Week 21 SCRAP Reading Group: Obsidian

Thank you to Dr. Elizabeth Paris for joining us for this week’s discussion about obsidian. The article (selected this week by Lorraine), was an oldie but a goodie that led to 3 hours of conversation! Thanks to all who took part. See below for Lorraine’s summary and questions.


Awe, Jamie and Healy, Paul. “Flakes to Blades? Middle Formative Development of Obsidian Artifacts in the Upper Belize River Valley”. Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 193-205.


In this article, the authors concentrate on obsidian technological development at the Cahal Pech site in the Upper Belize River Valley of the Maya Lowlands. The first half of the early Middle Formative Period (1000 – 850 B.C.) consisted only of flakes at this site.  The late Middle Formative (650 – 450 B.C.) is when the prismatic blades and blade-cores first occur. The prismatic blade and blade-core continued to dominate during the Late Formative and Classic Periods. The comparison with studies at other sites in the Central Maya Lowlands, such as Pacbitun, Barton Ramie, Copan, Seibel, Altar de Sacrificios, Central Peten Lakes region, showed similar trends of contextual distribution. Cuello and Colha sites though had discrepancies, which Awe and Healy determined made any correlation difficult. It is also noted by Awe and Healy that this sequence has been recorded from the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, Maya Highlands, and northern Mesoamerica.

The authors conclude that this flake-to-bladelet sequence would be attributed to areas where a minimum level of socio-political complexity needed to be reached in order for this specialization to occur. The late Middle Formative is seen as fitting this model as was a time of major increases in population, pronounced construction activity, more marked differentiation in social ranking, and more complex trade networks incorporating long distance contact and exchange.


(1) Thoughts on the authors “Why does the contextual distribution of the Cahal Pech obsidian artifacts reflect a developmental sequence similar to that observed in the highlands, Pacific Coast of Guatemala, Maya Highlands, and northern Mesoamerica?

(2) Do you see this trend in your area?

(3) Do changes in form reflect changes in how obsidian was used?

(4) How does this further the understanding of mobility/trade patterns?

(5) How does this development coincide with trends of other artifacts, such as pottery?

(6) Let’s talk about obsidian sources …

(7) Are your alcohol bottles adding up? Some experimental archaeology? Flint knapping anyone!?!

Belize to Bezanson talk

Alberta-educated archaeologists, Dr. Shawn Morton (GPRC instructor) and Dr. Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown (Associate professor at Athabasca University and GPRC visiting scholar) hosted a presentation on Friday, March 26, 2021 on their research of frontiers and boomtowns. Learn about their long-term research in Alabama, Belize – an old townsite located outside of the Maya heartland, that was a bustling frontier town during its time roughly 1,200 years ago, and their future plans for community-based research closer to home in Bezanson, Alberta. This was an opportunity to provide important community input, as Dr. Morton and Dr. Peuramaki-Brown work to connect and show the similarities of these two locations, even through they are separated by more than a millennium and thousands of miles.

Read their full story at GPRC.me/Success

If you missed the presentation it is available online on the SCRAP YouTube channel.

📸#BeforeSocialDistancing#ExperienceGPRC#TechTuesday#5GPRCGPRC Research and Innovation

Week 20 SCRAP Reading Group: Ethnicity & Material Culture

This past week our reading group ventured into the ever-complicated topic of ethnicity in archaeology. Thanks to all who attended and to Dr. Mary Davis for taking the time out to be with us. See below for summary and discussion questions provided by Shawn, and thank you to Heather for providing the photo.

Davis, Mary A. (2018) The Harappan ‘Veneer’ and the Forging of Urban Identity. In Walking with the Unicorn, D. Frenez, G.M. Jamison, R.W. Law, M. Vidale, and R.H. Meadow, eds., pp. 145-160. Archaeopress Access Archaeology.

In this article, Mary Davis explores a material culture tradition/horizon known as the ‘Harappan Veneer’. Mary proposes that this veneer spread via participation in trade and crafting traditions. It served to cement shared patterns of material culture use and symbolic representation across a diverse population. Evaluating four models for interaction—ultimately arguing that the ‘dormancy’ model best fits the data—Mary goes on to argue that, rather than signalling ethnic affiliation, adoption of the veneer was intended to signal being ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘connected’ with any ethnic identities simply masked but remaining present to one day re-emerge.


  1. What is ‘ethnicity’? Is it expressed materially? How?
  2. Can we differentiate ethnicity from other categories of identity represented by material culture and interpreted in the archaeological record? Is ethnicity a useful concept when considering the peoples of the ancient Indus? Is it useful when considering the peoples of the ancient Maya region? Similarities? Differences? To what degree does available data (a product of time, access, and the numbers of researchers involved) change what we can say?
  3. What is ‘Maya culture’? The ‘Maya area’ has been divided into a series of material culture sub-regions. East-Central Belize, where SCRAP conducts its research is defined by earthen core architecture, granite facing stones and monuments, the conspicuous use of ornamental (likely imported) limestone, etc. What characteristics define other sub-regions? What does this mean? Do such sub-divisions have any integrity as emic identity markers? Are they the simple product of environmental/technological/economic determinism?
  4. At what point does ‘Maya’ stop being a useful term/concept and start being a hindrance to archaeological interpretation?

Week 19 SCRAP Reading Group: Ancient Currencies

Thank you to Dr. Geoff Braswell for joining us in Friday’s conversation about money/currency (did it exist??), its production and procurement, and core-periphery relations in the ancient Maya world. See below for article summary and discussion questions (courtesy of Matt Longstaffe).

Baron, Joanne P. 2018. Making Money in Mesoamerica: Currency Production and Procurement in the Classic Maya Financial System. Economic Anthropology 5(2):210–223. DOI:10.1002/sea2.12118.

What is money? How did it develop in complex societies such as the Maya? What evidence do we have for it (in its varying forms) and how did it change over time? How did money configure and reconfigure socioeconomic relationships? These are just a few of the questions raised in “Making money in Mesoamerica: Currency production and procurement in the Classic Maya financial system”.

In the article, Joanne Baron proposes a historical process of monetization in which items indexical to elite status, such as cacao and cotton textiles, see their value extended beyond elite contexts to become money or currency. This process accelerates in the seventh-century CE when large polities across the southern lowlands begin to devote more resources to their market economies as they become reliant on goods exchanged in marketplaces. It is argued that this process of shifting materiality–through discourse and practice cacao and cotton (and woven cloth) assume new value and become currency–ultimately reconfigures relationships between core urban polities and agricultural zones in the peripheries of the Maya world.

Discussion Questions (in no particular order):

  1. Cacao, salt, jade, shell, and copper. These are all examples of environmentally distributed resources that ultimately become important to the commercialization of Maya economies. Baron highlights eastern and southern Belize as regions strongly affected by this process. Do we agree with the presented scenarios? Is the shift in value of goods such as cacao, salt, or shell represented directly or indirectly in the material record of our sites? If so, what does this look like? In what types of contexts is this observed?
  • Standardization of production (or products) is important to the creation of a standard of value. What approaches can we use (or already use) to identify standardization in the material record?
  • While the article focuses predominantly on the institutional economy, how does increased commercialization and monetization impact the functioning of domestic economies? What material patterns should we expect in households in increasingly commercialized Maya societies?
  • Does intensive production of commodities such as cacao or salt require elite monopolization?
  • Core-periphery relations are not a new topic of study in Mesoamerican archaeology. However, research about money/currency is forcing a re-examination of assumptions about the dynamics of social, political, and economic relations between regions, polities, and producers-consumers, for example. How might regions such as Stann Creek (once called an “unoccupied cultural backwater”) be reconsidered in light of evidence for incipient commercialization during the Late Classic?
  • While we may or may not agree with the scenario(s) presented by Baron, there were undoubtedly interactions (in many forms) between eastern and southern Belize and other regions. These interactions were certainly not constrained to individual sites. How can we think more regionally? How can we better integrate meso- and macro-scale data to understand our material patterns? What might this tell us about the scope and scale of interactions between Stann Creek/Toledo and regions further afield.

Reading Group, Week 18: Fun with Bayesian modeling!

This week we dared to venture into the world of Bayesian statistics. Luckily, we had the marvelous Dr. Julie Hoggarth as our guide. See below for summaries of the articles and the questions that directed our 2.5-hour discussion.


Hamilton, W. Derek, and Anthony M. Krus. (2018) The myths and realities of Bayesian chronological modeling revealed.” American Antiquity 83.2: 187-203.
Hamilton and Krus review the history of using Bayesian chronological modeling within archaeology, offering several myths and misconceptions about the method based on their experience with colleagues. They show that there has been a boom in the use of Bayesian modeling over the past 5 years in particular, particularly applied within British archaeology as well as American archaeology. They list the following misconceptions: 1. Bayesian statistics are not scientifically objective; 2. Old radiocarbon measurements with large errors should be ignored; 3. Stratigraphic relationships between samples are needed to make a Bayesian chronological model; 4. The dates for diagnostic artifacts or time ranges should be included in models as constraints; 5. Agreement indices are useful tools for determining which models are probable; 6. Bayesian modeling is not necessary if you have an accepted site/regional chronology. Throughout their discussion of the general practice of Bayesian modeling, the authors ask chronological questions based on when activities began, ended, and the length of time the activity took place. These are all feasible questions when working in Bayesian models, given that prior information are used to model dates. The authors take the readers through the whole process from selecting samples to setting up models.

Hoggarth, Julie A., Brendan J. Culleton, Jaime J. Awe, Christophe Helmke, Sydney Lonaker, J. Britt Davis, and Douglas J. Kennett. (Accepted) Buliding High-Precision AMS 14C Bayesian Models for the Formation of Peri-Abandonment Deposits at Baking Pot, Belize. Accepted in Radiocarbon.
Hoggarth et al. present a case study on the timing of the depositional processes of peri-abandonment deposits at Baking Pot, Belize, to assess the timing for the end of political activity at the site during the Late to Terminal Classic period. Multiple hypotheses have been presented to explain these deposits, which often feature large amounts of broken pottery, along with faunal remains, figurines, and in some cases musical instruments, in corners of plazas and courtyards in sites across the Maya lowlands. These have been interpreted as rapid events, such as warfare, with the assumption that the deposits were created in a single short-lived event (day or two) in which the entire deposit was formed (e.g., the palace was sacked and the material in it were deposited in these features). Other interpretations stress more protracted processes for the formation of deposits, such as the ritual termination of ceremonial spaces or pilgrimage by post-abandonment populations. To test these ideas, the authors dated faunal remains from distinct layers of 3 deposits, using hieroglyphic texts with calendar dates as priors to constrain dates when available. They used their stratigraphic positions to place the dates into the Bayesian model, using three models to assess rapid, medium, and protracted depositional processes. The results show low statistical agreement for rapid and medium models, with very high agreement with protracted processes, and show that for Baking Pot at least, these processes included at least 3 depositional events spanning around 150 years in total.


  1. Do we agree with Hamilton and Krus’ list of misconceptions of Bayesian modeling? Are there any points here that you think might still be problematic, particularly within their application in Maya archaeology?
  2. Given the expansion of Bayesian chronological modeling within British and North American archaeology,why don’t we see more use of these methods in the Maya area? Is this a remnant of how Maya archaeologists are trained, are large-scale dating projects too expensive, or is it not that necessary given that Maya ceramic sequences are tied to the Gregorian calendar by association with Long Count dates on monuments (or a combination of these factors)?
  3. Do we all agree that ceramic types that have been well-dated for one site/region date to the same time when they are found at other sites? Using our example of Belize Red from the last meeting, does the Belize Valley ceramic sequence nail down the the timing of Belize Red in southern Belize (or another region)?
  4. In my [Julie’s] article on Baking Pot, we are able to use Long Count and Calendar Round dates on ceramics in the deposits as a terminus post quem, to constrain the ‘time after which’ we know the deposit could have formed. Is this an under-explored area for chronology building in the Maya region or are these types of artifacts so rare that this type of method will not be likely to catch on much in Maya archaeology?
  5. Inomata and colleagues have had quite a bit of push-back from regional specialists on their Bayesian chronological revision for Kaminaljuyu and other sites. What are the main issues with applying these methods when one is not a specialist working in that region? Should archaeologists stick to those sites where they conduct excavation or can specialists working in other areas lend information or perspectives that might otherwise be missed?
  6. What do you feel would be the most important information that you’d like to learn from these types of studies and how they can be applied to the Maya area? Do you think that those studies that have been attemped (e.g. Inomata et al.) have been successful?

SCRAP Reading Group Week 17: Markets & Distributional Approach

This week we had our first meet-up of the new year for the SCRAP Reading Group. A special thank you to Dr. Bernadette Cap who joined us to discuss a series of articles on economies, marketplaces, and the distributional approach in Maya studies. Summaries and discussion questions are below.

Eppich, Keith (2020). Commerce, Redistribution, Autarky, and Barter: The Multitiered Urban Economy of El Perú-Waká, Guatemala. In The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms, edited by Marilyn A. Masson, David A. Freidel, and Arthur A. Demarest, pp. 149-171. University of Florida Press, Tallahassee.

Eppich uses the concept of the ceramic microtradition (Deal 1998) and defines it as “the unique stylistic attributes belonging to specific pottery workshops and, in some cases, individual potters” (153). He applies the Distributional Approach to ceramic types and concludes that market exchange existed at El Perú-Waká because all households, regardless of rank, had Tinaja Rojo, Infierno Negro, Maquina Café. The distribution of polychromes supports a redistributive economy in the Late Classic (they occur at all households but in much higher frequencies in elite residences) and through commerce in the Terminal Classic.

Cap, Bernadette (2020). The Difference a Marketplace Makes: A View of Maya Market Exchange from the Late Classic Buenavista del Cayo Marketplace. In The Real Business of Ancient Maya Economies: From Farmers’ Fields to Rulers’ Realms, edited by Marilyn A. Masson, David A. Freidel, and Arthur A. Demarest, pp. 387-402. University of Florida Press, Tallahassee.
Cap provides empirical evidence for the presence of a marketplace at Buena Vista del Cayo in the Belize River Valley. She includes a list of marketplace activities (exchange of goods, craft production, storage, food preparation, maintenance, administration) and the archaeological expectations for each so that researchers can identify markets at other sites. Cap concludes that limestone bifaces, obsidian blades, organics, and possibly ceramics were exchanged at the Buena Vista market.

Discussion Questions

Applying the Distributional Approach in the Maya Region
Hirth (2009: 459) specifically selected non-local pottery to evaluate market exchange at Xochicalco because (1) “their foreign origin meant that all of the variation in domestic assemblages would be a function of the distribution system through which they moved” and (2) their relative scarcity and high transportation costs made them prestige goods that could have been moved outside of market exchange.

  1. If the conditions of the Distributional Approach are not met in the study (i.e. at least identifying local vs. non-local pottery), should we be applying it? What does it tell us?
  2. Local goods can certainly be exchanged via market exchange. Does this mean that a Distributional Approach, without knowledge of provenance, suggests the presence of localized market exchange?”
  3. Deal (1998) discusses microtraditions as a combination of technological, formal, and stylistic attributes. Eppich does not include technological attributes which are arguably the most useful for determining where/from whom a potter learned to produce pottery. Are ceramic types the same as microtraditions? Is this a case of type-variety being over extended?
  4. Can this extend back in time? If all Preclassic households have red slipped pottery does that mean there was market exchange?

Scale of Market Exchange”
Bernadette’s work has demonstrated the presence of markets at Buena Vista in the Belize Valley. What are the next steps for archaeologists in regions were markets have been identified?

  1. Identify markets at other sites using Cap’s criteria and document variation?
  2. Attempt to understand the scale of market exchange? I (and Sunahara 2003) think there was regional market exchange for pottery in the Late Classic in the Belize Valley.
  3. Should we be thinking regionally in places like the Belize Valley where people surely interacted regularly across the region? It seems to me there have been enough projects (artifact collections) to achieve this.

Some Alabama specific Data/Questions

Surface collection (house mounds) data:

• 39.2 % non-local pottery (southern Belize, northern Belize, Belize Valley, Maya Mountains, unknown limestone bearing regions)

• 27.5 % local to Alabama

• 33.3% mix of local and non-local (mostly areas associated with the Maya Mountains)

  1. Our compositional analysis indicates the pottery is coming from all over the place. Does that mean that Alabama had access to, or hosted, a large market with goods from all over?
  2. Is there another explanation? Perhaps variability is related to easy access to the coast? Location in a frontier zone? Some combination of markets, maritime trade, and frontier zone location?
  3. Where should we look for comparative data to understand the consumption patterns at Alabama? Is the Alabama data anomalous? Or is there just a lack of provenance/production studies?”

Ancient Maya ‘Grafitti’

Here’s a nice little write-up about ancient Maya ‘grafitti’ by archaeologist Rosamund Fitzmaurice: https://mexicolore.co.uk/maya/home/maya-graffiti

Examples from just south-west of Alabama–at the site of Lagarto in the Stann Creek District–can be found on the FAMSI website in a report (and associated Mexicon Vol. XXI 1999 article) by SCRAP friend Phil Wanyerka (http://www.famsi.org/reports/00077/wanyerka_full.pdf).

Examples of patolli boards can also be found in Elizabeth Graham’s volume “The Highlands of the Lowlands” about the archaeology of the Stann Creek District–the image below is of those found at the Kendal site.

Pottery Type #4: Maya Mopan

There are two more ceramic types left to introduce before we submit a manuscript on our newly established typology (using the names that you voted for) for peer review. The Maya Mopan type is very distinctive in the Alabama ceramic assemblage. The pottery is composed almost completely of rounded quartz sand and the color of the vessels ranges from white to tan to pink. We have only recovered a few rim sherds, and these indicate that the vessels had a fairly standardized rim diameter and were likely squat bowls and/or jars. The composition is consistent with the white soil horizon that you can see when you are driving down the Southern Highway in the Stann Creek District. We are not sure who produced this pottery because the raw materials for its production can be found across a large area so it could have been produced by people living in multiple locations in East Central Belize.

Week 16 SCRAP Reading Group: Tamales!

On Friday, the SCRAP reading group hosted a holiday cooking party online—tamales! Thanks to Claudia Alarcón and Harri Kettunen for joining us to talk about pre-Columbian food! A summary of our reading and discussion questions can be found below (provided by Shawn).

Alarcón Cacheux, Claudia and Verónica A. Vázquez López (2012) Part I: An Introduction to Mesoamerican Pre-Hispanic Cuisine. In Spice it up! An introduction to Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cooking, pp. 3-24. Workshop handbook prepared for the 17th European Maya Conference, Dec. 9-15, 2012, Helsinki.

This handbook was written in support of a 3-day (?) workshop on the history, archaeology, epigraphy, and iconography of food traditions in Pre-Hispanic Mexico for the 2012 European Maya Conference in Helsinki. Both Meaghan and Shawn had the good fortune to participate in this workshop, along with another several years later. Both were organized and led by Claudia and Verónica and their names are still whispered in hushed tones (or loudly proclaimed depending on the beverage involved) when the inevitable topic of food in Mesoamerica comes up. They have been generous enough to provide us with the full handbook for your reading pleasure, and the section on tamales (Part II) is a must. So thank you to both of them. As for Part I, the specific reading at hand, after introducing the general topic of food and outlining the sources available for its study, Claudia and Verónica break down the utensils, ingredients, preparations, and contexts thought to characterize Pre-Hispanic cuisine in Mexico and the archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic information of these same. Of course, the original workshops paired reading, lecture, and discussion, with cooking, a model we have sought to replicate to a limited extent with this week’s reading group. Check out the recipes in Part III of the workbook.

Discussion Questions:
We’re guessing that much of our conversation will develop organically as we labour away in the kitchen, but just so that there is some structure (if needed)…

1. Maize, beans, squash and salt. We generally take it for granted that these were the staples of ancient Mayas diets. We expect that maize, beans, and squash were grown, regardless of variations in climate, environment, or soil. Further, it seems clear that, whether locally produced or acquired through well established trade networks, all communities needed salt to meet their dietary requirements and preserve perishable foodstuffs. But what of regional variability? What of the accoutrements? To what extent might we expect food traditions to vary by availability, preservation, or preference?

2. To what degree are the culinary preferences of the core expanded to the periphery? Or the present to the past? To what degree have you been able to shed light on the cuisine of your sites/regions? What challenges have you faced? What solutions have you come up with?

3. A non-archaeology topic: Food is a universal. The preparation and consumption of food punctuates our daily lives. Share some food memories. Go on! Everybody likes talking about food.

Week 15 SCRAP Reading Group: Analogy in Archaeology

This was our 15th meet-up of the Virtual SCRAP Reading Group–we’ve been meeting every two weeks since the spring (plus a couple breaks here and there). This week, our topic of discussion was on comparative approaches and analogical reasoning in archaeology. Our special guest was Dr. Rachel Horowitz. The short readings were chosen by Shawn, and below you will find his summary and discussion questions.

Horowitz, Rachel A. (2020) Between Rocks and the Maya: The Necessity of Comparative Approaches with Respect to Lithics, Methodologies, and Theoretical Frameworks. The SAA Archaeological Record, 20 (1): 18-21.


Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, Maxime (2020) Comparative Approaches and Analogical Reasoning for Mayanists: Where to Go? The SAA Archaeological Record, 20 (1): 8-13.

Both articles are derived from a special section of the Archaeological Record, in turn derived from a SAA Forum organized by Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire. The two articles chosen work in complementarity, with Max’s article serving as a summary and framework for both the forum
and the section and Rachel Horowitz’s article as the case study—in this case, concerning lithic production and similarities/differences between sedentary societies and mobile foragers—and a common point of reference upon which we might build our conversation. Both, focus on the concept and use of analogy and cross-cultural comparison in archaeological analysis and interpretation.

Questions for Consideration, as per Max’s guidelines (p.9):

  1. How might we identify relevant context-specific case studies for use in cross-cultural comparison? What contexts matter most? Technology? Economy? Ideology? Language? Socio-political structure? To what extent can we profitably extend analogies based on one point of comparison to others? Are we more likely to forward interpretations that defy testing?
  2. What constitutes “appropriate space” in publications or presentations for defining the “loaded terms” we use? Is it sufficient to simply align one’s work with established bodies of literature, or should our works be essentially self-contained? What is the role/responsibility of the audience?
  3. Comparison isn’t just about noting the similarities, but the differences. Does this change with scope (i.e. micro-scalar vs. macro-scalar)? How have you explicitly or implicitly referenced similarity or differences in your use of analogy?
  4. Archaeology has always been a team sport. In what ways do you engage specialists in other fields or realms of archaeological knowledge in your work. What has this brought to the table (i.e. let’s raise a glass and take a moment to sing the praises of our colleagues)?
  5. What is the audience’s role with respect to our choice of comparative case studies?