Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Maverick Mayanist Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997
by John Dorfman and Andrew L. Slayman

[image] Ian Graham at his home base, Harvard's Peabody Museum (Richard Frank) [LARGER IMAGE]

Ian Graham has done more than any other person to save the fragile written record of the ancient Maya from destruction by looters, harsh weather, and acid rain. For 37 years he has drawn and photographed monuments in the jungles of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, and since 1975 published them in an ongoing series of folio volumes titled the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. The ultimate goal of the Corpus, based at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, is the documentation of all Maya inscriptions. As the founder and guiding spirit of the Corpus, Graham won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1981, the first year they were given out.

Graham spent several days this past spring working at the site of El Perú in northern Guatemala, an important Maya city-state from A.D. 300 to 700. Most of El Perú's standing monuments have been looted, and only fragments remain. First Graham and his assistants raise the fragments so that their carved surfaces are visible. Then they clean them, and Graham photographs and draws the carvings. Back in Cambridge, he will develop and print his photographs, do the final drawings and maps, and write the descriptive text.

Ian Graham was born in 1923 in Campsey Ash, England. In 1942 he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied in physics, but left in 1943 to join the Royal Navy. After World War II, he resumed his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and earned his bachelor's degree in 1951.

He became fascinated with the Maya in 1958, on a trip to Mexico. During the 1960s, he spent as much time as he could roaming around Mesoamerica, photographing and drawing monuments at Maya sites. In 1964 Gordon Willey, of the Peabody Museum, invited Graham to act as surveyor for a new project at Seibal, Guatemala. In 1968 Edgar H. Brenner, a Washington lawyer with an interest in the Maya, conceived the idea of a systematic publication of the whole body of Maya inscriptions. Graham was chosen to carry out a pilot project, which he finished in September 1969. In 1970 the Peabody Museum offered the project a home, and the National Endowment for the Humanities pledged grants for the next two years.

So far, 16 volumes of the Corpus have appeared, covering 17 sites, and there are about 220 sites to go. Of these, Graham has the raw materials for about 30; most of the rest have hardly any inscriptions. All Mayanists agree on the importance of Graham's work. In the years since the Corpus was conceived, scholars have gone from being able to read about ten percent of the hieroglyphs to as much as 70 percent. "The Corpus project was driving the decipherment," says David Stuart, a master epigrapher who works with Graham on the Corpus. "In epigraphy, the more examples you have, the faster it goes. Only by the mid-seventies did scholars have hundreds of texts to work with, due primarily to Ian."

John Dorfman is on the staff of the NEW YORKER. Andrew L. Slayman is an associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America