Fall 2002/Winter 2003

Back to contents

Book Excerpt

Rural Complexity and the Ancient Maya

A new volume, Perspectives On Ancient Maya Rural Complexity, considers the concept of rural complexity with data from several sites in Belize

by Gyles Ianonne and Samuel V. Connell
In their approaches to societal analysis, most social scientists have tended to emphasize the urban/rural dichotomy. Within sociocultural anthropology, the emphasis on these antipodes has been most explicitly articulated in the works of political economists. For example, in his seminal work, Robert Redfield contrasted the literate and religious character of the urban realm, or "great tradition," with the oral and magical qualities of the rural realm, or "little tradition." Recently, a number of studies have begun to question the viability of this urban/rural distinction. It has been pointed out that the urban/rural dichotomy is false because " 'purely rural' and 'purely urban' spaces make up only a portion of the various places in which people live and form their identities" (Creed and Ching, Knowing your place: Rural identity and cultural hierarchy [London: Routledge, 1997], p.15). Advocates of this opinion have underscored the fact that a middle ground has been ignored in social science research. Anthropologist Rhoda Halperin has attempted to deal with this problem by differentiating between the traditional "deep rural" and the "shallow rural," the latter referring to more complex rural settlements, or "the middle ground between country and city" (The livelihood of kin: Making ends meet "the Kentucky way" [U of Texas Press, 1990], p. 4). The term rurban has been resurrected in some studies to refer to the mixing of rural and urban characteristics that these pluralistic communities exhibit. Regardless of the term employed, there is general acceptance that, in most contemporary social landscapes, communities exist which exhibit a mixing of urban and rural characteristics and that these communities have been under explored when compared to the truly urban and genuinely rural poles of the settlement continuum.

Like their social science colleagues, Maya archaeologists have tended to work within an analytical framework that gives precedence to the urban/rural dichotomy. Much of the early research in the Maya area focused on the urban component. Traditional long-term research projects have been carried out at such major centers as Tikal, Copan, Uaxactun, Caracol, Chichen Itza, and Seibal. In response to this urban bias, "settlement archaeology" shifted some focus to rural settlements. These rural-based settlement studies concentrated primarily on Halperin's deep rural, as noted above. This emphasis is clearly stated in an early call to arms by Willey et al. in which it was suggested that settlement archaeology was aimed at exploring the "'ordinary dwellings', 'houses of the people', or 'housemounds'" (Prehistoric Maya settlements in the Belize Valley [Harvard University, 1965], p. 7). For the most part, this methodological dichotomy between exploration of urban centers and rural settlement has continued to the present. In theoretical terms, some Mayanists have even adopted the analytical framework of political economists such as Redfield and have thus underscored the distinction between the great tradition and the little tradition of Maya society. It is only recently that scholars have begun to call for more detailed investigation of the complex rural settlements that lay between the urban and rural extremes of the ancient Maya settlement continuum.

This volume marks the beginnings of this research endeavor. As volume editors, we have identified particular themes drawn out by the various contributors:

· a recognition within their research that not only do these complex settlements exhibit a high degree of variability but they also have a syncretic quality in that they display a mixing of urban and rural characteristics, allowing us to explore more satisfactorily the concept of rural complexity for the Maya;

· the idea that minor centers do not constitute a homogenous site type but rather are best viewed as elements within a highly variable middle level of settlement;

· the point that minor centers, and other middle-level settlements, have received little attention in past considerations of ancient Maya sociopolitical and socioeconomic interaction; and

· the position that although most middle-level settlements were the loci for a variety of residential, administrative, and ritual activities, there is considerable divergence with respect to which function was primary at any given site.

Map of Belize showing sites discussed in the volume
As the majority of the authors in this volume underscore, notions of shallow rural or rurban settlements have played a limited role in the interpretation of ancient Maya social, economic, and political organization. That is not to say that Mayanists have not recognized the existence of more complex rural communities. As far back as the mid-twentieth century, investigators such as Willey, Bullard, and Glass, were referring to the presence of "minor ceremonial centers" (1955:24). Shortly thereafter, Bullard was in his Petén study the first to state clearly that a level of rural complexity (minor centers) lay between the fully urban (major centers) and the genuinely rural (house mounds). According to Bullard, these sites were appreciably larger and more complex than the more frequent house-mound groups, but comparatively smaller and not so grandiose in design as the less frequent, but more intensively studied, major centers. The diversity of minor center plans was a significant aspect of the study. Subsequent researchers highlighted the variable quality of these settlements. Recent studies have also underscored this variability in noting that contrary to Bullard's more general assertions, sites of this size and complexity sometimes have stelae, altars, ballcourts, and causeways.

Such features were traditionally thought to have been restricted to the confines of major centers. Their presence in minor centers is important for two reasons. First, it attests to the syncretic quality of these sites in that they exhibit a mixing of urban and rural characteristics. Second, the uneven distribution of these features contributes to the overall variability of this settlement level. As a result of this syncretism and variability, our study of minor centers becomes doubly difficult. There is simply no consistent pattern in the form and context of these sites that can be used as a model from which hypotheses about Maya social organization can be built and projected to other sites and regions.

The term rural complexity is used here to delineate this syncretism and variability and to review the outdated notion of an urban/rural dichotomy. In the extreme case, the suggestion has been to drop the term because of its associations with the social evolutionary paradigm. Nevertheless, this rural complexity is significant, and a concerted effort must be made to both explore and explain the potential implications of this combined syncretism and variability. The importance of this endeavor has been stressed in a number of recent discussions. To quote King and Potter (Archaeological views from the countryside: Village communities in early complex communities, edited by G.M. Schwartz and S.E. Falconer [Smithsonian Institution, 1994], p. 84), "By not expecting social, economic, or political complexity from small sites, we disregard possible important sources of information on the Lowland Maya world." Also, as Gonlin has concluded, "if we do not fully understand rural complexity, we cannot convincingly speak of complexity in general for the ancient Maya" (Archaeological views from..., p.195). This volume attempts to address that very need.

Gyles Iannone is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Trent University. Samuel V. Connell is a Research Associate of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. The volume can be ordered from the Publications Unit (ioapubs@ucla.edu).

Back To Top

Next Article: Faculty Profiles