Maya Figurines

[ Pre-Columbian Studies ]

Maya Figurines

Intersections between State and Household

By Christina T. Halperin

The first systematic analysis of ceramic figurines from multiple regions of the Southern Maya Lowlands, this book explores the construction of the Late Classic period Maya state by considering how figurines found in household refuse deposits mirror the relationships the state had with households and individuals.

Latin American and Caribbean Arts and Culture Publication Initiative

May 2014


33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 300 pp. | 83 b&w and color illustrations, 22 line drawings, 3 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-77130-7

Rather than view the contours of Late Classic Maya social life solely from towering temple pyramids or elite sculptural forms, this book considers a suite of small anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and supernatural figurative remains excavated from household refuse deposits. Maya Figurines examines these often neglected objects and uses them to draw out relationships between the Maya state and its subjects.

These figurines provide a unique perspective for understanding Maya social and political relations; Christina T. Halperin argues that state politics work on the microscale of everyday routines, localized rituals, and small-scale representations. Her comprehensive study brings together archeology, anthropology, and art history with theories of material culture, performance, political economy, ritual humor, and mimesis to make a fascinating case for the role politics plays in daily life. What she finds is that, by comparing small-scale figurines with state-sponsored, often large-scale iconography and elite material culture, one can understand how different social realms relate to and represent one another. In Maya Figurines, Halperin compares objects from diverse households, archeological sites, and regions, focusing especially on figurines from Petén, Guatemala, and comparing them to material culture from Belize, the northern highlands of Guatemala, the Usumacinta River, the Campeche coastal area, and Mesoamerican sites outside the Maya zone. Ultimately, she argues, ordinary objects are not simply passive backdrops for important social and political phenomena. Instead, they function as significant mechanisms through which power and social life are intertwined.



Chapter 1. State and Household: Articulating Relations

Chapter 2. Materiality and Mimesis

Chapter 3. State Pomp and Ceremony Writ Small

Chapter 4. From Oral Narrative to Festival and Back: Tricksters, Spirit Companions, Ritual Clowns, and Deities

Chapter 5. Figurine Political Economies

Chapter 6. Figurative Performances

Chapter 7. Comments on Maya State and Household






Inherent in the notion of the state is a contradiction. As Stuart Hall (2006: 363) remarks, “The state is both of and over society. It arises from society; but it also reflects, in its operations, the society over which it exercises authority and rule. It is both part of society, and yet separate from it.” Seen from another perspective, households are both foundational components of all states and a social-economic domain disconnected from the production of state symbol and action.

Without completely eliminating or simplifying the contradictions of the state, how might we go about understanding it? In this book, I explore the Maya state from archaeological materials least suspected of illuminating state dynamics: ceramic figurines. These small figurative works are often dismissed as irrelevant to the topic at hand because they are frequently found within household refuse deposits. Furthermore, they are relatively enigmatic: scholars have had trouble assigning an unambiguous or single function (for example, as ritual objects, children’s toys, or musical instruments) and meaning to the broad spectrum of small ceramic figurines known to the Maya area. Nonetheless, I find that ceramic figurines—in their diverse and varied aesthetics, uses, and forms—draw out the contradictions of Late Classic period (ca. 600–900 CE) Maya state systems, helping to reveal the state as a series of relationships produced through both its interaction with and constitution from households. Thus, rather than examine the state and household as autonomous entities, I see state politics working on the microscale of everyday routines, localized rituals, and small-scale representations, such as ceramic figurines. At the same time, the more quotidian, commonplace, and smaller-scale elements of society influence and contribute to the representations and composition of the state.

Studies of ancient polities often privilege stone monuments, statements in hieroglyphic texts, and large-scale or ceremonial architecture as both the means of constituting and the constituting features of the state. These material remains demonstrate asymmetric power relations in which the powerless is identified in the negative (Blanton et al. 1996; DeMarrais et al. 1996; Feinman and Marcus 1998). Household archaeology, however, is useful in identifying the everyday lives of members of states and in drawing attention to social groups (for example, common people, women, and children) who are often overlooked in most discussions of power, agency, and political systems (Ashmore and Wilk 1988; Gonlin and Lohse 2007; Hendon 1996, 2007; Hutson 2010; Joyce et al. 2001; McAnany 1995; Robin 2003).

This book helps bridge the household-state divide. From a largely synchronic perspective of the Late Classic period, I highlight ways in which households take on ideologies and symbolism espoused by the state as well as the ways in which states create their power from the ideas and practices of households. But households may also challenge state discourses by engaging with alternative representations, practices, and perspectives, and state strategies may likewise eschew such household representations, practices, and perspectives. Such dualistic state-household models of influence and interaction are simplistic: states and households are only two interrelated social formations of many that existed among complex societies in the past (such as lineages, neighborhoods, ethnic groups, class, gender, and age). Depending on particular social or historical contexts, the relations between state and household may have been downplayed as other social expressions were fronted. Nonetheless, these other forms of social relations were often played out as part and parcel of the tensions between and intersections of states and households. In this sense I see the state-household relationship as a central framework for thinking about how multiple identities were forged in ancient Maya society.

Ceramic figurines, in particular, showcase the contradictory relations of Maya states and households. Ceramic figurines were instrumental in disseminating state ideologies beyond the confines of public ceremonial spaces and into the visual culture repertoires of households. At the same time, they provide crucial perspectives on women, commoners, and ulterior supernatural beings, empowering more diverse social roles and spiritual practices than those highlighted in monumental media. Many figurine types or themes (e.g., as identified through paste categories, manufacturing types, imagery, and style) cross-cut site cores and settlement peripheries as well as elite and commoner contexts. But in other cases figurines reveal more restricted social networks and privileges, underscoring divisions between rulers and the ruled as well as uneven political economies and forms of social and ritual expression across the Maya area.

Figurative representations, however, are more than a static by-product of cultural activity. In order to delve into the ways in which humans interact with their material surroundings and, more specifically, the ways in which Late Classic Maya peoples may have engaged with ceramic figurines, I draw on the interrelated theories of materiality and mimesis. Materiality points to the mutually constituting relationships between humans and their material world and underscores the importance of social and historical contexts in the interpretation of artifacts, landscapes, art, and architecture. As such, I contextualize figurine representations within the realm of social practices, whereby the interpretations of figurine meaning and symbolism inform and are informed by the social groups using these objects, the types of performances they were a part of, and the socially meaningful ways in which they were manufactured, exchanged, and discarded. In this sense iconographic analysis is not divorced from the more “materialist” focus on political economy. I adopt both analytical perspectives here to provide a more holistic understanding of these media and the society of which they were a part. Moreover, rather than treat figurines as isolated household finds as many previous analyses have done, I compare them with state-sponsored iconography and elite courtly material culture not only to provide interpretative depth but also to explore how different social realms relate to one another.

The concept of mimesis is particularly useful for the study of figurines in that, like theories of materiality, it has the potential to link durable representations conceptually with the practices that create and are influenced by them. Mimesis captures one of the most basic human behaviors: imitation or the process of imitation. Yet the varied ways in which such imitations are invoked, repeated, and interpreted expose the complexity and infinite possibilities of cultural experience. Figurative representations, as iconic symbols, may have been imitations of tangible human realities, of other iconographic media, or, alternatively, of intangible supernatural essences. In turn, human practices and beliefs may have been recursively realized as imitations of figurines. Mimesis also has implications for power relations, a critical part of understanding the articulation of state and households. Imitation need not always be the prerogative of a few elite leaders with authorized decision-making capacities. Whether as the sincerest form of flattery, as the reproduction of “tradition,” or in mocking jest, mimesis highlights the creativity and agency of dominant and subordinate groups alike.

Ceramic figurines are some, if not the only, forms of iconic media found in both elite and commoner contexts in Classic period Maya society. As such, they provide a unique perspective for understanding social and political relations during the height of political power in the Southern Maya Lowlands (figure I.1). This study takes a broad regional approach, comparing datasets between households, sites, and regions. It focuses heavily on excavated figurines from Petén, Guatemala, where figurine traditions were especially prolific, but compares this region to sites in Belize, the northern highlands in Guatemala, centers along the Usumacinta River, the Campeche coastal area, and Mesoamerican sites outside the Maya zone. These data are compared with published materials, particularly those from Jaina and other regions along the Campeche coast. Many of the Jaina examples were or are presumed to have been recovered from burials and are often complete and in excellently preserved condition. They have been actively collected by private individuals and public institutions and serve as a focus of published research and museum exhibitions, often to the exclusion of figurines from elsewhere in the Maya area. The Jaina and Campeche coast figurines, however, are the least understood in terms of archaeological context because the majority lack provenience, an important resource for exploring the sociality of Maya figurines.

Detailed contextual analyses in this book focus primarily on the Motul de San José region, where I conducted excavations and laboratory work for my dissertation as part of the Proyecto Arqueológico Motul de San José (PAMSJ) under the direction of Drs. Antonia Foias and Kitty Emery (appendix I.1). Motul de San José is located on the northwestern side of Lake Petén Itzá in Central Petén, Guatemala, and was the capital (or one of the capitals) of the Ik’ polity during the Late Classic period. Excavations centered at both the capital and several smaller satellite sites within an 8 km radius surrounding the site. Research also includes my systematic analyses of figurines from other sites on or near Lake Petén Itzá:3 Nixtun Ch’ich’, Ixlú, and Zacpetén excavated by the Proyecto Arqueológico Itzá del Petén (PAIP), directed by Dr. Prudence Rice, Lic. Rómulo Sánchez Polo, and Dr. Don Rice, and by the Proyecto Maya Colonial (PMC), directed by Don Rice, Prudence Rice, Rómulo Sánchez Polo, and Grant Jones. These investigations are complemented by my systematic figurine analysis of collections from Pook’s Hill, Belize, excavated by the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance (BVAR) Project under the direction of Dr. Jaime Awe and led by Christophe Helmke as well as collections from the sites of Nakum, Naranjo, San Clemente, and Yaxhá, Guatemala. These collections were excavated by the Proyecto Triángulo and the Proyecto Protección de Sitios Arqueológicos en Petén (PROSIAPETEN) directed by Lic. Vilma Fialko of the Institute of Anthropology and History in Guatemala (IDAEH) and by the Proyecto Yaxhá Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (BID) directed by Lic Daniel Aquino. This research is complemented by my investigations of museum collections from the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Guatemala (which include figurines excavated from the sites/regions of Seibal, Altar de Sacrificios, Poptún, Uaxactún, and Alta Verapaz); from the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey; and Tikal collections from the Parque Nacional Tikal excavated by the University of Pennsylvania.

In many ways my regional comparison of figurines from different households and sites and the comparison of figurines with other iconographic media (such as polychrome vessels, stone monuments and sculpture, and architectural façades) overshadow descriptions of other household material culture (e.g., grinding stones, spindle whorls, ceramic vessels, crafts production debris, and botanical and faunal remains). In this sense I do not make detailed interpretations of all the types of activities undertaken in and by households. Rather, the analytical focus allows for an exploration of how households related to one another, the types of symbols and narratives that different households deemed important, and the ways in which households were both part of and isolated from state discourses.

Although this book explores figurines from the Southern Maya Lowlands during the Late Classic period, it is important to note that figurines have been part of shifting social conditions since the Preclassic period. They have been found in household refuse, caches, and burials from some of the earliest settlements in Mesoamerica (Early and Middle Preclassic periods ca. 1800–500/300 BCE). They often feature solid and hollow anthropomorphic, supernatural, and zoomorphic figures (and combinations of these forms) produced with modeled techniques (Blomster 2009; Cheetham 2009; Cyphers Guillén 1998; Joyce 2000a, 2003b; Lesure 2002, 2011; Marcus 1998b; Vaillant 1930, 1935). Anthropomorphic figurines, in particular, tend to be depicted nude or partly nude. Figurine producers emphasized details on the head, such as hairstyles, facial markings, and designs at the back of the head. Scholarly inquiry has often revolved around making sense of the high frequencies of female figurines during certain phases of the Preclassic period and of age-related iconographic indicators to underscore social transformations and stages over the course of the human life cycle, although these are just two of many varied patterns identified among such early collections.

In the Southern Maya Lowlands, ceramic figurines are especially common during the Middle Preclassic period (especially ca. 600–300 BCE) and come in slipped and unslipped modeled varieties (Laporte 2008; Moholy-Nagy 2003; Rands and Rands 1965; Willey 1972: 8–14). As elsewhere in Mesoamerica, they are recovered primarily from middens and household contexts. Interestingly, they are no longer produced, or greatly diminish in importance, during the Late Preclassic period (ca. 300 BCE–300 CE), a period in which many centers became more urbanized, huge amounts of labor were devoted to the construction of monumental architecture, and state structures crystallized in form (see also Arroyo 2002; Guernsey 2012). Likewise, during the Early Classic period (ca. 300–600 CE), ceramic figurines continued as a relatively rare component of archaeological assemblages with both molded and modeled figurative techniques present. Slips were no longer applied. Figurines were either unslipped or decorated with paint on postfired unslipped surfaces, a pattern that continued throughout the Late Classic period.

The profusion of figurines, and especially figurine-ocarinas, that appeared during the Late Classic period coincided with a period of growing population, urbanization, and an increase in competitive political displays of power, an inverse pattern between figurines and state development found during the Late Preclassic period. Figurine production increased, in particular, during the middle of the Late Classic period. Because only subtle differences in figurine frequencies, types, and practices are noted between the middle of the Late Classic period (ca. 700–830 CE) and the end of the Late Classic period (the Terminal Classic, ca. 830–900/950 CE), I treat them collectively here (although such temporal variations are explored in more detail elsewhere: see Halperin 2011). Despite the synchronic focus of the book, when relevant I note similarities in iconographic or technical patterns between the Late Classic figurines and those of other periods.

After the Terminal Classic period, inhabitants of the Southern Maya Lowlands ceased to produce and use many of the types of ceramic figurines described in this book. During the Postclassic period, fewer figurines are produced. Many of those that appear differ in form, with emphases on female figures and slipped molded types without musical capabilities (Halperin 2010; Masson and Lope 2010: 85–91; Smith 1971). Thus the Late Classic ceramic figurines described herein do not emerge from a neat linear trajectory of figurine traditions but as a combination of earlier precedents and historically contingent circumstances. Changing relations between the state and households were a central component of such circumstances.

Outline of the Book

This book examines the relationship between Maya states and households by considering how local dynamics were impacted by and affected broad political and social spheres of life. To introduce the analytical framework of the book, the first chapter (“State and Household: Articulating Relations”) discusses the basic contradiction of the state: its simultaneous incorporation and exclusion of the household. On the one hand, the state is the sum of its parts (such as an aggregate of households or communities); on the other hand, it includes only the political institutions and ruling elite of society. This contradiction is highlighted in particular in discussions of political economy and ideology, which consider multiple social actors and groups as contributing dynamically but not necessarily equally to what may be considered the “state.” Thus, rather than viewing politics as inherent to a particular institutional body or to specific elite officials, monuments, or public buildings, I examine politics as a relation between individuals and/or social collectivities that emerge from and through historically contingent social practices. Importantly, material culture plays a pivotal role in the mediation of these social relations. Chapter 2, “Materiality and Mimesis,” examines the ties that link social practices, meaning, and the material world, thus bridging notions of political economy and ideology, representation, and practice. These theoretical concepts are then discussed in relationship to other figurine studies beyond Mesoamerica.

The remaining chapters relate specifically to Maya figurines. Chapter 3, “State Pomp and Ceremony Writ Small,” examines the considerable overlap between small-scale and large-scale media and finds that many of the Classic Maya figurines represent a cast of characters from state ceremonies and public festivals. When possible, these images are further assessed through a fine-grained documentation of their social contexts. These distribution patterns indicate that small-scale state symbols were part of the visual culture of elite and commoner households as well as large urban centers and small peripheral sites. Arguably, imitations of state officials in the form of figurines were not just copies of particular personages or representational ideals of social categories but were also instrumental in molding how people thought about these identities and how these identities were performed.

While chapter 3 highlights the dissemination of state ideologies into the confines of domestic life, chapter 4, “From Oral Narrative to Festival and Back: Tricksters, Spirit Companions, Ritual Clowns, and Deities,” helps complicate the seemingly unidirectional influence of state to household by documenting the role of household oral narratives and myths on the making of the state. In particular I examine concepts of social deviance, liminality, and ritual humor to investigate figurines depicting so-called grotesques, animal-humans, and dwarves. Some of these supernatural figures imitate anthropomorphic social identities, while others may represent humans imitating supernatural beings. These figures show a more playful and in some cases subversive side of household and community practices. They contrast with the pantheon of formal Maya deities who were patronized by royal lineages and whose material manifestations were more rigidly controlled.

Chapter 5, “Figurine Political Economies,” reveals the way in which these mimetic representations were produced and circulated, practices that helped carve out the contours of Late Classic Maya states in political economic terms. While figurines were intimately associated with households in their consumption and most likely in their production as well, I argue that festival-markets or large-scale state ceremonies were important mechanisms for their distribution. Centers were tied to peripheries in the making of broader state structures through participatory politics of spectacle and exchange as much as through the exclusionary tactics of political prestige. Not all figurines, however, were produced or used in the same fashion. Figurine-ocarinas, which relied heavily on molded productive techniques with the potential to produce numerous copies of the same image, were circulated more widely between social classes or status levels. In contrast, those figurines produced using elaborate modeling techniques, such as those without music-making capacities, were rare and related to more intimate forms of social relations and exchange. Moreover, not all regions of the Maya area engaged in the same modes of figurine production and distribution, underscoring the heterogeneity of political economic interactions and forms of cultural expression.

Chapter 6, “Figurative Performances,” turns to the performative roles of ceramic figurines as a mechanism for the reenactment of social orders and the creative ways in which both household and state are experienced, reflected upon, and challenged. I explore the different types of social groups (adults and children; elite, middle-status, and commoner households; male and female) who used them as well as the varied ways in which ceramic figures were played, embodied, or “activated” for sound production. I find that figurines are best characterized by their informality, because they appear to have served many purposes, uses, and motivations. While their imagery and uses undoubtedly were shaped by cultural norms, their informal qualities remind us that material culture can be quite recalcitrant as they are resignified, reconceived, and appropriated in the context of human practice. In this sense they highlight both the taken-for-granted and creative qualities of ordinary things. Arguably, the ordinary is not a passive backdrop for the extraordinary but a different mechanism in which power and social life are enacted. It is the contradictory juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary, however, that allows for a more refined understanding of state and household. I revisit this topic in the final chapter, “Comments on Maya State and Household,” to reflect on how Maya states look different from the perspective of small, inconspicuous ceramic figurines.


Chapter 1

State and Household Articulating Relations

Previous scholarship on the state builds on two simplistic but contradictory models: households as part of the state, in which the state is an aggregate of households (or individuals, settlements, territories, and so forth), and households as separate from the state, in which the state exists and operates in isolation from the large majority of households. We may be better served, however, by a more complex perspective on the state in which the state and households are examined as a series of relations. A relational approach emphasizes how various social spheres intersect with one another and thus continuously create and reproduce each other. Thus, rather than deny the contradiction, a relational perspective attempts to identify how states and households managed such a contradictory status: how did households operate separately but were still influenced and regulated by centralized political ideas, institutions, and practices? How did political elites elevate themselves above society yet simultaneously draw on households (their own and others) for their basic needs, operating resources, legitimacy, and self-expression?

Different states may engage in various degrees and practices of household articulation, sometimes manifesting as city-states or territorial states, decentralized or centralized states, weak or strong states, and so forth. Nonetheless, the contradiction remains to some degree at the balance of all state dynamics. For the purposes of this book, this relational framework encourages a broader, comparative analysis of ceramic figurines and other visual media that moves beyond their treatment as isolated household finds, on the one hand, and as solely elite prestige goods, on the other hand. It simultaneously recognizes the divergent meanings, experiences, and social networks that figurines helped engender in Late Classic Maya society. Below I outline the two opposing poles of this basic contradiction and explore ways in which states and households articulate through political economic and ideological strategies. In particular I look at state appropriation of household labor and symbols, household reproduction of state ideologies and practices, and the contestation of state discourses by elite and nonelite alike.

The Household as Part of the State

The conception of the state as a unified totality has two interrelated manifestations: an empirical perspective in which the totality consists of the sum of its parts (such as settlement sites, households, or individuals) and an ideological perspective in which the totality is an immaterial phenomenon (a metaphor, political ideology, or cultural concept). I explore the empirical and cultural totality perspectives in this section and return to the discussion of ideology and its links to human practice below.

The idea of the state as a totality, encompassing households, individuals, and various communities, is predicated on some type of internal homogeneity, whether it manifests in beliefs, practices, the material record, or all three. For example, eighteenth-century political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (2006: 6–7, 58–59) characterized the state as an aggregate of citizens united by their common interests and respect for the law as predicated on a social contract. While he recognized that the state often included many conflicting social groups and institutions, he conceived of an ideal state as one in which the will of its people (rulers and common people alike) was the same.

Anthony Smith’s (1994) discussion of contemporary nation-states builds on this earlier perspective in promoting a civic-territorial model in which the nation-state consists of a grouping of people united by common laws and institutions and bounded within a single territory that can be measured and identified on the landscape. He also adds an opposing, “more traditional” ethnic-genealogical model, however, in which a nation is united by a common culture: myths of genealogical origin, ethnic descent, language, rituals, and customs. This latter model echoes early foundational perspectives in anthropology in which culture is that “complex whole,” a bounded group sharing similar knowledge, beliefs, art, customs, and morals (Tylor 1958: 2). These approaches emphasize social homogeneity within a bounded “system” and downplay social differentiation, alliances, and tensions as both part of and reaching beyond it.

In some cases archaeological models of states have been implicitly informed by such bounded and homogeneous concepts of nation and culture. Social boundaries, including political boundaries of the state, are often identified through similarities in artifact types, uniformity in stylistic attributes, and other material correlates. In this sense material remains are treated as either the conscious or unconscious reflections of a particular state, cultural unit, or social formation (Conkey and Hastorf 1993; Sackett 1982). As George Cowgill (1993: 555) points out, however, narrow applications of material culture as reflections of social groups can often ignore people and place the products of people at the forefront of analysis. As a result, human motivations and needs can be divorced from the production, use, and meanings of material remains.

Archaeologists have also taken on the state concept as an empirical totality incorporating its respective social organizing parts, such as population or settlement site hierarchies. In both cases archaeological reconstructions of these criteria are based on the survey of household architectural groups (or the clustering of household debris from surface collections and/or systematic test excavations) as the basic unit of analysis, with the assumption that households are “the smallest grouping with the maximum corporate function” (Hammel 1980: 251) and “the next bigger thing on the social map after an individual” (Hammel 1984: 40–41).

What these totalizing approaches have in common is that to understand a state one must consider its respective components. For some early archaeologists focusing on cultural evolution, the state was the ending stage or level of society that emerged after the formation of other social systems, such as bands, tribes, and chiefdoms. While such a linear and teleological trajectory of social systems has since been rejected, the idea of a state system with certain characteristics and qualities encompassing the whole remains. Likewise, for the study of households, the evolutionary assumption was that over the course of history households shifted from large extended families to smaller nuclear families, a simplistic narrative rejected with archaeological evidence. The boundedness of households as social units, however, is difficult to challenge. For example, the tensions between family and household, the co-residential household and multiresidential household, and the physicality of a house and the social or conceptual idea of the household are difficult to sort out with the material record alone. In the Maya area these tensions have recently played out in debates between “house society” and “lineage” models of Maya society that place different values on consanguineal and affinal relations (Gillespie 2000; Houston and McAnany 2003; Joyce and Gillespie 2000; Watanabe 2004). Here I consider households to be corporate social units formed, in part, by their connections to residential architecture.

In addition to households, population size continues to play a defining role in identifying a state in the archaeological record, regardless of whether population is a prime mover or a resulting feature of state society (or both) (Brumfiel 1983; Carneiro 1967; Claessen and Skalník 1978: 17–18; Cohen 1978; H. Wright 1977). For example, John Clark (2007b: 26, 39–41), in his argument that San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico, was the seat of Mesoamerica’s first state, points to the site’s dramatic rise in population to 13,644 people by 1300 BCE as one among other criteria of statehood. As Gary Feinman (1998) emphasizes, however, there is no clear cut-off in population size for identifying a state (e.g., 2,500, 10,000, 100,000 people); nor is population the only factor in understanding state dynamics (see also the discussion in Pauketat 2007: 143, 191–199).

Initial low population estimates of settlement centers in the Maya area led J. Eric Thompson (1950) to characterize Maya state systems as small and decentralized. Also influenced by what could then be deciphered from hieroglyphic texts, he asserted that Maya centers were relatively vacant, inhabited only by a small caste of peaceful priests and nobles who were surrounded by dispersed hinterland populations practicing land-extensive slash-and-burn agriculture. Since this early portrayal, settlement and agricultural data have challenged the vacant center models and revealed a network of urban zones (some with as many as 100,000 inhabitants) in interaction with complexly organized rural communities engaged in both extensive and intensive agricultural techniques (Ashmore 1981; Chase and Chase 1996b; Culbert and Rice 1990; Fedick 1996; Iannone and Connell 2002; Scarborough et al. 2003). Scholars have also turned to relative site sizes and hierarchies to identify state complexity. For example, Ronald Cohen (1978: 2–3), in emphasizing a bounded space on the landscape, defines a state as a hierarchically arranged “social system,” a “polity,” and a “human group that occupies or controls a territory.” Joyce Marcus and Gary Feinman (1998: 4), in placing more emphasis on “tiers” of social organization, refer to archaic states as “societies with (minimally) two class-endogamous strata (a professional ruling class and a commoner class) and a government that was both highly centralized and internally specialized.”

Marcus (1976, 1993, 1998a) argues that the Classic Maya state shifted temporally between four-tier and three-tier levels of political hierarchy. Stratification appears as a series of settlement categories of primary, secondary, and tertiary centers that are identified quantitatively, such as by settlement size, number of courtyards, size and number of public buildings, and number of stela monuments. In addition to temporal dynamics, variability across the Maya area existed at any given time: a number of polities possessed three-tier settlement hierarchies but may have been relatively independent of strong, four-tier regional polities centered at primary or regional capitals, such as Tikal, Calakmul, and Caracol. Compared to the large regional capital of Tikal, for example, Motul de San José is considered a secondary capital because its ceremonial core area is only approximately 1.4 sq km, with a total of 230 structures. Its larger settlement has been designated as approximately 4.2 sq km, encompassing its site core and some of its smaller surrounding settlements (Foias and Emery 2012; Moriarty 2004: 30). While Motul’s smaller surrounding settlements are considered secondary and tertiary centers in the Motul de San José settlement hierarchy, with Motul de San José as the primate center, such hierarchies would have shifted down once Tikal exerted political influence over Motul de San José (figure 1.1).

In turn, polities of different size may have been allied with one another then shifted alliances or dependencies within a generation or over several generations. These more subtle political changes are understood primarily through hieroglyphic texts, which document relative levels of political positions and their relations, such as references to some of the highest-ranking rulers, k’uhul ajaw (divine lords), and their relationship to ajawob (expressed as yajaw, the lord of a higher ranking ruler), to sajalob (expressed as usajal, the noble of a higher-ranking ruler), to lakam (lower-level administrative officials), or to other noble and subordinate elites (Lacadena 2008; Martin and Grube 2000; Schele and Freidel 1990; Stuart 1993). For example, although Motul de San José rulers held the title of k’uhul ajaw, Motul de San José’s Stela 1 records the accession of Ik’ ruler Yeh Te’ K’inich in 701 CE as occurring under the auspices of Tikal ruler Jasaw Chan K’awiil (Martin and Grube 2000: 45–46; Tokovinine and Zender 2012). As at Motul de San José, written texts reveal that other prominent centers along the chain of lakes just south of Tikal, such as Zacpetén and Ixlú, were also subordinate to Tikal at one point or another during the Late Classic period (ca. 600–900 CE) (Martin and Grube 2000: 49; Rice 2004: 144–167).

These demographic and settlement perspectives on the state marry well with “building-block” approaches to household archaeology (Pauketat 2000a). Like Aristotle’s conception of oikía, the internally diverse Greek household as the minimal building block of the pólis (Weissleder 1978), archaeological reconstructions of households and kinship systems often consider these small social units to be the foundational components of archaic states. Similar to the culture totality approach taken from artifact styles as reflections of polities, building-block approaches often suffer from the portrayal of households as static, homogeneous segments of society that lack influence or agency (Binford 1964; Clark 1972, 1977; Marcus 1983, 2000). That is, their diversity in terms of age and gender, kin and nonkin relations, and large and small household sizes is of no consequence. Furthermore, their basic composition and cultural traditions are conceived as existing relatively unchanged despite political developments or crises (Iannone 2002).

With the growth of household archaeology, however, scholars have underscored the tremendous complexity of social and economic life centered around the physical remains of residential architecture (Ashmore and Wilk 1988; Hendon 1996; Robin 2003; Wattenmaker 1998; Wilk 1989; Wilk and Rathje 1982). Households are not just places where activities and labor are coordinated. They serve as a foundational social realm for the production of gendered, age, ethnic, and class identities. They can be the foci for linking ancestors with their descendants and, in turn, connecting descendants with land and material possessions (McAnany 1995). Households form the material embodiments of localized memory-making, anchoring family histories and social ties in time and space (Hendon 2000, 2010; Lucero 2008; Waterson 2000). Yet household studies can create a sense of disconnect if the analytical focus dwells on only a small sample of households in which broader patterns within and between households and other forms of social organization are not examined (although see Ashmore et al. 2004; D’Altroy and Hastorf 2001; Pauketat 2000a, 2003; Robin 2003; Yaeger and Canuto 2000). This problem of disconnect occurs equally in formulations of the state when the analytical focus dwells exclusively on ceremonial and administrative site cores and the material culture and written texts deriving from these realms.

The State and Household Divide

Looking at the other side of the state’s contradictory nature, one may also refer to the state as quite separate from kin relations, domestic life, and the household. As Timothy Mitchell (2006 [1999]: 173) notes, “State-centered approaches to political explanation presented the state as an autonomous entity whose actions were not reducible to or determined by forces in society.” Rather, the workings of the state can be seen in terms of political officials and institutions, regardless of whether they are the highly formalized bureaucracies described by Max Weber or the non-Western political formations documented by twentieth-century ethnographers. In early modern Europe, for example, the state was equated with royalty and exemplified in King Louis XIV’s remark “l’état, c’est moi” (I am the state) (A. Smith 2003: 85). In describing the nineteenth-century Balinese theater state, Clifford Geertz remarks that its royal court and political capital is “not just the nucleus, the engine, or the pivot of the state, it is the state” (Geertz 1980: 13, emphasis in the original). In turn, village life was quite separate from the state: “Though dynasties, kings, courts and capitals came and went, a procession of distant spectacles, the unpretentious villager, hardly conscious of changing masters, went on, exploited but unchanged” (Geertz 1980: 45).

Geertz’s description of the Balinese state parallels what Robert Redfield, among others, has termed “Great and Little Traditions” to describe cultural divisions in contemporary societies (Redfield 1952, 1956). The Great Tradition represented the culture of “the reflective few”: the refined, socially complex, educated, and civilized individuals living in cities. It is the political core and the center of state life. In contrast, the Little Tradition was characteristic of “primitive,” “peasant,” or “folk” society, consisting of the “unreflective many”: the unrefined, homogeneous, and uneducated peasants living in the countryside (Redfield 1952, 1956: 68–71).

The Little Tradition was seen as bounded, isolated, and static. When culture change occurred (in the form of technological innovation, economic growth, artistic creation, and political development), it emerged from the Great Tradition and eventually trickled down to the Little Tradition.

Similarly, the identification of the state in archaeology often centers on the material manifestations of political institutions, rulers, royalty, and political officials, such as stone monuments, royal tombs and elite burials, prestige goods, monumental architecture, and collective labor projects (Flannery 1999). Like the claim of King Louis XIV, ancient rulers also manifested a “body politic” in their statements of an all-encompassing status: as embodying their political territories, the universe, and the members of the larger community (Gillespie 2008; Kristan-Graham 1989). Narmer’s palette (a carved stone piece dating to the 31st century BCE), perhaps one of the most commonly cited examples of an ancient body politic, portrays Egypt’s first pharaoh with the white crown of Upper Egypt and the red crown of Lower Egypt, demonstrating in a single body his succession and control over both territories.

Stone monuments were the embodiments of historic rulers in the Maya area during the Classic period, and their construction and dedication marked their accessions and claims to power (Clark and Colman 2008; Gillespie 2008; Houston et al. 2006). They also signified the ebbs and flows of entire political systems: political instability is inferred from a pause or cessation in monument carving and erection (Demarest et al. 2004). On a more intimate level, stone monuments were more than just durable signifiers of political power; arguably, they formed extensions of royal personhood. As Stephen Houston and David Stuart (1998: 90) remark, “Such representations operated not only as memorials of matters of record and of participants in them but as embodiments or individual presences of the ruler, who thereby effected the extraordinary trick of being in several places at the same time.”

Beyond iconic representations of political leaders, state power is also commonly equated with public architecture, palace complexes, large-scale agricultural and road systems, and objects produced with large sums of labor (DeMarrais et al. 1996; Flannery 1999). Political leaders and institutions are deemed responsible for the knowledge behind and mobilization of such elaborate works. It is the people of high office who receive recognition in building the city, the palace, and the pyramid, not the contributing laborers, artisans, engineers, and supporting families (who pay tribute and house and feed laborers) (Helms 1993: 77–87). In this sense, spectacle and grandness are often seen as a result of particular types of political power rather than the making of it (cf. Grove and Gillespie 1992; Patterson 1999b; Pauketat 2000b).

On another level, the contradiction of a strict state and household divide is evident in the palace itself. Sometimes seen as the seat of political authority, royal or governing palatial complexes combined residential household activities, such as sleeping, eating, cooking, raising children, and engaging in crafts production, with ceremonial and administrative functions (Evans 1998; Gilchrist 1999). In the Maya area, palatial complexes possess labor-intensive stone vaulted architecture, multiple courtyards, and diverse degrees of accessibility (e.g., open halls or rooms with large doorways and more secluded rooms entered only through several passageways). For example, the royal palace at Motul de San José, Group C, was a complex of vaulted masonry buildings formed around seven interconnected courtyards. Building construction was over 65,740 m3 in volume, towering over the other elite residential complexes at the site (between 10,600 and 6,796 m3) (figure 1.2). These data in combination with iconography and textual sources indicate that Late Classic Maya palaces were heterogeneous households, likely incorporating both kin and nonkin (such as servants, visiting nobles, court officials, and entertainers) (Inomata 2001a; Inomata and Houston 2001; Jackson 2009). The social diversity of royal courts and their ability to engage in larger-scale and more diverse types of activities than other households underscore the variable political tensions and sources of competition that underwrote social change (Halperin and Foias 2010; McAnany 2008).

Nonetheless, ancient written texts can also reinforce state and household divides in their emphasis on the exploits of ruling lineages, warfare and political conquests, and the cosmological and sacred sanctions of rulership. Classic period Maya hieroglyphic texts have generated a wealth of knowledge regarding royal and noble participants of political life. Chronological ordering of rulers from each polity reveals microhistories rarely glimpsed among state systems in the Americas. These decipherments have been instrumental in identifying the networking relations between polities and in substantiating both decentralized and centralized political models of the Maya state as predicated on particular regions and periods. The resulting picture is a shifting network of multiple competing centers of varying scales of power and size whose ties fragmented and formed over time. Not all sites, however, have yielded textual data; large swaths of sociopolitical groups of varying degrees of political prominence lack textual voices. As I reveal throughout the book, ceramic figurines help fill in these silent spaces by revealing economic and social networks forged not just between elite royal households but between elite and commoner households and between settlement site centers and peripheries.

The problem with a strict state-household divide is that the state is either given too much power, as all agency derives from the top, or not enough power, as too much of a separation of state and society would suggest that the state could not produce any real effects (Mitchell 2006 [1999]). For example, the cultural model of Great and Little Traditions has been critiqued for its treatment of peripheries or folk culture as passive, for its basic assumption that economic “progress” stems only from the cultural elite, for its perspective on culture as bounded, and for its reliance on a simplistic dual model of society (McAnany 2002; Mintz 1953). The approach taken here is to consider the types, degrees, and points of their articulation.

Articulating State and Households: Relational Approaches

A relational approach to exploring the state is by no means novel within the social sciences. At its core is the idea that sociality emerges at the points of interaction. It follows anthropological emphases in articulating the global economy with local developments, resistance, and ethnogenesis (Kearney 1995; Lederman 1998; Nash 1981; Ong 1987; Vélez-Ibáñez 2004). In feminist and postcolonial studies, social identities are formulated at the articulations of social groups. Borders and peripheries are places of culture creation and innovation, rather than places where traditions are passively handed down (Joyce 2004; Nonini and Ong 1997; Patterson 1999a: 177–180). As Homi Bhabha (1994/2004: 2) writes, “It is in the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated.” In archaeology, a new turn to state interactions, culture contact, and core-periphery relations challenges isolationist perspectives (Jennings 2010; Lightfoot and Martinez 1995; Parkinson and Galaty 2009; Smith and Berdan 2003; Stein 1999). In addition, there is growing interest in relationships of authority that are played out in the inscription of, experience, and performance in political landscapes, such that states are seen less as teleological and absolutist categories and more as a series of networks that are continuously produced and contested (A. Smith 2003; M. Smith 2005).

It is not my intention to explore broad regional or “world system” state interactions in this book, however; nor is it my intention to focus solely on political relationships created and experienced through the imposing constructions of the palace, road, or monument. Instead I focus on more ordinary material culture and on closely configured social relations among elite, noble, and commoner households, between genders and ages, among different urban and rural communities within a polity, and among closely located polities. My analysis skirts between what may and may not be considered political to highlight the elusiveness of such boundaries. As I outline below, discussions of these articulations have grown out of intellectual scholarship on political economy and ideology.

Political Economy

Political economy includes the political tensions and negotiations of social groups in relation to production, exchange, and consumption—a process that creates and reconfigures the materiality of representations (Patterson 2009; Roseberry 1988; Wilk and Cliggett 2007: 94–113). I take “political” in the term “political economy” to encompass historically contingent relations of power that shape and are shaped by the activities of making a living and other material-focused pursuits. In classical Marxist analyses, class is not a quality of an individual or group (e.g., how much wealth one possesses) but of groups of people identified in relation to the means of production (Marx 1990; Wolf 1982).

Similarly, for Christine Gailey and Thomas Patterson (Gailey 1987a, 1987b; Gailey and Patterson 1987; Patterson 1985, 1986, 1991, 1995; Patterson and Gailey 1987), the state is never a static entity but a process formulated through the relationship of its members. While state formation is often explained in terms of class (the emergence of class as the origins of the state, the nature of class relations as defining the typologies of state organization), it also encompasses other relations, such as between genders, with peripheral kin-organized groups “outside” the margins of the state, with other states, and among elite and nonelite factions. In this sense politics is not inherent to a particular ruler, state official, institution, or class of people but manifests from the contradictions, tensions, and collaborations among various individuals and collectivities.

Archaeological investigations of political economy have often revolved around the identification of highly or poorly integrated economies (Blanton et al. 1996; Claessen and van de Velde 1991; D’Altroy and Earle 1985; Earle 1997; Feinman and Marcus 1998; Foias and Emery 2012; Smith 2004; Trigger 2003). For example, some have suggested that relatively stronger and more expansive states (e.g., territorial or regional states rather than city-states or segmentary states) rely more heavily on wealth finance (currency or goods that can be converted into staples) than on staple finance (utilitarian items, foodstuffs). Wealth is storable, more efficiently transportable, and thus can support administrative hierarchies over larger areas (D’Altroy and Earle 1985). Likewise, centralized states possess high levels of integration, organized around a complex, hierarchical bureaucracy (reflected in infrastructure and settlement scales and hierarchies) as well as highly coordinated distribution systems such as markets and redistributive networks. In decentralized states, political elites play less of a role in coordinating production and distribution, because the political structure is often highly redundant (e.g., with multiple coexisting polities) (Claessen and van de Velde 1991; D'Altroy and Earle 1985; Earle 1997, 2002; Johnson and Earle 2000). Clearly, these models are typological ideals that resonate with notions of the household as part of the state in the former case and a more divisive state and household separation in the latter case.

Early conceptions of the Maya state have often teetered back and forth between a centralized model with households as intimately part of state action or decentralized with the large majority of households as peripheral to state action (Fox et al. 1996; Lucero 1999; Potter and King 1995). Interpretations of the Classic Maya state as decentralized often view Maya society as consisting of a two-part economic system (Ball 1993; Foias and Bishop 2007; Masson 2002; McAnany 1989, 1993; Rice 1987). On the one hand, elites controlled luxury goods networks in a “prestige economy” or “political economy.” Prestige goods were critical for legitimizing political power and reinforcing ties between elites. Control was facilitated by the monopoly of particular nodes of exchange or the knowledge and labor related to prestige goods production (through “attached production,” the patronage of goods by elites, or the production of goods by elites themselves). Most households, however, are thought to have engaged in a subsistence economy that was relatively decentralized in nature and autonomous from political elites. These economic pursuits are often described as motivated by efficiency and security, following models of “independent” specialization, in which producers procure goods for an unspecified demand crowd (Brumfiel and Earle 1987; Costin 1991; cf. McAnany 2010).

Alternatively, archaeologists cite evidence of complex settlement hierarchies, road networks, and regional markets as support for centralizing tendencies (Chase and Chase 1996a, 1996b, 2001a; Folan 1992; Folan et al. 2001). The capitals of these “regional” states include some of the largest Maya settlement sites, such as Calakmul, Tikal, and Caracol, whose broad political influence over and incorporation of other smaller polities is corroborated in statements in hieroglyphic texts. The implication is that social experiences and networks of even humbler households and peripheral settlements were tied to broader political, social, and economic formations. These connections, however, need to be tested at the household level.

As scholarship has grown, research on political economies has shifted to dynamic models in which Maya polities ebbed and flowed between centralized and decentralized states (Iannone 2002; Marcus 1993, 1998a) as well as to the variability of political economic integration across space, with some centralized networks from Petén and the Usumacinta region working in tandem with decentralized political economies, such as in western (LeCount and Yaeger 2010; McAnany 1993) and northern Belize (Scarborough et al. 2003; Scarborough and Valdez 2009). These different political economic systems may have been loosely linked or operated largely in isolation from one another. As detailed in chapter 5, “Figurine Political Economies,” figurine data also underscore variable and uneven political economies across the Maya area.

More specifically, however, how do household economies and compositions change with the development or disintegration of states? Although a diachronic analysis of Maya figurine political economies is beyond the scope of this book, these shifting forms of state and household relations are essential to consider. One of the most common ways in which many ancient states are seen to articulate with households is in the extraction of taxes, tribute, or labor, a process that has the potential to reconfigure kin-based relations of power, household labor contributions, and local community relationships (Elson and Covey 2006; Gailey 1987a, 1987b; Patterson 1985, 1995). For example, archaeologists have suggested that increasing state demands correlate with increasing household economic specialization (Brumfiel and Earle 1987; Childe 1951; Costin 2001). Tribute and market activities can be seen as interactive, feeding off one another in their mutual expansion (Brumfiel 1991a; Morehart and Eisenberg 2010). These correlations are not always universal (Smith 2004; Spielmann 2002; Wailes 1996), and different households or household members may contribute to and benefit from household specialization unevenly (Brumfiel 1991b; Halperin 2008a, 2008b).

For example, Christine Hastorf’s (2001) paleoethnobotanical and stable isotope research in the Montaro Valley of Peru reveals that Inca state incorporation of local Xauxa peoples was accompanied by an increase in household maize production due to tribute demands. In turn, the increased agricultural labor requirements of Xauxa households during Inca rule served as a leveling mechanism, impeding local elites from promoting their political positions through feasting. In an earlier study, Hastorf also noted that Xauxa males and females experienced these changes differently, with greater participation of males than females in maize consumption during Inca rule. Because maize consumption (mostly through drinking chicha) was a central component of Andean feasting, Xauxa females had become increasingly estranged from the political processes tied to food consumption (but not necessarily food production) (Hastorf 1991).

In contrast to the leveling mechanisms documented by Hastorf, socioeconomic differences between households within a local community can also increase as state tribute or labor demands increase. In the U.S. American Bottom, “nodal” Mississippian farmsteads emerged and disappeared alongside the rise and fall of the large center of Cahokia (AD 1050–1200) (Emerson 1997). These nodal farmsteads were located alongside other rural floodplain farmsteads but differed from them in their physical proximity to public buildings and access to types of goods and symbolism similar to those found at Cahokia. Patricia McAnany (1995: 119, 2010: 136) argues that because larger Maya households could draw from larger labor pools, they could buffer state demands better than smaller households. As a result, these households and their architecture grew over time, whereby their status became recursively linked with their physicality.

Alternatively, local leaders could also gain a foothold within their communities by resisting state expansion, such as in the Ocotlán-Zimatlán subregion of Oaxaca, where early resistance strategies resulted in political autonomy from Monte Albán in the short term. Such resistance contributed to changes in Monte Albán’s military and administrative strategies, which ultimately led to Monte Albán’s conquest of the Ocotlán-Zimatlán subregion (Spencer and Redmond 2006). Another type of resistance includes “voting with their feet.” Commoner Maya households abandoned their plots of land for better conditions elsewhere and arguably could force different political leaders to compete for their loyalties (Inomata 2004; Pohl and Pohl 1994). Their power to do so, however, was partly dependent on the availability of land and the types of ties that families had to their existing landscapes and communities. Small commoner households were the first to leave some areas of the Belize Valley at the end of the Classic period, while slightly larger and more established commoner households held on longer (Ashmore et al. 2004). These state and household relationships not only manifest as a series of demographic and materialist pursuits but are simultaneously intertwined with the performance and politics of ideology.


As noted earlier, the conception of the state as an ideological project often denotes the existence of a cohesive totality (Abercrombie et al. 1980; Abrams 1977/1988). For example, as Henri Claessen and Peter Skalník (1978: 21) note, “a common ideology exists [among early states], on which the legitimacy of the ruling stratum (the rulers) is based.” Dominant groups legitimate their economic, social, and political positions by promoting a belief system that naturalizes such differentiation and renders such domination self-evident (Eagleton 1991: 5; Marx and Engels 1970: 64–66). This may occur through claims of divine sanction, juridical implementation of laws, the charisma of particular leaders, or the promotion of specific “traditions” that favor some groups over others (Weber 1964). Nonetheless, the ideology of social stratification, on the one hand, or of a bounded system, on the other, is better viewed as a process: the making and unmaking of social rules, traditions, and boundaries. In addition, claims of state legitimacy are not restricted to the agency of rulers but manifest as a negotiation or tension among multiple parties.

Antonio Gramsci referred to the consent to a dominant social and political order as hegemony. He was careful, however, to stress that this phenomenon emerges and is reproduced within particular historical contexts, rather than as an inherent or permanent condition (Adamson 1980: 170–172; Gramsci 1973: 235). He also saw the idea of a cohesive state as promoted through education, the church, and other activities in which ruling and nonruling classes alike participate (see also Althusser 1971). Thus, for him, the state was not just the government or the workings of an elite few but was also equated with civil society itself.

Michel Foucault also viewed modern power relations and the dissemination of state ideologies as diffuse, although he placed more emphasis on bodily performances (Foucault 1977, 1980). The state is embodied in the workings of everyday life, practices structured by the spatial arrangements of prisons, schools, and hospitals and by the timetables of modern industrial life. In contrast, Foucault finds state disciplinary tactics in eighteenth-to mid-nineteenth-century Europe to have been employed through the public spectacle of the scaffold: experienced by the masses as a large-scale political ritual. Nevertheless, Foucault’s ancient and modern forms of state discipline are not strictly dichotomous: elements of both processes can be found in various societies past and present (Kertzer 1988; Valverde 2007). As argued in chapters 3 and 4, Classic Maya disciplinary practices permeated both public spectacles and household contexts.

State ideologies, however, are not always unconsciously inscribed onto the body, molding subjectivities and forming what Foucault calls the matrices of power/knowledge. James Scott (1976, 1985, 1990) questioned whether hegemony could ever really exist in its purest form; for him, subordinate groups do not blindly follow an ideology of their subordination. Rather, they know when they are being exploited and when possible resist this exploitation through both overt actions, such as open revolt, boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations, and covert behaviors, such as sabotage, foot-dragging, clandestine tax evasion, pilfering, hidden rituals of aggression, humor, gossiping, and the engendering of their own subculture through myths and folk traditions. These covert forms of resistance are sometimes part of “hidden transcripts,” operating in households, in forests, behind closed doors, and away from “public transcripts” where power relations between ruler and ruled are performed openly, such as parades, accession ceremonies, and state celebrations of religious or calendar events (Scott 1990). These covert forms of resistance have the appearance of ideological consent and business as usual for the underclasses, but they serve as an important means to demarcate their own sense of selves.

Archaeologists have explored the possibility of both overt and covert resistance by subordinated peoples, discussing the various ways in which commoners and other social groups participate in the reproduction of social relations (Brumfiel 1996a, 1996b; Joyce et al. 2001; Joyce and Weller 2007; Paynter and McGuire 1991; Schackel 2000; Silliman 2001). Elizabeth Brumfiel (1996a), for instance, has suggested that Central Mexican peoples contested Aztec state ideologies of male dominance through the production and use of female figurines, items often recovered from domestic spaces. Arguably, these ceramic figures offered an alternative and more positive commentary on gender relations from the context of household reproduction. Similarly, as Patterson (2004: 293) notes, while Ica nobility began to imitate Inca pottery styles during the fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Inca occupation of the Ica Valley, Ica commoners actively reproduced local Ica pottery styles in the face of such political changes. After the dissolution of Inca political control, Ica peoples, noble and common alike, revived the traditional Ica pottery styles and abolished Inca versions. As in the Ica case, the appropriation and reinvention of “tradition” is not specific to one particular group but is an active field of contestation, negotiation, and forgetting (Hobsbawm 1983; Mills and Walker 2008).

Susan Kus and Victor Raharijaona’s research in central Madagascar emphasizes the complexities of such political tensions that emerge from what they call “the poetics of human practice” (Kus and Raharijaona 2001: 114). In relation to the sixteenth-to nineteenth-century Imerina state, they assert that “state ideology is neither an issue of facile appropriation of local symbols nor a straightforward imposition on local knowledge” (Kus and Raharijaona 2000: 98). Using a combination of ethnohistoric, ethnographic, and archaeological evidence, they document the subtle ways in which state sovereigns interwove collective worldviews and local symbols with claims to their royal singularity. These practices occur through the durable media of stone monuments, tombs, and royal house construction, which seemingly possess a vitality of permanence. For example, the singularity of Imerina rulership is reinforced in the physical centering of the palace at the highest central point of the capital center, Antananarivo, and the location of this capital in the geographical center of Imerina in the same way that the central wooden pillar (andry) of Malagasy houses centers the activities and spatial arrangements of domestic life. The palace also possessed an andry of monumental proportion, 50 m high: it required the labor of 10,000 men to cut down, transport, and erect this immense log of wood.

Processes of state co-optation, however, were juxtaposed against the resilience of local ritual specialists and common peoples who continuously reinterpreted state ideologies as part of ritual performances and everyday lived experience in the construction of their own homes, mortuary ritual linking them to their ancestors, and children’s play and other quotidian activities conducted on top of stone monuments (Kus and Raharijaona 1998, 2000, 2001).

The Maya state also drew from both the house form and household practices for basic metaphors of state power. Temples for gods were modeled after the singular house form, and palaces consisted of multiple houses. As Stephen Houston (1998: 521) remarks in reference to the common house, “their familiarity makes them especially suitable for ‘structural’ replication, which acquires force through repetition and by its intelligibility to a large number of people.” In terms of household practices, Lisa Lucero (2003: 544) argues that Maya rulers were able to “build and maintain an unequal relationship of sanctified rights and obligations” by adopting and expanding on ancestor rites and household dedication and termination rituals that were in place as early as the Preclassic period. She notes that while temple caches from the urban capital of Tikal contained greater quantities and more exotic caching items (e.g., jade instead of chert, obsidian eccentrics instead of obsidian blades) than those from both commoner and elite residences at the small hinterland center of Saturday Creek, Belize, structural patterns of the rituals were the same in both contexts. Buildings were animated through caching, lip-to-lip ceramic containers held cached contents of items that together may have represented a microcosm of the universe, and buildings were deanimated by breaking and scattering objects over the structure. Indeed, archaeologists have documented similar symbolic expressions and rituals in a range of social contexts and temporal periods, in some cases documenting continuity that stretches from the Preclassic period to the present (Bozarth and Guderjan 2004; Lucero 2008; Mock 1998; Robin 2002: 255).

Yet despite these spatial and temporal commonalities, differences existed between elite and commoner rituals as well as between large public celebrations and more intimate household practices. It is important to examine these contradictions as possible points of contention and not only as the passive inheritance of “tradition.” McAnany (1995), for instance, explores the appropriation of lineage-based Preclassic period ancestor veneration by Classic period rulers. Rather than representing household or lineage ritual writ large, however, she contends that kingship-and kinship-based ancestor rites were qualitatively different. Such differences were a prominent source of Classic period political tensions, as some of their burials were integrated into public pyramidal structures and glorified through iconography and the written word. She contends that kingship forces resulted in the centralization of power, a process involving the co-option and transformation of kinship practices and structures (McAnany 1995: 133).

Another example of the reworking of household practices for state ceremony can be seen in changes in sweat bath practices at some political centers in the Maya area. Architectural evidence of sweat baths dates as far back as the Preclassic period (Alcina Franch et al. 1982; Hammond and Bauer 2001). During the Classic period, as in earlier times, they are most commonly found within the confines of residential architectural groups, whether large palatial complexes or small rural households (Child 2007; Helmke 2006b; Sheets 2002). Ethnographic, ethnohistoric, iconographic, and epigraphic data indicate that sweat baths were used for curing ailments, giving birth, and ritual cleansing related to rites of passage. As such, they were an important domain of midwives.

Yet during the Classic period some sweat baths took on new meanings and purposes: at the site of Piedras Negras, Rulers A, 2, and 4 commissioned monumental sweat baths adjacent to other ceremonial architecture, ball courts, and dance platforms overlooking large open plazas (Child 2006; Houston 1996). At Palenque, monumental sweat baths were built in temples of the ceremonial Cross Group buildings but were symbolic in that they did not house actual fires or possess water drainage systems. Hieroglyphic texts indicate that the Palenque ruler K’inich Kan Bahlam II commissioned the sweat baths and that they served as the sacred natal loci of the site’s patron deities.1 These monumental commissions, like those of royal tombs, privileged different values and authority structures than those built and used by typical households. Less clear, however, is if and how the authority and practices of midwives were reconceived with the appearance of monumental sweat baths. In order to complement some of the dominant perspectives deriving from monumental forms, the following chapters tease apart state and household relations from the vantage point of household media.


On the one hand, the state is the sum of its parts, such as an aggregate of households or communities. On the other hand, the state consists of the political institutions and ruling elite of society. This contradiction underscores the dialectical relations by which states and households produce and redefine each other. Although they are manifested differently from one state to the next, all state formations involve some sort of interplay of this basic contradiction. How does this interplay appear, in what forms, and to what extent for the Late Classic Maya? In drawing on ceramic figurines as the primary body of evidence, I explore (1) the extent to which state-sanctioned religious practices and symbols were present within households, (2) the ways in which household media may have expressed alternative meanings and symbols than those of the state, (3) the diversity of political economic networks that included but also moved beyond elite-elite exchanges, and (4) the significance of informal, marginalized performances in the making of state and household.

By Christina T. Halperin

Christina Halperin is Lecturer at Princeton University in the Department of Art and Archeology. She coedited Mesoamerican Figurines: Small-Scale Indices of Large-Scale Social Phenomena.

Halperin, Maya Figurines: Intersections between State and Household

Christina Halperin describes ceramic figurines found in domestic refuse deposits and how they mirror state/individual relations.
Series: The University of Texas Press Podcasts

Author: | Date: Thursday, 06 February 2014 | Duration: 12:58

This podcast was generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Latin American and Caribbean Arts & Culture Publication Initiative.

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