Spring/Summer 01

Tracking Maya Regional Organization
by Samuel V. Connell

Mewly rediscovered Maya center may provide answers in debate over the naure of Maya regional political organization

Carved out of the rainforest, our camp is surrounded by wonderful lemon and avocado trees>>

In April 562 Wak Chan K’awiil, the leader of Tikal, was defeated in a “star war” by Caracol ruler Yajaw Te’ K’inich II. This sketchy history was pieced together by diligent epigraphers working on a badly eroded altar found beneath an old logging trail inside a ball court at Caracol. It was hailed as an explanation for the demise of both Tikal and Naranjo and the accompanying growth of Caracol during what has come to be known as the Middle Classic hiatus.

Despite remarkable progress translating Maya texts, there is still contentious debate over the nature of Maya regional political organization. Were they organized as small city-states or large superstates? Were Wak Chan K’awiil and Yajaw Te’ K’inich II competing in a ball game or sending armies into battle? For me, the elusiveness of a convincing answer is what makes Maya archaeology so fascinating. Employing a dynamic model I have been investigating cyclical processes of regional centralization and dispersal. Using a community centered perspective I examine how rural Maya affected and were affected by these political changes.

My current work focuses on the settlement around the newly rediscovered Maya center of Minanhá on Belize’s Vaca Plateau. This critical site lies directly between the major centers of Caracol and Naranjo at a distance of 25 km from each. Maya archaeology awaits our findings with anticipation, hoping to use material evidence to support or refute the arguments about regional domination by one or two major superstates.

Returning to the text on the altar, how believable are statements made by Maya rulers and can they be confirmed using archaeological data? The Institute’s own Richard M. Leventhal has been outspoken about the importance of viewing Maya text as propaganda and the need to support royal Maya claims using material evidence. If Caracol was a major superstate, then Minanhá would have been a satellite and possible launch point for many of its activities in the Petén region. If Caracol was an isolated city-state, then Minanhá likely would have maintained its own identity as the region’s cities repeatedly squabbled. Using settlement data, we will be able to interpret the nature of larger-scale changes by gauging the degree of local community involvement both with the city center of Minanhá and with the region as a whole.

Students trade stories in the main hut after another soggy and steamy day of excavation and survey

As director of the Minanhá Regional Survey during the past year, I have been setting up a field camp, tracing early archaeologist field notes, and beginning the process of starting a long-term field project in a tropical rain-forest environment. Interestingly, the research follows in the tracks of J. Eric Thompson who organized a small project at Minanhá in the late 1920s. Hot on the trail of polychrome vessels with inscriptions, Thompson’s crew found nothing and called the site Minanhá (“place without water”) Since then, the site was misplaced on the map and overtaken by the jungle and. After some travail, Gyles Iannone (Trent University) rediscovered the site in 1998 (at the urging of John Morris, then Commissioner of Archaeology and current UCLA graduate student). The next year I was asked to initiate the settlement survey.

Today the survey crew hikes along tracks of a long-since-abandoned narrow gauge railway (that carried mahogany logs) to arrive at a clearing near the site where we have set up camp. Last summer we spent three rain-soaked stints at the camp, busily recording the settlement in a square kilometer area to the south of the main site. Happily, near to the camp a reopened Maya spring yields sufficient potable water.

Despite the logistical hardships, it is clear that this is no ordinary Maya settlement system. The landscape is covered with features, including terraces, sink holes, caves, and house-mound groups of many different sizes. The density of settlement activity seems equivalent to rural Tikal and Caracol. Unfortunately, the ravages of looting are apparent. An important vessel found in a recently burned milpa was apparently broken as it was being transported out. We have begun to define just one of the many thriving communities in the region. Reconnaissance in other areas has recovered a series of other settlements, all of which apparently are associated with large minor centers.

Last summer, minimal testing of two local sites indicated a strong Late Classic tie to Caracol. Many similar pottery types were recovered, as well as characteristic examples of modeled incensarios locally called “face pots.” These stylistic features are so common and distinctively Caracol-like that they have been argued to be signifiers of a Caracol ethnicity. At least preliminarily it appears as if the influence of Caracol was system wide.

Samuel V. Connell

Finally, the importance of an associated communication route between the Maya Mountains and Petén should not be underestimated. The local Minanhá survey region lies along a this major transportation route over the Vaca Plateau. Minanhá itself is located at the apex of the route, and gives the impression of a truly defensive site, with turret-like outposts positioned in a pentagonal pattern around a lower terrace level. In old west terms, picture a large city placed in the area where one crosses the Colorado’s Great Divide (the distances are smaller in Belize, but the effect is the same).

Continuing study will finish mapping the control survey zone. We will begin a second survey quad to the north of the site in the hopes of defining the edge of a Caracol or Naranjo polity. It is critical to understand the nature of community interactions around the Minanhá center. Was it an important civic center, or simply a way station for the Caracol/Tikal forces? What was the role of rural populations in regional conquests? We expect to encounter unexpected twists and turns, but for now we simply hope that our new palapa (thatch hut) has been built to specifications and that a volunteer field crew can be pieced together.

Samuel V. Connell is a Research Associate at the Cotsen Institute.
The excavations at Minanhá will start up at the end of April and run through June.
The Social Archaeology Research Program, http://www.trentu.ca/anthropology/Belize1.html, is directed by
Gyles Iannone at Trent University. The project is supported by students and volunteers. Last year's Minanhá Regional Survey was carried out under the auspices of the California State University at Northridge, which supported the field school, http://www2.nau.edu/~lsn/MayaFieldSchool/. Sam extends special thanks to all the students, staff, and Belizeans who helped out on a successful first season. The June field season will be supported in part by an Ahmanson Field Research Grant from the Cotsen Institute. Thanks also to P.S. Dillon for a kind donation. Backdirteditors can be reached by email at ioapubs@ucla.edu.