The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art 17–August 24, 1986), and the Cleveland Museum of Art (October 8–December 14, 1986)
The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art Worth)
Our vision of the Maya world has been transformed by recent iconographic and epigraphic studies—a string of discoveries that has culminated in an extraordinary exhibition of Maya dynastic and ritual art, organized by Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller under the auspices of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Schele and Miller also wrote the accompanying book, The Blood of Kings, a work as remarkable for its text as for the photographs and drawings that illustrate it.
The astonishing decipherment of the Maya script—a task that is not yet completed—allows us to see with new eyes the thousand and more years of their history. “The written history of the Maya begins in 50 BC,” the authors write, when hieroglyphics recording a king’s accession were carved into stone. After about 200 AD the Maya culture flourished. Pyramids and temples arose in forty or more cities, each with a population of at least twenty thousand people. Around 900 AD, the civilization collapsed and the cities were soon abandoned, for reasons that are still obscure.
The first and most important revelation of the new research is that the Mayas did not, as was generally believed until only fifteen years ago, dedicate themselves almost exclusively to the peaceful study of the heavens and the recording of time, leaving behind mainly inscriptions of astronomical and calendar notations. Rather, their reliefs and inscriptions relate a far different story—the histories of accessions to the throne, battles, victories, ceremonies, and the deaths of many kings—among them, the great Pacal, who ruled Palenque for almost seventy years, between 615 and 683.
The first of the recent advances in decipherment was made in the 1950s by the Russian linguist Yuri V. Knorosov, who had (according to Michael D. Coe in his preface to The Blood of Kings) “the audacity to revive the long-discredited ‘alphabet’ written down in the sixteenth century by Bishop Landa.” Although Knorosov failed in his attempts, his hypothesis was basically correct: Maya script, much like Japanese, combines ideograms with phonetic signs. A few scholars followed the track of Knorosov’s theory and, in 1958, Heinrich Berlin, in his study of Pacal’s sarcophagus in the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, demonstrated that the glyphs referred specifically to the figures depicted on the great carved lid. In 1960 Tatiana Proskouriakoff of Harvard University confirmed that the inscriptions were largely historical in nature. This led, in the following decade, “to the full or partial reconstructions of the dynastic histories” of the various Maya cities. At Palenque, Schele notes, “it has been possible to reconstruct twelve generations of kings.”
The history of these studies and discoveries has been rich, and the reader will find it amply described in Coe’s preface and in the book’s final chapter, “The Hieroglyphic Writing System.” Despite the great advances, however, we are still far from fully understanding Maya writing. The scholars have been able to read numerous inscriptions only because the texts appear on the reliefs …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.