The University of Alabama

An Uncommon Approach: Nobles, Commoners Grant Insights into Maya Kings

LeCount sits at her desk behind examples of modern and ancient Maya pottery. She has studied the Maya culture since 1992 (Jeff Hanson).

If, in about 2,400 years, tomorrow’s archaeologists are inspired by an approach taken by Dr. Lisa LeCount, they might be tempted to learn about the long ago lives of Prince William and Kate Middleton by looking a bit further down the hierarchal chain.

Rather than analyzing the fairy-tale couple, what if these scientists-of-tomorrow decided, instead, to learn about the British Royal Family by studying commoners who, perhaps, received invitations to April’s extravagant wedding, but whose names weren’t near the top of the guest list.

Take such an approach, transport it back in time and about 5,000 miles southwest to the ancient Maya site of Actuncan in Belize, and you’ve got something close to what LeCount, a University of Alabama archaeologist, is actually interested in – what the contemporaries of the former Maya divines can reveal about the long ago kings who once ruled within the boundaries of what is, today, this Central American country.

“Most archaeologists — when they go about looking at this time period (from about 400 B.C. to 400 A.D.) – are interested in kings and queens, so they excavate royal palaces and temples and that sort of thing,” LeCount says. “And I think that is fine, and it gives you a certain perspective. But the thing about royal houses is that they are rather biased in what they think about their roles in society and how they got there. They are going to propagate as to why they are kings.”

David Mixter, of Washington University at St. Louis, right, makes notations at an excavation site in 2010.

So, LeCount takes a different approach.

“I decided one way to understand the rise of ancient Maya-kingships is to actually look at common and noble households and to understand their role in this social and political transformation,” LeCount says. “I think we can understand that if this institution was coercive or unproductive or ineffectual, then you would have had a certain amount of resistance from households. I’m looking at the amount of resistance to centralizing power.”

In leading a three year, $226,000 National Science Foundation-funded project, LeCount is seeking clues to such resistance through the excavation of seven former residences at the ancient Maya site of Actuncan.

Maya sites are a mix of civic architecture and residences. At the heart of an ancient Maya civic center, the royal family lived in a large acropolis – a raised area where multiple buildings stood – surrounded by pyramids, ballcourts and funerary shrines, LeCount says.

LeCount works with an old god ephigy vessel once used in chocolate making and recovered from a burial site.

Nobles – those families who didn’t become a ruling dynasty – lived in smaller palaces where they made craft items, served the royal family and oversaw their estates in the country. Common people, who were farmers, often lived on the outskirts of town or in the countryside.

“We assume that the first kings rose out of noble lineages,” LeCount says. “So, why would other noble lineages allow someone to rise above that station and declare themselves divine?”

During their initial 10-month excavation that began in May 2010, LeCount and her research colleagues – including five other doctoral researchers, three University of Alabama graduate students, some undergraduates and about 20 Belizeans, including students from Galen University as well as non-students – exhumed about 75,000 pottery sherds and other ancient household remains.

As the researchers are only about one-third of the way through the project, there are presently more questions than answers. However, by examining how these structures, occupied by non-divine inhabitants, may have changed over a period of approximately 1,000 years, LeCount expects to learn more about the degree of success the divine kings and queens achieved.

“You can chart the trajectories of houses through time,” LeCount says.

Rafting across the Mopan River is part of the researchers' daily work commute.

If the divine rulers successfully limited the influence of noble families, these non-divine households would exhibit decreases in wealth. This would result in smaller homes, over time, fewer goods in the home deemed luxuries, and changes in the types of activities undertaken in the home.

If, instead, the noble authority remained well developed, then analyses are expected to show how the prosperity of households remained more stable over time.

The magnitude of jade jewelry, fancy pottery, and shell ornaments offer insights into an occupant’s wealth. Through skeletal analysis of human remains, including testing of teeth, researchers can gain insight into an inhabitant’s diet – another major clue as to their status and prosperity.

Dr. Angela Keller, of the Universtity of Texas Arlington, stands in front of the archaeologists' computer lab.

Researchers can reconstruct daily activities underway at the site during specific time periods by analyzing soil taken from houses. Soil absorbs the spills of everyday life, therefore it can be tested for specific chemical concentrations that researchers use to learn about preparation and consumption of food, ritual activities and craft production, LeCount says.

The archaeologists are looking for changes in the way people ate, what kinds of jewelry they made, and where they did so.

Regardless of the future conclusions, LeCount says she finds the ancient Maya people to be fascinating.

Dr. Becky Mendelsohn, of State University of New York, Albany, works above an excavation unit wall.

Known for their advanced writing, their interest in astronomy and math, and their advanced use of calendars, their staying power also impresses LeCount.

Many sites in the upper Belize River valley were first occupied by the Maya around 1000 B.C., and they remained there until about 1000 A.D.

“The Maya, once they found a good place to live, they stayed there,” LeCount says.  “We should be so lucky here in the United State to have a political entity and a social group that are on the landscape for 2,000 years.”