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Mayanist Ian Alastair Graham

A tribute to British Mayanist Ian Graham

Leading British Mayanist Ian James Alastair Graham, founder and head of the pioneering Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project at the Peabody Museum, USA (main photo), died on August 1st 2017 at the age of 93. We are sincerely grateful to Dr. David Pendergast, Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, for this generous tribute to a lifelong friend...

Pic 1: David Pendergast at the Maya site of Altun Ha, Belize, 1998
Pic 1: David Pendergast at the Maya site of Altun Ha, Belize, 1998 (Click on image to enlarge)

There was nothing in Ian’s upbringing or his higher education that could have pointed to the career that he chose - recording the writing on ancient Maya monuments spread widely through the tropical forests of Guatemala and Mexico - and that was one of the many charming things about him. I met him in the late 1960s, when he appeared in my field camp at Altun Ha in Belize, opening the gate in the fence that I had erected to keep the camp out of the tourist sphere. Thinking him a tourist, I challenged him at first, but the next few moments were the start of a friendship that spanned amost half a century.

Pic 2: Ian Graham’s first visit to Mexico in 1958 sparked his long involvement with Maya archaeology
Pic 2: Ian Graham’s first visit to Mexico in 1958 sparked his long involvement with Maya archaeology

I learned over the years that his sudden unexpected appearance was what I could count on every time; popping up as I was closing camp, knocking on the door of my temporary quarters in Belize’s new capital, emerging from the near-darkness as I loaded one of our boats for the trip upriver to Lamanai, or ringing my doorbell in Toronto, his arrivals were always a surprise, and always an extremely pleasant one. When he had time to stay for a while, we shared stories - his always more interesting than mine, for he was a real bush-buster, searching out stelae or previously unrecorded buildings, whether in the forested Guatemalan Peten or the dry scrub of the northern Yucatan Peninsula.

Pic 3: Beyond his world-class status as epigrapher, Graham ‘knew how to laugh at life and at himself’
Pic 3: Beyond his world-class status as epigrapher, Graham ‘knew how to laugh at life and at himself’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Although he was unquestionably an anomaly in the world of Maya archaeology, an upper-class English gentleman walking countless miles to find new monuments and record them, his contribution to the study of the ancient people was as great as those of any of his predecessors and his contemporaries. On top of that, he recognised the ludicrous quality of much of life, and he knew how to laugh at it and at himself. I will miss him greatly.

NOTE: Graham published a memoir of his professional life and career, The Road to Ruins, in 2010.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo (INAH archives), from Proceso - http://www.proceso.com.mx/497319/pesar-en-inah-la-muerte-ian-alastair-graham-especialista-en-la-cultura-maya
• Pix 1 & 3: photos courtesy of David Pendergast
• Pic 2: photo (Peabody Museum archives) - link below...

‘Ian Graham, British Mayanist and Peabody Colleague dies at 93’
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