centres. Their highly embellished masonry structures, considered uninhabitable, were believed to have been dedicated to ritual purposes and tended by priests. By the 1960s mapping projects revealed the extent of Maya cities and the houses of their inhabitants, including the presumed palaces of the rulers among the finest masonry buildings. Stone monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions were also being read, revealing the hagiographies of divine kings, kuhul ajaw [ahau], literally 'holy lord'. But it has been only more recently that sufficient archaeological, architectural, and epigraphic data have become available to speak of the Maya 'royal court'. The papers in this volume (and an accompanying one published the following year) result from a conference of the same name at Yale University in 1998.

In their introduction the editors explain the dual meanings of 'court' -- as both an architectural complex and a group of people clustered around a sovereign -- and express their bias for papers that focused on the latter. The architectural evidence should shed light on the roles of the people who lived or worked there: the royal family, noble courtiers, petty officials, skilled craftsmen, and domestic servants. The nature of Maya political organization and how it changed over the centuries is also being revealed in recent decipherments of inscriptions that provide the titles and possible functions of regnal and non-regnal court persons, male and female.

Despite the volume's subtitle -- theory, comparison, synthesis -- the chapters provide little of the first and third, although a number of them do investigate inter-site comparisons or review analogies with royal courts in Europe, Asia, and Africa as well as contact-period Aztec and Maya in order to suggest interpretations for the pre-Hispanic Maya evidence. The editors lay out a series of questions they posed to contributors whose answers might provide a comprehensive understanding of courts in terms of the identities and organization of the 'king's people'. However, the questions are not framed in any systematic way to realize substantive conclusions concerning the organization of Maya polities or differences between Maya and other complex societies, such as the contrast between 'regal-ritual' and 'administrative' centres utilized by William Sanders and David Webster ('The Mesoamerican urban tradition', American Anthropologist, 1998, 90, 521-46). …