Back to top

Social Identities in the Classic Maya Northern Lowlands

Social Identities in the Classic Maya Northern Lowlands
Gender, Age, Memory, and Place

Using new archaeological data from four major cities of the Classic Maya world, this book explores how gender, age, familial and community memories, and the experience of living in an urban setting interacted to form social identities.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre Columbian Studies

May 2015
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
222 pages | 6 x 9 | 12 b&w illustrations, 7 b&w photos |

Social Identities in the Classic Maya Northern Lowlands plumbs the archaeological record for what it can reveal about the creation of personal and communal identities in the Maya world. Using new primary data from her excavations at the sites of Yaxuna, Chunchucmil, and Xuenkal, and new analysis of data from Dzibilchaltun in Yucatan, Mexico, Traci Ardren presents a series of case studies in how social identities were created, shared, and manipulated among the lowland Maya.

Ardren argues that the interacting factors of gender, age, familial and community memories, and the experience of living in an urban setting were some of the key aspects of Maya identities. She demonstrates that domestic and civic spaces were shaped by gender-specific behaviors to communicate and reinforce gendered ideals. Ardren discusses how child burials disclose a sustained pattern of reverence for the potential of childhood and the power of certain children to mediate ancestral power. She shows how small shrines built a century after Yaxuna was largely abandoned indicate that its remaining residents used memory to reenvision their city during a time of cultural reinvention. And Ardren explains how Chunchucmil’s physical layout of houses, plazas, and surrounding environment denotes that its occupants shared an urban identity centered in the movement of trade goods and economic exchange. Viewing this evidence through the lens of the social imaginary and other recent social theory, Ardren demonstrates that material culture and its circulations are an integral part of the discourse about social identity and group membership.



Chapter 1: Social Imaginaries and the Construction of Classic Maya Identities

Chapter 2: Circulations and the Urban Imaginary of Chunchucmil

Chapter 3: Memory, Reinvention, and the Social Imaginary of Later Yaxuna

Chapter 4: Burial Rituals and the Social Imaginary of Childhood

Chapter 5: Gendered Imaginaries and Architectural Space

Chapter 6: Why Social Identities?

References Cited



Traci Ardren is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Miami, where she is also a consulting curator at the Lowe Art Museum. Her previous books are The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica and Ancient Maya Women.


Chapter 1

Social Imaginaries and the Construction of Classic Maya Identities


This is a book about social identities, and specifically about trying to recover and understand the social identities at play in Classic Maya culture of southern México during the period from approximately 600–1100 CE. Social identities are interesting for reasons that have to do with the history of archaeological research, as I discuss more fully below. They are also familiar aspects of our lives today. I use the term “social identities” to make explicit the perspective that identities are not inherent (i.e., deriving from so-called biological characteristics such as race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) but rather are based in human interactions that make sense of such factors, as well as many others, by forming categories of social relations. Identities may have indeterminate borders, but they mark difference and help make sense of its importance (Alcoff 2006). To be a member of a social identity group does not entail an ascription of unrelenting sameness, but it does imply a constitutive relation of the individual to the Other, as well as between self and community (Alcoff 2006:85).

A great professor of mine once said that students of ancient cultures see either the differences between those cultures and their own, or they see the similarities, a glass half empty or half full explanation that gets to the heart of why I do archaeological research. My own feelings of being an outsider led me to explore how women in cultures radically different than my own fit, or did not fit, into their socially sanctioned roles. When we look at social identities in the past, we rarely see ideas about social relationships that are identical to those held in the modern West, but this kind of focus allows us to approach aspects of human social experience with which all of us have direct knowledge. Identities are the ideas we hold and relationships we form to explain difference and navigate social structures. Humans are social beings and we are a product of our relationships--this is true of both our own lives today and the lives of ancient people.

Every culture has a unique set of shared ideas and practices that are deployed and at times resisted to define social relationships. We create communities around gender, age, ethnicity, residence, race, shared history, etc.--these social identities are the result of a dialogue about membership and how individuals come to understand or make sense of their similarity and difference (Alcoff 2006, Moore 1994, Sørensen 2000). I want to make clear that identities are never inherent or given, but are constructed, reproduced, and resisted through relations with other people, with objects, and with various aspects of the landscape. As the mother of two boys, I cannot deny that there is some biological basis for certain male behavior, but as an anthropologist I know with equal certainty that the biological component, the brain differences or musculature, are interpreted and shaped with such a range of options across cultures that they become only a small part of the resulting social identity group we describe as masculinity. In fact it is the apparently unending ways in which cultures of the past and present have understood and manipulated the biological realities of human life that makes the study of social identities so fascinating and this field so important to anthropological archaeology.

The investigation of social identities is crucial to modern social archaeology, which is concerned with understanding the ways in which human social relationships have been expressed through the objects and architecture we make, and how we understand or utilize the past in the present (Hall 2001, Preucel and Meskell 2004:3, Renfrew 1984). As noted, identities are an expedient way that almost anyone can connect with the lives and experiences of ancient people, thereby partially dissolving the arbitrary line we have erected between past and present. But perhaps more importantly, identity construction is a fundamental human process of great interest to anthropology and many other social sciences because it reflects one of the basic ways in which cultures reproduce themselves, as well as how they change. The ideas any culture holds about how young people are made into adults involve a set of interlocking identities we choose to call gender, age, and even nation, which have to be reproduced through a shared understanding of mutual participation (Taylor 2004). Identities, as a form of social community building, are one of the primary mechanisms by which cultures reproduce themselves through instruction and performance of values, goals, behaviors, etc. Such actions and beliefs leave a material residue available to archaeologists, and these data are reflections of common understandings, worked out through dialogue and interaction (Taylor 2002:106). As Sørensen (2000) has explained, archaeology is very well suited to look at how social identities such as gender or childhood are constructed and lived, as these practices involve material things and physical arrangements or practices. But we should never lose sight of the fact that what we recover are materializations of shared ideas, or, more accurately, the materialization of individual negotiation or dialogue around shared ideas.

Recent social theory has explored the concept of the social imaginary, which is broader and deeper than either ideas or practices alone. Charles Taylor describes the social imaginary as “the ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (Taylor 2002:106). What Benedict Anderson also makes clear is that the social imaginary is imagined because most members of a shared identity will not know other members, yet all will share an awareness of some sort of communion with others (Anderson 1991:6). Viewing the social identities of ancient societies as forms of the social imaginary allows us to see material culture and its circulations as part of a discourse about identity and membership, and this book will explore the use of objects and spaces to prop up and shape various identities. This can promote a study of contingent change rather than universal cultural evolution as well as an ancient past filled with interested agents who make strategic choices (Isbell 2000). William Isbell has suggested that for the study of past societies, the social imaginary moves the focus from innate or given identities to identities as a process of dialogue, something constructed through practice and interaction (Isbell 2000:252). I will explore the application of the social imaginary in more detail throughout the book as a framework in which to understand how gender, age, memory, and community were deployed or rejected within ancient Maya society of the northern lowlands.

The title of this book is Social Identities in the Classic Maya Northern Lowlands: Gender, Age, Memory, and Place, and throughout the next five chapters we will explore how social identities share certain characteristics, especially the use of material objects to help create and reinforce the meaning of key behaviors and relations. Social relationships, whether they are organized around ideas of gender, community, or history, leave a material residue. My interest in social identities began with a fascination with gender and a desire to know how historically specific ideas were entangled with aspects of the human body. How had the female body I was born into and our culture’s ideas about natural abilities made it impossible for me to enroll in wood shop or auto mechanics during high school? From this rather trivial personal experience I began to see the myriad ways in which my culture naturalized a gendered division of labor and made it seem self-evident. In the modern West, gender is a social identity around which we have created tremendous dialogue and a sense of difference that is perhaps the most durable. Despite increasingly less gender-specific work habits, religious practices, modes of dress, or architectural spaces, our ways of understanding the differences between male and female bodies remain deeply relevant in the modern West and elsewhere. Understanding the human fascination with gender is a puzzle to solve, and we are still in the initial stages of looking at the many ways gender was conceptualized within the ancient world. The study of gender and its intricate intersections with other social conditions requires that we open the door to understanding other equally complex social identities, and hence this book explores four intersecting forms of social identity.

This book has three primary objectives. First, I embrace the goals of modern social or relational archaeology to address and debate issues of power in social relationships and the construction of knowledge about the past. Archaeology has much to contribute to wider discussions about the exercise of power, the construction of memory, and the manipulation of social identities, and I hope this volume will contribute in some way to those discussions. I explore populations that have been historically marginalized in mainstream representations of Classic Maya society as a remedy to certain patterns of how knowledge is constructed. Second, the patterned material culture discussed here will provide a series of case studies for how social identities are created, shared, and manipulated. Other case studies of social identity in the ancient world have appeared, and the present work attempts to provide an additional example from a large and complex state-level society of how identity can be understood within the theoretical framework of the social imaginary (Bernardini 2005, Cuddy 2007, Gardner 2007, Hendon 2010, Hutson 2010, Janusek 2004, Orser 2001, Varien and Potter 2008). Each time we deconstruct identities that have been naturalized or made to seem self-evident, we learn more about how human social actors exert power and control over one another and about how they resist such control. We are also better able to see heterarchical relations and variation when identity groups are viewed as historically contingent constructions. Third, this volume will present new primary data from my excavations in the northern Maya lowlands, specifically at the sites of Yaxuna, Chunchucmil, and Xuenkal, in Yucatán, México, over the last fifteen years (Figure 1.1).

Despite being very well known within the social imaginary of modern tourism, the archaeological record of the northern lowlands has been overshadowed in academic discourse about the Maya, perhaps due to the tradition within Maya studies of focusing on lengthy inscriptions and rich royal tombs. I hope that the publication of data from this culturally rich and diverse area will act as a corrective to the perception that Yucatán was in any way peripheral to Classic Maya society.

I feel it is worthwhile to explain briefly my interest in social identities in order to situate myself in relation to the data recovered by my research. A central contribution of the post-processualist movement in archaeology was to argue for an acknowledgment that our recovery of data from the archaeological record is driven in part by our personal interests and thus is never fully objective (Hodder and Hutson 2003, Johnson 1999, Shanks 1992, 2001). As the child of self-proclaimed hippies growing up in a small midwestern town, I was poignantly aware of the long hair and embroidered caftans worn by my parents and their friends as deliberate markers of an identity at odds with, but situated within, the qualified tolerance of conservative farming communities. My parents were civil rights activists and feminists and struggled against many of the hegemonic values and identities they felt were imposed by a small community. When we moved to Florida, identities were deliberately shifted and my parents layered a new regional identity on top of the others with self-conscious practices such as decorating palm trees for Christmas and wearing flowery Hawaiian shirts. As a teenager, when I became aware that I was both queer (not strictly heterosexual) and pagan (not of a monotheistic faith), the world of strategic decision making in regards to social identity and performance opened up. I had the choice to reveal or conceal, and “passing” as well as the condemnation by peers for “passing” became part of my social negotiations (Alexander 2006, Hoffman 2009). When introduced in college to the ancient cultures of the Maya world, a culture so complex and multifaceted yet with very clearly conveyed identities along axes of age, gender, and status, I found a counterpoint to my own complex negotiations of identity within the modern West. Ancient Maya lives were structured along a continuum of choices about social identities, and those choices were always entangled with the material world. In exploring ancient Maya culture, I have both learned how social imaginaries can provide a conservative and supportive framework for cultural perpetuation as well as how those same structures can change or be manipulated by the interests of a powerful minority.

Archaeology of Identity

The archaeology of identity has become a vast and diverse field of research, with many divergent theoretical perspectives. As scholars began to think about material culture as actively engaged in the construction and negotiation of identities, an awareness of the rich data available in the archaeological record has inspired a generation of scholars to explore the social identities of past societies. But this line of questioning has evolved tremendously over the last twenty-five years, and like so much social archaeology, it is a product of a fertile cross-pollination of social theory and the long history of material culture studies.

Prehistorians have noted the association of material culture with social groups since the beginnings of the discipline of archaeology. Early twentieth-century attempts to link material culture with social evolution had as their premise that identity was visible in artifactual remains, although the interpretation of identity was often simplistic and determinative. In Mesoamerica, the presence of certain ceramic types or artifact groups represented or indicated the presence of an ethnic group. The Sotuta ceramic complex, a set of unique forms and ceramic pastes defined at Chichen Itza, is still used as an indication of “the Itza,” a mythical group of non-Maya people, presumed to have been present at sites where this pottery is found (cf. Pool Cab 2013). There was little deconstruction of why certain materials were used or preferred by groups of ancient people, or to what degree those same people had exercised choice in the selection of such a material or design. This was because, as many scholars have noted, the individual was of less interest to processualist archaeology, which emphasized cultural systems on a broad scale. The processualists of the 1950s to 1970s made important and significant contributions to the field of archaeology by regularizing explicit hypothesis testing, multidisciplinary collaborative research projects, and the application of archaeological knowledge to wider social scientific questions. However, they did so at the expense of attention to the role of the individual within society, an understandable if unfortunate consequence of a focus on societies as a collection of smoothly functioning systems rather than a collectivity of individual actors. Little interest in the individual’s experience of membership in social groups led to little recognition of individual ambition or resistance in the archaeological record, which in turn led to a rather unproblematic and direct association between material culture and status or roles. As early engendered studies of Maya households showed, the processual focus on systems failed to capture that economic relations were inextricable from gendered practices and most domestic production of food, crafts, and other goods took place within highly gender-specific spatial and social relations (Hendon 1992, 1997, Joyce 1993, Pohl and Feldman 1982). Uncritical interpretations of gender or age as purely limiting factors of identity are still present in the field of Mesoamerican archaeology today. Luckily these are balanced by an increasing number of publications oriented toward the individual as a social actor who makes strategic decisions about how to enact social options.

In the last twenty-five years, social theory has moved far from the view of cultures as bounded and homogeneous, with an order that is natural and unconscious on the part of its members. Although certainly imperfect, especially regarding the concerns of feminists, the work of social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Anthony Giddens, and colleagues set in motion an intellectual movement that argued human society does not exist apart from the members who create it. Rather, individuals’ actions and struggles in relation to the expectations of their peers should be the focus of research that aims to understand human society. This relational approach emphasizes daily practices and interpersonal relationships as the foundation for an individual’s understanding of the world. From a relational perspective, identity is contingent and strategic, rather than implicit or static.

The study of embodied practices has developed into a rich field within anthropology, and a focus on the body as the site of cultural inscription has deepened our understanding of cultural reproduction. However, an embodied approach alone often does not aim to get at the ways in which members of a society participate in communities or identities that are larger than a single individual’s own experience, such as the processes by which we share citations about mutual social identities and become part of a collectivity. Embodiment is a crucial aspect of a relational approach but does not always facilitate a focus on the broader shared social imaginary to which this present work is directed.

This emphasis on the central role of individuals within society had enormous influence on the development of the study of identities within all the social sciences, including anthropological archaeology. The long-standing interest in class and status within archaeology was expanded to encompass a series of single-issue studies of social identities such as gender or nationality, as for example my book on ancient Maya women (Ardren 2002a), Sian Jones’s (1997) in-depth examination of ethnicity, or Jane Eva Baxter’s (2005) exploration of childhood. Recently archaeologists have followed the progression of social theory toward complicating the boundaries of identity categories and their intersections (Geller 2009, Meskell 2001). Where at first there were perhaps too many studies of social categories important to modern Westerners, such as “women” or “ethnic groups,” now there is a more sensitive attention to the intersection of social identities and their mutual negotiation (Hutson 2010, Voss 2008).

Social Imaginaries

The social imaginary framework opens up the archaeology of identity to find evidence of competing discourses and contingent change while still allowing for the existence of a broader interpretive community that determines options and sets boundaries (Lee and LiPuma 2002:192). In his brilliant contribution to what is now known as the theory of social imaginaries, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1991), Benedict Anderson explores the rise of nationalism after World War II in the West and in Southeast Asia. Anderson sought to explain three key components of nationalism: the disjunction between how the relative modernity of nations is viewed by its members versus by later historians, the universality of nationalism as a social concept and how it came to be naturalized like gender or age so that everyone must have a national identity, and the political power of nationalism despite philosophical impoverishment (Anderson 1991:5). The second and third goals are the most relevant for exploring the social imaginary and bear directly on how identities are created, maintained, and transformed as well as their intersections with relations of power and inequality.

Building on earlier conceptualizations of “the imaginary” in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1987) and Jacques Lacan (1977), Anderson shared with Castoriadis an emphasis on the creative aspects of the imaginary, but his focus on national identities broadened the concept to allow for the existence of multiple and simultaneous social imaginaries (Strauss 2006:329). Anderson defined a nation as an “imagined political community” and used the term “imagined” to convey that most members of a nation will not know the other members, yet they will share an image of connection and mutual purpose (Anderson 1991:6). This was not just true of nationalisms; Anderson argued that all shared social communities were imagined and this made them no less real or influential. The nation as a social identity had boundaries, power, and meaning. It was a self-evident horizontal fraternity that obscured real inequalities, limitations, and difference. From 1820 to 1920, the rise of nationalisms in Europe served to consolidate political power and expand capitalism in the hands of newly emergent elites (Anderson 1991:64, 110). Vernacular print media was the primary tool by which this new identity was enacted in Anderson’s analysis, through such processes as the development of lexicons, the dissemination of dictionaries, and especially through the practice of reading popular newspapers. The convergence of capitalism and print media on a diverse set of languages to anoint a dominant language as the property of a specific group created a shared imaginary community. Each day as an emergent middle class read the newspaper in the dominant language to which they were a party, they were aware of millions of other people like themselves doing the same thing, which created a daily ritual of participation that reassured and reinforced the imagined community of nationalism. At the same time these people experienced membership in the social imaginary of their gender, an acknowledgment of the simultaneous existence of parallel imaginaries or identities (Anderson 1991:5).

Reading the newspaper alone was not enough to sustain a sense of shared identity, and Anderson suggests that understanding membership in an imagined community was confirmed by other means as well, such as habits, expectations, and performances which are seen to be linked. These linkages are often not explicitly visible but exist with real force in people’s minds, through their practices, and in relations between members. A central aspect of his theory is the capacity of language to create and reinforce shared ideas that become naturalized through language use (Anderson 1991:141). For archaeologists, however, it may be Anderson’s identification of shared rituals, especially private daily acts repeated habitually, that is of most importance. All cultures past and present have rituals of inclusion, like reading the newspaper, that circulate ideas about identity and shared membership. The fetching of water from a well or river, the preparation of food, or the proper care of infants are all daily acts that constitute rituals of inclusion present in most societies, including ancient Maya society. In large complex societies, some of these rituals are performed without knowledge of who else is also performing them, although with the certainty that they are doing so. In the Maya area, at many large urban sites household groups have burial platforms located on the eastern side of the compound that were used as ancestral shrines (Ashmore 1991, Becker 1991, Leventhal 1983, McAnany 1995). The shrines were integrated into household groups, and daily activities were carried out on their platforms. At Chunchucmil or Tikal, large urban cities of more than thirty thousand inhabitants, individuals did not know the details of every other citizen’s religious life, although they shared in a system of practices that had certain elements in common. The presence of ancestral shrines in household groups of the ancient Maya is a clear materialization of a shared social imaginary, one which we will explore further in chapter 2.

Charles Taylor has elaborated upon the concept of the social imaginary, emphasizing that social practices are essential to the ability to “imagine” one’s social surroundings and membership (Taylor 2002:106). Taylor is explicit that this is not a matter of theory but of practice: “theory is usually the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imagination is that it is shared by a large group of people, if not the whole society” (Taylor 2002:106). Images, stories, daily rituals: these are the places where the social imaginary is encountered and reproduced, in contexts both mundane and extraordinary. These practices may start off as theories held by a minority, such as the elite, but they come to infiltrate society as a whole, in a process similar to what Anderson identified for the creation and nurturance of nationalisms. Taylor is worth quoting at length:

Our social imaginary at any given time is complex. It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations that we have of one another, the kind of common understanding which enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we all fit together in carrying out the common practice. This understanding is both factual and “normative”; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice. (Taylor 2002:106)

Taylor elaborates a theory of how we enact the social imaginary by participation in “macrodecisions” or actions that all members of the imaginary understand and practice. We know intuitively the boundaries of such macrodecisions and the consequences of stepping beyond those boundaries, and we share the knowledge that other members of our social imaginary possess this same knowledge base. He gives the example of choosing governments in a modern Western democracy, where each citizen understands their individual action is repeated simultaneously by others with the same choices, rules, and consequences. Members recognize an ideal behavior or practice guided by a shared moral order or principle as well as the reality of the imperfect practice. Perhaps most importantly for archaeology, where we are left with an imperfect record of only those actions that carried a durable material aspect, for Taylor the relation between practices and background understanding is central and reciprocal. “If the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that the practice largely carries the understanding” (Taylor 2002:107). The understanding, or what philosophers such as Martin Heidegger have called the “background,” is in a reciprocal relationship with the behaviors or practices of which it is composed (Dreyfus 1991, Strauss 2006). People who share a social imaginary possess a common repertory of possible actions as well as the knowledge of how to choose among them and the consequences of an alternative choice. Members of ancient Maya society shared a background understanding of what was considered palatable food, tailored to their geography yet centered around the symbolically charged (and nutritious) holy trinity of corn, beans, and squash. They also understood the social repercussions for choosing to consume food considered inedible, and based on widespread studies of archaeofaunal remains we know they only very rarely made the choice to eat monkeys or raptors, while dogs and seabirds were considered edible (Götz 2008, 2011, Götz and Stanton 2013). Food choices are a powerful means by which cultures reproduce themselves and the reciprocal relationship between Taylor’s practice and understanding.

Taylor gives the example of a political demonstration. When we chose to organize such an event, we know it is within our repertory of possible means by which to express an opinion; we know how to make signs and choose a location that does not break the laws of assembly yet draws attention; in other words, we understand the ritual. Taylor could have easily used funerals as his example, and for my purpose I will substitute an ancient Maya funeral. Guided by background knowledge of options that make sense within a moral order, ancient Maya people made choices about how to commemorate the dead that were often very similar. The bulk of the population chose to bury the dead in close association with the residential spaces of the living--under floors or in small free-standing shrines (Becker 1999, McAnany 1995). They very often placed ceramic vessels with the dead and chose from a selection of gender-appropriate artifacts that will be discussed further in chapter 5. But the choice to inter a relative in the house group and to place a ceramic vessel with the body, especially when repeated by thousands of individuals in a private manner not visible to the entire population, only makes sense within a wider understanding or schema. This practice perpetuates the understanding, gives it an experiential and material basis, and circulates the knowledge among a fictionalized set of interpersonal relationships within the imaginary. From this perspective, the identity that members of a Maya city shared was not innate or given, but rather the result of a process of dialogue and construction, and the material evidence of those identities is not a static reflection but rather a record of discourse.

Taylor’s ideas about the dialogue between background and behavior clearly owe much to the practice theory of Pierre Bourdieu (1977) and his contemporaries who struggled to understand the subject within objective social structures. Both Taylor and Bourdieu share an emphasis on actions or behaviors that create meaning and perpetuate membership, and both reject the existence of overarching rules that dictate the activities of social actors. The sensory experience of repeated actions (habitus) is important to both theorists as a way to understanding, and coordination with the actions and bodies of others plays a profound role in the enactment and perpetuation of the social imaginary; indeed Taylor says “practice largely carries the understanding” (Taylor 2002:107).

What Taylor adds to practice theory is a greater emphasis on the mental schemas or shared cognitive models, what might also be described as the understanding of shared membership (Strauss 2006:330). Although Taylor makes clear that theories are of less interest because they are only held by a minority, his inclusion of theories, or what he describes as the ideas held by a small and dominant group that may (or may not) come to infiltrate society as a whole, illustrates an emphasis on ideas that is not seen as strongly in Bourdieu. Where Bourdieu’s practice theory allows for change or transformation in ways of being primarily through an individual’s sensory experiences, the social imaginary as articulated by Taylor and Anderson incorporates competing discourses and contingent change from the outset, because each individual is empowered to understand and participate in their social imaginaries. These competing discourses might be the understanding of modernity held by Québécois versus Canadian citizens (Taylor’s context) or the understanding of masculinity held by juvenile boys versus elder men (as discussed in chapter 5), but they exist within a broader interpretive community that can be influenced by ideas that shape practice, then imaginaries. In speaking about the rise of modern Western moral order, Taylor explains that what he wants to do is “sketch the changeover process in which the modern theory of moral order gradually infiltrates and transforms our social imaginary. In this process, what is originally just an idealization grows into a complex imaginary through being taken up and associated with social practices, in part traditional ones, which are transformed by the contact” (Taylor 2002:110).

In our efforts to understand the nature of power in the social relationships of past societies, the social imaginary provides a means by which to explore how group membership, which is never natural and effortless but rather always a dialogic process, could be influenced by certain dominant groups or ideas, the processes by which membership is achieved, and how the understanding of membership changes over time. Taylor fits within a relational practice theory approach to understanding the subject, but the social imaginary expands our discussion of the means by which ancient individuals thought about and experienced their fit with others to include participation in multiple and simultaneous imaginaries. Some may find Taylor’s emphasis on shared ideas too abstract or intangible, even too homogenous, but since archaeology has a ready body of materialized ideas and practices in the architecture and artifacts we recover, a person-centered study is possible and promises to uncover real coherence as well as variance. The social imaginary approach is fully able to explore the practices that underscore and generate shared social understanding, as I show in the following case study chapters.

The role of circulations, or the overlapping experiences that emerge from an exchange of ideas, goods, stories, or rituals that lead to a specific and shared everyday understanding, has been elaborated by Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma (2002). The acknowledgment of circulations as key constitutive factors in a social imaginary contributes to a relational approach to understanding social identities and the processes by which cultural membership is achieved. Circulations are performed, whether through exchange of trade items or a rite of passage, and thus they both construct and constitute the imaginary and are constructed by it. A focus on circulations shifts us away from seeing the unit of analysis, whether that be a city or a social institution like a market, as bounded and stable and forces an analysis of how shared imaginaries like citizenship are fluid and evolving (LiPuma and Koelbe 2005:154). Lee and LiPuma address how the dynamics of circulation drive globalization and the resultant challenges to local notions of language, culture, etc. (Lee and LiPuma 2002:191), but their model of circulations as a mechanism of social imaginaries is applicable to the material record. Noting that circulations, especially of goods, have been of interest to anthropologists since Levi Strauss (with important modern contributions from Annette Weiner and others), nonetheless anthropologists did not see circulations and exchange as creating meaning but merely as transmitting meaning ascribed by other constituencies (Lee and LiPuma 2002:192). Their model of circulations is performative and sees circulations as cultural phenomena with their own forms of abstraction, evaluation, and restraint: “Cultures of circulation are created and animated by the cultural forms that circulate through them . . . and always presuppose the existence of their respective interpretive communities” (Lee and LiPuma 2002:192). Thus what Lee and LiPuma have added to the conceptualization of the social imaginary is another mechanism by which materializations can be used to read how the social imaginary is maintained and constituted. “Cultures” do not just exist; they are created and maintained by items and ideas moving between people along a gradient of consumption or participation. Some individuals in ancient Maya cities created domestic serving vessels that were exquisite and consistent, while other potters created lopsided and poorly fired vessels. Because of background similarities such as the identical paste, manufacturing method, and decoration, we understand them to be points along an identifiable spectrum of possible artistic choices. A ceramic style still has boundaries, for example in Fine Orange Ware of the Terminal Classic period only orange paste and volcanic ash temper were used to build the pot, and the decoration was always carved or applique. However, the results are not a single point but rather a spread. In this way the concept of circulations accommodates the choice and change we see within the material record by suggesting that artistic choice (“culture”) was both suggested and perpetuated by the ideas and practices exchanged between members as they created a common style of ceramic serving vessel.

The identification of circulations gives us one more tool to understand what Taylor called the background understanding that makes practices possible and which is created by these same repeated practices. If both the background, or what Lee and LiPuma call the “interpretive community,” and the practices, or what Lee and LiPuma call the “forms,” are relational and created through a series of repeated circulations, then these circulations should leave a material residue available in the archaeological record. In more practical terms, the exchange of objects within an ancient Maya city, such as the distribution of imported obsidian, should be read as not merely a reflection of social interactions but as constitutive of a social identity or shared imaginary that provided a way for the people of that city to make sense of their choices and lives. While archaeologists are known for focusing on the circulation of an easily sourced trade item such as obsidian, we can also perform the same analysis on funerary rituals or ceramic styles that were circulated between people. Through such circulations, these materialized ideas confirmed the expectation of membership in a shared imaginary as well as perpetuated the interpretive community of that imaginary.

A wide variety of behaviors qualify as circulations that constitute and perpetuate social imaginaries. It may appear that everything is a circulation or that the concept is so broad as to lose interpretive usefulness. Circulations are inherently social and interactive; they are performative, meaning they are witnessed and ritualized. Through ritualization, consent of the participants is implied even if it is not completely in place. There is no reason to question the consent of participants since through their presence they are perpetuating the transmission of the imaginary along a gradient of involvement. Consequently, behaviors that are undertaken alone, outside the margins of society as defined in the moment or unintelligible, are likely not circulations and exist outside a shared social imaginary.

Circulations are obviously very important in understanding the way in which people lived together within an urban setting, imagining and acting as collective agents. The shared urban imaginary of the trading center of Chunchucmil will be explored in chapter 2.

Visual Partners/Bits and Pieces

The perspective on social identities and their construction, maintenance, and transformation presented here also owes a debt to recent scholarship on material culture that questions the Cartesian separation between people and things. If one embraces the idea that human interpersonal relationships occur within a framework of shared imaginations about the world and that dialogue or debate about that social imaginary is how we determine our place or membership within a shared social identity as well as how we maintain and change that imaginary, then we must agree that the materializations of those discourses--the choice to wear family jewelry or not, the choice to dress along gendered lines or not--are likewise powerfully implicated in the dialogue about membership. Material culture plays a special role in social reproduction--objects link generations, families, and individuals and are fundamental partners in the mediation of tradition or other cultural institutions (Sørensen 2000). Objects can be used as visual memories or props for commemoration or renegotiation of relationships and are often deployed in a strategic manner. Viewed in this light, it is difficult to deny that objects have some form of agency and are central to the experience of social interaction. Bruno Latour (1993, 1999, 2005) questions the division between people and objects, highlighting their interdependence, and claims that objects, as characterized by Scott Hutson, are not “second-class agents” (Hutson 2010:22). In 1988, writing under the fictional name Jim Johnson, Latour posed an important question:

But anyway, who are you, you the sociologists, to decide forever the real and final shape of humans . . . are you aware of your discriminatory biases? You discriminate between the human and the inhuman. I do not hold this bias but see only actors--some human, some nonhuman, some skilled, some unskilled--that exchange their properties. (Johnson 1988:303)

As Latour highlights, human actors cannot be our only focus of analysis when understanding the meaning and experience of identities, an idea with obvious resonance for scholars of material culture. But the predominant model within modern archaeology is to see objects as simply the products of human activity, not as reciprocal agents locked in a relational network (Lally and Ardren 2008). Yet premodern non-Western cultures often did not ascribe the same lack of agency to objects, or, to phrase it more accurately, objects were empowered or even agitated agents in other cultures. As Julian Thomas and others have noted, archaeology has probably overemphasized the modern Western notion of the bounded individual in our interpretations of the past (Thomas 2002). Because we tend to think of ourselves as self-contained and having free agency, a center point from which meanings and actions emerge, we have projected the same bounded, stable notion of the individual into the past. This interpretive fallacy obscures the relational aspects of material culture in ancient societies as well as the role such objects play in our own culture. There are abundant examples of the inherent power and agency ancient Maya people understood certain materials to possess, independent of their use in highly charged arenas. Jade, whether worn by a queen in an elaborate beaded skirt or imitated by a commoner in a simple pebble painted blue-green, had an inherent agency to connect the wearer with the fertile power of the Maize Deity and a related set of regenerative forces. Pottery vessels were ritually killed with drilled holes before being placed in a burial and houses were animated with offerings before they could be occupied. As humans performed these actions, they circulated a knowledge and set of practices that confirmed their expectation of living within a universe of animate actor-objects. At every level of ancient Maya society, objects were agents and co-constituted the social identities of members of that society. I am not arguing that objects had the same capabilities as humans, but rather that we must acknowledge a deeper interdependence between objects and human identities and refrain from interpreting objects as a reflection of status or identity when in fact objects were created with far greater intention than to reflect. The complex life histories of especially portable objects make an argument for any single meaning impossible to sustain.

The object biography approach adds a further dimension to our understanding of the interactions between humans and objects because it posits that as people and objects gather time, they are constantly transformed, and such transformations of person and object are tied up with one another (Appadurai 1986, Gosden and Marshall 1999, Meskell 2004). The notion of the biography of objects originates in a 1986 article by Igor Kopytoff, who argued that things could not be fully understood at just one point in their existence. It was better, he argued, to look at cultural processes such as cycles of production, exchange, and consumption as a whole (Kopytoff 1986). This is because objects, like people, have the ability to accumulate history and meaning, so that the present significance of a Maya incense burner on display in a European museum derives from not only its current aesthetic impact but also its original maker and his or her intent, the people who used it in the ancient past, manipulations of the global antiquities market, and its radical removal from the Maya area to reside in a foreign museum. Each of these social interactions can be illuminated by seeing them as interconnected moments along a continuum. Likewise, in the same way that no individual has a single biography, there will never be a single narrative or biography that captures the entire spectrum of an individual object.

The object biography approach is particularly relevant in the study of ancient Mesoamerican art since we know objects held life force and were animate in the eyes of the ancient Maya (Harrison-Buck 2012, Lucero 2010, Stuart 1998). Given the Maya perspective on material culture, we can begin to talk about mutual biographies, where material objects are not fully external to the lives of humans but rather people and objects shaped and transformed each other permanently. From hieroglyphic inscriptions and material evidence, we know ancient Maya people performed ceremonies to animate, sustain, and even terminate certain material objects such as stelae, buildings, and ceramic vessels. The artist who created these pieces or the priest who performed the initial dedication gave birth, in a sense, to these objects and thus was permanently transformed by the interaction. Melanesians see objects as detached parts of the people who made them, and in this culture artists are ultimately composed of all the objects they have made and their associated transactions or circulations throughout the culture (Gosden and Marshall 1999:173). This idea illuminates the relational way in which an object is never wholly distinct from the person who “made” it, nor is the person able to fully disengage from the materialized idea we tend to call an object. For this reason, I consider objects agitated, because this term calls to mind the opposite of the static and inanimate view of objects utilized within much of modern archaeology. The perspective employed here enables us to understand the archaeological record as the visible materialization of ideas and interactions shared or contested by a vast array of agents.


This chapter has introduced the relational framework to be employed in this volume as a means of beginning the dialogue about how social identities were materialized in Classic Maya culture. Situated within the aims of modern social archaeology to explore relations of power and representation at all levels of society including the individual, I have suggested that the concept of the social imaginary captures the contingent ways in which identities form and change as well as how we can view material culture and its circulations as part of a discourse about identity and membership. The following chapters present case studies of some of the major social imaginaries at play in Classic Maya society. As Taylor makes clear, each of us participate in multiple or parallel social imaginaries, as we simultaneously experience ourselves as members of a gender, an age cohort, a community, and various other social groups. While gender- and age-based identities are relatively familiar to most archaeologists, in the following chapters I argue that the ways in which memory is deployed within settlements and the experience of living in an urban setting are also both constitutive of identities we share with others. I hope to show how these parallel social identities intersect or exist simultaneously in order to move away from a notion of identity as fixed or determined by inherent biological characteristics. Certainly when someone moves to a city, like ancient Chunchucmil or Yaxuna, they experience a process of identity transformation, moving from outsider to marginal to member. The patterned remains in the material record can reveal how this process occurs, how culture is created and maintained, through circulations of strategic behaviors linked to key objects.

Chapter 2 will debate the urban imaginary and the social experience of living in an ancient Maya city through the data from my excavations at Chunchucmil, where more than thirty thousand people lived in an environmentally demanding location in order to benefit from trade in salt and other coastal resources. Travel to and from the coast created a literal circulation that came to define an important characteristic of life in ancient Chunchucmil. I also identify important architectural features that shaped how citizens interacted and thus how they perpetuated a sense of belonging to such a place. Chapter 3 interrogates how memories are used to perform, perpetuate, and transform social identities late in Classic Maya culture. With data from Postclassic architectural shrines and their associated offerings at Yaxuna, I look at the powerful connection between memory and identity and how local elites remembered or reimagined their collective past disappointments in order to breathe life into their social identity as leaders and survive in a new social order. In chapter 4 I explore the social identity of childhood, and through the data from juvenile burials at Yaxuna, Xuenkal, and Dzibilchaltun, as well as the sacrifice of children at Chichen Itza, I discover how the social imaginary of childhood in Classic Maya cities of the north included practices and beliefs centered in the sacred or numinous power of infancy. Certain infant burials placed into architectural settings across the northern lowlands communicate a perception of the inherent value of the child as a substance to connect the living with the dead. Chapter 5 takes up the subject of gender and the manner in which specific architectural spaces were used to help instill a sense of gender and gender-specific activities as natural and significant. By exploring domestic compounds from Yaxuna and Chunchucmil as well as the civic architecture of Dzibilchaltun, I argue that unequal access to power was mediated by conversations about gender difference. In the final chapter I review other recent work on social identities within the Maya area and their relevance to modern Maya writers. I argue for the emergence of a unified approach to identity studies and show how this would deepen both our analyses of material remains and our comprehension of ancient cultures. The social imaginary is a powerful tool with which to approach how identities are constructed and maintained. As a concept, it allows for contingent change rather than natural evolution, and for understanding material objects as active partners in the negotiation of larger social interactions. It is my hope that the rich data I have had the privilege of gathering from these impressive ancient cities will be illuminated in a new and insightful way through the lens offered here.


“A highly insightful and theoretically sophisticated book. . . . Ardren’s book would be an excellent resource in the classroom.”
Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology