SCRAP 2022 Week 4: Socioeconomic Institutions @ Alabama

This week’s blog is by SCRAP Field Director and Ph.D. Candidate Matthew Longstaffe.

In late April, I jetted off from Calgary to Mexico to begin my second (albeit much delayed, thanks to COVID) spring/summer of dissertation fieldwork. For a month, I was in the jungles of the Calakmul Biosphere in southern Campeche, where I was excavating in the residential compound of a wealthy ancient household in the ancient city of Yaxnohcah. By late May, I was on my way to Stann Creek to join up with my SCRAP colleagues to begin excavating at Alabama.

My fieldwork in Stann Creek and Campeche is to collect data for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Broadly, my research at both Yaxnohcah and Alabama is grounded in three overarching questions:

  • What integrative strategies did people use to participate in socioeconomic institutions?
  • How is this participation reflected in the archaeological record of residences?
  • How does participation in socioeconomic institutions impact the social organization of communities? 

But what exactly do I mean when discussing “socioeconomic institutions”? Here, I borrow a definition from Holland-Lulewicz and colleagues (2020), who conceptualize institutions as “organizations of people that carry out objectives using regularized practices and norms, labor, and resources.” Within this framework, I consider institutions not immaterial or abstract but tangible social phenomena with material outcomes. Regardless of their specific form and objectives, “socioeconomic” institutions integrate individuals and groups across communities through their shared purpose of provisioning society through, for example, production, consumption, and/or distribution of material goods. Marketplaces, craft guilds, task-oriented labour groups, and reciprocal labour pools are all examples of socioeconomic institutions. 

At Yaxnohcah, I am investigating a residential compound located immediately next to a neighbourhood marketplace. I explore the possibility that the people who lived in this residential group played a role in organizing and administering this community-level socioeconomic institution. 

But what am I doing at Alabama? In contrast to other, more well-researched areas of the Maya lowlands, we know very little about the socioeconomic institutions of Alabama and, to a certain degree, the Stann Creek District more broadly. SCRAP hypothesizes that resource development was a key driver of rapid growth at Alabama. I believe that socioeconomic institutions emerged to help support these activities, integrating this community’s households into social, political, and economic networks operating at multiple scales.

Picking up where we left off in 2019, this field season, we are excavating at one of the largest and best-preserved settlement sites outside the Alabama monumental core. The site is ALA-002 and lies roughly 1 km from the monumental core or “downtown” of Alabama. This settlement site has shown strong potential for providing the data types necessary to address my research questions. In 2019, investigations at ALA-002 found intact, reasonably well-preserved architecture and numerous, well-stratified artifacts of different material classes. This year, Shawn, Dave, and I are supervising excavations at the settlement site’s three mounds. We hope to further clarify the architectural forms of their platforms (and associated superstructures when possible) and expand our artifact database.

Together, the data collected will be critical for understanding the overall function of ALA-002 and the activities that took place at this location. Thus, one of my study’s goals (which will help address my research questions) is to use excavation and artifact data to reconstruct the socioeconomic practices of the people who lived at this settlement site. For example, material analyses of recovered artifacts (e.g., ceramics, tools, and other objects) should provide us with information to evaluate the type, scope, and scale of activities that occurred at ALA-002. Furthermore, by analyzing these artifacts and looking for patterns in their distribution, we can identify local and non-local belongings that can tell us about broader trade relationships, signifying participation in socioeconomic institutions. These are just a snippet of the analyses we plan to undertake. Still, this type of information can help us understand the relationships residents of ALA-002 exemplified within the socioeconomic organization of Alabama and the surrounding region at various times.

As a final aside, because it’s too cool to ignore, one of the more interesting findings so far this year is evidence that two locations at ALA-002, although constructed and principally occupied during the Late and Terminal Classic periods, appear to have been reoccupied (for at least a time) during the Late Postclassic and possibly into the early Colonial period. While our analysis is still preliminary, a wide array of temporally diagnostic artifacts, notably projectile points, ceramics, and purpose-made ceramic net-weights, support this interpretation.


Holland-Lulewicz, Jacob, Megan Anne Conger, Jennifer Birch, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and Travis W. Jones (2020). An Institutional Approach for Archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 58:101163.