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The Disappearing Record of the Classic Maya

October 24, 2017

 The remains of the past are a nonrenewable resource worthy of preservation and investigation, regardless of their size, complexity, or sophistication.

I am an archaeologist of the Classic Maya of Mexico and Central America (250–900 CE). It is sometimes surprising to my colleagues and acquaintances that I have never excavated a structure taller than two meters. No lofty temples or grand palaces for me, just a deep understanding of the everyday lives of the common people in Classic Maya society. Their humble houses were some of the smallest structures built by the ancient Maya.¹ By good fortune, I conducted research at Copán, Honduras, a famous Maya capital that lies in the southernmost extent of the Classic Maya region. The experience of taking part in David Webster’s Rural Sites Project in the 1980s laid the foundation for my perspective on understanding the past.

An everyday-based orientation anchors the theoretical perspective of household archaeology—a well-established, highly productive framework commonly applied in Mesoamerican research. A richer reconstruction of past lifeways comes by delving into the remains of houses, both large and small, fancy and simple. Household studies stimulate a broader focus of investigation that overlaps with community studies, neighborhood analyses, and landscape studies. These pursuits share an interest in understanding the everyday life of ancient people—whether they were farmers, laborers, scribes, merchants, artists, or leaders—and their articulation with the larger sociopolitical environment. These complementary approaches provide information about lifeways at scales from small activity areas to the patterning of entire polities.

At Copán, investigating the remains of Classic Maya commoner habitations first involves the surface identification of low cobble foundations and associated scatters of broken artifacts, mostly only detectable while making pedestrian surveys. The term “remains” critically signifies the extremely fragmentary nature of almost all known low-status sites with only the most durable of architectural materials remaining. Predictably in this tropical environ, pottery sherds, broken obsidian and chert tools, and used ground stone implements compose the bulk of artifactual materials. These discarded worn items are extremely useful in helping us to determine who lived in these houses, and how they lived and when, especially in the absence of writing: these “poor” sites are laden with insights into the past.

Among the remains of one of the smallest households in Copán (circa 600 CE), survived abundant evidence of quotidian practices. At this rural site, alluringly named 34A-12-2, I thought it impossible to find a smaller foundation after excavating here, though many such small domiciles exist throughout the world, today and in the past. Architecturally, only the cobble substructure was intact, which encompassed one small room and a terrace; together they measured 6.4 × 2.4 meters and averaged about 20 cm tall. A few meters away, a couple of wall lines at a right angle indicated the remains of another small structure. The two houses built across from each other formed an informal patio. Domestic activities signified year-round occupation, and the burial of adults, children, and an infant tied the family to the land for more than a century.


Copan 1986 34A 12 2 Str 1 excavated NanG

Site 34A-12-2, Copán, Honduras


The ephemeral remains of this tiny Copán household highlight a common and significant archaeological bias toward recovery of stone building materials. All levels of Classic Maya society built with stone, even the humblest, but not always. Had the inhabitants chosen entirely earthen construction, the discovery of these two houses would have been highly unlikely. Elsewhere, at Joya de Cerén in El Salvador, earthen buildings survived decay only because ash buried them during the volcanic eruption in 630 CE, an amazingly rare event.

Data retrieved from such small houses allow researchers to answer big questions in anthropological archaeology that center on sociopolitical complexity, subsistence practices and resource exploitation, demographic trends, ideology, economics, and ultimately the Classic Maya Collapse. The remains of the past are a nonrenewable resource worthy of preservation and investigation, regardless of their size, complexity, or sophistication. An ever-increasing danger of eradication threatens the survival of these diverse sites and what they reveal about ancient society. The wholesale destruction of sites through looting is the antithesis of the recording activity of professional excavation. An ancient homestead was not built in a day, nor is it best excavated in a day. However, looting destroys in the blink of an eye. This destruction is especially true for the smallest of sites around the world, which face eradication due to their susceptibility to the expansion of construction, farming, and increasingly severe forces of nature.

Although the monumental remains of Copán are protected within an archaeological park and have the UNESCO designation of a World Heritage Site, outlying areas stand unprotected. The success of conservation efforts relies on the global involvement of local communities. There are enormous challenges involved in conserving any archaeological site. I familiarize all of my students with the UNESCO lists. My teaching emphasizes the nonrenewable aspect of archaeological sites, and how we, as global citizens, must take responsibility for their use and protection. As archaeologists, we hold a responsibility to highlight the fragility of the archaeological record and the significance that its interpretation contains. Archaeology, like history, serves to connect things through time and encourages us to take a long view of such connections. Understanding the past is integral to an understanding of the condition of being human, something forever lost when archaeological objects lose their context. It’s a mistake to take for granted the thousands, if not millions, of small sites that dot the landscape. These humble sites retain the stories of the bulk of ancient humanity and allow us to solve the puzzles of the past.

1. David Webster and Nancy Gonlin, "Household Remains of the Humblest Maya," Journal of Field Archaeology 15 (1988): 169–90. Return to text.

Nancy Gonlin is a senior associate professor of anthropology at Bellevue College, Washington, where she was awarded the Margin of Excellence Award in 2012. She is coeditor of Commoner Ritual and Ideology in Ancient MesoamericaAncient Households of the Americas, Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica, and the upcoming Archaeology of the Night and coauthor of Copán: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. Watch her TEDx talk "Life After Dark in the Ancient World" here.

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