Dave Quarterson presents:
Reflections on The Road to Ruins
by Ian Graham
Wouldn’t it be fascinating to spend an evening with Ian Graham? A comfortable chair, a fire in the hearth and a 25-year-old bottle of Chivas Regal with two glasses. You could sit back and listen to a master tell of his 87-year-long journey from a self-professed lackluster student to a MacArthur Fellow – and one of the preeminent Maya archaeologists of our time. I just had that same experience reading Ian Graham’s marvelous autobiography, The Road to Ruins.
Graham was born into an aristocratic English family that was long on linage but short on cash. Graham had to make his own way. After flunking out of Cambridge and serving in the British navy during World War II, he finished his education at Trinity College, Dublin. After a few false career starts, he found himself in New York City working as a commercial photographer.
He decided to drive his 1927 Rolls-Royce sports coupe to California hoping to sell it to a movie mogul for a princely sum, seeing America in the process. While motoring through south Texas he saw a sign pointing to Mexico. Without thinking, Graham turned south and into the history books.
He was enthralled with Mexico and entranced by the Maya civilization. Returning to England he haunted the British Museum studying everything about the Maya he could find. Armed with copious notes he traveled Mexico and Central America with the idea of combining his photographic skills with his new interest to publish a coffee-table book on Maya ruins. It didn’t take long for the drive to become an archaeologist overtook him. Lacking funds or sponsorship for most of his career, Graham managed to cause a stir in jaded Los Angles when he cruised into town in his 1927 Rolls Royce.
Graham eked out his existence in the Maya jungles, forgoing comfort for the sake of knowledge. He witnessed the loss of Maya antiquities to the ravages of time and looters. He worked to convince governments of the need to ban trade in artifacts and he exposed smugglers and shady dealers after the laws were in place. He founded the “Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions”, based at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, as a way to preserve Maya monuments for future generations.
Graham received a MacArthur Foundation genius award in 1981, its inaugural year, providing him steady financial support for the first time in his career.
Graham had several assets working for him. First, an outgoing personality that allowed him to make and keep friends wherever he went. Second, the serendipitous luck of almost always finding a ride, or a new contact, or a place to stay, or a few more dollars to keep going when he most needed it. Third, no matter how lackluster a student he claimed to be, he proved to have a deep reservoir of curiosity and the ability to learn quickly. Finally, Ian Graham seems to be from the same mold as those British adventurers and explorers that went before him, making it fitting that he is also Alfred Maudslay’s biographer.
The Road to Ruins is a must read for anyone who enjoys a tale well told. It chronicles Graham’s career as “the last explorer”. The book was published in 2010 by the University of New Mexico Press ... fireplace and scotch sold separately.
Click on the image to open a PDF of the review with Images.