Scholars study the ancient Maya through many lenses, among them archaeology, epigraphy, linguistics, art, paleontology, lithics, and ceramics, and through the practices and beliefs of the 11 million Maya who live in five adjacent modern nation-states today. Site-specific studies once sought to demonstrate how it was that a given ancient city exceeded its neighbors and competitors in its centrality, and sometimes these arguments fell out along the nation-state lines of today, confounding attempts to see both complexity and difference. Two new books provide quite a different picture of the ancient Maya, although both archaeologists spent extended periods of time at the excavations of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, about a decade ago. What they learned there helped shape their studies, but for neither is Piedras Negras really the answer: that ancient city along the Usumacinta helps frame the questions, but many aspects of Piedras...

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