Stephen D. Houston

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Kings of Stone, Bodies of Desire: Experience and Being Among the Classic Maya

The wealth of information left by the Classic Maya, who flourished in the Yucatan peninsula between ca. CE 250 and 850, includes not only an "extraordinarily complicated writing system," observes anthropologist Stephen Houston, but also iconography from their "extremely active interest in image-making." The Maya inscriptions and imagery provide details about these ancient peoples that illuminate subjects usually inaccessible to archeologists, such as the senses, emotion, embodiment, consumption, and inebriation. This trove of data from the Classic period is further enhanced by information compiled by Spanish friars in the 1500s and 1600s, as well as rich ethnographic studies spanning the last century into current times.

In Kings of Stone, Bodies of Desire: Experience and Being among the Classic Maya, Houston and co-authors David Stuart and Karl Taube will draw from all of these sources to examine Classic Maya concepts of the human body, from a systematic "mapping" or compendium of the body, to notions of being—what it means to exist, and experience—how sensation was ordered and interpreted. Such a treatment has not been attempted before, and will cover topics including life cycles, impersonation, and concepts of materiality and temporality.

"What's always fascinated me about working with the Maya, and it's not doable with many ancient peoples around the world, is that to some extent you can understand how they experienced life; that is, how they thought about it, how they represented aspects as raw as emotion," Houston says.

Houston challenges what he calls "constructionism," a group of perspectives emerging from cultural studies that regard the body as "little more than a mental projection, a malleable concept that changes with time and local understanding." Noting that modern anthropology also tends to focus on "difference and diversity, how everyone is somehow distinct from each other," Houston observes that while these views must be honored, "the fact of the matter is, we're all human beings."

Contending that the body offers a central point of reference for humans across time and cultures, Houston says this book will "present a view of the Classic Maya that is, in current jargon, historically and culturally contingent but rooted in the inescapable facts of the human body."

Affiliation at time of award:
Jesse Knight University Professor, Department of Anthropology, Brigham Young University

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