Research at El Zotz (Guatemala)


“In the shadow of a giant : research at El Zotz, Guatemala”

Stephen D. Houston  /  Brown University


An enduring problem in studies of history and society is the question of political domination over people and landscape: how was such control achieved, and what were its varieties? An ideal setting to investigate this problem is ancient Maya kingdom of El Zotz, Guatemala, which flourished in the middle years of the first millennium CE. At El Zotz, preliminary evidence indicates the sudden creation of a dynastic seat, with all the palatial and mortuary facilities associated with Maya rulership.

The city appears to result from geopolitical strategy: (1) it was placed close to the immense Maya city of Tikal, with historical evidence of support from long-standing enemies of the Tikal dynasty; (2) it controlled a key route connecting two major regions of the Maya world; and (3) it flourished precisely when Tikal was weakened by surrounding dynasties of hostile intent. As a new royal court, El Zotz bears all the marks of a “founded” city or, in a recently developed label, a “reembedded capital.” It existed, not as an organic growth from local agriculture and settlement, but as the center of an innovative, reconfigured polity that flourished along a borderland between two larger kingdoms. As such, El Zotz relates to key debates about the nature of governance in traditional, pre-industrial polities of relatively modest scale: namely, whether decision-making was diffuse and conflictive (“heterarchical”) in such “city-states,” or centralized and hierarchical. El Zotz and its environs are targeted as part of a three-year investigation of broad scope and collaborative intent. The goal is to test explicit expectations of El Zotz as a “reembedded capital,” with a number of provable or deniable predictions: (1) poor linkages to agriculture; (2) disarticulation from earlier settlement; (3) novel religious and courtly practices; (4) relative instability and fragility; (5) deliberate contrasts in material culture, diet, and demography with competing kingdoms, and (6) further historical evidence from a region that remains poorly known, if savagely looted. The result will be fresh insights into the formation,growth, and decline of pre-industrial kingdoms and royal courts.


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