Another week of reading & online discussion

This evening we hosted the second meet up of our SCRAP Online Reading Group. Once again, we had participants from Belize, Canada, and the US take part, and the discussion carried on for 2 hours (plus an extra hour of chatting). Thanks to all who participated, including our special guest, Ms. Sylvia Batty. The following article summary and discussion questions were provided by Matt Longstaffe who is conducting his Ph.D. research as part of SCRAP.


SCRAP Reading Group, Week 2: Friday, April 10, 2020: (online, 4:00 MST), “Resource Exploitation and Exchange among the Classic Maya: Some Initial Findings of the Maya Mountains Archaeological Project” (Peter Dunham, 1996, in The Managed Mosaic: Ancient Maya Agriculture and Resource Use, edited by S. L. Fedick, pp. 315-334. University Press of Utah).

Summary: This book chapter provides an overview of the results of field research conducted in 1992 by the Maya Mountains Archaeological Project (MMAP). The chapter discusses the unique natural resources of the Maya Mountains area and highlights several archaeological sites located in the Swasey and Trio branches of the Monkey River. Underpinning this discussion is a critique of the enduring narrative once popular among Mayanists that long-distance and external trade, and intensive centralized production, underwrote the emergence of complexity in the Maya region. In these “exogenic” models, the emergence of elites is tied to advantageous access to long-distance and foreign commerce. These types of models ignore the variability in trade and exchange that exist in all societies, instead favouring a premise in which long-distance trade is a requirement for complexity to emerge in peripheral regions such as Stann Creek and Toledo, as these areas are assumed to lack the essential resources needed for cultural development, reproduction, and maintenance. In contrast to these models, Dunham highlights the importance of internal and shorter-range exchange and the ways that ‘local’ resources can fuel complexity among the Maya

There are several reasons why I selected this article for discussion. First, the detailed discussions on the unique biological and mineralogical resources are pertinent to SCRAP’s ongoing research on resource exploitation and use in Stann Creek. Many of the unique biological and mineralogical resources valued by the Maya populations in the Swasey and Trio branches would also have been of importance to the Maya who lived in Alabama. Identifying these unique resources will help us to understand both why and how settlements arose in their vicinity. Second, the descriptions Dunham provides of sites such as Danto, Lagarto, Ruina Carolina, Martin’s Ruin, and Papayal, provide a rare glimpse into the many settlements of this region that are otherwise rarely discussed. These sites, like Alabama, diverge from the general characteristics of most Classic period Maya settlements, and offer, at a minimum, some physiographic comparisons to other sites with similar environmental settings in Stann Creek and Toledo. Third, Dunham raises some interesting hypotheses regarding the relationships between local networks of exchange, settlement patterns, and site functions. For instance, his hypothetical picture of a local sphere of interaction among communities connected through downstream resource exchange is an intriguing avenue of inquiry and may have some applicability for understanding the connections of Alabama to other settlements in Stann Creek and further afield. Finally, and encompassed within the points made above, this chapter provides a valuable and critical counterpoint to the dominant view amongst many Mayanists that the Maya Mountains region was an “unoccupied cultural backwater”.

Some Discussion Questions:

  1. The chapter highlights many of the unique biological resources of the Maya Mountains region. Given issues of preservation, archaeologists are often limited in the ways they can talk about many types of resources that were important to past Maya populations. How can we better represent resources that leave few, if any, material traces in our interpretations of the activities of past populations of Stann Creek?
  2. Resources are assigned “value” based on contextual factors. How do we reconcile common notions of what is considered “valuable” among the ancient Maya with the many different locally available resources often underrepresented in the archaeological literature?
  3. What do you think about Dunham’s idea of networks of communities engaged in a broader resource economy?
  4. People migrating to this region would be faced with challenges in how to adapt to the unique environment and best utilize its resource base. In what ways can we identify these challenges, as well as successes, in the archaeological record?