Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs Workshop
This workshop will teach registrants the basics of reading the Maya hieroglyphs, using a variety of examples from ancient Maya monuments. We will look at the structure, topics, and vocabulary of ancient Maya texts, and we will work through the basics of the Maya calendar. The history of the discovery and decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs will also be discussed. Finally, we will work together to read a few real ancient Maya texts. This year, we will work through the recently-discovered La Corona Element 56, a hieroglyphic panel that discusses the movement of a new king, Chak Ak' Paat Kuy, around the political and sacred landscape of the La Corona-Calakmul region.
Shifting Landscapes: Navigating through Kaminaljuyu's Political Scenery
Kaminaljuyu is located in the heart of the Maya Highlands, between important cultural regions like the Pacific Coast and the northern highlands and Maya Lowlands. Kaminaljuyu has a long history of occupation starting around 1000 BC and continuing into AD 900. During the 2,000 years of history, there were cycles of rises and declines without significant abandonments. Lake Miraflores was an important geographic marker that contributed to the establishment of the site in this location. This was the source of water for agricultural canals but also for distributing water within the site. Data from research projects taking place during the last 50 years, and significant recent excavations have documented major changes in the landscape dominated by water management. A complex system of internal water distribution has been documented, suggesting an aquatic landscape beginning in the Preclassic. The enormous impact of climate change resulted in a series of political events that have been documented around AD 200 when Kaminaljuyu shifted its political system. However, because of its strategic location at the center of the Maya Highlands, the site played a major role in the development of a crucial trade network that included sites from the Maya Lowlands, the eastern region, the Pacific Coast, and beyond. This paper will present an alternate explanation for traditional interpretations of the role of water management during the Preclassic and Classic periods and the changing sociopolitical arena.
Ritual Landscapes and the Development of Kingship in the Mopan Valley, Belize
The ancient Maya site of Xunantunich had two separate ceremonial centers, one of which dates to the Preclassic period. This impressive Preclassic ceremonial center, now called Early Xunantunich, has three plazas, an E-Group complex, and a large, flat-topped platform located at the northern edge. Beginning in the early Middle Preclassic, the inhabitants heavily modified their landscape to create an E-Group complex to form the core of an early ceremonial space for public rituals. The E-Group was rebuilt and expanded over several centuries and additional large platforms were constructed culminating in a formal ceremonial center. During the Late Preclassic, we see an expansion of ritual spaces to include a hilltop shrine and a small ceremonial platform within the nearby settlement zone. In this paper, I present evidence from Early Xunantunich related to Maya ritual practices and discuss how these practices were tied to the rise of divine kingship.
Caracol's Impact on the Landscape of the Classic Maya
At A.D. 650 the city of Caracol, Belize covered over 200 square kilometers and was economically and socially integrated through a dendritic road system that connected the city’s edges with its central hub, an architectural complex rising some 43.5 meters above its adjacent plaza. The inhabitants of the city, numbering at least 100,000 people, resided in over 9,000 residential groups. These household groups produced goods for broader distribution and shared in a distinctive Caracol cultural and religious identity; their residential units were also intermixed with extensive agricultural terracing that served their subsistence needs. Public architecture and plazas were localized at causeway termini and junctions throughout the city and served administrative and economic purposes. When examined holistically, Caracol’s impact on the ancient Maya world was substantial. The city constituted a monumental ancient Maya landscape not only for its site size and population, the scale of its agricultural terraforming, and the ritual integration of its populace, but also for its interaction with, and at least temporary incorporation of, other Maya sites within its political sphere (specifically Naranjo and Tikal in Guatemala). Thus, while a relative “late-comer” among Maya centers, Caracol is a paramount example of how the Maya could and did shape their world.
Monumental and Sacred Geography as Economic Strategy: The Meteoric Rise and Violent Collapse of Cancuen and Its Implications
This presentation is based on two proven principles: 1) Public architecture helps to both create and sustain the major institutions of a civilization, and 2) A key to understanding civilizations is their collapse, since the processes of fragmentation of political and economic systems reveals their previous structure and components. However, the role of built environments in institutional structures, change, florescence, and collapse cannot be understood through epicenter excavations, but only through regional multidisciplinary investigation of entire urban areas, especially non-elite households, satellite and minor centers, rural areas and their environments, developing fine-grained chronologies that can only come from domestic middens.
Sixty years of continuous large-scale multidisciplinary projects and lab work have generated such a range of data and chronologies in the Pasion River Valley and adjacent southern highland regions. We now know that by AD 740, if not earlier, kingdoms were in crisis there and by 760 in full collapse with final stages involving endemic destructive warfare, cessation of public architecture, radical population reduction, and emigration.
Yet in contrast, the Cancuen kingdom to the south and its regional network of lowland and highland sites experienced a sudden apogee with an explosion of wealth and monumental architecture based on unprecedented levels of import, export, and production of high value commodities. This success involved innovations in management, production, distribution, partnership networks, and long distance exchange of commodities in four stages at AD 755/760,780,790, and ending at 800/810. Cancuen’s leaders used new sacred monumental settings to connect different regions in this network. These included a sprawling administrative palace, a ritual water system, different types of ballcourts, and elaboration and modification of sacred hill/cave worship. There were parallel changes, constructions and wealth at partner sites across the southwest corridor. Modifications of monumental landscapes did not simply reflect economic strategies; rather they implemented those strategies, creating new economic contracts sacralized in ritual settings.
We can now specify how and why this system abruptly collapsed by AD 810. When that occurred it was not simply an economic “bankruptcy”: it was a failure by elites in sacred obligations. So at AD 800 economically and spiritually betrayed neighboring populations entered Cancuen and ceremonially assassinated over sixty royalty and nobles. Notably they also “killed” each element of Cancuen’s new monumental settings in massive termination rituals – toppling, defacing and burying monuments, palace entrances, and ballcourts. Cancuen’s impressive and original monumentality that had been critical to its meteoric success became an enormous symbol of its dramatic failure.
From E-Groups and Causeways to Palaces and Tombs: The Changing Blueprints of Maya States in the Holmul Region
For a long time, archaeologists have used the distribution of settlement features such as monumental architecture, causeways, residences, and other landscape modifications as a key to understand how a society organized and supported itself at the regional scale. However, in the heavily forested regions of the Yucatan Peninsula, such a comprehensive bird’s-eye view on settlement and landscapes has rarely been possible outside of a few site’s immediate surroundings. Thanks to an intensive and long-term program of surveys and excavations it has been possible to document Maya settlement over an area of approximately 200 km2 centered on the Classic city of Holmul, revealing ever-changing patterns of settlement features from the very beginnings of human occupation to its end, from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE. These permanent features of the landscape inform us about the pragmatic aspects of ancient Maya society (politics and economy) but also about the spiritual linkages between their cultural, natural and supernatural worlds.
Landscapes of Warfare, Détente, and Trade in the Maya West
The major kingdoms of the Maya west, particularly Piedras Negras, Palenque, Yaxchilan and Tonina, were tied into the political, military, and economic affairs of the Petén, but they also buffered areas further to the west and participated in a distinct political and economic landscape of small statelets. Embraced by the arms of precipitous sierras, cross-cut by canyons and narrow defiles, and defined by river valleys, the smaller kingdoms of the Western Lowlands contested claims to royal titles and engaged in complex patterns of warfare, détente, and trade that in many ways reflected on a smaller scale those of the “super-states” to the east. In this presentation we will draw on epigraphy and new archaeological findings to focus on the valleys just west of the Usumacinta river, where the rulers of the Sak Tz’i’ and La Mar kingdoms among others suffered slings, arrows, and dubious alliances with their larger neighbors, to stake out their own sovereign territories and shape the political and economic landscapes of the west.
On the Back of the Turtle: Animating Landscapes and Generating Power during the Maya New Year Ceremony
Maya ethnohistory suggests that pilgrimmage, incense burning, monument erection, and penis bloodletting were all activities associated with New Year ceremonies. These annual rites were calendrically-linked and aimed at ensuring agricultural renewal and earthly regeneration. In Classic and Postclassic contexts, the four rotating "year-bearers" of the new year are referred to as Mam (grandfather/grandson) and are frequently associated with the act of genital bloodletting. Mam often takes the form of a turtle and embodies a four-part earthly configuration that expresses the four world directions. Late Postclassic cache deposits contain four figurines of Mam year-bearers standing on the backs of turtles, letting blood from their genitals. Turtle figurines and carapaces themselves may have served as receptacles for blood offerings and have been found associated with Postclassic and Terminal Classic Yucatec-style circular shrines.
In addition to Mayapan and Chichen Itza, I discuss in this paper my own investigations of Terminal Classic circular shrines and how turtle effigies and carapaces found associated with such buildings may have been the site of bloodletting and male initiation rites during New Year ceremonies. Today, Maya New Year ceremonies involve initiation of young men prior to marriage and sexual relations, requiring self-sacrifice and long-distance pilgrimage with male elders. These circumambulatory rituals express a core ontological principle of dualistic transformation that the Tzutujil Maya call Jaloj-k’exoj, demarcating physical change (jal) from youth to adulthood and transference or replacement (k’ex) of power in official leadership roles. Cross-examining ethnographic and ethnohistoric data along side the archaeological evidence, I suggest similar New Year traditions may have existed in Postclassic and Terminal Classic times (AD 800-1500).
All the World's a Stage: The Built Environment of Chan Chich, Belize
The ancient Maya site of Chan Chich has a long history of occupation beginning as far back as the Middle Preclassic period and extending to the Terminal Classic period. During this roughly 1,750-year span from about 900 BC to AD 850, the rulers and residents of Chan Chich gradually transformed their settlement from a small agricultural village into a moderately sized Maya city with impressive monumental constructions. The Chan Chich Archaeological Project (CCAP) has been studying the site for 10 field seasons and just completed the first season of work funded by the Alphawood Foundation Chicago. CCAP’s excavations at the Upper Plaza, home to an early divine king’s tomb, have demonstrated that major renovations to the monumental core of the site took place around the time this early king ruled the site on the cusp of the Classic period. Work in the Upper Plaza and elsewhere at the site has documented extensive Late Classic constructions, which transformed the center into an important stage for royal processions and rituals. Understanding the relationship between the development of divine kingship and changes to the monumental landscape at the site is a primary focus of the CCAP’s research. This paper discusses our evolving picture of kingship, site planning, and how the Maya shaped their world at Chan Chich.
Early Monumental Constructions in the Ceibal Region, Guatemala
Recent investigations at Ceibal, Guatemala, revealed the earliest ceremonial constructions in the Maya lowlands dating to 950 BC. The residents of Ceibal invested substantial work in the construction of a plaza and associated public buildings. A LiDAR survey of a 20 x 20 km2 area around Ceibal showed that ceremonial buildings in a standardized configuration quickly spread through the region. These data shed light on complex relations between ritual, subsistence, and inter-regional interaction at the dawn of Maya civilization.
Architecture in the Underworld: Ancient Maya Caves as Built Environments
Ancient Maya cave sites provide an unambiguous context for understanding the ritual life of ancient Maya people. Caves were not "convenient cavities" as some have proposed, but were symbolically charged spaces instantiating Maya cosmology. They are not representations of entrances to the underworld, but ARE those spaces. Throughout Mesoamerica, caves were and are viewed as ritual spaces but there is little textual data that describes how they were used in ritual practice by ancient people. Yet, the archaeological record attests to their importance as ritual venues. It is the purview of cave archaeologists to strive toward understanding how and when these sites were used, who was using them, and how caves as sacred spaces could be manipulated in political contests, and the acquisition and maintenance of power. While many cave archaeologists, myself included, have discussed the use of space, few have investigated the architectural modifications to these sites. In this paper I will discuss architectural elements in caves located in Belize and outline my analytical approach.
Of the 75 cave sites visited by the Belize Regional Cave Project since 2011, 37 were elaborated with architectural constructions. Nowhere is this better exemplified than at the site of Las Cuevas. On the surface Las Cuevas appears to be a typical Late Classic, medium-sized, administrative/ceremonial center. But, this site has something that most others do not—a large cave system that runs beneath the main plaza. The massive entrance to the cave sits in a sinkhole directly below the eastern pyramid of Plaza A. Formal architectural modifications including platforms with plastered surfaces, stairways, and terraces surround a natural spring in the Entrance Chamber. The cave's tunnels begin at the rear of the chamber, twist and turn, and eventually circle back into the entrance culminating at a high window that overlooks the spring. Throughout the tunnel system blockages and walls restrict access to deeper areas. In this paper I suggest that architectural modifications to the tunnel system were designed to create a performative space that guided participants through an underworld journey. Research at Las Cuevas helps us to understand how architecture in caves aids in structuring the space and contributes to ritual practice.
Monumentalism and Sociopolitical Development at the Preclassic Maya Site of Pacbitun, Belize
The practice of sub-surface excavations of plaza space is not often a highly sought after method of investigation for those researching the ancient Maya. What is more, the usefulness of plaza excavations is generally thought to be limited to merely recovering datable artifacts belonging to successive construction phases associated with the buildings along a plaza’s edge. However, some archaeologists have begun to realize the utility of this investigative approach – one that emphasizes the search for early Maya buildings, or even entire communities, beneath plaza surfaces in site centers. The amount of data recovered can significantly impact one’s understanding of a site’s formation and development. In the Belize Valley, there has been a concerted effort since the early 1990s to recover information about the Preclassic Maya through sub-plaza research. This approach has been very effective at Pacbitun resulting in the recovery of an abundant amount of data pertaining to the earliest inhabitants of the site’s two main plazas, Plaza A and Plaza B. Initial occupation in the 9th century BC begins with the construction of domestic structures in Plaza B; its households focusing on the mass production of shell bead adornments. In Plaza A, we see the erection of the first non-domestic buildings occurring within the next two succeeding centuries. The first temples built are truly monumental in size and, given the separation of residential and non-residential space between Plazas A and B, they provide a glimpse into the nature, structure, and extent of sociopolitical changes at the site throughout the Middle Preclassic period. These transformations observed at Pacbitun can now be compared to other sites in the Belize Valley in hopes of identifying similar patterns of early Maya sociopolitical development.
13,000 Years of Tipping Points and Phase Shifts: Cultural Change and Landscape Transformation in the Evolution of the Río Blanco Valley of Southern Belize
The centuries during which Classic Period Maya societies rose and fell represent a demographic and culturally complex peak in the population history of Indigenous Mesoamerica, albeit one that developed on the experiences of their own past. The first Mesoamericans arrived in the region ten millennia earlier and set into motion adaptations that span the to the present and reveal vivid social and ideological continuities throughout the Holocene. Drawing on more than two decades of archaeological research in southern Belize, this paper maps what we know about cycles of cultural change that begin with the first Paleoamerican peoples and suggest deeply rooted connections to the landscape. Behaviors originating in the pre-Ceramic become further amplified as agricultural communities coalesced into states and emergent rulers drew on already long established human-landscape relationships to legitimize their status. The collapse of regional polities in the 10th Century AD brought with it demographic changes, as did arrival of Europeans, with clear evidence of rebounds after each decline. More recent developments in the region show a revitalized and highly contested focus on land, and represent the most recent cycle of adaptation to what has always been an important cultural landscape.
The Natural and Constructed Landscape of Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Guatemala
Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, located at the highland-lowland nexus in western Guatemala, is best known as being the largest of the ancient Maya saltworks in the southern lowlands. Capable of producing over 20,000 tons of salt per year and located along the principal river network connecting much of the Maya world, it likely supplied the majority of the Preclassic and Classic Maya. Unlike most Classic cities, it was never truly abandoned, and the salt source in the heart of the site continued to be exploited through the Postclassic and the colonial period to the present day by Spaniards, ladinos, and various Maya groups.
The natural and constructed landscape at Nueve Cerros defined not only the city’s layout but its economy and political structure. The salt production area consisted of unique natural features—a massive salt dome, brine stream, and salt flats—overlain with workshops and complex engineering systems. The salt industry changed the landscape in other ways—it was fueled by fires that needed a constant supply of firewood, and allowed for the large-scale production of other commodities including dried, salted fish which were harvested in large quantities from the Chixoy River and associated streams and oxbow lakes. All of these resources appear to have been tightly controlled by the local elite class, who marked their presence with large administrative and public ritual structures.
LiDAR: The Future of Lowland Maya Archaeology
This workshop is designed to introduce archaeologists and amateur enthusiasts alike to the revolutionary benefits LiDAR surveys are bringing to our understanding of the ancient Maya. The workshop is divided into two sections. In the first, there will be a brief introduction to the technology of LiDAR mapping followed by examinations of recently acquired images. In the process, we will discuss how this new information is likely to change our understanding of lowland Maya settlement and of many other aspects of their civilization. In the second section, we will use the computers in the M.A.R.I. GIS lab to learn how to use simple techniques to visualize LiDAR data and detect features of archaeological interest. This section is set up as a lab open house, open to all registrants, in which attendees will work individually or in pairs. In the afternoon, there will be two similarly designed sections.
Introduction to the Ch'orti' Maya Language
This workshop will provide an introduction to the Ch'orti' Maya language, describing its sounds, the structure of words, and the structure of sentences, with examples from modern oral literature. The approach will be grammatical, but no prior knowledge of linguistics or Maya languages will be assumed. The workshop will be conducted in English.
Monumental Landscapes in the Olmec Heartland
The Olmecs of the southern Gulf lowlands of Mexico were the first to create truly monumental stone carvings in ancient Mesoamerica. These they juxtaposed with built structures and natural features to imbue places with meaning in the construction of a sacred and political landscape. Recent research in the southern Gulf lowlands underscores the critical role played by such placemaking in creating, sustaining, and restructuring ancient polities. The making of a political landscape involves not only the establishment of centers and the delineation of territorial boundaries, but the materialization of a narrative that legitimates the ties between rulers and subjects. Those ties and their expression are often contested in rural hinterlands and by later rulers. In this presentation I examine the creation of Olmec and later monumental landscapes, drawing on recently published research on Gulf lowland centers and shrines and my own excavations and survey in and around Tres Zapotes, Veracruz. By end of the second millennium BC, the Olmecs were arranging colossal heads, table-top altar-thrones, and sculptures in the round in politically meaningful displays large and small. Subsequent leaders of Olmec, Epi-Olmec, and Classic polities continued to inscribe their landscapes in ways that invoked the past while reframing it to meet present needs through significant changes in governance and the bases of political legitimacy. Comparison of recently recorded hinterland rock carvings and formal monuments within and beyond political centers reveal points of conflict and negotiation in the political landscape of the ancient Gulf lowlands.
Uwitzil uk'uhuul: Sacred Landscapes of the Holmul Region
In this year's hieroglyphic forum, Dr. Alexandre Tokovinine and Dr. Marc Zender will guide us as we work through new texts from the Holmul-Naranjo region in eastern Guatemala. Looking at both supernatural and local toponyms (place names), we will examine how the Maya conceptualized sacred landscapes in this region.