Introduction – Winter 1985

By: Robert J. Sharer

Originally Published in 1985

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The Maya occupied sites in the Yucatan peninsula and northern Central America.

The civilization created by the ancient Maya is recognized throughout the world as one of the most notable achievements of pre-industrial human society. But while many ancient civilizations in the Old World have long been known arid investigated, knowledge of the ancient Maya is a relatively recent phenomenon. The study of this brilliant civilization, centered in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and northern Central America, spans a little more than a century (Fig. 1).

The recognition and under­standing of Maya civilization de­rives from research conducted over this period by scholars representing a broad spectrum of backgrounds, interests, and expertise. Today we usually define most of these con­cerns as distinct academic disci­plines. My own specialization, ar­chaeology, is only one of several scholarly approaches, such as art history, ethnohistory, epigraphy, and linguistics, that are vital to Maya studies. Quite obviously, each of these fields has made im­portant contributions to our knowl­edge of the ancient Maya. But the greatest successes and the best prospects for future breakthroughs —for there is much still to be learned—will surely derive from combining the unique strengths of each approach in an interdisci­plinary research strategy.

Stela 26 from Tikal. Though severely shattered, this stone monument retains the sandaled feet of the ruler’s portrait on the front and the nameglyphs of his ancestral line on the sides.

Not the least of the achievements of the ancient Maya was their com­plex system of writing. The recent progress that has been made in de­ciphering this script stands as one of the best examples of the advan­tages of interdisciplinary scholar­ship (Fig. 2). As a result of the gains made in this decipherment. the study of ancient \lava civilization has crossed the threshold from Pre­history to History. The significance of this development can hardly in overemphasized. Most of the human past is prehistoric, encom­passing the gradual emergence of our species and the incredibly long and gradual development of human culture. Our cultural evolution spans several million years and is highlighted by technological achievements such as control of fire, the making of increasingly so­phisticated tools, and the develop­ment of agriculture. But our knowl­edge of all these past developments is indirect, derived from archaeo­logical inferences based on the few material remains that have survived and have been recovered.  With the comparatively recent invention of writing, however, direct communication from the past is possible, provided the ancient messages can be deciphered. And this is exactly what is nn happening in Maya studies—we are able to read the writings from a past civilization that was, until now, essentially mute. The study of the ancient Maya is undergoing the same profound change that occurred in Egyptian and Mesopotamian studies with the decipherments hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts in the 19th century. History is being added to what has already been gleaned from the archaeological data.

Complementing the break­throughs in decipherment, Maya archaeologists have revolutionized our understanding of ancient Maya society. Generally speaking, this was due to the application of a broader research strategy, one usually labeled “settlement archae­ology” (Fig. 3). The result has been a more holistic view of the ancient Maya. Instead of concentrating on the architectural core of a site, the entire site—from core to pe­riphery—is subjected to equal ex­amination. And instead of concen­trating on only the larger sites, a full range of sites—from biggest to smallest—is investigated. By sys­tematically searching for and exca­vating a broad spectrum of remains of past society, our entire percep­tion of Maya civilization has been altered.

The first application of this strategy in the Maya area was di­rected by Gordon R. Willey, a pio­neer in settlement archaeology, at about the same time as the initial breakthroughs were being made in decipherment. His work was at Barton Ramie, a series of rural set­tlements in the Belize river valley. Soon thereafter, The University Museum’s Tikal Project, the largest archaeological effort ever con­ducted in the Maya area, adopted many of the objectives of settle­ment research. Since that time al­most all Maya archaeological re­search has utilized this broader-based research strategy to some degree. The most recent Maya investigation sponsored by The Uni­versity Museum, the Quirigua Project, comprised two programs, one for the site core and the other for the site periphery, in order to produce a complete and balanced investigation of the entire site. Beyond this, a Lower Motagua Valley Program sought information from a vast surrounding region during the period of Quirigua’s oc­cupation.

Settlement archaeology at Tikal: excavating a housemound in order to learn about the ordinary Maya.

These recent archaeological in­vestigations have completely over­turned the old view of Maya civili­zation. For the first time, a great deal of information about the non-elite portions of society has become available. Populations at Maya centers once assumed to have been small and scattered proved to be large and relatively concentrated. A rather homogeneous agricultural peasantry has turned out to have been internally differentiated by wealth, occupational, and status distinctions. The larger Maya sites once considered near-vacant cere­monial centers have been revealed as formerly populous cities. The ruling elites at these cities, far from being peaceful priests interested only in esoteric concerns, are now known to have waged war, formed alliances, performed rituals and sac­rifices—in short, to have partici­pated in a Full range of activities. from the petty to the profound. similar to those documented from other early civilizations. And the hinterlands of the Maya area have proved to be filled with the remains of a complex and sophisticated agri­cultural system that included raised (drained) and terraced fields. Overall, then, it now is obvious that Maya civilization was larger, more complex. and less exotic than the traditional interpretation al­lowed.

What Next?

Although Maya scholars have provided a new perspective on Maya civilization, some may con­sider the resulting picture Iess ro­mantic than the traditional reconstruction—for now much of the former unique quality and ‘mys­tery’ of the ancient Maya has been removed. But the lovers of mys­teries need not despair, for the Maya still offer unanswered ques­tions aplenty. While the collapse of Classic Maya civilization can no longer he viewed as a monolithic event, it remains largely unex­plained, especially since we now realize this was part of a continuous process—although many sites were abandoned at the close of the Classic era, the careers of other cities ended well before or after this period. And recent research in both the lowlands and highlands into the preceding Preclassic era, the period when Maya civilization first emerged and crystalized, has raised as many questions as it has provided answers.

Investigations in the highlands and along the Pacific coast have re­vealed complex and precocious sites extending as far back as the Olmec horizon (Early and Middle Preclassic). During the Late and Terminal Preclassic this southern area seems to have given rise to traditions of sculpture and writing immediately ancestral to those of the Classic period lowlands. And recent research in the lowlands has produced the most dramatic evi­dence of Preclassic cultural devel­opment at the site of El Mirador. This truly mammoth site, served by a series of radiating causeways, contains constructions on a scale never again approached in the Maya area, dwarfing the largest buildings of the later Classic era. But the full significance of El Mir­ador and of the early developments in the southern Maya areas remains to be explained.

As we have seen, Maya studies have undergone a revolution in perceiving the past. But lest we fail to learn from what has happened in the first hundred years of research, we should bear in mind that our successors in the 21st century may well look on our present recon­struction of Maya civilization as woefully incomplete and inaccu­rate. It is safe to assume that many of the questions that are unan­swered today will be successfully tackled by future scholars, provided the archaeological record does not continue to be destroyed at the present pace. So, far from being over, it would appear that the ulti­mate Maya ballgame has just begun.

Cite This Article

Sharer, Robert J.. "Introduction – Winter 1985." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 3 (November, 1985): -. Accessed June 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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