The recent interpretation of Maya hieroglyphs has given us the first written history of the New World as it existed before the European invasion. In this book, two of the first central figures in the massive effort to decode the glyphs, Linda Schele and David Freidel, make this history available in all its detail. "A Forest of Kings" is the story of Maya kingship, from the beginning of its institution and the first great pyramid builders two thousand years ago to the decline of Maya civilization and its destruction by the Spanish. Here the great historic rulers of pre-Columbian civilization come to life again with the decipherment of their writing. At its height, Maya civilization flourished under great kings like Shield-Jaguar, who ruled for more than sixty years, expanding his kingdom and building some of the most impressive works of architecture in the ancient world. Long placed on a mist-shrouded pedestal as austere, peaceful stargazers, the Maya elites are now known to have been the rulers of populous, aggressive city-states.
Hailed as "a Rosetta stone of Maya civilization" (Brian M. Fagan, author of "People of the Earth"), "A Forest of Kings" is "a must for interested readers," says Evon Vogt, professor of anthropology at Harvard University.
The key to many mysteries of Maya civilization has been the deciphering of their hieroglyphs, and recent research by a number of scholars, among them Schele (Art/Univ. of Texas at Austin) and Freidel (Archaeology/Southern Methodist Univ.), has opened doors to understanding that have been closed for centuries. This fascinating, copiously illustrated work rewrites Maya history in light of the new discoveries. The authors have been working among the monuments and rains in the Yucatan peninsula for roughly 20 years, and rely extensively on their own findings and interpretations to tell a story of centuries of prosperity, conquest, and glory. From major cities such as Cerros and Tikal, Palenque and Chichen Itza, Maya rulers forged a powerful civilization begriming in the early years of the Christian calendar - a civilization that remained intact until the European conquerors laid waste to it in the 16th and 17th centuries. The nature of the remaining records - inscriptions on temples, palaces, monuments, and the like - allows little more than a history of these rulers to be told, but nevertheless a rich and lively tale emerges, which brings much of their religious beliefs and cosmology to the fore. The authors preface their interpretation with an extensive overview of Maya society and its achievements, from agricultural practices in taming the fertile swampland and the famous Calendar Round - part of a calendric system of 20-day months and a 52-year cycle - to the importance of ritual bloodletting as a means of acquiring visions and linking to the Otherworld. The chronology proper comes to life with ample dramatic enhancement, as details of a religious procession or human sacrifice are freely imagined, and the freshness of this approach makes it as exciting as the first interpretive successes with Egyptian hieroglyphs early in the 19th century, and perhaps as important. Although weighing in with a full complement of footnotes and occasionally too wide-eyed, this is impressive and daring work, a welcome addition to popular knowledge of pre-Columbian civilization in Mesoamerica. (Kirkus Reviews)