Anthropologist Awarded NSF Grant to Excavate Maya Households

$367,240 grant will support study of the impact of road linking 2 ancient cities

Stanton with a stela depicting Maya carvings

Anthropologist Travis Stanton stands next to Stela 1 from Cobá. The stela dates to the 7th century A.D. and depicts Lady K’awiil Ajaw, who was queen of that city at the time. She may have been the ruler responsible for the causeway that links Yaxuná to Cobá.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The construction of a 62-mile-long causeway in the Yucatán Peninsula in the 7th century A.D. linked the ancient Maya cities of Cobá and Yaxuná. But little is known about how the stone road affected social interactions between Cobá, the largest urban center of Maya civilization at the time, Yaxuná to the west, and rural communities in between.

An international team of researchers led by University of California, Riverside anthropologist Travis Stanton will begin excavating household sites in the ruins of both cities and a rural community along the causeway next summer in an effort to determine how life changed for tens of thousands of people who lived along what was the longest road in the ancient Maya world.

The research project, “Household Socio-Economic Integration of the Classic Period Cobá State: Researching the Yaxuná-Cobá Causeway,” is funded by a three-year, $367,240 grant from the National Science Foundation. Stanton, associate professor of anthropology at UCR, is the principal investigator on the project. Traci Ardren, professor of anthropology at the University of Miami, is the co-principal investigator.

While the aim of the project is to examine the structure, degree, and kinds of social interactions among residents of these ancient communities, the research may also contribute to new understandings of the role that weak systems of social integration play in modern failed states, Stanton said.

“Social interactions that form bonds between people who live in separate cities or regions are a particularly important tool to understand why humans choose to willingly participate in systems of hierarchy that can be oppressive,” he explained. “Urban centers are in constant need of new members and draw rural populations into the urban settlements forcibly, but also through providing infrastructure and the means for new social interactions.”

The construction of a massive roadway in the northern Maya lowlands, in today’s states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán, Mexico, integrated the cities at both ends of the road and rural communities along its length during the Late Classic period (600-900 A.D.). But archaeologists know little about how daily life changed as a result. Were different materials available to local household groups after the completion of the road? Were residential habits altered? Is there evidence of the movement of populations?

Stanton’s team will address these questions by excavating households at Yaxuná and Cobá, and at one rural settlement along the causeway dating to just before construction of the road, and after.

Houses anchor the identity of social groups at all levels of society, he said.

laser image of causeway

The center of Yaxuna and Sacbe (causeway) 1 extending to the east are visible in this hillshade produced using laser light to generate a three-dimensional image of the site.

“Prior research in the Maya area has shown that domestic economies were conservative and changed infrequently, although factors such as major political alliances, economic reorientations, or social crises have all been identified as motivations for change,” Stanton explained. “By identifying changes in domestic artifacts, trade goods, and burial patterns, we can measure the degree of integration achieved by the road project. Understanding how people structured their social interactions, the degree to which those interactions fostered a sense of integration, and the kinds of interactions they developed, maintained and dissolved informs us tremendously about how ancient societies self-perpetuated and helps us to create more nuanced narratives of the past.”

In addition to Stanton and Ardren, team members include: Researchers from the University of Houston, the Autonomous University of Yucatan, and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (a Mexican government agency created to guarantee the research, preservation, protection, and promotion of the country’s prehistoric heritage); UCR graduate students; and licenciatura (undergraduate) students from the Universidad de las Americas Puebla.

Only three residential structures at Yaxuná have been extensively excavated, two of them by the PIPCY (Proyecto de Interacción Política del Centro de Yucatán) under the direction of Stanton and Aline Magnoni (then at Tulane University). Only two households have been excavated at the massive metropolis of Cobá, and only small sections of the site were mapped in the last 40 years. Stanton and other researchers remapped those areas using GIS in 2015.

Roads and pathways provide an incredible opportunity to study integration,” Stanton said. “In the case of the Yaxuná-Cobá causeway we have a physical connection between two large communities that would have only been possible if there was a profound social relationship during the Late Classic period. The reasons for this link could be varied, such as conquest by Cobá, economic alignment, or political alliance. But to construct a road of this size indicates the importance of the connection. … The causeway would have had a tremendous impact on peoples’ lives, practices, and social relations. This research project is an attempt to answer these questions through the lens of integration.”

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