Reorienting Archeological Research on the Maya: Toward a New Definition of Polity

Review by Naomi Alisa Calnitsky
February 13, 2017

Classic Maya Polities of the Southern Lowlands: Integration, Interaction, Dissolution

by Damien B. Marken and James L. Fitzsimmons, eds.
Published November 21, 2015

University Press of Colorado

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Classic Maya Polities of the Southern Lowlands begins with a discussion of the concept of “polity,” not only as a form of political organization, but as a means to denote the links between “political affiliation” and place (p. 6). The collection operates on multiple “spatial scales” and seeks, as a collection of separate studies unified by their attention to the classic Mayan polity, to move beyond a discursive trend in archaeological and anthropological study of Maya polities that has, in the collection’s editors’ view, overemphasized a centralization vs. decentralization model, or alternately, top-down approaches alone.  In this way, the volume offers new pathways toward integral archaeological scholarship, in its foregrounding of approaches that underscore complex yet holistic and organic interpretations of material remains and emic evidence. A primary research question posed at the outset is the extent to which the nature of interaction between larger polity centres, as at Copan and Tikal, and lesser or “secondary” centres can be determined. At its heart, the volume makes efforts to push the limits of knowledge and research on the organization of Classic Maya societies by probing more deeply the problem of spatial organization and design in the classic period. The editors suggest that instead of emphasizing either-or understandings of Classic Mayan society as centralized or decentralized, the ways in which Mayan societies were organized, internally and across spaces and geographies, are framed as complex and “multifaceted,” and “variable in both space and time” (p. 15). The authors review recent developments in the field of Maya archaeology, including the advent of “household” archaeology, a subset of Mayan archaeology that is still somewhat under-researched (p. 100) and has thus provided ample opportunities for new pathways for research.

The book is laid out in ten chapters, that each move beyond the “largely sterile” centralization vs. decentralization debate (p. 3). ­The acceleration of household excavations has allowed for a diversification of approaches to the Maya. In the second chapter, Brigitte Kovacevich’s contribution considers how jade craft production was performed by both elite artisans and non-elite households in her study of Cancuen, Guatemala. In introducing her thematic approach, Kovacevich points to the household as “the smallest and most abundant unit on the landscape” and to the pioneering Mesoamerican household studies approach of Edward Herbert Thompson, who unearthed “residences and household mounds” and suggested that “the Maya truly did have cities” (p. 41). Kovacevich defines the household as a unit in which, among other things, resources are pooled, highlights materialities of the household, and suggests the ways in which “identity and power can be nested” (p. 39-40). She points to relevant theory, including Bourdieu’s habitus in an effort to define the ways in which Mayan ideology reinforced relationships between elites and non-elites through “symbolic power” (p. 45). Her findings reveal that “raw jade was not restricted to or controlled by elites of the site, as it is found in larger quantities in non-elite residences” (p. 53); while elites did not have complete control over jade resources, they were responsible for fashioning finished products and for consuming them. This segmentation of production, a pattern referred to in Sahagún’s depiction of gold workers and gold casters in Aztec Mexico, would help to define the line between early stages of production and elite craftsmanship or “high culture” (p. 55).1

In other essays, the agrarian Mayan landscape is given attention. In Chapter Three, Timothy Murtha proposes a “reintegration” of rural space into Mayan polity models and gives shape to a “bottom-up” archaeology of smallholdings in a comparative study of Tikal and Caracol. Here, Murtha is departing from his own earlier research, which supported centralized models of polity organization. His use of the term fluidity to denote regional interactions, and emphasis upon environmental history, mark another departure, as his chapter seeks to reassemble understandings of the Maya polity “from the household outward” (p. 77).  Indeed, Murtha states how his chapter’s “approach is explicitly environmental” (p. 78).  This use of environmental data offers an important “interpretive window,” as assumptions linked to implied centralized control over the agrarian landscape are refuted in favor of a view that speaks to “localized” control over both “land and resources” (p. 79). Murtha here emphasizes the impact of farming on organization, noting that, “where terraces are found, households are always interspersed among them” (p. 86). He further integrates soil studies into a view of land management practices at Tikal, Guatemala where “dense populations” lived among a “complex agrarian mosaic” (p. 93). This unique environmental approach is perhaps inflected by Murtha’s orientation as a professor of landscape architecture.

The authors of Chapter Four show how farming households in the “lesser centre” of Chan were also craft producers that were “neither fully autonomous nor entirely dependent on capital elites and institutions” (p. 17). Chan was still, for the most part, a “peripheral and provincial part of the Maya world.” In their eight-year research project at Chan, Belize, Cynthia Robin, Andrew Wyatt, James Meierhoff and Caleb Kestle point to patterns of water management; to the role of non-agricultural craft production (Strombus shell ornament and obsidian blade) in a context of a community consisting primarily of “active smallholding” farmers (p. 110); to community centralization defined by community centre complex that housed its leading family; and to Chan’s links to a regional polity centre at Xunantunich.

 In Chapter 5, Marken introduces Mayan urban space and the “city” in his study of El Perú-Waka, a center that repeatedly “shifted allegiance” between Tikal and Calakmul and sat along two “important overland trade routes” (p. 128). In addition, this chapter sets out to pinpoint and spatially map what are termed “peri-urban” (or peripheral) areas or districts at Waka. Studies like Marken’s help pinpoint demographic change over time and shed light upon processes of urban “nucleation” (p. 141). While some evidence suggests that this site functioned as an “inchoate” ceremonial centre in the Late/Terminal PreClassic era (100-250 CE) it had become a “monumental dynastic and regional population centre” by the 5th century (p. 133).

Alan Maca’s tomb study at Copan in Chapter 6 points to connections with the burial styles and skeletal positions found at Teotihuacan (p. 171 and p. 182), and his excavation findings at Tomb 68-1 balance skeletal evidence pointing to the “foreign” origins of the individual buried there with dating estimates of the interment (p. 179) and an artifact analysis that highlights the presence of diverse vessels and a jade pectoral. This is followed by a useful discussion of dynastic succession and polity evolution at Copan.

In Chapter Seven, contributors Alexandre Tokovinine and Francisco Estrada-Belli aptly introduce the ways in which archaeological finds need be balanced with the hieroglyphic record, which they (perhaps mistakenly) equate with the “historical” record:

With hieroglyphic writing deciphered, students of the ancient Maya civilization are privileged with access to the pre-Columbian landscape through the words of its creators and inhabitants. Places and histories, people and events that shaped the Classic Maya world are now known and can be contrasted to the material remains of the distant past discovered by archaeologists. It is even possible, at least in theory, to establish links and causal relationships between the two landscapes, the one of history and the one of archaeological investigation. In practice, however, not every story was carved in stone and not every physical expression of the rich fabric of Classic Maya social, economic, and political life withstood the test of the tropical climate. The temporal and material scales of history and archaeology are vastly different… The vast majority of the Classic Maya society never contributed to the written record. The narratives produced by Maya epigraphers and archaeologists are not, therefore, two sides or facets of the same story. More often than not, they are different tales that cannot be reconciled (p. 195).

Here, the challenges of formulating a comprehensive literature on Mayan polity formation for the archaeologist are foregrounded, while the tensions between knowledge derived from the “built environment” and knowledge of events that remained unwritten are related through Tokovinine and Estrada-Belli’s references to the problem of the “materialization” of Mayan memory (p. 196). In somewhat of a departure from the material focus of other chapters, in Chapter Nine, Sarah E. Jackson’s contribution on “governing structures” focuses in on hieroglyphic inscriptions and their capacity to offer emic views of classic court culture and the existence of sub-royal titles or offices (p. 224).  This chapter underscores the persisting value of hieroglyphs for decoding the cultural and political past.

This book’s contributors aim to restore balance to the study of Maya polities upon numerous dynamic levels, superimposing new research findings upon older ones. In doing so, the authors elevate their research to new heights of significance in their field. They suggest that the Mayan polity was both a hierarchy and heterarchy (p. 272). While Marken and Fitzsimmons refer comparatively to the Central Mexican altepetl and its constituent calpolli, at no point do they reference James Lockhart’s work on the Nahua altepetl (ethnic state).In doing so, the work could better concretize interdisciplinary discussions surrounding pre-Columbian history and polity formation. Yet despite a lack of dialogue with the historical and philological literature on polity and state formation in early Central Mexico, the volume’s authors, all primarily archaeologists, take pains to link their own research with archaeological research and literature on the Mayan polity that has come before. They implement modern modes of spatial analysis that emphasize the role of scale in their own definitions and understandings of Mayan power, polity formation and the interconnections between centres and “peripheries.” The book, in short, does not rely exclusively upon archaeological findings but works on multiple levels, highlighting emic readings of the past that work in coordination with new physical findings and preexisting research.  In their attribution of substantial levels of agency to peripheral sites, the contributors to Classic Maya Polities of the Southern Lowlands reinvigorate discussions surrounding current research and set down paving stones that will, without a doubt, lead to new inroads into Mayan polity studies and research. The authors and contributors of the book, moreover, actively stretch the boundaries of the definition of the Mayan polity, using factors of space, geography, organization, class and the household to better interpret its composition and structure.


  1. See Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of  New Spain (12 vols.) Edited and Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950–82). 
  1. See Chapter Two, “Altepetl,” in James Lockhart, The Nahuas after Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992). Lockhart’s “New Philology” revisited Nahuatl language sources, including poetry, to reinterpret early colonial Mexico.


Lockhart, James. The Nahuas after Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (12 vols.) Edited and Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950–82.


Naomi Alisa Calnitsky completed a PhD in History at Carleton University with a specialization in the history of modern Mexico and is currently an independent scholar based in Winnipeg. She was also a Commonwealth Scholar in New Zealand and Pacific History at the University of Otago, Dunedin, and is currently working on a book project entitled Seasonal Lives: Twenty-First Century Approaches, forthcoming with the University of Nevada Press.