Problems in the study of ancient Maya settlement and social organization : insights from the Minor Centre of Zubin, Cayo District, Belize
For over a century archaeologists have attempted to formulate a realistic model for ancient Maya social organisation. A review of the current literature indicates that, although significant progress has been made towards achieving this goal, fundamental methodological and theoretical weaknesses remain. The most detrimental shortcomings can be summarised as follows: (1) settlement pattern studies in the Maya area have tended to focus too much on the polar extremes of the settlement continuum, and thus have not produced adequate data representative of all levels of the settlement hierarchy; (2) the limited nature of excavations, apart from those conducted in the larger centres, has hindered our ability to compare material culture assemblages from the various settlement levels; (3) these restricted excavations have also failed to furnish us with a comprehensive diachronic perspective, something which is required for an understanding of social relationships; (4) Mayanists have often employed interpretative schemes and associated terms in an uncritical fashion. As a result of these weaknesses, our reconstructions of ancient Maya social organisation often slight the archaeological data in favour of the more inclusive ethnohistonc or ethnographic descriptions. This dissertation will address the aforementioned problems through a detailed analysis of a small "minor centre" located in the upper Belize River valley. This site, known as "Zubin", was the focus of three seasons (1992-1995) of detailed archaeological excavations conducted by the author. These investigations were designed to generate a multifaceted and diachronically sensitive data base from a site representative of the least understood segment of the ancient Maya settlement continuum. It was felt that explorations at this level would provide insights relevant to a more complete understanding of social organisation. In addition, with the new perspective provided by the Zubin project, I evaluate the various models proposed for ancient Maya social organisation. In doing so I touch on the various weaknesses inherent in the study of this topic, and outline a program of analysis that should facilitate the formulation of a more realistic characterisation of ancient Maya society.