Lecture 3 - Chapter 3: Learning About the Past: Maya of Copan

Webster and Sanders say that their research addressed the issue of how the population of the Copan region adapted to its tropical environment. If you studied the theoretical paradigms in chapters 1 and 2 closely, one of them should jump out at you....can you say Cultural Ecology? Cultural Ecology is the theoretical perspective of anthropology that says that all aspects of cultural development are influenced the most by a culture's adaptation to its natural environment. Sanders, you should know, is one of the great proponents of Cultural Ecology. He's one of these crusty old important patriarchs of modern archaeology...if you read more of the hard-core literature and reports, you'll see his name everywhere! He was a student of Julian Steward...the guy who first who first wrote about Cultural Ecology in the late-1930's. In the 1950's, as archaeology was trying break from description to explanation, Sanders was making a name for himself by applying the perspective of Cultural Ecology to large regions such as the Valley of Mexico. His plan was to do a similar study of the Copan Valley.

As a result, the basic proposition was to undertake a total system approach...the entire area controlled by the center at Copan would be examined rather than just the center, itself. In addition, because hypotheses become most reliable when they are test in as many ways as possible, this work was to be multi-disciplinary...in addition to the archaeologists, there would be other anthropologists studying the modern cultures, botanists studying plant remains, geologists, zoologists, and specialists from many other diverse disciplines.

From this research, they hoped to reconstruct:

(from Out of the Past pg. 70)

1.) How were the basic institutions of Copan society structured, and how did
they change through time?

2.) What was Copan society like during its period of greatest complexity,
about AD 750-AD 800?

3.) What was the pattern of specific events or processes through time
(a.k.a. "culture history") at Copan?

4.) What happened to Copan and its vigorous culture, which left behind only
the ruins that Stephens and Catherwood found so enthralling and

5.) What can Copan teach us about trends of human behavior in general?

OK...so we know we're going to perform a large-scale regional study based on cultural ecological factors. What should be the first factor that we examine? What does each word in cultural ecology mean? Right! First, we examine factors from the prehistoric natural environment so as to:

1.) reconstruct the natural environment as a setting for Mayan culture.

2.) determine how the Maya used the existing environment.

3.) detect how the Maya may have changed their environment through time.

This was done by first examining the modern environment and how it has changed in recent history. This showed how the natural environment in this area reacts to human manipulation. Also, an ethnographic study was done of the descendants of the Maya who still live and farm in the vicinity using techniques similar to those depicted on Mayan artwork. This provided a very useful ethnographic analogy on what variables the Maya farmers had to contend with. Finally, soil surveys were conducted to collect pollen and other botanical matter that could should how the distribution of plants...both wild and domestic...changed through time.

These studies showed that the floor of the Copan Valley...the area surrounding the residences of the elites on the Main Group...were the most productive farmlands. The pollen studies (palynology) showed that, even though the wealth and power of the ruling elite declined after AD 850, maize pollen was still prevalent in the Copan Valley until around AD 1200. This suggests that even though the rulers of Main Group had fallen from power around AD 850, the region was not abandoned until 3-400 years later. We'll tackle the settlement pattern in the next class.

Last class, we discussed the research questions and the theoretical realm of cultural ecology that Webster and Sanders used as the foundation for their work at the Maya site of Copan. Then we went over the survey of the environmental factors that laid the groundwork for the rest of the analyses. Ok, now that we know the distribution of the current environment, how the prehistoric environment changed, and how the prehistoric environment was used by the Maya, we're ready to tackle the next level of this analysis, how did the Maya distribute themselves across this landscape?

The Settlement Pattern or System of a culture is the manner in which a population distributes itself across a landscape. Up until 1975, this had been examined in the most limited of ways: only the elite residences and ceremonial areas of the Main Group had been examined...this would be like examining our own society by only looking at the level of Donald Trump, Rockefeller, Ross Perot, and Bill Gates. Although the folks in Hollywood may want us to think that they're typical Americans, I think we can hardly call them a representative sample. The Maya are what anthropologists call a Stratifiedor Ranked society. These terms mean that the population was divided into strata along the lines of noble and commoner and several stages in between. Usually, to join the highest strata, you had to be born into it...rarely, one could achieve noble-like status through military prowess or the independent accumulation of wealth. The opposite of ranked society is an Egalitarian society...one where the only status differences result from age and gender, and often can be achieved through hard work. However, we'll talk more about the different kinds of societies in a later chapter.

In 1975, a colleague of Sanders', Gordon Willey, divided the ranked society at Copan into five different types: Type 1 at the bottom of the social hierarchy and Type 5 at the summit. He based this differentiation on the height of the house mounds and the complexity of the architecture...thus, the low pile of debris marking the remains of a commoner's house was a Type 1 and the ornate 30 meter tall platform upon which the buildings of the Main Group were constructed was a Type 5.

Because Webster and Sanders wanted to examine the entire prehistoric system in the Copan Valley, they spent six field seasons performing a surface survey of the valley and its surrounding area recording every single site, no matter how large it was.

They found 1,425 sites in total. From this they learned about how the Maya distributed themselves across the landscape, how they used resources, and how the population changed through time.

- Because 80% of the land in the survey area was very steep and was poor farm land, most of the sites were located in the areas with the best agricultural potential.

- Most of the elite sites (Type 3 or 4) were located in the immediate vicinity of the main group. This makes sense if one's wealth and prestige depend on being in the company of the king.

- Through matching pottery on found on these sites with a pottery chronology developed from test excavations, they were able to measure the population growth rate in the valley through time. This showed a population that doubled every 85 years until it peaked in AD 750.

- Only 3% of the sites were of the elite Types 3 or 4...these supported approximately 25% of the population although most of those living at them were servants or craftsmen.

- Although warfare is written about on inscriptions at Copan, no evidence of fortifications were found. This absence shows that what warfare existed was more of a ceremonial/jockeying-for-power variety rather than intensive war-for-conquest variety.

On the first day of class, when I asked what do archaeologists do, the first thing that somebody said was "dig". Webster and Sanders only felt that they could start digging after they understood the environmental factors and had studied where the sites were and what times were they from.

Excavation is a process not taken lightly by archaeologists...it is expensive and physically destroys the site. Only rarely will 100% of a site be excavated...much more common are 20% excavations. This is one reason why the scientific method has been found to be so useful to archaeologists: to make sure that you use your excavation resources most efficiently, you must decide ahead of time what you are looking for...you must have a question in mind...in other words, a hypothesis. Excavation then provides a test to your hypothesis.

At Copan, it was hypothesized that most structures or plaza groups were residences. To test this hypothesis, Sanders and Webster dug small 2x2 meter excavations down to bedrock next to each mound in 17% of the known sites. These sites were carefully selected to provide representative coverage throughout the study area. If you are testing to see if a site was a domestic residence, what would you expect to find? What would you find if it were not a domestic residence?

They found artifacts (cooking and storage pots, stone tools) characteristic of general day to day living in most of these sites. Also, they did not find unusually large deposits of stone or pottery that would show that a site was used just for the specialized manufacture of these goods. These results confirmed the hypothesis that these sites were local and residential in nature.

Excavations on a larger scale were also conducted on selected sites to both confirm these results and to provide more extensive insights into the functions that occurred at these sites. 20 sites of all types were excavated. Instead of clearing a 2x2 meter area as in the test units, the entire sites and their immediate surroundings were gridded and excavated. These excavations showed how the areas and structures within a site related and were used with each other. They also showed that larger sites with more complex structures were higher status than those that were simpler.

Another goal of these excavations was to uncover burials. Burials are especially interesting to archaeologists because this our only opportunity to actually "meet" the people whose culture we are studying. Burials provide data about diet, diseases, mortality rates, as well as important data about social status. At Copan, it was found that as the population became more dense, nutrition became a problem. This is because more people packed together means more trouble getting enough food due to lack a farm land and the declining productivity resulting from overuse of what land there is.

Other work at Copan involved estimating the amount of work it took to construct the various residences. This is important because it provides another avenue of evidence to confirm the hypothesis that more powerful people lived in the larger residences. Using prehistoric methods, they measured how long it took local workmen to quarry building stone from the Maya quarries and transport the stones to the sites. What they found was that the Type 5 palace of the king of Copan would have required about 30 times the labor to construct as a Type 1 residence. This is an explicit measure of the power that the king controlled compared to others in the society.

Another major result of the excavations of Copan has been the translation of many lines of hieroglyphics. Copan has more written records than any other Maya site. Only recently have these been translated. What they tell us about is the history of the kingdom and of the ruling lineage. Perhaps the most fascinating example is altar Q. Once interpreted as a "Congress of Astronomers", it is now thought to show the entire ruling dynasty of Copan. It's purpose is thought to reinforce the right to rule of the last king, Yax-Pac, because it shows him receiving a staff from the first king, Yax-Kuc-Mo'. This fascinating amount of detail would otherwise be unknown if the Maya did not have writing.

While writing provides insights and dates about elite sites, they area rarely found in the realm of the commoner. Thus, one of the goals of these excavations was to obtain chronometric dates or absolute dates for all sites. These would serve to confirm both the ceramic chronology and the written dates, as well as fill in the gaps between known dates. While several different dating methods were used at Copan, perhaps the most important was obsidian hydration. Because obsidian formed the basis for all economies in Mesoamerica, it is found in nearly 100% of the archaeological sites after AD 200. Using obsidian hydration, it is possible to tell when the stone was last flaked. These dates from Copan were important because they confirmed the pollen data from last class that showed that maize continued to be farmed for several hundred years following the presumed collapse of the Copan dynasty around AD 800. Not only did the obsidian hydration dates show that obsidian was still being worked for another 400 years after the collapse, but they also showed that the amounts being worked actually increased in some Type 3 and 4 sites soon after the collapse.

What these many lines of evidence suggest is that when the ruling dynasty of Copan collapsed, the region was not abandoned, but rather, the power vacuum was filled by lower elites and occupation of the valley continued for another 400 years.

Notice also that this research program is systematic...before excavations can be done, a surface survey needs to show us where to dig. This data is further refined by digging test units. Only when this data as known, can large-scale excavations take place. Next class, we will talk about the details of this excavation process.