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Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya

Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya
Rituals of Body and Soul

Through a wealth of previously unpublished primary data, Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya examines Mayan death rites across sites, social classes, and kingdoms.

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

November 2015
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323 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 19 color and 115 b&w photos, 102 b&w illustrations, 7 maps |

From the tombs of the elite to the graves of commoners, mortuary remains offer rich insights into Classic Maya society. In Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul, the anthropological archaeologist and bioarchaeologist Andrew K. Scherer explores the broad range of burial practices among the Maya of the Classic period (AD 250–900), integrating information gleaned from his own fieldwork with insights from the fields of iconography, epigraphy, and ethnography to illuminate this society’s rich funerary traditions.

Scherer’s study of burials along the Usumacinta River at the Mexican-Guatemalan border and in the Central Petén region of Guatemala—areas that include Piedras Negras, El Kinel, Tecolote, El Zotz, and Yaxha—reveals commonalities and differences among royal, elite, and commoner mortuary practices. By analyzing skeletons containing dental and cranial modifications, as well as the adornments of interred bodies, Scherer probes Classic Maya conceptions of body, wellness, and the afterlife.

Scherer also moves beyond the body to look at the spatial orientation of the burials and their integration into the architecture of Maya communities. Taking a unique interdisciplinary approach, the author examines how Classic Maya deathways can expand our understanding of this society’s beliefs and traditions, making Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya an important step forward in Mesoamerican archeology.

  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Lived Bodies
  • Chapter 2. Dead Bodies
  • Chapter 3. Ritual, Liminality, and the Mortuary Space
  • Chapter 4. The Mortuary Landscape
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Providence, Rhode Island

Scherer is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. He is coauthor of Revisiting Maler’s Usumacinta: Recent Archaeological Investigations in Chiapas, Mexico.




I began preparations for this book with a simple thesis. Although the Classic Maya held certain universal beliefs about death and burial, localized traditions developed over the course of the Classic period in regard to the proper treatment of the dead in funerary (and nonfunerary) contexts. I first began to appreciate the diversity of Classic Maya deathways in my first year of graduate school (longer ago than I care to admit) when I helped Lori Wright build her database of Tikal burials. After two semesters spent poring through the Penn Tikal reports, I felt that I had a very good idea of what constituted typical Classic Maya mortuary practice. That summer I joined Stephen Houston and Héctor Escobedo’s project at Piedras Negras. Working with the skeletons and burials from that site, I came to realize that Classic Maya mortuary practices were far more diverse than is generally acknowledged. As a simple example, most burials at Tikal include pottery, and its royal tombs are overflowing with bowls, vases, and other ceramic wares. At Piedras Negras, however, ceramics were rarely placed within the burials and even the Late Classic period kings were buried with only a single dish.

Since those early graduate school years, I have spent the past decade excavating burials along the Usumacinta River of Mexico and Guatemala, studying graves and skeletons from Classic period communities that were subject to the competing royal courts of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan. Over the years my colleague Charles Golden and I began to see an interesting pattern in the graves. Burials from different communities within the same kingdom looked surprisingly like one another and were distinct from those in other kingdoms. For example, burials at Piedras Negras are most often oriented 30° east of north (E of N). At Yaxchilan they are mostly 120° E of N. As further evidence of difference, burials within the Yaxchilan kingdom usually contain ceramics, most commonly a perforated dish located over the head of the deceased. In over 130 burials excavated in the kingdom of Piedras Negras, such a practice has never been observed.

In discussing the graves of Maya elites and nonelites, scholars have generally emphasized their differences, drawing a divide between the royals and the people they governed. In her landmark book Living with the Ancestors, Patricia McAnany suggests that royal mor tuary practices were a co-option of more traditional, lineage-based rites. She sees “the realms of kinship and kingship as an arena of conflict”; relative to villages and towns, “the city is seen as the aberration.” Similarly, in his masterful Death and the Classic Maya Kings, James Fitzsimmons “primarily examines royal rituals of death, the process by which a ruler is turned into an ancestor.”2 Yet the respective commonalities in the funerary practices among the royal and commoner Maya of Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras make it clear that something is lost when we focus only on the differences. Archaeological preoccupations with divisions of power, wealth, and prosperity have led us to overlook the very processes that bound Maya kingdoms together. The burial evidence suggests that to some degree king and commoner, city and village dweller, participated in a greater community of shared ritual practice.

As I pored over the mortuary data — burial orientations, placement of pots, and the like — a nagging question emerged. What does this all mean? Why did the people of Piedras Negras place their dead at 30° E of N while bodies 40 km upriver at Yaxchilan were placed on a perpendicular axis, 120° E of N? Are these differences simply reflective of local idiosyncrasies or was something more complex (and interesting) at work? Were the Maya concerned with articulating their political allegiances when they buried their dead? I find this simple explanation unlikely. Rather, something more complex was afoot. An interdisciplinary approach is necessary to grapple with these questions and gain a better understanding of Classic Maya perceptions of life, death, and the afterlife. My strengths are in archaeology and bioarchaeology, so these approaches are quite prominent in this book. However, I also draw extensively on pertinent research in epigraphy, iconography, ethnohistory, and ethnography to illuminate my own field and laboratory work.3 The result is a book that explores how the Classic Maya understood bodies and their relationship to souls in life and death.

For millennia the Maya have occupied a remarkably diverse landscape that includes the flat scrub forests of the Yucatán peninsula, the jungles of the Petén and Belize, and the volcanic highlands of Chiapas and Guate mala (fig. 0.1). Within this domain the Maya established one of the world’s most enduring cultural traditions. Today the Maya are synonymous with lost cities and ruined pyramids, inscriptions and prophecy, tombs and human sacrifice, reflecting a popular fascination with an era of history that archaeologists call the Classic period (ad 250-900). This particular bracket of time presumably meant nothing to the Maya. It was conceived by scholars in the early twentieth century, during the earliest days of scientific archaeology in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. For these early explorers and archaeologists, the Classic period was a time of artistic and architectural fluorescence, reminiscent of the aesthetic of the “Classic civilizations” of the ancient Old World.4 Today the idea of a Maya Classic period is entrenched and is used to reference the era when the Maya carved hieroglyphic inscriptions on stone monuments, built monumental pyramids, were ruled by sacred lords (k’uhul ajaw, glossed as “kings” throughout this book), and used the long count — a calendric system that places an event into linear time by counting forward from the Maya date of creation in 3114 bc. Archaeologists further subdivide the Classic period into the Early (ad 250–600), Late (ad 600-800), and Terminal Classic periods (ad 800-900/1100).

The Maya long count fell out of use by the early tenth century. Many of the southern cities in modern-day Chiapas, Tabasco, Petén, and parts of Belize were aban doned as the royal dynasties came to an abrupt end. The abandonment of these cities, the great political rupture caused by the death of the royal courts, and the neglect of the long count define the great Maya “collapse.”5 Despite the political collapse and demographic decline of the southern lowlands, vibrant occupation and monumental construction continued in other parts of the Maya world, notably the Yucatán peninsula and the Guatemalan highlands. The material culture of this later period looks decidedly different and shows influence from other parts of Mesoamerica. This era, which ends with the arrival of the Spanish, is known as the Postclassic period (ad 900–1521).

The Preclassic period (2000 bc–ad 250) is traditionally understood as the era before the kingship and high art of the Classic period, when the Maya experimented with early practices that would later become entrenched, such as the construction of pyramids. In recent years scholars have come to appreciate the Late Preclassic period (350 bc –ad 250) as more socially and politically complicated than previously imagined.6 Arguably, some of the largest cities and finest works of Maya art were created during the Preclassic period, and the divide from the Classic period has become blurred.

Because of the popular trope of the “vanishing Maya,” many unfortunately fail to recognize that Maya cultural tradition endures to this day. Elements of modern Maya culture — particularly core religious beliefs — can be traced back at least as far as the Late Preclassic period. Even the Spanish conquest is now understood to have been less destructive to the fabric of Maya society than scholars once perceived.8 Yet it would also be a grave injustice to treat the Maya as a fossilized people, frozen in time as the modern world moves on. As with all people, they embrace tradition that helps make sense of the world, while adopting new ideas, practices, and technologies that are advantageous or meaningful.

Today the “Maya” are the roughly 11 million people that speak a group of closely related but distinct languages throughout Guatemala, eastern Mexico, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.9 An unknown number of Maya are also living in the United States and other parts of the world, as émigrés who fled violence in their homelands in recent decades, as adoptees of foreign parents, and as opportunists in search of better economic conditions. Over twenty different Mayan languages are currently spoken. Among the modern Maya referenced in this book are the speakers of K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi, Mam, Tz’utujil, Chol, Cho’rti’, Mopan, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Lacandon, and Yucatec. Mayan linguistic diversity is a rough approximation of their cultural diversity; speak ers of closely related Mayan languages are also more likely to share common experiences of geography, history, economy, and belief relative to speakers of more distantly related Mayan languages.

Constrained by the limits of space and the biases of my own expertise, this book focuses primarily on the mortuary practices of the Classic period. Greatest treatment is given to the western Maya lowlands, especially the Usumacinta River kingdoms of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan, where I have worked, as well as other neigh boring polities, including Palenque and Tonina. I have also conducted research with human remains from El Zotz, Yaxha, and Tikal, however, so the Central Petén of Guatemala is also an important presence in this book. By focusing on the familiar, I am able to present primary data that have not been published previously. The diminished presence of the northern lowlands, Belize, and the highlands does not mean that these areas are not equally important.

Souls of the Classic Maya

Classic Maya “souls” are an important yet problematic topic of inquiry.10 By Western definition, the soul is the spiritual side of the self. It is an incorporeal essence temporarily bound inside a physical body. We do not think of our souls as existing prior to our birth, but we certainly hope that they will persist after our deaths. Our soul is the essence of who we are; our body is simply the shell in which the soul is housed during our mortal existence on earth. The contemporary Maya, however, see things very differently. For the Tzeltal, the body is the self, there are multiple souls, those souls existed before birth, and, most confusing of all for non-Maya, the soul is in some sense the other.11 The first chapter examines these concepts and explores how contemporary Maya belief can help us understand Classic Maya bodies and souls.

Because Western and Maya concepts of the spiritual aspect of the self are not really the same, ethnographers have long recognized that to call such essences “souls” is problematic. But to replace the term with indigenous vocabulary would be equally flawed. Various contemporary groups use different terms to refer to these entities. For example, the Tzeltal speak of ch’ulel and lab, whereas the Yucatec, Mopan, and Lacandon call such beings pixan. Ch’ulel may be a loose cognate of the Classic period k’uhul. Nevertheless, I follow the lead of the ethnographers and grudgingly employ the word “souls” (and similar terms, such as spirits, essences, and co-essences) to refer to the supernatural beings that were bound to the Classic Maya physical human body and gave it life. As Evon Vogt, the eminent ethnographer of the Tzotzil, explained, “I use the term ‘soul’ advisedly in quotes to indicate that the familiar European concepts of ‘souls’ and ‘spirits’ are inadequate for precise ethnographic description of these concepts.”12 For ease of readability, I have abandoned the quotation marks around the term. Yet I stress that the term “souls” as applied to the Maya does not accurately capture their understanding of the body and self.

For ethnographers, the Maya soul is elusive. As Pedro Pitarch explains, “there is, of course, no canonical body of Tzeltal knowledge that defines the soul.”13 Nevertheless, the rich body of ethnographic literature reveals that souls are fundamental for understanding Maya society; they are at the core of indigenous philosophies of life, death, illness, and interpersonal relations. Quite simply, by ignoring the Classic Maya soul, we handicap our capacity to understand how the Classic Maya perceived themselves and the world in which they lived. Just as the ethnographers struggle to define contemporary
concepts of the soul, identifying the Classic Maya soul is fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, if we consider how important souls were in the Classic period worldview, we can reasonably hope to find traces of them in ancient Maya thought and practice. To do so requires marshaling many disparate lines of evidence.

We must also bear in mind that the contemporary Maya do not share a universal perspective as to whether they are or are not the modern descendants of the people that archaeologists define as the “Classic Maya.” On one hand, current pan-Maya movements have sought to appropriate the Classic period as part of their identity. Some archaeological sites, such as the Great Plaza of Tikal, are places of pilgrimage for contemporary ritual performances.14 Yet none of the various Q’eqchi, Kaqchikel, Chol, and Tzeltal men who have worked on my archaeological projects over the years saw themselves as particularly connected to the Classic period Maya that we excavated — or if they did they never expressed it to me. Whenever I inquired what they thought about the ruins we explored or the burials we excavated, they expressed fascination with some of the parallels with their modern life (especially the foods that they ate) yet still perceived these people as distant, remote, and, in many respects, a supernatural other.15 The lack of personal connection is much like my own feelings about my Germanic ancestors. When I look to medieval Catholicism I see the obvious roots of my family’s faith — especially my mother’s fascination with patron saints and the power of medallions. Yet I do not feel any particular closeness to the Franks, any more than my indigenous colleagues see themselves in the Classic period peoples of the Usumacinta River area. We should not assume that indigenous people are more or less connected to their past than are modern peoples. Our relationship to the past is what we make of it.

Burials and Bodies

The primary data for this book are the burials of the Classic Maya and the bodies they contain. Most Maya burials can be adequately described by using the typology that Ledyard Smith developed in his description of the

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burials of Uaxactun.16 Smith’s typology has been widely adopted by Mayanists, and I use a modified version of it in this volume. Simple burials are graves with no formal burial architecture. They are typically bodies placed in the ground or within the rubble fill of architecture. Cists are inhumations with only minor elaboration to delimit the mortuary space from the surrounding architecture or soil, such as rocks placed around the body. Simple crypts are formal masonry-walled containers, complete with a lid that was typically made of large, flat limestone slabs (lajas). The internal height of crypts is less than 0.5 m. Elaborate crypts are larger, more complex versions and have inter nal heights of 0.5 m to 1.0 m. Tombs are corbel vaulted burial chambers with an interior height greater than 1.0 m. Obviously this is an etic typology, though arguably one with some emic value; all of the epigraphically confirmed graves of Classic period k’uhul ajaw are tombs.

To excavate a Classic Maya site is to uncover burials. In part this is because they are everywhere: in plazas and pyramids, in houses and middens. Burials have also been targeted for their value as sealed contexts, however, as products of intentional human behavior that can be studied in a comparative perspective when a sizable number are uncovered. In the early days of Mayanist archaeology, priority was given to the objects within the burials, especially the whole ceramic vessels that are essential for constructing chronologies. Such burial objects are the focus of chapter 3.

In recent decades there has been a growing interest in the human skeleton, the physical remains of the Maya body. As a subject of anthropological inquiry, the human body is at the junction of the biological and sociocultural arms of the discipline. Biological anthropologists have traditionally been concerned with the body as a topic of anatomy, as a manifestation of our evolutionary history, and as evidence of adaptation to different environments. Sociocultural anthropologists, in contrast, have been concerned with the body as a canvas for cultural behavior and as a component of broader studies of embodiment,
self, and personhood.18 The study of the ancient body has a rich history, focusing on ancient skeletons, mummies, and other archaeologically recovered human remains, conducted primarily by specialists trained in the domain of biological anthropology.19 The study of ancient text and image has also been an important window into culturally specific ideas about the body — particularly the body ideal — in past societies.

The term “body” most readily calls to mind our corporeal mass: a thorax with four limbs and a head. In perceiving the body, we focus on its surfaces: the skin, the hair, the features of the face, and so forth. Unfortunately, all of those features are lost when we consider the remains of ancient Maya bodies. We are left with the skeleton, a once vital tissue that in life we only indirectly perceive as the shape of our heads, our stature, or the aches in our joints. Despite being largely unseen, bones are essential to who we are, and the study of this tissue has much to tell us about the body in life and in death.

Bodies are historically contingent and thus are of immediate interest to anthropologists who study past societies. The bodies of today are the cumulative prod uct not only of our own lives but also of those of our ancestors, both our immediate kin and our most distant evolutionary forebears. Bodies are also dynamic: even our skeletons continue to change as they are remodeled over the course of our life. Although the body’s basic form is dictated by the genes that we have inherited, it is also heavily subject to exogenous factors, from the food we eat to the microorganisms that invade and make us ill.

The past few decades have produced a veritable flood of research on the body in the humanities and social sciences. One of the primary concerns has been the relationship between the body and the self. On one hand, the self is an ideological construct of the body; seated in our brains, our concept of self is created by the firing of neurons and other biochemical reactions. On the other hand, it could also be said that the body is the physical manifestation of the self. For archaeologists, the works of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler have been highly influential and there has been a recent move to view the human body as a form of material culture, a social construct that is made and remade through performance and social discourse.

The challenge, of course, is that most of the biological processes that shape the human body are beyond the domain of human agency: they occur without any conscious effort, even if we may wish otherwise. Instead much physiology and anatomy is rooted at the molecular level, ultimately in our dna , itself the product of millennia of evolutionary forces (selection, drift, mutation, and gene flow). But to say that the form and substance of the human body are beyond the influence of our own will is obviously incorrect. Evolutionary processes have left us with a mind that allows us to reflect on our bodies and, in some instances, intervene directly to shape the course of its anatomy and physiology. Moreover, we are social creatures, so our bodies must contend, for better or worse, with norms of behaviors, power structures, and the general influence of others.

Constructivist theories of the body have recently been extended to the study of the ancient human skeleton, leading some to suggest that even the skeleton is socially constructed, that it is “material culture.” Such approaches to the skeleton are heavily influenced by recent approaches to “materiality” in material culture studies. Although the term evades easy definition, the general sense is that meaning is constituted in our material objects (artifacts) and that those objects in turn shape us; humans and their objects perpetually make and remake one another. Some scholars suggest that the inanimate world of “things” is imbued with agency. Trying to describe the body as material culture, however, involves a problematic circularity of logic. Take, for example, this passage by Joanna Sofaer:

The material qualities of the human body are key to its materiality. The materiality of the archaeological body, in other words the particular form that a body may take, can be understood as the material outcomes of human plasticity at a given point in time. The materiality of the archaeological body is not therefore given and immutable, but follows from the specific material qualities of the human skeleton that permit or constrain its change and development. The materiality of each body is context dependent, tempo rally described, produced and unique. Nonetheless, because the plasticity of the body is not limitless, and people have common experiences, or are situated in contexts with common social values, bodies may have common expressions (albeit to different degrees).

If materiality is a theory of the agency of objects, why would such a theory need to be applied to bodies which, by virtue of being human, are the very defini tion of physical forms with agency? Applying a theory of materiality to the body is akin to applying Darwinian evolutionary theory to human psychology and then trying to use evolutionary psychology to explain the origins and extinction of dinosaurs. The circularity of attempted reason just does not make sense.

Tim Ingold provides a more succinct and lucid explana tion of how the body may express aspects of materiality: “The acquisition of culturally specific skills is part and parcel of the overall developmental process of the human organism, and through this process they come to be literally embodied in the organism, in its neurology, its musculature, even in features of its anatomy.” Indeed, if we scrape away the obfuscating jargon and pay attention to prior scholarship, we find that osteologists have been making such observations about the body for decades now. The analysis of the human skeleton is like a textual exegesis where the analyst reads the skeleton and disentangles the various processes that contributed to its final form: the skeleton at death. Even the staunchest osteological positivists use narrative metaphors in describing their work, likening the skeleton to a person’s biography (or, perhaps better, obituary), as evidenced by popular books with titles such as Written in Bone or Dead Men Do Tell Tales. In fact, Frank Saul coined the term “osteobiography” decades ago, which he described as studying “skeletons as life histories recorded in bone.” John Robb provides a recent update to Saul’s approach and suggests that an aim of skeletal analysis should be to reconstruct a person’s “biography as a cultural narrative.” Robb’s goal is “to focus on the cultural understanding of life events and to encompass the history of human remains after death.” In a sense his approach is a comparative biography: by integrating archaeology, osteology, and taphonomy, he explores how different aspects of a person’s identity (such as age) shaped responses to illness, injury, and even death.

I would expand Robb’s view and argue that the study of Maya skeletons must take an integrated approach that is centered on a blend of laboratory osteology and field archaeology, coupled with reference to social theory, ethnography, ethnohistory, epigraphy, and iconography. Skeletons must be interpreted within their broader archaeological, taphonomic, social, and historic contexts. We must also be explicit about the nature of the human body — it is a biological organism that has been uniquely shaped by social action. Unlike the constructivists, we cannot pretend that the body is entirely constituted through social action. We must also recog nize, however, that the body is more than a composite of biological functions.

The problem of the Maya lived body is the subject of chapter 1, which establishes a framework for Classic Maya souls upon which the rest of this study rests. I introduce ethnographic concepts of Maya self and souls and explore how those beliefs are reflected in Classic Maya treatments of the body, particularly as evidenced in the human skeleton. I also discuss how these concepts may have informed Classic period understandings of health and illness.

Ritual and the Mortuary Landscape

The remaining chapters focus on the dead body within the mortuary context and explore the broader significance of funerary rites and postinterment ritual practice. Ritual is familiar and exists universally across human societies, yet it also escapes easy definition. At its most basic, ritual is defined in opposition to other activities that are assumed to be nonritual. As Catherine Bell explains, “ritualization is fundamentally a way of doing things to trigger the perception that these practices are distinct and the associations that they engender are special.”29 Ritual is established by the context in which it is enacted. This study focuses on those actions that were enacted in the context of a dying person, especially those that pertained to the disposal of a dead body and the management of that body’s souls. It also considers the importance of later rites that incorporate the bodies and memories of the dead, in some cases decades after the death event. Ultimately I explore how these rituals of death and veneration relate to the broader social fabric of the Classic Maya community and kingdom.

Rituals are inherently divisible; smaller ritual acts may combine in different and meaningful ways to establish the greater ritual performance. At the same time, rituals are not always easily bounded and how we frame ritual is to some degree arbitrary. For example, we can parse Classic Maya mortuary ritual into its smaller components, such as the lighting of an incense burner or the wrap ping of a body. The repetition of action helps to frame ritual and is of great benefit to archaeological study. Although the idiosyncratic can also be ritual, repeated acts are more likely to be identifiable and interpretable in archaeological contexts. In this volume I focus on both the repeated elements of Maya mortuary rites and how those practices reflect elements of deeper Maya ideology.

Rituals are inherently “bodycentric”: costumes are worn, gestures are repeated, feasting and fasting occurs, and so forth. Mortuary ritual is distinct in that it involves the performance of both living and dead bodies. For the most part the ritual is largely directed by those living bodies, though we should not ignore the profound influence of the bloating, stinking, decomposing corpse, which forcibly and unpleasantly inserts itself into the ritual process and must be carefully managed. We can never hope to reconstruct all aspects of the mortuary ritual from the archaeological record. What we can do, however, is explore the final product of ritual action as evidenced in the placement of the body, the objects arranged with it, and the landscape in which it was interred.

People have a tendency to perceive ritual as particularly concerned with supernatural forces. Even Bell, the eminent specialist on ritual, suggested that archaeologists should just stick with a simple definition: “namely, rituals are those activities that address the gods or other supernatural forces,” as proposed by Colin Renfrew. Such a definition of ritual is problematic, however: it assumes that people make a distinction between the natural and supernatural when they engage in ritual. In this definition any activity that is perceived as secular or atheistic could not then be ritual. Such a distinction is problematic for describing ritual in our own lives and certainly is problematic when applied to the Classic Maya, who had no such binary division between the natural and supernatural. Ethnography suggests that contemporary Maya mortuary rituals pertain most immediately to the management of dead souls and more abstractly to the reparation of the social rupture caused by the death of the individual.31 In other words, Maya death ritual reflects what we would consider both sacred and secular concerns.

Ritual is also meaningful. What can Classic Maya mortuary rituals tell us about understandings of the soul? Why were certain practices repeated in certain places and times? How might an understanding of mortuary rites help us understand the nature of Classic period communities and kingdoms? As Bell suggests, “ritual acts must be understood within a semantic framework whereby the significance of an action is dependent upon its place and relationship within a context of all other ways of acting: what it echoes, what it inverts, what it alludes to, what it denies.”32 Each aspect of a mortuary ritual, from the wrapping of the corpse to the placing of a vase, may have had its own specific meaning. Yet it is really the composite of all of these actions that is most important. At the same time, the meaning of each action may have differed from person to person, community to community, or century to century. Our capacity to reconstruct meaning in a particular mortuary context is contingent on our ability to find tendrils of that meaning in other lines of archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic data.

In order to reconstruct meaning in the past, we must turn to ethnohistoric and ethnographic clues,33 but not without caution. Such efforts not only can lead to histori cal anachronism but can also risk treating the Maya as an essentialized, fossilized, unchanging people. Yet to disregard the existence of deep historical continuity of certain aspects of Maya belief and practice would deny the powerful strength of tradition, which has undoubtedly been one of the Maya’s greatest assets. If we ignore the larger body of ethnographic literature on Maya concepts of body, self, and soul we also risk transposing our own worldviews to the Classic Maya. At least some of the pitfalls of anachronism and essentialism can be avoided if we look for patterns in the ethnographic literature that encompass many Maya communities and ethnic groups, such as the Yucatec in the north, the Cho’rti’ in the east, the Tz’utujil in the south, and the Tzeltal in the west. Ethnographic analogy to the past is strengthened if similar practices and beliefs can be traced back to the period of European contact. When commonalities emerge among geographically and temporally distant groups, we can tentatively argue that such patterns of thought and action may also be found in the Classic period, assuming that we can marshal evidence to dem onstrate this. Nevertheless, we must also be sensitive to variability in practice and belief in order to illuminate the places and times in which different approaches to ritual action emerged, even among neighboring, contemporary polities of the Classic period. The goal here is to identify the basic grammar of Classic Maya mortuary practices, while exploring the unique variants of belief and practice that developed in different parts of the Maya lowlands.

Chapter 2 explores how the treatment of the corpse provides a useful window into Classic Maya understandings of bodies and souls. I first introduce evidence that different Maya kingdoms formed distinct communities of ritual practice. It is unlikely that each polity had wildly different concepts of souls. Instead, distinctive traditions presumably reflect different approaches to how souls were managed. Chapter 3 considers the mortuary space, loci that contained the bones of the Maya. I focus especially on evidence of liminality and show that burial spaces were understood as axes mundi, places of communication and travel among the earthly, underworld, and celestial realms.

The final chapter of this book is concerned with the relationship of burials to the greater social landscape. In the United States we are surrounded by the memory of the deceased: statues of historically prominent men and women fill our parks, and pictures of dead presi dents line our wallets. Yet we are careful to contain the actual remains of our dead within cemeteries, separated from the quotidian world of the living. For the Maya, however, the living and mortuary landscapes were one and the same. Burials were located below the floor of houses, within pyramids in the monumental core of the city, and in caves and other places throughout the natu ral landscape. The placement of the dead also reflects fundamental Maya concepts of time and space. Both were ordered by understandings of the daily and annual movements of the sun over the surface of the earth. The symbolic parallels are especially meaningful, as the movement of the soul was likened to the ascent of the sun.

This daily proximity of Maya graves had important implications for the way the Maya related to their dead, particularly those who became “ancestors” through memory and practice. The final chapter of this book devotes specific attention to the Classic Maya practice of domestic inhumation and how the management of ancestral souls was essential to the negotiation of inheri tance within lineages. Specifically, access to the bones and burials of prominent lineage members during rites of veneration aided claims to resources against other members of the same lineage. In a similar fashion, the prominent location of dead kings and queens shows how access to royal souls was vital for accession to the Classic Maya throne. Both situations echo David Kertzer’s observation that “far from simply propping up the status quo, ritual provides an important weapon in political struggle, a weapon used both by contestants for power within stable political systems and by those who seek to protect or to overthrow unstable systems.” For the Maya, ancestor veneration was ritual as negotiation.


“Scherer combines bioarchaeology with epigraphy, iconography, and ethnographic analogy to come up with a complete picture of what Classic Maya attitudes towards death and the afterlife were—across all social strata—and succeeds brilliantly. Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya is required reading for anyone working on mortuary behavior in ancient Mesoamerica. I don’t believe there is any other single published work with the scope and insight this book provides.”
James Fitzsimmons, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Middlebury College, and author of Death and the Classic Maya Kings

Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya is an ambitious and impressive work. Scherer is a highly trained biological archaeologist who has excavated many burials and offerings at Classic Maya sites in the Usumacinta region and the Petén of northern Guatemala. Perhaps the most innovative and prominent contribution of this volume is Scherer’s systematic comparison of both elite and commoner burials at particular sites. Scherer’s work is an excellent addition to studies in the ancient Maya.”
Karl A. Taube, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, coauthor of The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala, Part 1: The North Wall and Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya