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Maya Christians and Their Churches in Sixteenth-Century Belize by Elizabeth Graham (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 69, Number 3, January 2013
pp. 428-430 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0004

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Elizabeth Graham's pioneering book is a richly documented and illustrated contribution to the historical archaeology of the Spanish colonial period in Belize. She offers a critical analysis of theories of Christian conversion, an insightful history of this colonially remote and inhospitable region, a keen analysis of Maya responses to Spanish religious and secular intrusions, and a detailed account of shifts in papal doctrine that influenced religious conversion policies on the ground. Graham brings these and other challenging topics together in a broad, contextualized interpretation of the archaeological and historical evidence related to three sixteenth-century churches in two historically important towns in Belize: Lamanai, located on New River Lagoon, and Tipu, further to the south on the Macal River, a tributary of the Belize River.

Graham brings to this project extensive archaeological experience in Belize, including her work at Lamanai (in collaboration with David Pendergast and others) and at Tipu, where she assumed directorship of a project initiated by others, including the present reviewer. Both sites have generated an impressive amount of published research by Graham and numerous collaborators. The availability of an existing body of historical information on the Spanish colonial period in Belize was essential to her study, and she relies heavily on studies by this reviewer and earlier researchers. While she treats these studies with respect and care, she also finds them wanting due to their necessary reliance on Spanish accounts. She seeks to demonstrate that archaeology, combined with a deeper study of missionary conversion tactics, can contribute new perspectives about colonial-period Maya life and thought.

The book offers a partially reflexive approach to understanding the "invisible"—what it might have been like to have been a Maya person experiencing the early and subsequent influence of Christian evangelization and secular authority. This approach leads Graham to examine her own childhood exposure to Catholic doctrine and objects of worship, as well as to take on the study of much larger questions related to centuries of conversion efforts among "pagan" peoples throughout pre-modern and early-modern Europe and post-contact Mesoamerica. In drawing all of these themes together Graham has brought us a book of deep complexity that examines a host of interpretive hypotheses, some admittedly speculative and others based on solid empirical ground. In the process she builds a deep epistemological critique of both historical and archaeological methodology and interpretation, especially in Mesoamerican studies.

Graham contends throughout that the Christian-influenced Maya were no less Christian than anyone else who claimed that label. She makes the phenomenological argument that it is misleading to employ such colonial-period terms as "idolatry" and "apostasy" and that discussion about Maya religious belief and practice must be divorced from Western preconceptions. She emphasizes that Maya and Christian cosmologies shared many elements, such as human-animal symbolism and the recognition of spirits and supernaturals in human form (thus the ready adoption of Christian saints by the Maya). That the inhabitants of Tipu and Lamanai continued to use their churches as sacred places even after the withdrawal of the Spanish indicates that they had adopted a Christian identity.

Only two of the 12 chapters are devoted exclusively to Maya mission churches and to the archaeology of the three churches in question. Graham concludes, convincingly, that each of these churches was built under the direction of Franciscans, beginning as early as the 1540s and modified over the years. In earlier chapters she explores why this knowledge is important in light of the more open, tolerant forms of doctrine embraced by the Church at that earlier time in contrast to later decades.

Readers might wish that the editorial process had led to a tighter text and less redundancy. They will nonetheless find this work to be intellectually stimulating, original in perspective, and engagingly written. Graham's book makes a major contribution to Maya archaeology, colonial history, and cultural studies.

Copyright © 2013 Academy of American Franciscan History
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Grant D. Jones. "Maya Christians and Their Churches in Sixteenth-Century Belize by Elizabeth Graham (review)." The Americas 69.3 (2013): 428-430. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Jones, G. D.(2013). Maya Christians...



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