The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Collapse, Transition, and Transformation

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The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands revisits one of the great problems in Mayan archaeology - the apparent collapse of Classic Maya civilization from roughly A.D. 830 to 950. During this period the Maya abandoned their power centers in the southern lowlands and rather abruptly ceased the distinctive cultural practices that marked their apogee in the Classic period. Archaeological fieldwork during the past three decades, however, has uncovered enormous regional variability in the ways the Maya experienced the shift from Classic to Postclassic society, revealing a period of cultural change more complex than acknowledged by traditional models.

Featuring an impressive roster of scholars, The Terminal Classic presents the most recent data and interpretations pertaining to this perplexing period of cultural transformation in the Maya lowlands. Although the research reveals clear interregional patterns, the contributors resist a single overarching explanation. Rather, this volume's diverse and nuanced interpretations provide a new, more properly grounded beginning for continued debate on the nature of lowland Terminal Classic Maya civilization.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Detailed, comprehensive, and rightly labeled as a 'landmark' publication . . . [The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands] can be favorably compared to Culbert's (1973) volume on the collapse. It will become the new baseline study on this crucial time period. . . . The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands will prove to be an invaluable scholarly resource for not only Maya and Mesoamerican archaeologists but also for anyone intersted in the complexities of cultural devolution and decline."
American Anthropologist

"... [T]he latest word on the Maya collapse, seen from the perspective of fifty-two well-known and active archaeologists. This is a big book and an important one...The book is significant for at least three reasons. First, the empirical data are important. Second, those data make it clear that no single cause can explain the complicated cultural-historical pattern of collapse, which extended over several centuries and diverse environments. The editors and many of the authors energetically and effectively argue that neither climate change nor ecological collapse can explain the bulk of the data. This volume is a timely and convincing refutation of the environmental explanations, especially drought, for the Maya collapse. Third, and less obviously, this book shows that more and better data do not necessarily resolve themselves into simple patterns."

"The Terminal Classic is a landmark with 23 contributions by a wide range of researchers working throughout the Maya lowlands. Maya archaeologists are fortunate to have this range of information and synthesis about the Terminal Classic, best known as the time of the Maya collapse, at their disposal . . . .Demarest, Rice and Rice are spot on in their characterisation of the revival of catastrophism as a simplistic explanation for collapse. . . . [They] have succeeded where others have been less comprehensive in detecting patterns in the complex continuities and disjunctions of the Classic to Postclassic transition."
"This landmark, comprehensive, detailed magnum opus elucidates critical and complex issues and is essential to Mesoamerican scholars, providing a new baseline for Maya studies. . . . Indispensable."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870818226
  • Publisher: University Press of Colorado
  • Publication date: 7/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 677
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur A. Demarest is the Ingram Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. Prudence M. Rice is associate vice chancellor for research at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where Don S. Rice is associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts.

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The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands



Copyright © 2004 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87081-822-6

Chapter One

The Terminal Classic and the "Classic Maya Collapse" in Perspective

Prudence M. Rice, Arthur A. Demarest, and Don S. Rice

The alluringly alliterative notions of the "mysterious Maya" and the "mysterious Maya collapse" have been enduring icons since the very beginnings of archaeology in the Maya lowlands. A century and a half of exploration and public interest in Maya archaeology was spurred by the vision of towering temples and palaces suddenly abandoned, swallowed by the jungle as their inhabitants fled for parts unknown. Despite more than a century of scholarship and accelerated archaeological investigation, the engaging "mystery" of the Maya collapse has not succumbed to the brutal truths of cold, hard, scientific fact. Even by the turn of the millennium, we still had not come to any agreement on what caused the Maya collapse or precisely how to integrate the vast amount of data, often contradictory, that pertain to this issue.

Part of the problem might have been that we were asking new questions about the Maya collapse, but our attempts to answer them were bound to outmoded concepts that no longer yielduseful insights and explanations. Here we introduce the contributions to this volume by revisiting some of these time-honored concepts, like "collapse," that have guided thinking over the decades. We offer a varied set of perspectives-not necessarily right or wrong, but simply varied-on the Maya Terminal Classic period, the collapse, and related issues, to establish the deep background within which the research reported in these chapters was carried out.

Although the contributions in this volume do not resolve the many controversies, they do indicate that the discussion of the Classic to Postclassic transition has moved to a new level of detail in culture-history and of sophistication in concepts and approaches. Some scholars here still think in terms of a general collapse of Classic Maya civilization and of one or two "global" causes of this alleged cataclysm. Yet the editors and most scholars in this volume now reject such notions of uniformity of the nature or the causes of Classic- to Postclassic-period changes. Instead, we see this volume as the beginning of a more sophisticated process of reconstructing, region by region, the changes that occurred between A.D. 750 and 1050 and led, through varying paths, to the different societies and settlement distributions of the Postclassic period. The broader patterns and linkages that emerge in these regional sequences are discussed in our concluding chapter.

Be forewarned, however, that the variability and complexity of this Classic to Postclassic transition have increased with our greater knowledge of the archaeological and historical evidence. The plotting of these changes will tell us a great deal about the culture and political systems of both the Classic- and Postclassic-period kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Sadly, however, this volume also ushers in a new period in the archaeological study of this transition: the mundane and difficult work of building and linking regional histories that we have begun here will replace the romantic search for the "secret" to a presumed uniform and simultaneous catastrophe that never occurred.


Early Historicism

Explorers of the Maya lowlands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries discovered carved, dated stone monuments at southern sites, simultaneously noting that their erection ceased in the late ninth century A.D. Along with cessation of the stelae-altar complex and hieroglyphic texts, there was also a decline of polychrome ceramics, sumptuous burials, and apparent abandonment of many of the Classic southern cities. And at about the same time, they noted, occupation began to flourish at new and different sites in the northern lowlands.

In these early years, archaeological and anthropological thinking on cultural change was relatively unsophisticated, and explanations tended to be couched in terms of fairly dramatic scenarios of rises and falls of empires, or collapses of civilizations (see Yoffee and Cowgill 1988; Cowgill 1988). Probably only the fall of the Western Roman Empire has been discussed more often than the Maya as an example of the decline of a civilization. One result of this thinking was the notion of the collapse of lowland Maya civilization, that is, the "Old Empire" of the south, followed by the establishment of a "New Empire" in the north (Morley 1946; Thompson 1954). And thus was established a holy grail for subsequent archaeological research: If this was the collapse of Classic-period civilization, now we must discover its causes.

By the mid-twentieth century, numerous causes had been proposed to explain the decline and collapse of what had been envisioned as a ruling priestly hierarchy at the southern sites. These causes included (Morley and Brainerd 1956: 69-73; see also Adams 1973a): earthquake activity, climatic change (drought), epidemic diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, foreign conquest, "cultural decadence," agricultural (soil) exhaustion, and revolt of the lower classes. The last was viewed as the most plausible.

The Notion of the Terminal Classic

The concept of a lowland Maya "Terminal Classic" period was formally introduced into the archaeological lexicon at the 1965 Maya Lowland Ceramic Conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala (Willey, Culbert, and Adams 1967). This meeting was held for the purpose of discussing and visually comparing ceramic complexes, particularly to compare chronologies, as published ceramic data were not widely available. The focus was primarily on relatively large sites where major research projects had earlier been carried out.

The Terminal Classic concept was intended primarily as a mechanism for separating and marking the Classic to Postclassic transition (Culbert 1973b: 16-18) in the lowlands, and was initially defined on the basis of its ceramic content. Its name, Tepeu 3, was borrowed from the Uaxactún ceramic sequence, although the sphere designation, Eznab, is drawn from that of Tikal. The Terminal Classic thus referred to both a time period (roughly A.D. 830-950) and a particular set of cultural circumstances: specifically, cessation of the cultural practices that characterized the Classic pinnacle of Maya civilization. Although the term was adopted "in the hope that it [would] connote both the continuity and the destruction of previous patterns ..." (Culbert 1973b: 17), emphasis has more often been on their endings than their continuities. The Terminal Classic concept was always inseparably connected to the termination of Maya "Classicism"-its collapse and the attendant abandonment of the southern and central lowlands.

Participants in the 1965 ceramic conference also identified the Terminal Classic as an archaeological "horizon." A horizon is characterized as "a spatial continuum represented by the wide distribution" of recognizable artifacts, styles, or practices, defined most saliently by "its relatively limited time dimension and its significant geographic spread" (Phillips and Willey 1953: 625; Willey and Phillips 1955: 723, 1958: 38). Choice of the horizon label for the lowland Maya Terminal Classic was dictated not by the widespread prominence of a distinctive artifact style, then and now the most common basis for defining archaeological horizons (D. Rice 1993a), but rather by the perception that the lowland Late Classic period ended everywhere with a societal collapse so widespread that it constituted a bona fide cultural horizon. As T. Patrick Culbert (1973b: 16) later noted, the Tepeu 3 horizon was "the period during which the processes of the downfall worked their course."


Not long after the Maya Ceramic Conference, leading Mayanist scholars met in a seminar at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1970 for the first attempt to systematically compare and synthesize the data that had accumulated on the causes of the collapse. The conference, organized because "a series of major research projects [had] been undertaken in the Maya Lowlands in the last two decades that provide important masses of new data" (Culbert 1973d: xiv), revealed some of the complexity of the lowland Late Classic Maya world and the emergence of different regional patterns of change in the eighth through tenth centuries. But it is important to recognize that the data presented at the conference and published in the resultant volume, The Classic Maya Collapse (Culbert 1973a), represent a rather biased sample of the lowlands. Robert L. Rands's (1973a) effort to provide the chronological summary for the volume was based on data from only eight sites-essentially those from the earlier ceramic conference-particularly in the west along the Pasión and Usumacinta Valleys (Seibal, Piedras Negras, Altar de Sacrificios, Palenque, and so forth).

The Classic Maya Collapse concluded with a characteristically skillful summary by the "Great Synthesizer," Gordon Willey, assisted by Demitri Shimkin. These authors (Willey and Shimkin 1973) wove the seemingly contradictory interpretations and diverse data sets into a summation that included "structural" considerations (subsistence, population density, sociopolitical organization, religion, militarism, urbanism, trade, and markets) and dynamic features (role of the elite, social distinctions, intersite competition, agricultural problems, demographic pressures, disease burdens-especially malnutrition-and external trade). Significantly, they downplayed the role of militarism, either as internal revolt (earlier favored by Sylvanus G. Morley and J. Eric Thompson) or external invasion (see Rice n.d.). They concluded with a descriptive model of sorts that uncomfortably forced integration of all these possible causes and, as such, was unsatisfactory (Culbert 1988: 76 calls it a "kitchen-sink model"). The fissions in our visions of a uniform "Classic Maya collapse" were already apparent.

Subsequently, in the late 1970s and 1980s archaeological research in the lowlands began to legitimize a new focus-the Postclassic period-and this brought about completely different perspectives on the Classic collapse. Instead of viewing the ninth and tenth centuries as the sudden ending of something (that "something" being Late Classic civilization, privileged as the principal period of Maya history worthy of study), archaeologists began to consider the view that these centuries simultaneously represented a transition and, possibly, the beginnings of something else that was also of importance (Chase and Rice 1985; Sabloff and Andrews 1986). Indeed, one conclusion drawn from such perspectives is that, in the Maya lowlands, the truly dramatic transformations "came with the fall of Chichen Itza in the thirteenth century A.D. and not with the fall of the Classic centers in the South" (Andrews and Sabloff 1986: 452).

In the years following the 1970 conference, additional scrutiny of the collapse included new approaches such as computer simulation (Hosler, Sabloff, and Runge 1977), general systems theory (Culbert 1977), catastrophe theory (Renfrew 1978), trend-surface analysis of the distribution of dated monuments (Bove 1981), and new or revised causal mechanisms, including peasant revolt (Hamblin and Pitcher 1980), decline of Teotihuacan influence (Webb 1973, 1975; Cowgill 1979), and agricultural-subsistence stress (Culbert 1988). At the same time, growing interest in settlement surveys, combined with the interpretations of massive depopulations in the ninth and tenth centuries, sparked closer attention to regional demographics and more realistic population estimates (Culbert and Rice 1990). It has been estimated that by A.D. 800 the population density was about 145 people per square kilometer, falling into the low 40s per square kilometer by A.D. 1000 (Turner 1990: 312). In terms of numbers, by A.D. 800 the population peak is estimated to range between 2.6 and 3.4 million, falling to "less than 1 million or so" by A.D. 1000, a depopulation rate of 0.53-0.65 (Turner 1990: 310). Also during the 1980s and 1990s, rapid advances in glyphic decipherments brought about new interpretations of events of the Late Classic period, principally leading to an emphasis on militarism and intense intersite warfare as factors in the collapse in some regions (Demarest, Valdés, et al. 1991; Demarest 1996, 1997; Schele and Miller 1986; Schele and Freidel 1990; also Cowgill 1979).

Culture Change

Earlier considerations of the so-called Classic Maya collapse were plagued by the assumption of a common "cause" and by vague terminology (see, e.g., Cowgill 1988). Here, in our consideration of what constitutes the decline, collapse, or transformation of a political system, such as that of the Maya, we follow recent discussions and debates of the epistemology of such considerations of culture change (e.g., Eisenstadt 1967, 1968, 1986; Tainter 1988; Yoffee and Cowgill 1988).

In particular, as Norman Yoffee (1988: 14) explains, the various meanings assigned to the word "collapse" can be grouped into two categories. One category consists of words like fall, collapse, fragmentation, and death, which imply "that some meaningful entity ceased to exist." The second category implies a change to something that is "morally or aesthetically inferior," as in the words decline, decay, and decadence. Here, when we speak of a "decline," it is in reference to a particular political system that experiences a notable decline in the degree of complexity.

In addition, Cowgill (1988: 256) urges a careful distinction between the kinds of entities that are in transition, such as state, society, and civilization. The term "state" refers to a type of political organization, and its ending, unless achieved by force, should be referred to as "fragmentation" rather than collapse or fall. Civilization should be used "in a specifically cultural sense, to mean ... a 'great tradition.' To speak of the collapse of a civilization, then, should be to refer to the end of a great cultural tradition" (Cowgill 1988: 256).

Some of these specific distinctions are difficult to apply to the lowland Maya, however. The term "political fragmentation" may or may not be inappropriate, as it depends on the degree to which Maya states are viewed as centralized or decentralized. Similarly, "civilizational collapse" is inappropriate unless one postulates a "southern lowlands variant of the Maya great tradition" (Cowgill 1988: 266).

Postmodernism and Postprocessualism

The collapse of the Maya, like that of any other civilization, is a gripping metaphor for contemporary fears of individual death or societal decline, and has always been a subjective, reflexive reading of an imagined past in the present. As recent trends in social philosophy have emphasized, the ancient past has never been "objectively" or "scientifically" studied. The ancient past has always been, at best, a Rorschach test for contemporary concerns, and at worst, a text constructed in a metanarrative with a conscious or subconscious agenda of legitimating the conquering Western capitalist tradition. Clearly, the "mystery of the Maya collapse" falls somewhere between these subjective extremes as a contemporary, emotional reading of the past (cf. Montejo 1991; Castañeda 1996; Hervick 1999).

The notion of a collapse of Maya civilization has been viewed as offensive by some scholars and a few Maya activists, given the vigor of the Maya cultural traditions of millions of speakers of Maya languages in Mexico and Guatemala today. Both the intellectual confusion and political insensitivity can be attributed to careless terminology about what constitutes a "transition," "decline," or "collapse" and what it is that experiences the transition, decline, or collapse. Clearly, Maya civilization as a general cultural and ethnic tradition-a "great tradition"-did not experience any "collapse" or "decline." The Postclassic Maya kingdoms of northern Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala were large, vigorous polities, and the Maya tradition of more than ten million indigenous citizens of Guatemala and Mexico is currently experiencing a great cultural, linguistic, and political florescence (e.g., Fischer and Brown 1996). Indeed, this contemporary Maya resurgence is challenging our conceptions of what is "Maya" and how anthropologists and archaeologists view these societies (e.g., Warren 1992; Watanabe 1995; Nelson 1999; Montejo 1991; Fischer 1999; Cojtí Cuxil 1994).


Excerpted from The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands Copyright © 2004 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................ix
List of Tables....................xv
Editors' Preface....................xvii
1. The Terminal Classic and the "Classic Maya Collapse" in Perspective-Prudence M. Rice, Arthur A. Demarest, and Don S. Rice....................1
2. Hermeneutics, Transitions, and Transformations in Classic to Postclassic Maya Society-Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase....................12
3. Terminal Classic-Period Lowland Ceramics-Prudence M. Rice and Donald Forsyth....................28
4. The Last Hurrah: Continuity and Transformation at Seibal-Gair Tourtellot and Jason J. González....................60
5. Settlement and Late Classic Political Disintegration in the Petexbatun Region, Guatemala-Matt O'Mansky and Nicholas P. Dunning....................83
6. After the Maelstrom: Collapse of the Classic Maya Kingdoms and the Terminal Classic in Western Petén-Arthur A. Demarest....................102
7. Late Classic to Postclassic Transformations in the Petén Lakes Region, Guatemala-Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice....................125
8. Disaster in Sight: The Terminal Classic at Tikal and Uaxactun-Juan Antonio Valdés and Federico Fahsen....................140
9. Defining the Terminal Classic at Calakmul, Campeche-Geoffrey E. Braswell, Joel D. Gunn, María del Rosario Domínguez Carrasco, William J. Folan, Laraine A. Fletcher, Abel Morales López, and Michael D. Glascock....................162
10. Terminal Classic Settlement and Polity in the Mopan Valley, Petén, Guatemala-Juan Pedro Laporte....................195
11. Dating Copán Culture-History: Implicationsfor the Terminal Classic and the Collapse-David Webster, AnnCorinne Freter, and Rebecca Storey....................231
12. Political Decentralization, Dynastic Collapse, and the Early Postclassic in the Urban Center of Copán, Honduras-William L. Fash, E. Wyllys Andrews, and T. Kam Manahan....................260
13. Out with a Whimper: La Milpa in the Terminal Classic-Norman Hammond and Gair Tourtellot....................288
14. Commoner Sense: Late and Terminal Classic Social Strategies in the Xunantunich Area-Wendy Ashmore, Jason Yaeger, and Cynthia Robin....................302
15. Transformations, Periodicity, and Urban Development in the Three Rivers Region-R.E.W. Adams, H. R. Robichaux, Fred Valdez Jr., Brett A. Houk, and Ruth Mathews....................324
16. Terminal Classic Status-Linked Ceramics and the Maya "Collapse": De Facto Refuse at Caracol, Belize-Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase....................342
17. Ceramics and Settlement Patterns at Terminal Classic-Period Lagoon Sites in Northeastern Belize-Marilyn A. Masson and Shirley Boteler Mock....................367
18. Out of Sight: The Postclassic and Early Colonial Periods at Chau Hiix, Belize-Christopher R. Andres and K. Anne Pyburn....................402
19. High Times in the Hill Country: A Perspective from the Terminal Classic Puuc Region-Kelli Carmean, Nicholas Dunning, and Jeff Karl Kowalski....................424
20. The Rise and Fall of Terminal Classic Yaxuna, Yucatán, Mexico-Charles Suhler, Traci Ardren, David Freidel, and Dave Johnstone....................450
21. The Decline of the East: The Classic to Postclassic Transition at Ek Balam, Yucatán-William M. Ringle, George J. Bey III, Tara Bond Freeman, Craig A. Hanson, Charles W. Houck, and J. Gregory Smith....................485
22. Chichén Itzá: Settlement and Hegemony During the Terminal Classic Period-Rafael Cobos Palma....................517
23. The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Assessing Collapses, Terminations, and Transformations-Arthur A. Demarest, Prudence M. Rice, and Don S. Rice....................545
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