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Motul de San José: A Book Review

Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity

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Motul de San Jose - Cover Art

Motul de San Jose - Cover Art

© University of Florida Press

Motul de San José. Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity. Antonia E. Foias and Kitty Emery (Editors). 2012. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL. ISBN 978-0-8130-4190-2 (hardcover, alkaline paper). 535 pages, including bibliographical references and index.

The new edited book by Antonia E. Foias and Kitty Emery from the University Press of Florida called Motul de San José: Politics, History and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity, focuses on the ancient Maya city of Motul de San José, a secondary center in the Lake Petén region of Guatemala, near the major site of Tikal. Using a series of innovative approaches and analytical methods, along with more traditional archaeological studies, the authors of the 16 chapters show how this city was economically and politically organized, offering a detailed reconstruction of its history and regional and interregional connections. The recurring theme is the importance of understanding economic organization in order to reconstruct ancient Maya political history, a theme often underestimated in Maya studies.

Chapter Overview

In chapter 1 the editors offer an introduction to the project and to its theoretical basis, reviewing traditional and current approaches to ancient Maya political and economic organization and how these relate to the Motul de San José polity. Chapter 2, by Tokovinine and Zender, discusses the intricacies of Motul de San José's dynastic and political history through a detailed analysis of inscriptions found on monuments and vessels, identifying ruler names and the city's ancient name, Ik'a', and offering a glimpse into the city's wider political relations as well as into its courtly life.

Chapter 3, by Reents-Budet, Guenter, Bishop, and Blackman, is a chemical and stylistic analysis of painted vessels to show how these objects were used by Maya nobles during feasts as a way to strengthen economic and political ties and alliances within and outside their region. In chapter 4, authors Foias, Halperin, Spensely, and Castellanos present a study of volume construction, style and artifacts from five elite residences in Motul de San José to show how, in contrast to what it is generally thought, wealth, status and political power were not necessarily linked in rigid way.

Chapter 5, by Christina Halperin, describes the importance of ceramic figurines in different aspects of ancient Maya life, and how their use and role changed from site to site. In chapter 6, Halperin and Foias present information on the production and exchange of goods from the analysis of waste materials of a ceramic workshop, highlighting how the supposed difference between luxury and everyday items was, in reality, much more blurred.

Site Studies

Chapter 7, by Matthew Moriarty, introduces the site of Trinidad de Nosotros, a thriving port community on the shore of lake Petén Itza and its political and economic connections to Motul de San José. In Chapter 8 Ellen Spensley Moriarty presents the results from a chemical analysis of plasters to show how the materials used may reflect wealth, status, and access to resources both within residences of the same period as well as changes over time.

Chapter 9, by Yorgey and Moriarty, focuses on the minor site of Akte, in the periphery of Motul de San José, a possible rural noble estate, with large monumental architecture. Chapters 10 (Wyatt et al.), 11 (Emery), and 12 (Kennedy Thornton) focus on animal and plant remains and their distribution to understand economic and political mechanisms that defined who had access to what. These studies reveal, on one hand, the importance of faunal and botanical studies for aspects such as diet, trade patterns, and craft specialization, and, on the other hand, different trends across time and space.

Chapter 13, by Bair and Terry, and 14, by Webb and Schwarcz, assess the importance of chemical analyses on ancient soils for understanding the distribution of fertile land within the region, as well as identifying activity areas such as market places, and events such as feasting. Soil chemical analysis also is vital for detecting the distribution of specific gardens and farm fields, such as maize agriculture, within and outside the community. This last study shows that, at least for the Motul de San José area, contrary to generally accepted ideas, maize was not cultivated in peripheral areas, but near households, and that made some sort of exchange between less productive villages and more bountiful ones possible.

Weaving a Whole Image

In Chapter 15 the editors weave together all the evidence presented in the previous chapters to reconstruct the ancient history of Motul de San José and its surrounding communities showing how the region was socially, politically and economically integrated at different levels. The interesting conclusion is that ancient regions, in this case that of Motul de San José, were more differentially organized and less centrally controlled by elites than previously noted. The authors are careful in not making a general case true for all the Maya cities, but open the debate on the fact that, as in modern societies, things can be organized in a varied set of manners, hierarchically and horizontally at the same time, without one excluding the other.

Finally, chapter 16, by Elizabeth Graham, reiterates the main theme of the book, concluding that political power and the ups and downs of specific ancient Maya cities or dynasties seem to have been more strictly related to economic issues than previously thought.

Pros and Cons of the Book

Motul de San José: Politics, History, and Economy in a Classic Maya Polity is a balanced example of traditional archaeological approaches with more recent takes in archaeological studies integrating chemical, botanical, and faunal analyses. Although the book is quite specialized and detailed in terms of scientific contents and terminology, and therefore it might put the non-specialist reader off, it also represents a much-needed example of complete archaeological study from which a richly textured history of an ancient community can be understood.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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