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Mesoamerican Archaeology: Theory and Practice (in Mesoamerica: A Working Model)

Specialized craft production within Mesoamerican communities served to both reinforce and propagate aspects of Mesoamerican civilization through shared practices and ideologies. Communities and polities within Mesoamerica shared common ideals in regards to value and preferential materials to be used in the construction of socially valued goods, such as jade, obsidian, and marble, which are expressed in sociopolitical and economic practices. (Joyce 2004: 5)

Communities throughout Mesoamerica continued to support themselves through local agriculture because transporting food and related materials over long distances, especially in typical Lowland Mesoamerica and Honduran mountainous terrain, in the amounts necessary for adequate subsistence was either impractical or impossible (Joyce 2004: 7-8).

Specialized craft production occurred in households or groups of household structures which were separate from the rest of the community. Such production was one element which defined an individual's status in the community (Joyce 2004: 8).

Participants in craft specialization relied on exchange networks and interregional contact routes for the intracommunal and interregional distribution of the goods they created. Social network ties were both established and strengthened through this process, a key factor in interregional relationships which could beneficially serve each group (Joyce 2004: 8).

The exchange of specialized crafts over long distances served primarily to distinguish the elite class from lower status citizens through key material goods, which were not available to those of lower class. This distinguishment was most likely one of the primary interests of those who established such trade networks (Joyce 2004: 8).

Raw mineral materials which were unavailable in the area were acquired by Lowland Maya and those on the Maya Periphery through trade networks with Highland Maya and those further north in Mesoamerica. In such exchanges, highland minerals were trade for goods which were more abundant to those in the Lowland area, such as quetzal and parrot feathers, animals, cacao, and other perishable and subsistence goods. Marine foods and materials such as shellfish, shells, and salt were acquired through trade networks with villages and communities along the coast (Joyce 2004: 14). Such exchange was easier for Palmarejo and its surrounding communities because of the access to the Chamelecon River adjacent to the valley, which runs to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Honduras, as well as the Ulúa River nearby.

Very different societies, often speaking separate language and encompassing different ideals or practices, were incorporated within the vast expanse of the distinct cultural umbrella today known as Mesoamerica partly through the practice trading resources which were indigenous to particular areas and therefore only locally available to specific communities. In this way, goods which were not locally available came to be viewed as exotics, as manifesting within themselves some idea of outside communities, outside ideals, outside polities. These goods in this way garnered excess value, and through their value and rarity became prized as luxury goods, became socially valued. (Joyce 2004: 14)

Marble was among the rarer of the raw materials utilized by Lowland Maya, and there exist relatively very few specialized crafts created from this material, among them the Ulua marble vessels. Evidence of these vessels has been found even into the Terminal Classic period and in sites within Belize and Guatemala. (Coe: 148)

Because exchange often involves nonperishable items which archaeologists can later utilize to investigate and reconstruct the mechanisms, routes, and systems involved in prehistoric exchange, the connections, interactions, and transfer of interchange of ideologies as well as materials which results from trade can be uncovered. Exchange routes can be reconstructed through first identifying and then sourcing the materials, then determining how materials from these sources were distributed, utilizing this as evidence of communication networks between communities. (Armor and Sharer 2000: 206)

Cerro Palenque: Joyce 1991
"Fine buff dishes are shallow, wide vessels with low vertical walls (90) (1-3 cm high), flat interrior bases, and three low feet. The diagnostic temperless paste varies in color from pink through orange to light yellow. Most sherds have a dark grey core. The surface, when it is well preserved, is burnished to a smooth matte finish but is unslipped. The interior base of these dishes is often incised with a series of roughly concentric circles superimposed on a cross, dividing the base into four quarters. (92)
"One""step""required in order to use artifact distributions to illuminate the different activities carried out at the site""is the identification of the intended use, or function, of the artifact types defined. The major source of interpretation of artifact function is ethnographic analogy. Specific ethnographic analogy is often based on an assumption of cultural continuity.""More general ethnographic analogies may be drawn, based either on intrinsic properties of materials or on cross-cultural regularities."
"Cross-cultural study of the use made of ceramic vessels, intended to test hypotheses based on intrinsic properties of ceramics has established that the intended use of vessels places limits on their physical features. Four categories of use can be identified: storage, transport of liquids, cooking, and food-serving." (102)
"Using these observations, the general classes of vessels... can be ascribed tentative functions. Polychrome and Fine Buff dishes, bowls, and vases are likely serving vessel in these ceramic complexes. Other rarer elaborate bowl types may also be food-serving vessels." (103)

"Polychrome styles of neighboring regions in the Late Classic may be viewed as a medium of communication of a shared symbol system, in turn representing a shared belief system linking the sites within a region in a coordinate network. As serving vessels, they suggest that the behavior through which this common regional identity was expressed was common meals, or feasting. The distribution of polychrom-decorated serving vessels to all levels of the settlement hierarchy may itself represent one of the means by which the superordinate elites engaged the subordinate populace in the common goals of a centralized polity. Distribution of other goods mighr have accompanied the feasts during which local elites gave their dependents examples of thse finely decorated vessels.
Ethrnographic data suggests that Lenca rituals, organized ona community level, involved this kind of feasting, accompanied by the (132) drinking of beverages such chicha (maize beer) and cacao. Reciprocal visits between communities, called guancasco, maintained regional coordinate. (133)
"In the late Classic, the major motifs of Ulua Polychromes include an anthropomorphic monkey... all themes comparable to contemporary Lowland Maya polychromes. At a minimum, the message of these polychrome designs would include foreignness, the esoteric, and quite probably associations with the highly centralized polities of the Lowland Maya." "Ulua Polychromes represent a claim to affiliation with the wider world encompassed by Late Classic polychromes of Lowland Maya affiliation." "Ulua Polychromes stand for the regional-level coordinate group composed of hierarchically organized polities." (134)
"REciprocal feasting may have provided an opportunity to resolve regional conflicts in the absence of a higher authority. It may also have served as a mutual acknowledgement of boundaries of control of land. However, the use of symbolism allied with the wider Maya world suggests that the coordinate identity group may also have facilitated the movement of goods from that world into the local system. Possession and use of these complex decorated ceramics was concrete evidence by the coordinated regional elites of their access to a world unavailable to the majority of the population, except through cenralized structures headed by the elites."
"The regional coordinate group which maintained and used Ulua Polychromes in the Late Classic and Fine Buff ceramics in the Terminal Classic was itself part of a wider coordinate linkage system, a network of ineraction linking Honduran and Lowland Maya sites. Through this network flowed information, resulting in shared beliefs and ritual practices... through this network also flowed the exotic goods, such as obsidian, which were redistributed through local centralized structures."
"The evidence for shared values and beliefs which link Honduran and Lowland Maya sites includes a number of kinds of materials. Most abundant are decorated ceramics, initially polychrome, late fine paste. Rarer, but equally significant, are the spread of shell, jade, obsidian, and other fine stone used in restricted, often ritual, contexts. Ulua Polychrome ceramics, as has been noted, have a series of motifs closely related to contemporary Lowland Maya polychromes." (135)
"The ceramics do not appear to have been exhanged through the proposed coordinate network. Local development of analogous types resulted fromt he spread of shared values expressed in this medium. However, the coordinate network need not be considered simply a means of transmission of information: jade, shell, obsidian, and carved Ulua Marble vessels were istributed throughout this area, presumably by means of inter-elite exchange facilitated by this network." "Jade... is most likely from the Motagua Valley sources exploited by the Late Classic site of Guaytan. Obsidian from Classic Period contexts in the Ulua Valley is from the Ixtepeque souce on the El Salvador-Guatemala border" and "may have entered the north coastal network through the Motagua Valley."
"Evidence that echange of material goods through this coordinate network was not a one-way traffic is provided by the present at Altun Ha, San Jose, and Uaxactun of carved Ulua Marble vases, dated to the Terminal Classic." "Other materials goods foudn throughout this area which may have moved from the frontier to the Maya heartland include Spondylus (thorny oyster) from Pacific waters." (136)
"More important than the source of these patterns are their impolications for the adoption of comon idiological orientations and resulting behavior. The coordinate network was more than an exchange system which ensured the provision of elite sumptuary goods." "It was also the eans by which a common cosmology and ritual were spread among the elites of Lowland Maya and Honduran polities of the Late Classic. Common religion provided a basis for these eolites to recognize each other as part of a single identity group." (137)
"The common goal of the coordinate network which linked Honduran and Lowland Maya elites appears to have been political. No evidence exists that large-scale movement of basic subsistence goods was part of this network." (138)
"The coordinate network did facilitate the movement of exotic goods used by the elite, such as jade and Pacific shell, and obsidian which moved through this system was apparently subject ot hierarchically controlled redistribution. Both the consumption of exotic goods by the elite and the redistribution of exotic goods to the population at large would reinforce the status of the elite. The definition of the elite as separate from the subordinate population may have ben the principal goal of the identity group represented by the coordinate network, and the common orientation may have been the shared need to continually reinforce elite tatus.
May Helms (1979, 1988:131-171) has suggested that the acquisition of esoteric knowledge was a major means for precolumbian elites to mark themselves as different andmore powerful than the population at large." "Evidenced in contrete form in material goods which came from outside the local sphere and reinforced in ritual practices wose definition originated elsewhere, influence the common population through the occasional distributation of those rare goods and the enactment of those rituals, the membership of the Honduran elite in a coordinate identity roup would have been a major source of reinforcement of their priviliged position."
"Individual households, recognizing common ground, formed the basis for the community At the same time, a small elite used a variety of means to reinforce their diffrence from the majority of the population and their commonality with the elites of other communities throughout Honduras and southern Mesoamerica." (139)

Models and Methods in Regional Exchange: Fry
Models of Exchange for Major Shape Classes of Lowland Maya Pottery: Fry

"The problem of origins of specialized production of pottery has not really been addressed":
"The Early and Middle Preclassic pottery traditions already demonstrate a wide repertoire of shape class and decorative techniques. During the Middle Preclassic, trade wares are widely distributed, though they make up only a small proportion of the pottery collections from most sites." "Increasing variability in both shape and ddecorative modes, together with the evidence for extensive exchange of polychrome serving vessels, indicates a higher degree of specialization in pottery production in the Early Classic. By the Late Classic there is solid evidence for specialized pottery workshops and a number o centers within regions producing serving, ceremonial, and mortuary pottery, as well as utilitarian vessels.
Unlike some areas in Mesoamerica... the possibility of specialization in pottery production in the Southern Lowlands was not limited by the spotty distribution of raw materials." "Studies indicate highly localized production of a wide variety of pottery classes... located in areas remote from major centers. Like many other Lowland Maya specializations, pottery production does not seem to involve a concentration of specialists in delimited geographic areas." (3)

.edit//Wicked says: "In conclusion, based on the wealth of knowledge available, more knowledge is necessary in order to come to a conclusion."... or something like that.

In Intra-Urban Exchange at Teotihuacan: Evidence from Mold-Made Figurines

"Changes in the technology or organization of craft production are sometimes signaled by increasing standardization of the product and increasing centralizaiton of production loci. Such shifts... may be related to changes in other aspects of economic organization." "This kind of intensification of craft specialization would necessarily be accompanied by changes in the nature of exchange relations and would encourage necessarily be accompanied by changes in the nature of exchange relations and would encourage greater development of specialization in other occupations. In those instances where production is aimed at a large number of consumers among the general population rather than at an elite minority, the production volume and degrees of specialization and entralization may reach the level of... preindustrial mass prodution." (83)

"The greatest success in demonstrating trade and the mechanisms responsible for it results from usin a triangulation of techniques." "Geologic study of the area narrows the source area to definable geographic regions." "Archaeological survey and ceramic sampling relate human occupation to the geological areas and rceramic resources. Finally, the use of categories of vessel shapes and chronological placemen relates recognizable units of cultural behavior in space and time."
"Craft specialization and subsequent trade developed as the result of highly localized and unequally distributed resources. This explanation may seem plauible when dealing with resources that are highly localized like obsidian, jade or turquoise. Clay, however, is widely distributed, but its occurrece alone does not accout for the existence of the potter's craft."
"When compared with subsistence, any craft requires more risks and more effort than agriculture." "People probably would not choose to become craf specialists if the subsistence base was adequate. Since craft specialization is dependant upon distributive mechanisms, crafts and trade need to develop simultaneously, which suggests that the processes that led to the development of craft specialization are also responsible for the eveopment of trade. Thus, and inadequate subsistence base relative to population is one of the important causative factors of craft specialization as well as trade."
"For example, an inadequate subsistence base (as indicated by insufficient and poor quality land relative to population) is a valid explanation of ceramic production... and for the importance of commerce...where the land is arid and unproductive." (147)
"Intense trade was linked to the great amounts of time necessary for subsistence activities, cause by low soil productivity and lack of the tradition (and necessary) movement to new areas."
"One of the important problems of local and intraregional exchange is distinguishing zones of resources for production from zones of distribution. This issue is not as signiicant in long-distance trade or in the trade of many nonceramic artifacts. Resources like obsidian, semiprecious stones, or certain lithic artifacts generally have single, discrete sources which are easily identified chemically and archaeoloically as workship and quarry sites. Furthermore, in long-distance trade, the distance that these items are traded is great enough so that ther is no question that the zone of production is removed from the zone of distribution." (148)

In Trade and Exchange: Definitions, Identification and Function: Ian Hodder

"Often a very general meaning is attached to the word" trade. "Many... agree with Renfrew (1969: 152) that trade can be defined in its widest sense of 'reciprocal traffic, exchange, or movement of materials or goods through peaceful human agency.' Trade and exchange her are almost indistinguishable." (151)
"If distinct sources and the distribution of pots fromt hose sources can be identified, then the next step is to determine the mechanisms of exchange." (152)
"Fry suggests that spatial patterns are affectd by demand structure and competition from other centers. Regional variation in demand structure may occur because of variation in population density, but also because of variation in social hierarchy. The positive feedback loop between hierarchy and exchange is now well documented and we may expect higher frequencies of exchaned valuables to occur in zones of greater hierarchical differentiation." "Most of the work on prehistoric exchange is concerned with modeling the production and distribution of single commodities. Discussion of competition, as in Fry's paper, leads to a consideration of the simulaneous movement and relationship between commmodities from different zones." (153)

The Maya: Coe
"Not only jade, but marble as well was worked by the lowland Maya... but it must have been a rare substance, for objects made from it are infrequent." "It is somewhat doubtful whether the well-known marble vessels fromthe Ulua region of western Honduras are to be considered as Maya at all, but fragments from them have been found in deposits assigned to the Terminal Classic in Belize and Peten sites." (148)

Mesoamerican Archaeology: Theory and Practice
Mesoamerican History in a Nutshell:

"Exchange of materials between mobile ARchaic peoples had already created connections betweenthe groups that established the first year-round settlements at the time of the late Archaic to Early Formative transition. Repetition of contacts reinforcing shared values, disseminating common practices, and leading to the linguistic and cultural identities... took place along established routes of social and material exchange among these... early villages.
Distinctive material features of Mesamerican culture developed in some Early Formative sites by 900 B.C." "Public architecture, notably monumental platforms and ballcourts... relief carving... and the use of a restricted range of materials." "No later polity recognizable as Mesoamerican lacked its own variants of these fetaures."
"Early Formative villages in which social differentiation is evident also have evidence for the beginnings of skilled craft production, including obsidian blades... and pottery vessels." "Patronized household craft production... contributed to the creation of distinctions between different social groups living within these villages. The construction of monumental architecture created different spaces within sites, forming more exclusive groups with special access to these non-domestic spaces." (30)
As "Middle Formative Mesoamerican societies grew... value" "conflated" "with exclusivity, marking a small group of individuals as privileged at multiple sites... the result of practices that extended throughout the area."
"Mesoamerican societies with evidence of Early and Middle Formative development of social distinction appear to have been unable to integrate social distinction and larger social scale into stable new communities."
"Sites that flourished starting in the Late Formative grew to much greater sizes than their predecessors, and featured complex internal differentiation between rich and poor, politically powerful rulers and the commoners they ruled, along with specialization in crafts and other social roles." "Exchanges between ruling nobles reinforced common structures of value with deep histories in Mesoamerica, while increasing the divide between rulers and those they ruled." "The transition from the Classic to the Postclassic period involved disruptions in some existing city-states. This includes evidence for burning and defensive works at Teotihuacan and sites in the Maya lowlands, and malnutrition, ill-health, and population decline at sites where there is evidence for environmental damage, such as Copan. But other city-states flourished at the same time, sometimes clearly at the expense of declining cities like Teotihuacan, whose neighbors Xochicalco and Tula grew in the early Postclassic. (31)
Across Mesoamerica in the Early Postclassic, nobles of many newly founded or newly prominent city-states shared a complex of material practices that (31) distinguished them from the people they ruled in household culture and public ritual. The cosmopolitan preferences for the same luxury goods on the part of Eary Postclassic nobles fueled development of new craft centers for the production of metal ornaments and luxury pottery. The city-states dominated by Postclassic nobles emphasized militaristic imagery, and may have featured the first permanent standing armies in Mesoamerica. The histories of these city-states included complex political, social, and military negotiations. Early Postclassic cities gave rise to the first tribute states in Mesoamerica's history, culminating in Central Mexico in the growth of the Aztec tributatry state. At the end of the sixteenth century, Mesoamerica was oranized in a series of highly urbanized city-states, with insitutionalized government, inherited social distinction, and high degrees of social stratification." (32)

In Postclassic and Colonial Sources on the Maya: Julia A. Hendon

"Maya societies of the Terminal and Postclassic periods participated in long-distance exchange networks that connected them with other groups, notably... to the southeast into Honduras." "Increased study of Classic period Maya groups has shown that human sacrifice and militarism were present prior to the collapse and were integral to the maintenance of elite power." (301)
"Classic period Maya polities traded with the city of Teotihuacan, adopted aspects of its iconography, and played up their ties to it's rulers.
Postclassic Maya elites participated in exchange networks that helped create a pan-regional sense of elite identity that reinforced their status and power at home." "Nor should we assume that involvement in trade networks and the incorporation of new ideas or symbols were limited to the elite." (306)

Discovering Our Past. Ashmore & Sharer.

Systems of exchange serve to provide populations with commodities which are otherwise inaccessible, such as raw materials which are not locally available (Ashmore and Sharer 2000: 190).

It is necessary to differentiate commodities which are acquired through local or interregional exchange from other commodities. When material goods can be recognized as having been purposely and cooperatively exchange between communities, a further understanding of the systems of trade and exchange which governed these transactions advance research into the prehistoric economic systems of the community or communities in question. Research into, and perhaps the eventual reconstruction of, the prehistoric economic systems of Palmarejo and the surrounding region will enable a better understanding of the society as a whole, and interregional and interpersonal exchange serve to circulate beliefs and ideologies as well as materials, and so an understanding of the prehistoric exchange systems involved allow for inferences into cultural change patterns and mechanisms (Ashmore & Sharer 2000: 190).

Archaeological data comprise either goods necessary for subsistence, such as food or storage vessels, or non-subsistence goods, such as luxury items like jade and obsidian or specialized craft items like serving vessels. Such categories are among those necessary to distinguish in regards to archaeological remnants in order to categorize and inventory remains for the purpose of better understanding the means involved, including the geological source of the raw materials, the sociopolitical source of the craft produced, the various networks within which the item traveled, the terminus of the item's in the exchange of the items (Ashmore & Sharer 2000: 192).

Because exchange often involves nonperishable items which archaeologists can later utilize to investigate and reconstruct the mechanisms, routes, and systems involved in prehistoric exchange, the connections, interactions, and transfer of interchange of ideologies as well as materials which results from trade can be uncovered. Exchange routes can be reconstructed through first identifying and then sourcing the materials, then determining how materials from these sources were distributed, utilizing this as evidence of communication networks between communities. (Armor and Sharer 2000: 206)

Maya Trade
Factors to consider

1. distribution of resources
2. use of material
-Raw vs. finished? Staple vs. luxury?
3. transportation costs
-Would you move staple goods?
4. preservation/storage
5. can it be controlled? Managed?

Maya Trade: 2-tiered system tiered system

1. Informal exchange/local markets
-Non-elites in cities & countryside
-Basic goods
2. Controlled trade
-Luxury goods

Basic Goods
– Salt
– Cacao (chocolate)
– Textiles
– Hard stone
Apply “factors to consider ” to each

Elite-controlled trade
Luxury goods
--Jade & pyrite
––Eccentrics (fine chert & obsidian)
––Fine ceramics
––Quetzal feathers
––Ritual paraphernalia
––Imported goods from afar
--Imported ceramics

Elite-controlled trade

––Maintain status/power
--Public ritual!
––Patronage networks/gift giving
--Marriages, pilgrimage, funerals, tribute

Unified elite behavior
– Ritual
– Religion
– Science
– Warfare

Classic Period (AD 300-900)- Maya
– Early (300-550) & Late (600-900)
- Series of specific traits “Golden Age”
- Carved stone texts, polychrome pottery, monument complexes
– Slightly problematic term (e.g. urbanism), butuseful heuristic device

– Organization of production
- Tools & craft goods
- From households to workshops
– Big questions about Maya economics
- Development of complexity
- Insights into leadership?

Subsistence production
Farming, hunting, fishing & trade
- Organization: Household level/ generally decentralized
Craft production
- Ceramics Ceramics
- Textiles Textiles
- Stone tools Stone tools
- Jewelry/ornaments Jewelry/ornaments
– Organization: From independent households to specialist production

How do we see craft production? (archaeological indicators)
– Tools/production debris
– Finished products
– Workshop areas
How do we categorize craft production?
– General/household-level vs. specialized production

If specialized, how do we categorize it?
Use 4 parameters (Costin, 1991)
– Context
- Independent vs. attached specialists (how)
– Concentration Concentration
- households vs. workshops (where)
– Scale Scale
- Size & principles of labor recruitment
– Intensity Intensity
- Full-time or part time activity (how often)

Craft Production: Specialized Labor
How organized?
––Part-time household specialization
––Community specialization
––Attached specialization

Polychrome Pottery Production
Early Classic
– Geometric Geometric
– Complex forms Complex forms
Late Classic
– Complex polychrome Complex polychrome
– Basic forms Basic forms
- Tall vases, open plates
Key Points:
- Separate component of Maya economics
- Palace-controlled workshops
- Focus on why controlled by elites!

How did local Maya pay tribute?
– Subsistence goods Subsistence goods
– Labor Labor
– Raw materials Raw materials
– Crafts Crafts

What does the organization of Classic Maya economics of Classic Maya economics tell us about the rise of tell us about the rise of complex societies in the complex societies in the region? Their collapse?


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