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The Memory of Bones

The Memory of Bones
Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya

Three leading experts offer a new, standard-setting interpretation of how the Classic Maya experienced and thought about the human body.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture, Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

June 2006
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
334 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 266 b&w illus. |

All of human experience flows from bodies that feel, express emotion, and think about what such experiences mean. But is it possible for us, embodied as we are in a particular time and place, to know how people of long ago thought about the body and its experiences? In this groundbreaking book, three leading experts on the Classic Maya (ca. AD 250 to 850) marshal a vast array of evidence from Maya iconography and hieroglyphic writing, as well as archaeological findings, to argue that the Classic Maya developed a coherent approach to the human body that we can recover and understand today.

The authors open with a cartography of the Maya body, its parts and their meanings, as depicted in imagery and texts. They go on to explore such issues as how the body was replicated in portraiture; how it experienced the world through ingestion, the senses, and the emotions; how the body experienced war and sacrifice and the pain and sexuality that were intimately bound up in these domains; how words, often heaven-sent, could be embodied; and how bodies could be blurred through spirit possession.

From these investigations, the authors convincingly demonstrate that the Maya conceptualized the body in varying roles, as a metaphor of time, as a gendered, sexualized being, in distinct stages of life, as an instrument of honor and dishonor, as a vehicle for communication and consumption, as an exemplification of beauty and ugliness, and as a dancer and song-maker. Their findings open a new avenue for empathetically understanding the ancient Maya as living human beings who experienced the world as we do, through the body.

  • Preamble
  • Chapter 1. The Classic Maya Body
  • Chapter 2. Bodies and Portraits
  • Chapter 3. Ingestion
  • Chapter 4. Senses
  • Chapter 5. Emotions
  • Chapter 6. Dishonor
  • Chapter 7. Words on Wings
  • Chapter 8. Dance, Music, Masking
  • Epilogue: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Stephen Houston is 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.

Karl Taube is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside.


El ojo piensa, el pensamiento ve,
la mirada toca, las palabras arden . . .

The eye thinks, the thought sees,
the gaze touches, the words burn . . .


Octavio Paz dedicated this verse to the photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Paz 1991:393). A poet thus found power in words to praise the captor of raw, vital images. For many years we have been fascinated, as archaeologists, by whether the dead can truly speak to us, the dead who fathered and mothered people far distant from our own roots in Europe and North America. Can the eye that scans images and texts today find past thought; can it see and touch as others did; is there still within reach the ardor, joy, and despair of departed life? Hence the subtitle of this volume: "Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya." The main title, too, comes in part from Paz, who spoke of his own bones as the repository of memory and inextinguishable desire. More than most poets, he discovered the words to express loss and eternal return.


The Classic Maya, who lived within distinct societies conjoined by many beliefs and practices, left many tracks, many bones. Through those vestiges, they can return, or so we assert. From about AD 250 to 850, the Classic Maya of southeastern Mexico and northern Central America created many thousands of glyphic texts and rich, codified images that, with careful study, reveal unsuspected clues to body concepts and to the nature of what the Maya regarded as life and experience. For some scholars, approaching such matters is laden with methodological obstacles. Here are the problems. (1) Using evidence from historic or ethnographic Maya: These people utterly differ from those of the Classic period. They are too altered by change to reveal patterns of centuries before. (2) Using what Classic elites say: Such statements, whether in text or imagery, are mere (mis)representations and self-serving bombast, disconnected from everyday life and even from what the elites themselves believed. (3) Using information, past and present, from other parts of Mexico and northern Central America: Context disappears and, through such evidence, tangible differences blur in favor of consistent similarity. This creates artificial designs that exist only in the minds of interpreters. (4) Using comparative anthropology: Humans are made radically different and incommensurable by culture and history. (5) Using data from one Maya site to explain another: All sites possess divergent local meanings attached to text and imagery. There should not be an assumption that icons at different sites refer to the same things. (6) Using glyphs and imagery at all: Recent research rests on weak foundations. There are no standards of proof or disproof, no real means of testing proposals.


All of these claims are both true and false. Comparisons do require considerable thought and marshaling of evidence; arguments need to be carefully assembled; comparisons between sites need to establish clearly that they draw on the same concepts, something to be discerned from consistent patterns of use; ideas and ways of framing and showing them modulate historically; the systematic images and texts left to us (many more remain to be found) exist as culturally encoded representations, not direct pathways into the brain. An elusive scent, sweet and intense, or the spasm of desolate fear--these have disappeared forever, as scattered feelings and sprays of pheromones. We cannot savor a Maya version of Marcel Proust's madeleine. But, at the same time, the claims are false, systemically so. A priori statements about what can and cannot be done deserve considerable suspicion, based on past experience in scholarship. At core, a claim is eternally ad hoc. It is only as valid as its intrinsic worth. Does it gather enough evidence; is that evidence consistent; are counterclaims, if they exist, successfully refuted; do successive arguments integrate past results in mutually confirming ways?


A final problem, indulging in "grand narratives" that attribute mentalities or attitudes to certain periods and not to others, has been noted in historical scholarship, particularly by those who criticize the tendency to see "the Middle Ages . . . as a convenient foil for modernity" (Rosenwein 2002:828). One such narrative would be the growing restriction and control of emotions in the history of the West: from the Middle Ages, a time of childlike and public, even fierce emotion, arose a later emotional regime of "self-discipline, control, and suppression" (Rosenwein 2002:827), an idea that came to the fore in the work of the historical sociologists Lucien Febvre and Norbert Elias (Burguière 1982:435). As academic reconstructions, grand narratives or claims for widespread meaning can seem schematic or glib. The same can be said more broadly for any attempt to understand the history of mentalités, an enterprise that focuses on joint representations and the assertion of consistent, underlying logic (Burguière 1982:436; cf. Kobialka 2003:2, 6, 38). Yet these formulations are not always wrong either. Conventional attitudes clearly exist in most parts of the world, and at different times, in varying configurations. Our book builds on the conviction that conventionalized representations expressed conventionalized ideas among the Classic Maya.


Focusing on the body is necessary. In the first place, it is part of a cross-disciplinary dialogue of exhilarating scope and, at times, insight (Abbott 1999; Barasch 2001; Braziel and LeBesco 2001; Classen 1993b; Counihan 1999; Falk 1994; Friedman 2001; Shilling 1993; Yalom 1997). The topic is also, to us, a central means of organizing hitherto unintegrated evidence about the Classic Maya, and the very theme that makes Maya imagery of the time so innately appealing: it corresponds to our own rooting in Greco-Roman naturalism and the bodily preoccupations of that tradition (Khristaan Villela, personal communication, 2003). Finally, the body is unavoidable. Without bodies, there would be no Classic Maya, no us to interpret these ancient peoples. The body is for that very reason a shared legacy, inherited from long before Beringia. It allows a fundamental reach toward empathy and an entrée into past experience.


Our approach is inspired by Alfredo López Austin's Cuerpo humano e ideología: Las concepciones de los antiguos nahuas (1980), a pioneering study of Nahuatl body concepts, now also in English (1988). This work, so good that it arouses both admiration and envy, provides insights almost too numerous to mention, including ideas about the intersection of body and cosmos, being, spirit, and vitality. Another inspiration is Jill Furst's Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico (1995). Furst's book, which follows Edward Tylor's view that religions arise to explain natural phenomena (Houston 1997), fits comfortably within other "naturalist" models of human religious sentiment (Boyer 2001; Guthrie 1995) and dazzles the reader with audacious and lively exposition. A volume by Constance Classen (1993a) that explores the relation between Inka body concepts and cosmos was equally stimulating, if not exactly the model followed here.


The content, network, and texture of body concepts among the Classic Maya form the subject of this book. We believe such ideas can be studied according to the "realist" program of research: that is, there can be progress as determined by data, there is inherent, recoverable structure in the world, and, once achieved, findings prove relatively stable (Hacking 1999:33, 68-92). Take, for instance, our use of later lexical sources, often at the beginning of each chapter. The historical connections between Mayan languages explain in large measure why there is coherence between glosses. The greater the consistency, the better the chance that meanings go back in time, to the Classic Maya and before. The finding that the majority of inscriptions record some version of the Ch'olti'an branch (Houston et al. 2000) of Mayan languages makes this task easier by suggesting a scale of reliability that radiates outward. If a gloss occurs in Ch'olti' or Ch'orti', the more likely it is to be relevant and to carry the same meaning back to the Classic period. And, despite their semantic treasures and sheer abundance, the sources in Yukatek Mayan must be seen to lie farther away in relevance, as do those from highland languages, which are often widely divergent from what is seen in lowland hieroglyphs. (Highland hieroglyphs number in the handful and are of uncertain linguistic affiliation.) Conversely, an isolated gloss without clear cognates constitutes weak evidence. There is also a hierarchy of proof. Independent lines of information that converge to shared shadings of meaning indicate that an argument is sound. Information coming only from general, comparative sources (i.e., "what humans are like") defer to multiple Mesoamerican sources, and Mesoamerican sources to Maya ones. There is no foolproof method, only reasoned argument and serendipitous insight. Moreover, the notion that Classic data must take primacy is one we endorse, for that time and its remains continue to be our destination. We think it mistaken, however, to suggest that later evidence must be ignored at some early stage of interpretation or that Colonial information can only be adduced at the end of an argument because "a historicized reading . . . [must proceed] from the earlier state to the later" (R. Joyce 2000b:281). That is not how most of us come to know the Maya through the key portals of, say, Bishop Diego de Landa's Relación. Those later clusters of meaning, often more clearly stated than clues from the Classic, allow us to frame hypotheses and hone particular lines of reasoning, which can then be evaluated against the earlier sources at no jeopardy to strength of argument.


Broader intellectual models for our book are not hard to find. One could argue that the only valid approach to ancient experience is replication. How is one to understand the flintknapper without taking hammerstone to nodule? Or, as in Maya heart extraction, without using flint or obsidian on cadavers (Robicsek and Hales 1984)? For us, Maya cities are, from an olfactory perspective, best imagined by walking through a market in Tabasco, Mexico, on a hot day, the reek and rotting interspersed with smoke, shouts, clucks, food smells, music, song, and squeals: Maya cities were cooked by the same sun and swept clean by comparable sheets of rain. The frequent display in Classic art of nobles sniffing flowers may have been part of a new olfactory regime during the Late Classic period (ca. AD 600-850), perhaps in response to heightened smells in increasingly congested settlements (see Corbin 1986:72-77, for the shift from musk to vegetal perfumes in ancien-régime France). Acoustical properties of Maya buildings, and attempting to understand them as elaborate sounding boards, are not yet on our collective research agenda, although they should be (see A. Watson and Keating 1999). Isolated, unpublished studies of Pre-Columbian instruments in Guatemala have simulated the complex, concurrent tonalities of Maya flutes, whistles, and other sound-making devices. It is likely that some of those instruments, such as a peculiar device for reproducing jaguar calls (Schele and Mathews 1998:pl. 11), have now disappeared or nearly so, much as the bagpipe, once common throughout Europe, now exists only on the Celtic margins of Scotland, Ireland, and Galicia.


Also of great value are comparative studies of the body in a variety of cultural settings, including an insightful but relatively brief work, published after this manuscript was prepared, by Lynn Meskell and Rosemary Joyce (2003; see also a recent doctoral thesis by Pamela Geller [2004]). The benefit of such analyses is that they stimulate thoughts from unexpected directions. This volume strives for an aesthetic and analytical balance between theory and information. The relevant literature on body theory belongs to two categories: one that approaches the body in general and another that studies kingly bodies, of the sort commonly depicted by the Classic Maya.


Body Theory


For the purposes of this discussion, the human body has four principal properties. Most importantly, it is an organism. It also thinks and acts (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987:7), defines itself through social existence and interaction, and displays attributes that inform the way we comprehend other matters. The body performs a pivotal role in human existence precisely because of these properties, which merge physicality and concept, image and action. The body is the right place to look at the connection between naturalism, which stresses physical features, and constructionism, which looks at self-concepts and collective ones (M. Weiss 2002:11). Such properties help us understand all bodies, whether royal or nonroyal. They deserve separate treatment.


The first two properties are, respectively, phenomenological, having to do with the experience of life, and interactional, concerning the body in society. The body literally makes action and thought possible through physical motion and the firing of synapses. Scholars may refer to disembodied, generalized entities like "society," "culture," or "state," sometimes imputing intention and agency to them. But it is the body, and the body alone, that truly hosts intellection and enables humans to act. More deeply still, the body combines sensation, cognition, meaning, and identity. Jacques Lacan would have us believe that this combination occurs when the body and its mind assemble a self-image from countless tactile and kinesthetic experiences. By looking at other beings, by internalizing a "specular image" of other people, the body distills such encounters into a conception of itself as a complete entity, a body with boundaries and a minimal set of features (Grosz 1995:86; Lacan 1977:19). In this, Lacan follows far clearer writers, such as George Herbert Mead, who believed "[we] must be others if we are to be ourselves . . . [so that a]ny self is a social self[, although] it is restricted to the group whose roles it assumes" (1964:292; see also Cooley 1964 and his concept of the "looking-glass self"). As a concept and as a physical thing, the body can only be understood in relation to other bodies, a point particularly relevant to royalty. At the same time, the body is always confronted with the problem of being different, since it manifestly fails to conform fully to collectively held ideal shapes and behaviors (Falk 1994:137).


Still, assertions about "complete beings" deserve some caution, since they presuppose a gestalt model of human identity. Recent studies suggest strongly that, within a person, there can cohabit multiple "narrative selves" that "constitute the subject of the person's experience at some point in time" (Lock 1993:146; see also Young 1990). Leaving to the side the problem of how such selves articulate with one another--can it only be because of a shared body?--there are parallels in Pre-Columbian data. In the formal rhetoric of Maya inscriptions, distinct "narrative selves," usually linked to mythic identities and their tropes, can be attached to the person of Maya lords through dance (inspiriting action) and ritual impersonation (inspiriting ornament; Houston and D. Stuart 1996:306).


Along with body images come notions of space and time, either with respect to individuals--the "egocentric" frame of reference that situates the individual as a participant--or to an "absolute" view that involves the mind as a kind of "disengaged theorist" viewing space and time comprehensively, without individual vantage point (J. Campbell 1994:5-6; a close parallel is that of the body as feeling subject and object to be seen and manipulated [Falk 1994:2; Merleau-Ponty 1964]). Egocentric space exists in relation to parts of the body, right, left, up, down. The body as an active force resides in the center. In contrast, absolute space corresponds to coordinates that have no central point. So, too, with time. A body moving through time senses the potential of the future and retains memory of the past. Yet, according to one phenomenological interpretation, it can be said to exist only in its present phase of existence, shuttling from experience to experience (Luckmann 1991:154). The body is never static; it is always in the process of becoming and doing (Shilling 1993); indeed, this is the very problem of going from static images, as are scrutinized in this book, to any authentic sense of passing experience and the body as it develops continuously through time. That same body, however, also exists within absolute time, time without end, time that does not depend on individual experience. Patently, space and time are causally connected. A self-conscious human relies on them to act or perform as an agent, since the full use of instruments to achieve desired ends requires spatial sense as well as temporal calculation (J. Campbell 1994:38-41). The example of the royal body accentuates egocentric and absolute perspectives. A prime mover of social action and a privileged receptor of perception, the royal body also serves conceptually as a central axis of cosmic order.


Another element of embodiment is that shared images of the body permit our very existence as social beings. Through the medium of the body, philosophical subjects (our conscious selves) relate to objects (all that is external to those selves), an existential task of the body emphasized by both Lacan and Mead. A result of this interaction is that the body learns that it is not alone, that it coexists, not with projected phantasms of the mind, but with fellow subjects that are equally capable of thought and activity. The result is a capacity to live in human society (Holbrook 1988:121-122). The body image permits us to confide in "a stable external world and a coherent sense of self-identity" (Giddens 1991:51) and to synchronize our experiences and actions with those of other bodies (Luckmann 1991:156).


The body is central in another way, too. It possesses attributes that form a natural, forceful, and readily structured model for categorizing other aspects of the world. As such, the body, its symmetries, and its asymmetries are, in Robert Hertz's words, "the essential articles of our intellectual equipment" (Hertz 1973:21; see also Coren 1993). Indeed, the body as experiential filter unavoidably imprints its properties on the world around it. At once physical entity and cognized image, the body endlessly generates metaphors for ordering thoughts and actions about everything from society to morality, buildings to geography, often linking body space with cosmic and social space (Bourdieu 1990:77; Eliade 1959:168, 172-173; Flynn 1998:46; Lock 1993:135). To some, it is doubtful that the body can truly exist in a "natural" or preconceptual state. After all, it is the mind that necessarily organizes perception of the body (Lock 1993:136). Mark Johnson would put this differently. The meanings of the body arise from the experience of physical acts; abstract concepts (such as institutions or morality) acquire meaning by being likened to recurrent physical actions or entities (Johnson 1987:98). This metaphorical structuring allows us to comprehend experience. Nonetheless, the use of terms like metaphor may be misleading. Conceptually, things presumed to be similar may share essences: that is, they do not so much resemble, as form part of, each other (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987:20-21). Such beliefs closely recall doctrines of monism that acknowledge only one principle or being and that discount Cartesian dualisms between mind and matter.


The body is also a vehicle for meaningful gesture, movement, and ornament. Marcel Mauss noted that "the body is the first and most natural instrument of humanity" (1950:372). What interested Mauss were not so much internal images as the "techniques of the body," how the body was manipulated according to age, sex, prestige, and form of activity. In Mauss's personal experience, these "techniques" varied by society and changed dramatically through time. The body has a "history"; it is not so much "a constant amidst flux but . . . an epitome of that flux" (Csordas 1994:2; see also Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982:128-129). Body practices, which Mauss included within his notion of "habitus," were acquired socially as repetitious acts, often learned from childhood, and under the authority of prestigious individuals whose example others tended to follow (Mauss 1950:368-369). Through habitus, the body became a workable paradox, functioning as "tool, agent, and object" (Csordas 1994:5). Michel Foucault developed similar ideas, albeit within a history of Western prisons, by showing how bodies undergo "surveillance" from more powerful bodies that, in Foucault's words, "invest it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs" (1995:25; see also Bourdieu 1990:54-56; Gell 1993:3-4). Foucault's views, however, have a tendency to reduce all interaction to an elastic concept of "power" that seems largely blind to gender (Meskell 1996:8-9). They also treat humans like weirdly passive automata or fleshy but inert pawns on a chess board.


Mauss focused on movement and interactions with objects, but one can scarcely avoid another "technique of the body": its ornamentation, whether by dress, paint, tattooing, or physical deformation. Such surface modifications are focal because they involve the "social skin," the "frontier of the social self" that serves as a "symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialization is enacted" (T. Turner 1980:112). Some of these modifications or body disciplines are more or less permanent or accretional, others are fleeting and discontinuous, yet all advertise something that a particular body wishes to communicate (R. Joyce 1998:157, 159). The social skin inverts Hertz's metaphoric extensions by both projecting and receiving signs from other semantic domains; bodily metaphors help structure the world, and the world semantically structures the body. This complex interplay of meanings results in widespread notions of multiple bodies (Csordas 1994:5), including social and physical bodies (Douglas 1973:93-112); bodies that experience, that regulate or represent symbols (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987:18-23); and medical and consumer bodies (O'Neill 1985:91-147), each connected to its own realm of thought and behavior but linked physically and compellingly in the flesh. As much signboard as mirror, the social skin can equally express inner qualities and conditions (Gell 1993:3-31; Strathern 1979). Its symbolic density makes it central to understanding meanings that converge on the body.


Royal Bodies


If the body records core concepts of societies, it must also generate social difference and hierarchy, whether of the sexes or of unequals within society (Laqueur 1990:11). The problem of the royal body assumes primary importance here. What symbolic domains intersect uniquely in the royal body? What is its relation to time, space, and action? How do people establish and mark its singularity? How, in short, are transcendent beings created out of human flesh, and "stranger kings" devised out of kin (Feeley-Harnik 1985:281)? Along with James Frazer (1959), whose work on divine kings remains topical if controversial, Ernst Kantorowicz (1957) showed the way in a study that has influenced historical disciplines as diverse as Egyptology and Classical studies (L. Bell 1985; Dupont 1989).


According to Kantorowicz, in late Medieval kingship the royal body conflated the physical presence with corporate symbols. Although it might wither and die, the body attained immortality and ceaseless vitality when conceived as the corporeal representation of high office (Kantorowicz 1957:23, 506). Such concepts--which in Europe descended principally, but not solely, from Pauline concepts of the body of Christ--come to the fore in rituals and regalia of accession and burial. At accession, these rituals merged and then, at burial, disentangled distinct meanings of the body, thus sustaining the seamless dignity of office in the face of physical corruption and the disturbance of office entailed in royal succession; images or immediate inheritance ensured that seamless quality (Flynn 1998:17; but see Elizabeth Brown [1981:266], who questions the supposed unimportance to kingship of the interred corpse). The royal spouse shared in this ritual processing, but incompletely. Royal couples are necessary for propagation yet symbolically violate the integrity of the monad that should, ideally, encompass only the ruler. The Egyptian and Andean cases bring two royal bodies together by the expedient of incest, which concentrates wealth and regal essence. Incest provides another mark of distinction. It differentiates royal practice from that of other people and establishes parallels with the behavior of gods (Gillespie 1989:52-55).


Of key importance in Medieval mortuary effigies and Roman antecedents were images (imagoes) that housed--indeed constituted--the body incorruptible, to be fed and paid court to as the successor prepared himself for ritual "estrangement" from other mortals (Dupont 1989:407-409; Flynn 1998:16-17). Among the Romans, the rights to such images (ius imaginum) correlated tightly with claims to nobility (Dupont 1989:410). As we shall see in Chapter 2, such images abounded in Classic Maya art as well, and they accorded with pan-Mesoamerican beliefs in the extension of an individual's essence to other images or objects--for example, the royal "skin" could also wrap over stelae and altars, multiplying its presence (Chapter 2; López Austin 1997:42). Body and alter image used clothing and ornament to create a social skin that marked them uniquely. As immortal bodies, they neutralized time by appearing forever fresh and regal, in flagrant disregard of decay. And as bodies of centrality, they could, as in Southeast Asian models of kingship, exist at a pivotal place from which a gradient descends to other beings. They then "giv[e] way at the periphery to realms of equal but opposite kinds of power" that exhibit disorder and decentered excess (Feeley-Harnik 1985:25).


For this reason, spaces distant from the ruler's body tend to be morally ambiguous and dangerous. The ruler's space is egocentric, focused on his body and its perception, and absolute, in that royal space cannot inherently assign equivalence to other bodies in the regions it occupies. In kingly models that center the ruler cosmically, the royal body can be imagined in two ways: as a central, static point around which the world revolves; and as a restless, heroic, and primary force of agency from which other human activities ripple (Tambiah 1976:112-113, 118-119). Better than anything else, these properties exemplify the body as a paradoxical mixture of tool, agent, and subject.


Conceptually, bodily practices of the ruler take place in "monumental time," which is "reductive and generic" and "reduces social experience to collective predictability" (Herzfeld 1991:10; see also R. Joyce 1998:159). This is simply a fancy way of saying that activities are formulaic and repeated from earlier ones--or so traditions allege. Nonetheless, these practices often originate in common acts, appropriating the form and logic of everyday activities, such as bathing, eating, or planting; these are then modified to the extent that they attain a different order of meaning among rulers (Bloch 1985:272). From the pull of the familiar and its transformation into actions of striking dissimilarity come the emotional force of these rituals for all who witness them. They generalize and exalt the mundane within an idiom shared by the ruler and the ruled, presenting "complements and counterfoils to commoner traditions" (Blier 1995:346).


Perhaps the most telling example is the royal feast, which historians and anthropologists typically see largely in terms of payment and reciprocity or studied ostentation (e.g., Murray 1996:19; see also Chapter 3). Feasts can certainly be seen in such ways, but the superabundance of food offered to rulers at Hellenistic, Aztec, and Bourbon courts captures more of the prodigious appetites expected of the royal body, which summons foodstuffs that no mortal could consume at one sitting. The royal body could also crave, and pretend to satisfy, other pleasures in superhuman quantity, as suggested by the 450 women in the Ottoman harem just after the fall of Constantinople (Necipoglu 1991:160). These patterns remind us that royal bodies function in a supercharged symbolic realm, culturally and locally idiosyncratic but essential to understanding the ruler in time and space.


A Book's Backbone


The foregoing suggests that our main goal in writing this book is to contribute a few lines toward a general and rather abstract theory of the body. That is not the case. The question for us is always (and it is a suitable view in this age of historical contextualism), how does theory illuminate what we see in evidence? Is theory--a prestigious niche within present-day hierarchies of knowledge--truly doing its work? Readers will judge for themselves. As Gail Weiss points out, there may be conventional images or notions of "the body," but every body is, of course, unique, with multiple self-images (1999:1-2). Simply put, the body as concept and object is an untidy thing, but the Classic Maya looked at in a highly stylized, formulaic fashion. Even the much-touted attention to detail in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century is now understood to pass through similar, distorting filters (de Vries 1991:221). Our assumption is that those images from the Classic period channel ideas about what should be or what is being seen. They are as composed and carefully selected as the artful photographs of Manuel Álvarez Bravo. At the same time, the abundant imagery of the Classic Maya did not only reflect or stereotype. It provided ample models for how people should behave. In part, such models must have been followed. Even the scrutiny of images would recall and mold memories of earlier events.


The following chapters are the vertebrae of this book. They appear in an order that seems logical to us, yet rely on each other for support. Chapter 1 outlines a cartography of the Maya body, its parts and meanings as understood from imagery and texts. Chapter 2 addresses the key question of the Maya body and its replication in "portraiture." The next three chapters, "Ingestion" (Chapter 3), "Senses" (Chapter 4), and "Emotions" (Chapter 5), consider Classic Maya representations of experience. Parts of these chapters will find an empathetic response in readers; others will repel and mystify. Chapter 6 looks at a key component of Maya being and experience: that related to war captives and other sacrificial victims. The meanings of pain and sexuality find a place here. The final chapters, on oracular words and masking (Chapters 7 and 8, respectively), look at embodied words, often heaven sent, and the blurring of bodies by spirit possession. If the ruler can replicate his body through "portraiture," then he (and nobles) can also condense multiple identities into one physical frame. A final section, an epilogue or a closing exhalation as it were, summarizes key points, leaving openings, however, for work to come. The more we toil on this project, the clearer it becomes that Maya body concepts are barely probed.


Authorship: most of the prose was written by Houston during his sabbatical year, with emendations and suggestions by Stuart and Taube. Ideas come from all three authors. We believe our skills at epigraphy and iconography work nicely in unison. Parts of the book have appeared, often shaped differently, in a number of places and conferences or symposia: Preamble (Houston and Cummins 1998); Chapter 2, "Bodies and Portraits" (Houston and D. Stuart 1998; D. Stuart 1996); Chapter 3, "Ingestion" (Houston 2001b); Chapter 4, "Senses" (Houston and Taube 2000); Chapter 5, "Emotions" (Houston 2001a); Chapter 7, "Words on Wings" (Houston 2001c); and Chapter 8, "Dance, Music, Masking" (Houston 2002b). All those published before (Chapters 2, 4, and 5) are used with permission here, with gratitude to the editors and presses. Dr. Francesco Pellizzi and his journal, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, along with the Peabody Museum Press, Donna Dickerson, Manager, permitted publication of a heavily reworked version of Chapter 2. Dr. Chris Scarre of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal did the same for Chapter 4. Prof. Tom Cummins saw no objection to our use of some parts of his joint paper with Houston (the lifted prose was Houston's, however). Dr. Peter Rowley-Conwy, editor of World Archaeology, the publisher, Routledge, and its Permissions Administrator, Sarah Wilkins, granted permission to include Chapter 5, which first appeared in different form within the pages of that journal (see also its Web site, at For comments on those pieces, and for much other kindness, encouragement, and advice during the preparation of this manuscript, we thank the following friends and colleagues: Elizabeth Boone, Una Canger, Mark Child, José Miguel García Campillo, Arlen and Diane Chase, Andrés Ciudad Ruiz, John Clark, Michael Coe, Connie and Charlie Dayton, Michael ("Mickey") Dietler, Héctor Escobedo, Susan Evans, Gelya Frank, Elizabeth ("Liz") Graham, Ian Graham, John Hawkins, Ingrid Herbich, Josefa ("Pepa") Iglesias Ponce de León, Spence and Kristin Kirk, Cecelia Klein, Alfonso Lacadena, Richard Leventhal, Nancy Owen Lewis, Alan Maca, Patricia McAnany, Lynn Meskell, Mary Miller, Jesper Nielsen, Johan Normark, Joanne Pillsbury, Shannon Plank, Jeffrey Quilter, John Robertson, Marshall Sahlins, Robert ("Bob") Sharer, David Webster, Kathy Whittaker, Ken and Athelia Woolley, and Norm Yoffee. Stouthearted Allen Christenson, Simon Martin, and Khristaan Villela read drafts of chapters with much wisdom and greatly to our benefit. Their deep knowledge improved all that they read, as did comments from Patricia McAnany and another, anonymous reviewer for the University of Texas Press. At the Press, Theresa May was, as ever, a pillar of support, along with her very capable staff, including Alison Faust and Leslie Doyle Tingle. Cassandra Mesick, loyal and helpful graduate student at Brown University, gave great help in the final preparation of the manuscript, a task supported by Houston's professorial funds. Oswaldo Chinchilla permitted the use of his fine drawings of monuments from the piedmont of Guatemala; other drawings and photographs are used here with the permission of: Mark Child of Yale University; Mary Miller and Michael Coe, also of Yale; Ian Graham and, separately, Marc Zender of the Peabody Museum at Harvard; Arlen and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida; Justin and Barbara Kerr of Kerr Associates; Sharon Misdea of the University of Pennsylvania Museum; William Saturno and Heather Hurst of the San Bartolo Project and, respectively, the University of New Hampshire and Yale University; and Tara Zapp of George Braziller, Inc. John Robertson (n.d.) supplied us with a version of his exhaustive scanned database of Mayan dictionaries, including many gems from the Gates Collection at Brigham Young University. Without it, our job would have been much harder.


Those with more technical interests in Mayan languages should note that we have preserved, where possible, the original spellings from various Colonial dictionaries, a practice that respects those sources. In general, we have avoided the use of /b'/ for the glottalized bilabial, preferring /b/ in all cases: John Robertson convinces us that the /'/, an inevitable component of /b/, does not need an extra, noncontrastive diacritic. We have also simplified the customary epigraphic practice of using eye-popping boldface to distinguish glyphs from the transcription of the word(s) they spell. It seems easier on the reader to use square brackets [*] for the first and paired forward slashes /*/ for the second. Additionally, full caps denote a logograph, or word sign, and lowercase is used for a syllable. An asterisk represents a reconstructed form or "Fill in word here," and hyphens are used as dividers between glyphs, whether word signs or syllables. In some instances following a Mayan term, we have added in parentheses a phonologically more accurate or correct version of a spelling from a Colonial dictionary, as in keuel (k'ewel).


Justin Kerr's extraordinary collection of rollout photographs from Maya ceramics, cited throughout this book by their "K" or "Kerr" number (e.g., K4682), has, without overstatement, revolutionized the study of the Classic Maya. To Justin and Barbara, his wife, our warm thanks for their many acts of liberality in the use and presentation of these images. Readers may consult the Kerr archive readily by going to on the Web.


Institutional support came, as always, from the generous coffers of Brigham Young University, with particular help from Vice Presidents Alan Wilkins, Gary Hooper, and Noel Reynolds and Deans Clayne Pope and David Magleby. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH Grant RO-22648-93) supported earlier research by Houston and Stuart. During the 2002-2003 academic year, Houston received a leave from Brigham Young University and supported himself with fellowships kindly bestowed by and gratefully received from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the School of American Research, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. The School and its staff, particularly Richard Leventhal, Nancy Owen Lewis, and Leslie Shipman, helped greatly in expediting the work. Finds from Piedras Negras, Guatemala, were recovered courtesy of a permit from Guatemala's Institute of Anthropology and History, and because of generous benefactions from the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., Mr. Lewis Ranieri, President; the National Geographic Society; the National Science Foundation; the Ahau Foundation, Dr. Peter Harrison, President; and our mainstay, Brigham Young University. Houston's departmental chairs, John Hawkins and Joel Janetski, and, at Brown, David Kertzer and Phil Leis, were always there to help, as was Stuart's, William Fash, and Taube's, Tom Patterson. The Bartlett Curatorship at the Peabody Museum, Harvard, assisted Stuart in his research. Our spouses, Nancy, Bridget, and Rhonda, put up with us and kept us sane. Our children, Anders and Hannah (Houston) and Peter and Richard (Stuart), did the same, reminding us that academic work is far, far less interesting than a good DVD or video game.


But how could we write a book without the mothers who gave us minds, bodies, and, above all, hearts? Maj-Britt Nilsson Houston and Gene Stuart, now passed on, give us daily memories of love; Mary, very much with us, sends her best, too. To them we dedicate this book.


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