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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 343-345

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Maya Palaces and Elite Residences: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Edited by Jessica Joyce Christie. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Pp. x, 340. Illustrations. Notes. References. Index. $50.00 cloth.

This important collection of essays was first presented during a symposium, "Maya Palaces and Elite Residences," at the annual conference of the Society for American Archaeology in 1998. Christie's goal in publishing the results is to bring together scholars from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, art history, ethnography, and epigraphy, to address in a focused way issues related to royal palaces and other types of elite structures. Certainly a study of this type is long overdue and the results are in [End Page 343] many ways impressive. The contributors to the volume are well-respected authorities in the field, and bring to the discussion a wealth of first-hand knowledge. Most are archaeologists who are actively excavating sites in the Maya world, rather than "book researchers" who have not had the unique experience of getting their hands dirty uncovering the types of palaces that are the focus of the collection.

Although certainly not comprehensive, the essays present findings from a wide range of Classic and Terminal Classic Maya sites (ca. AD 200-1000), ranging from such major centers as Copan, Tikal, Dos Pilas, Aguateca, Uxmal, and Chichen Itzá, to smaller but no less fascinating sites such as Yaxuna, Mexico and Blue Creek, Belize. Nearly every contributor to this book attempts to define what a Maya palace is, although none do so in a completely satisfactory way. Christie admits that it is impossible to identify rigid criteria in identifying royal palace structures. Like the ancient Greek city-states, the Maya never had a unified empire. Each ruler was free to develop local architectural solutions appropriate to his or her religious, social, and political circumstances. These continued to evolve over time as such circumstances changed. One of the outstanding contributions of this volume is its presentation of archaeological evidence that ancient Maya palaces, just like their counterparts in Europe, were multi-functional. Domestic midden deposits including utilitarian housewares, fragments from meals, and other evidence of every-day life attest that the palaces were once occupied. The essays are, for the most part, united in their opinion that ancient Maya kings used their palaces for a variety of residential, political, judicial, economic, and ceremonial functions.

Despite the book's claims, there are no contributions from epigraphers, ethnographers, or social anthropologists. Although Christie herself is an art historian, the vast majority of essays are written by archaeologists and their findings are understandably interpreted through the lens of an archaeologist's unique perspective. But the book aspires to be more far-reaching—an exploration of the place elite palaces occupied in the fabric of Maya life. In this regard, the book is a bit disappointing. The ancient Maya built their communities in such a way that they reflected sacred geography, to form an elaborate stage on which rituals could be carried out that charged their world with regenerative power. As this book documents, royal palaces were prominent features within these complexes and cannot be interpreted from a purely functional, or even a political approach. A number of contributors mention that carved panels, frescoed interior walls, and painted vessels frequently depict the interior of royal palaces. It is therefore surprising that none, even Christie, actually describe any of these works of art specifically, much less attempt a proper iconographic analysis. An epigrapher could have referred to hieroglyphic texts that describe the nature of Maya royalty, the theological symbolism of Maya city centers, or the types of rituals that took place within the palace precincts.

Although nearly all the essays refer to possible ceremonies conducted within the palaces precincts, none describe what these may have been like despite ample evidence from such sources as the Bonampak murals. The contributions of an ethnographer [End Page 344] or social anthropologist would have been invaluable in evaluating the wealth of descriptions made by Spanish missionary priests of just these types of ceremonies soon...


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