Week 23 SCRAP Reading Group: Inalienable possessions

Last Friday we once again met over Zoom. This time, Adrian Chase chose our article, focused on inalienable possessions: “objects made to be kept (not exchanged), have symbolic and economic power that cannot be transferred, and are often used to authenticate the ritual authority of corporate groups.” Check out the article summary and discussion questions below.

Mills, Barbara J. 2004. The Establishment and Defeat of Hierarchy: Inalienable Possessions and the History of Collective Prestige Structures in the Pueblo Southwest. American Anthropologist 106(2):238-251. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2004.106.2.238


What social relationships and material patterns coexist with market exchange, and what role does equifinality play in our ability as archaeologists to sort between these different patterns? In this article, Barbara Mills focuses on ethnographic and archaeological data to describe specialized materials related to prestige and ritual that were not prestige goods as traditionally defined. Instead, “inalienable possessions are objects made to be kept (not exchanged), have symbolic and economic power that cannot be transferred, and are often used to authenticate the ritual authority of corporate groups.” This idea originally comes from Annette Weiner’s ethnographic work in the Pacific on a specific class of ritual items that circulated outside of market exchange. While Mills states that this model works for nonstate societies, what other models and ideas does this inspire for understanding any efforts at “defeating hierarchy” within ancient Maya society?


Matt Peeples recommended this article as a synergistic reference to the pan-Caracol pattern of eastern shrines. At Caracol, most plazuela residential groups have an eastern shrine (between 70 to 80%) which contains tombs, burials, and caches that exhibit similar material culture (Chase and Chase 2007; 2009; 2017:213-217). This is regardless of residential size – even the summit of Caana exhibits similar patterns to average residents, albeit with more material. This pattern appears to be part of a citywide categorical identity, but it also suggests some social mechanism(s) to create residential wealth and reduces differential wealth displayed between average residences and elite residences.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do the social processes outlined by Mills both establish and defeat hierarchy? Are these good examples of social leveling and how else have archaeologists investigated “social leveling mechanisms”? How do more egalitarian interpretations for the US southwest affect this?
  2. What are some of the issues in comparisons between the US Southwest and the Maya area? How do different perspectives of state versus non-state social organization alter this research?
  3. How do material selection, production, and use change the nature of “inalienable goods” from “prestige goods”? Mills contrasts prestige goods exchange with inalienable goods possession as two potential patterns in the archaeological record. How do inalienable goods interact with market exchange? Would market exchange patterns alter this process or subsume it?
  4. How operationalizable is this concept, and how would these interpretations change without the ethnographic record (see page 132 and the Bunzel 1932b reference)? In what ways would this material be equifinal with other depositional patterns?
  5. One aspect of Mills’s work in general is an attempt to build up from social relationships into larger social patterns. How do these micro-scale social models differ from more macro-scale social models? Given sampling, does a micro-scale approach more closely match our datasets?