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People we wish we’d met: Ian Graham

12 August 2017

A direct descendent of Oliver Cromwell, grandson of the fifth Duke of Montrose and son of a Lord, Ian Graham’s unlikely career, recording Mayan hirogliphs, was a mere by-product of his desperate attempt to sell a used car.

Born in 1923, Graham would be an indifferent student, but … with his illustrious ancestry… expected — like hismany relations — to enter into a respectable career in British academia or publishing.  He opted to study physics, but… flunking out his first year at Trinity College Dublin, joined the Royal Navy serving throughout World War II. While he did return to Trinity after the war, he lost interest in physics, and, hopingto make a living publishing coffee-table photographic books, planned to drive across the United States in his well-maintained 1927 Rolls-Royce.  The idea was to sell the car (preferably to a Hollywood movie mogul) to cover the photo expedition, but a road sign changed his life.

Photo: Expedition Magazine, Penn Museum, July 1973

In south Texas, he noticed the sign pointing to the Mexican border.  Mexico seemed more photogenic than Texas, so he turned the Rolls south.  Stopping off in Mexico City, he became first learned about the Mayans, and their ruins. He would spend the next 50 years of his life meticulously photographing every Mayan glpyph could find… often leading expeditions to uncover little known, or unexplored sites throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.  Eventually hired by Harvard University, Graham’s 17,000 negatives would be the basis for the 1968 Corpus de las Incripciones Jerogliphicas Mayas, the “Bible” of Mayan scholarship.

The Corpus (CMHI) is a more than just a record of every known glyph, but the basis for deciphering a language that has to be recreated backwards.  That is, unlike modern Romance languages (Spanish, French, Catalan, Italian, etc.) where scholars work forward from Latin, and have a known script.  With what we know of Mayan glyphs the result largely of Graham’s own work (and that of 19th century explorer and scholar, Alfred Maudsley) actually being able to read Mayan glyphs is more than just figuring out what each symbol stood for.  It is also a matter of working backwards from the 28 or so extant Mayan languages … work Graham cheerfully predicted shouldn’t take more than another 200 years or so.

Graham’s photographs are often the only remaining evidence of much of the Mayan world,  sites often looted ahead of archeologists and preservationists.  As the pre-emininent expert on these sites, Graham spent much of his later years in courts giving testimony, lobbying governments for stricter penalties for dealing in stolen artifacts, and assisting the Mexican and Guatemalan governments in pressing claims for the return of stolen patrimony. In other instances, where ruins exposed to the elements soon destroyed the glyphs, Graham’s photographs are the only record of what was once visible.

The accidental scholar and jungle explorer was no Indiana Jones.  While he had his share of run-ins with jungle critters, bandits and tourists (he was unfailingly polite to most tourists, especially Mexican and Guatemalan tourists, though he was known to berate those that littered… or, worse… wore tacky tee-shirts), he preferred the civilized comforts of a hotel to camping in the rough.  His rationale was that setting up camp, and cooking out in the wilderness was a waste of time, but there was also the indisputable fact that he believed in three decent meals a day, even if the mid-day meal was a picnic on the job site.  So, at his home in Petan, Guatemala, he maintained a fleet of aging Land Rovers (he was a proper British gentleman, after all), that were cannibalized back and forth to keep one running when he was out on a dig.

El Universal, 12 August 2017

Still working well into his 80s (when he was finally recognized by his own government with a Order of the British Empire, and by the scholarly community with a Macarthur Genius grant), he continued to attend scholarly conferences, and consult with experts on the glyphs while he wrote a biography of his predecessor, Maudsley, and his own autobiography, entitled, tongue-in-cheek, “The Road to Ruins”.

Retiring finally to the family estate in Sussex, he kept busy with an earlier interest, restoring antique Rolls-Royces up until the day he died (1 August) at the age of 94.


Well done, old chap!



Jones, Lee.  My Field Sessions with Ian Graham.  Institute of Mayan Studies,

Reflections on The Road to Ruins (Dave Quarterson), Institute of Mayan Studies, April 2013.

Reinhold, .Robert”Theft and Vandalism” Expedition Magazine 15.4 (July 1973): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, July 1973 Web. 13 Aug 2017

Ventura, Abida.  El legado de Ian Graham, autor de la “Biblia de la epigrafía maya”  El Universal, 12 Augusto 2017



One Comment leave one →
  1. 13 August 2017 9:54 am

    There have been many characters who have been drawn to Mexico’s magnetic pull that I wish I could’ve met. Amongst them I wish I could’ve met B. Traven author of “The treasure of Sierra Madre”, Johnny Weismueller, to warn him that Mexicans don’t know how to spell Johnny (they spell it “Jonhy”), Lee H. Oswald, to ask him if that was him at a twist dance party in 1963 ( accordinng to Octavio Paz’s wife)… and Che and Fidel when they were eating lunch at the TREVI Restaurant at the end of Alameda Park…. Walt Disney in Oaxaca eating mushrooms.
    And Ian Graham…. Mexico is loaded with adventurous eccentric people amongst which are
    Richmex and Mexicomystic.

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