A Tale of Two Cities

Posted: February 13, 2012 - 14:48 , by ROM

Dr. Helen R. Haines has discovered many things in her years of digging, measuring and mapping the remnants of the ancient Maya culture. However, it would be a mistake to assume that what she uncovers relates only to peoples of the distant past. Sometimes, what we learn about them reveals equally as much about us.

An Assistant Professor at Trent University and a Research Associate at Trent’s Archaeological Research Centre, Dr. Haines focuses on the socio-political and economic development of early complex societies in Mesoamerica. She chose a field with plenty of scope; as she says “Political organization has been a bone of contention in Maya studies for 100 years.”

Her January 31 talk, “Reconsidering ideas about early Maya political organization”, was part of the ROM’s Distinguished Lecture Series in connection with the exhibition Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World. In it she described how her archaeological work in North Central Belize has uncovered some surprises which call for a re-thinking of previously held beliefs.

What we thought we knew
Dr. Haines summarized efforts to understand the structure of the Maya realm, a vast area which was never unified politically or ethnically. Large central cities such as Tik’al and Calakmul were thought to have strong military and trade-based influence over other sites, while smaller cities on the edges have been viewed as isolated backwaters. Scholars have attempted various methods of categorizing Maya cities, including postulating hierarchical positions of rulers and subsequent political roles, based on the size or aesthetics of the site.

She described her research in North Central Belize, an area which has been considered peripheral in part because little reference to the central cities had been found to date and vice versa. It was thought that Lamanai, the largest site in the region and boasting several imposing temples and structures, was the regional capital through the Classic Maya period. 10 km away is the site of Ka’Kabish. A research trip in 1996 left the impression that this was a small Late Classic secondary administrative centre, likely under the domination of Lamanai.

Puzzling findings emerged

However, clues gradually emerged which suggested there was more to Ka’Kabish than met the eye:
·     In 2007 the site was re-mapped. Over twice the original number of structures were found, including large temples, aball court, and an acropolis structure.
·     In subsequent excavations through archaeological layers representing several phases in the Maya culture, Dr. Haines’ team found ceramic sherds which indicate Ka’Kabish had some of the earliest temples in the area. They also found vaulting and passageways indicative of royal graves and having stylistic features seen in the central cities, the name in hieroglyphs of a previously unknown king, and large ritual deposits.

The new theory

So in this small, supposedly secondary, administrative centre, we now have evidence of a thriving elite population, ritual activity and high-status rulers, and influence from the central cities. Dr. Haines concludes that North Central Belize was not a placid periphery but a dynamic area, and Lamanai was not alone in its rise to power.

Following on from this, our use of size or aesthetics to determine the political importance of a Maya city needs revisiting. For a better understanding of regional dynamics, we need to look at composition: did the city have ball courts, palaces and temples? (Often these come as a package deal.) What types of goods have been found: are they richly decorated and used only for high-status activities?

So perhaps this was a case of judging a book by its cover? Or were we taking a mindset belonging to our era and applying it to what was a quite different mental universe?