Ceibal (GUATEMALA) - Part-9 Maya Collapse and Modern Society
Ceibal (9) , Maya Collapse and Modern Society
Takeshi Inomata - A spoon-shaped greenstone ornament (about two inches long) found in the excavation tunnel at Ceibal. The object was probably worn by an early community leader as a pectoral and then placed in a cache in a communal ritual.
Our archaeological field season at the Maya site of Ceibal ended successfully, but its last few weeks were an emotional roller coaster. The elation of important discoveries was quickly dampened by the news of a disaster in Japan, and we spent a few days worrying about the safety of our colleagues and collaborators. The magnitude of tragedy made us ponder archaeology’s relevance to the problems of the modern world.
Takeshi Inomata - Stela 19 of Aguateca depicting the ruler of the city in elaborate ceremonial attire.
An obvious question that comes to mind is how past societies responded to natural and environmental disasters. Did the drastic social change around the ninth century A.D., often called the Classic Maya collapse, result from environmental problems or climatic changes? Are there lessons in what happened to the Maya? Our previous research at Aguateca showed that this Maya city was attacked by enemies and was rapidly abandoned around A.D. 810. Ceibal, in the same region, survived for another century and a half or so, erecting magnificent stelae while many other cities declined. Ceibal’s eventual fall was less dramatic than that of Aguateca, but our excavation of the Ceibal royal palace revealed evidence of burning and destruction.
We are now examining how these political and social processes might be related to environmental degradation and climate change. We are still waiting for the results of the environmental studies conducted by our Japanese colleagues, but we can probably say that even if environmental and climatic problems happened, these external troubles alone did not cause the Maya collapse. Our finds at Aguateca and Ceibal show that political problems and intensified conflicts, regardless of whether they were triggered by environmental crises, ultimately led to the abandonment of these cities. In our continuing study, we hope to examine interactions between humans and the environment, including the questions of how people responded to the challenges posed by environmental problems and how they restored, or failed to restore, social integration.
Another issue that we have been examining is an even broader one, concerning the makeup of human society and the way it changes. We have been studying how sedentary societies with governmental institutions came about. We observe the emergence of an aggregated settlement and political centralization in the early history of Ceibal, and these forms of spatial arrangement and political organization became common features of later societies that we usually call civilizations, including our own.
Takeshi Inomata - The earliest ceremonial structures found in the tunnel excavation at Ceibal. The first version was a natural rise carved into a stepped structure form (the white layer at the bottom). The brown layer above it represents the second version of the building, which was then covered by later constructions.
Takeshi Inomata - A cache of greenstone axes found in the tunnel. Excavating a cache from the bottom is tricky.
More specifically, we have been addressing the question of whether a formal arrangement of buildings and plazas was established at the very beginning of occupation at Ceibal around 1,000 B.C. An important focus of our work in this regard was the western pyramid of the Central Plaza. By digging a tunnel from the frontal area of the pyramid toward its core, we attempted to find the earliest version of this central ceremonial building. When we wrote our last post on March 6, the tunnel had reached a length of 18 meters (about 60 feet) and we still had not found the early structure. We were becoming a bit pessimistic as the end of the field season neared. In the last week of our excavation, however, Raúl Ortiz, who led the tunnel excavation team, finally saw that the natural soil surface that he had been following sloped up and then formed steps. This was the earliest building that we had been looking for! It turned out that the ancient residents of Ceibal carved a natural rise into the form of a stepped structure and placed a series of caches containing greenstone axes in front of it. To me, this was a discovery more exciting than any royal tomb.
This discovery accords well with the finds in other parts of the site. As we wrote in earlier posts, Daniela Triadan and Victor Castillo dug through seven meters (about 23 feet) of construction layers of the large platforms located near the Central Plaza and found that substantial parts of these platforms were built in the early days of Ceibal. On the other side of the Central Plaza,Flory Pinzón found that the eastern part of the early ceremonial space was made of a construction fill about two meters high (about six and a half feet) retained by a substantial stairway. After five seasons of excavation, we now have enough confirmation that the formal ceremonial center of Ceibal was suddenly established with a substantial initial construction effort at the beginning of the first millennium B.C. in an area formerly occupied by small mobile populations.
Perhaps we need to rethink the common assumption that transitions from mobile living to aggregated settlements were always gradual. Human history is often marked by times of rapid change that punctuated periods of stability. Our finds also compel us to reconsider the popular notion that first a developed society with necessary technologies was established and then large, formal buildings were constructed. The process at Ceibal appears to have happened in reverse order. But this does not mean that Ceibal is completely unique. When ancient people built first pyramids or ceremonial buildings in various parts of the world, these constructions represented unprecedented experiments. As the construction proceeded, people possibly needed to come up with new techniques and new ways of organizing labor. As much as society made structures, those buildings made society. Comparable processes are probably happening in the modern world as well.
A related issue is the rise of political leaders and centralized governmental institutions. The primary motivation for founding Ceibal as a formal center appears to have been to create a structured space for communal ritual. As community members gathered in these public events, their leaders probably took the center stage by depositing greenstone axes and other precious objects in caches. Early Maya political authority seems to have been rooted more in leaders’ ritual roles than their ability to control economic resources.
The importance of ritual performance by early community leaders may have shaped the later course of Maya political authority. Many of the splendid Classic-period stone monuments (A.D. 250-900) depict Maya rulers in elaborate costumes dancing, conducting rituals or playing ballgames in public spaces. These theatrical acts were primary duties for Maya kings and an important base of their power. The notion of a ruler dancing in public may sound strange, but political leaders’ public performances, in different forms, are an essential part of political mechanisms in modern societies as well. The president, for example, is not just a political decision-maker — through public speeches and official ceremonies, he embodies the ideals of the nation and fosters a sense of social integration.
These insights gained from archaeology, I believe, can help us to recognize the commonalities shared by humans and to appreciate the uniqueness of each society. They also put our current situation in perspective. We often take our form of society for granted, but we need to step back sometimes and contemplate how and why we have come to live in this particular way. This kind of inquiry does not provide immediate solutions to the pressing issues of the modern world, but without it we may remain blind to our own nature. And for archaeology to be relevant to today’s world, archaeologists have to make an active effort to speak to the general public, particularly to the descendant communities of the culture we study, and to encourage people to discuss the implications of archaeological finds. I thank our readers for following our posts and commenting on them.