A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya - Linda Schele, David A. Freidel

I picked this up even though I learned from the index that Xunantunich, one of the only Mayan sites I've visited, was mentioned only once in a throwaway line. Of course, Mayan history is interesting enough to be read about by more than academics and tourists. 'A Forest of Kings' is a deceptively fat book, its last 150 pages are appendices and endnotes, and the main text is full of illustrations which makes it a much easier read than you might think. The authors are certainly academics, but they've made a really great effort to reduce technical details to a minimum and put the bulk of their evidence into the aforementioned appendices and footnotes.

I think they did too good of a job there. Every chapter has at least one or two vignettes of hypothetical situations drawn from the archaeological and linguistic record which makes for interesting reading but they are the product of so much well-imagined guesswork that I can't suppress my skepticism even after I've flipped to the back to read the notes for that page.

The book is out of date, with almost all of the chapters referencing ongoing excavations and translation of findings, but the picture they present seemed fair-minded and, prose embellishments aside, firmly based on the evidence available to them and many of the illustrations are side-by-side simple translations of Mayan writing into English.

Reading this I understood why my professors had not assigned much reading on the history of the Maya, focusing on ecological impact instead, because there is, quite simply, a lot of one-sided historical data. With much of it, it is almost impossible to find a middle ground. There is this ~400 page treatment, and statements such as: "various small monarchic city-states exist in a state of near-constant warfare for 1000 years." A gross over-simplification, but if you want to get beyond that you're going to need to sit down and read 'A Forest of Kings', or a book of similar length.