Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Ancient Maya Ideology and the Human Body: Materializing Power among Mid-Level Leaders in the Belize River Val

Project: Research project

Project Details


Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Ancient Maya Ideology and the Human Body: Materializing Power among Mid-Level Leaders in the Belize River Val Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Ancient Maya Ideology and the Human Body: Materializing Power among Mid-Level Leaders in the Belize River Val Assessing ideology through the lens of material culture allows archaeologists to identify sources of power in ancient complex societies. Ideology is typically perceived as the manipulation of commonly held social values, or worldview, by a group for the purpose of social dominance. Archaeology recognizes elites by their access to finely made or imported household and ritual items, and elaborate architecture. Non-elites are characterized as having limited access to material wealth. Without systematic study, lack of material wealth should not come to mean that non-elites lacked the knowledge or resources to materialize their worldview. Alternative materials that hold ideological significance should be considered. The ancient Maya are a socially complex society ideal for addressing questions of ideology. The research proposed here asserts that focusing on, first, mid-level communities and, second, the human body as a source of data on worldview, the role of commoners as producers and consumers of ideology will be better elucidated. The focus of this research explores how leaders of ancient Maya mid-level communities of the Belize River Valley, Belize, from B.C. 800 A.D. 1000, materialized ideology and mortuary ritual knowledge to acquire and maintain sociopolitical power. The power of deceased ancestors was a key aspect of Maya worldview; ancient iconography and ethnohistoric mythology indicate human bone served to materialize ancestors. The ancestral human body, as it was during life and how it was treated after death, is thus seen as one avenue for non-elite materialization of worldview. The ritual-political strategy of mid-level leaders is assessed by a novel juxtaposition of anthropological theories of social power and the human body with bioarchaeological methods of anthropologie de terrain (human mortuary taphonomy) kinship analysis (biodistance), and strontium isotope analysis (residence history), which have not been integrated and applied to ancient Maya ideology and death rituals. To better understand the strategic use of ideology by commoners through the materialization of ancestors, this project asks: To what extent were human skeletal remains a focus of ancestor veneration rituals for ancient Maya mid-level leaders? How did the rituals change over time? *The proposed study is significant in two ways, first it refines anthropological perspectives on prehistoric social complexity and social diversity, and second it will explicitly address the interaction of lineage and ritual as a source of power in Maya society using bioarchaeological data. Results have potential to impact archaeological thinking and data collection beyond the lowland Maya region. Defining sources of power is essential in studies of prehistoric complex societies. The ancient Maya were chosen to address this important issue because biological lineage as a foundation of political power is well documented ethnohistorically and ethnographically. My project challenges the current assertion that all ritual knowledge and persuasion was in the hands of Maya royalty by proposing that the assumed influence of elite divinity within commoner communities has yet to be demonstrated. Assessing mortuary behaviors involving the body, a nexus of power, will therefore explicitly assess elite power in mid-level communities, using both ritual and biological evidence. Documenting how leaders within the Belize Valley used elements of their past and controlled ritual knowledge to create power has direct implications for refining models of ancient social complexity and sociopolitical power globally. *The project will integrate bioarchaeological data sets from the Belize Valley that have never been formally compared and/or disseminated. Dissemination will begin by posting all literature and datasets compiled by this project to the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) at Arizona State University. Managed by the Digital Antiquity project, and funded in part by NSF, tDAR is an online database of archaeological data open to the public and academics alike. A published monograph, in addition to presentation at American and Belizean archaeological conferences, will be a second step in data dissemination. Finally, funds have been requested for curation of skeletal material from the BRV so this large collection of ancient Maya skeletons can be preserved for future studies. Curated skeletal material will be made available at Belize Institute of Archaeology facilities.
Effective start/end date7/1/133/31/17


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $23,877.00


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