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The Memory of Bones

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The Memory of Bones. Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. by Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. (University of Texas Press, Austin: 2006. Pg. 352. 265 b&w Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-292-71294-4.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - July 28, 2006

How did the Classic Maya (ca. CE 250-850) view the human body? How did they express their emotions? What role did the human body play in their art, their world view, and their sense of what comes after death? These and many more intriguing questions are answered in The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Penned by three outstanding scholars in the field of Mesoamerican studies, this book combines a wealth of information garnered from Maya iconography, hieroglyphic writing, material remains, and up-to-date archaeological evidence to present a clear and authoritative thesis on how exactly the Classic Maya viewed the human body in all aspects of their life and culture.

Of the book's authors, Stephen Houston is a Professor of Anthropology at Brown University, David Stuart is the Linda and David Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and Karl Taube is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Riverside. Their combined expertise and experience served to help them craft a readable and convincing book that will fascinate both students and scholars from a variety of academic disciplines. In addition the text is lavishly illustrated with examples of glyphs, stelae, drawings, sculpture, and other surviving remains.

The book contains eight chapters, a preamble that serves the role of introduction, and an epilogue entitled Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. The text also includes an expansive bibliography. The eight chapter headings are:
  1. The Classic Maya Body

  2. Bodies and Portraits

  3. Ingestion (this chapter details not only the types of foods the Classic Maya ate and how they ate them, but also such social activities as banquets and feats. Also covered is how Classic Maya deities and gods ingested various foods and other offerings.)

  4. Senses

  5. Emotions

  6. Dishonor (includes how the plight of captives was portrayed, and how Classic Maya pride was epitomized.)

  7. Words on Wings (this chapter focuses on verbal and nonverbal speech, and both formal and nonformal modes of speech, and how the Classic Maya represented speech.)

  8. Dance, Music, Masking
As you can tell from this abbreviated table of contents, the scope of this book is broad, covering all aspects of the human body, both physical and ethereal. The authors have presented a detailed theory on how the Classic Maya viewed the human body and they fully detail the available evidence that gives substance to their underlaying premises. From beginning to end, this is a riveting book - something that you can not always say when it comes to academic tomes! Both lay readers and scholars will find that this book offers a wealth of information in regard to the mind set of the Classic Maya, and that it offers insights into their society that cannot be found elsewhere.

The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya is required reading for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Classic Maya. It is ideal as a supplemental text in both undergraduate and graduate courses in Mesoamerican Studies, Anthropology, and Archaeology. In addition, it deserves a place in any library or reading section devoted to Mesoamerican Studies.

Related Reviews:

Water and Ritual - The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers, by Lisa J. Lucero.
An in-depth look at the roles that water and ritual played in Mayan culture and politics.

Ancient Maya Commoners, edited by Jon C. Lohse and Fred Valdez, Jr.
A groundbreaking collection of eleven essays that explore the data that is currently available on the lives of ancient Maya commoners. These essays also show how this information increases our understanding of Mayan culture, society, and organization.

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