Maya in the Middle

David Reed, University of Michigan, Summer Fellow 2015–2016

Who composed the middle tiers of ancient Maya polities? Estimating the social status of interred individuals assists us in exploring other dimensions of society, such as differential access to resources. My work presents a reconsideration of how to determine status from mortuary data by showing that some aspects of mortuary remains reflect the social organizational context of the burial. Our mortuary analysis of Classic-period Copan finds that ancient Maya social organization was continuous, highly variable, and without clear demarcations. This raises questions of how the middle strata emerged and functioned, what economic and power relationships were formed, and how social organization operated as a whole.

New approaches are unraveling the complex structure and variability between and within Maya polities, and show an increasing appreciation of the plurality of social positions, from royalty to captives. But we still have a poor understanding of the workings of entire systems, largely due to incomplete explanatory theoretical models. My time at Dumbarton Oaks was used to advance the discussion. I believe that delving further into these issues requires the continued application of sophisticated analytical methods alongside extensive work on sociopolitical organization theory. As a result of my summer fellowship, I have uncovered recent bioarchaeological data that will enlarge our database and add a new dimension—migration—to our work. Additionally, I began the study of theoretical approaches that are recent to archaeological explanation—structuration, collective action, and pragmatism. These approaches may aid our understanding of ancient sociopolitical complexity.