I investigate how social and political relationships are constructed through ritualized actions. Ritual unites communities while facilitating divisions within those communities, as access to ritual knowledge, materials, and spaces is restricted. Through this research, I challenge simplistic narratives of world history that make hierarchies and states seem natural. My work has broad implications in and beyond anthropology. Rituals still bring us together, while causing tensions. How households contribute to social change, in comparison to the public sphere, is widely relevant. As we grapple with extreme inequality in our society, we should look for examples of complex societies in which different kinds of relationships were maintained.
Photo by Takeshi Inomata
My research at Ceibal, an early Maya site, builds on my dissertation work at the University of Arizona. In my dissertation, funded by the National Science Foundation, I addressed the roles of domestic rituals in the development of social complexity in the Maya lowlands during the Preclassic period (c. 1000 BC - AD 300). This work contradicted a widespread assumption that public rituals must grow out of domestic predecessors. Based on extensive excavations, ceramic analysis, and radiocarbon dating at the Karinel Group, a residential area at Ceibal, Guatemala, I demonstrated that domestic rituals and public rituals had little in common until c. 350 BC. The two ritual systems created different social and political relationships during the transition to a sedentary lifestyle and the era of relatively egalitarian settlements that followed. I found that a major change in ritual practices occurred across the lowlands around 350 BC, when domestic and public rituals became more similar and more centralized, potentially paving the way for a rise in inequality and the emergence of rulers. (See Publications page for more information.)
Rulers and inequality have long been a focus of Preclassic Maya archaeology, but I am interested in how a less hierarchical society was maintained in the Maya lowlands for hundreds of years. Therefore, I am studying the socio-political organization of early households at Ceibal. If household rituals created separate communities from those formed in the public plaza, then what was the nature of the relationships among households? How did those relationships change at the shift in ritual practices around 350 BC? Social complexity does not equal hierarchy, and every society contains both hierarchical (ranked, vertical) and non-hierarchical (unranked, horizontal) relationships. I am investigating how early Ceibal was organized, both hierarchically and non-hierarchically, through a combination of excavations and spatial analyses. In 2022, with support from the Society for American Archaeology, I investigated two Preclassic residential areas at Ceibal.
Collaborators: Takeshi Inomata, Daniela Triadan, Melissa Burham, Flory Pinzón, Juan Manuel Palomo, Ashley Sharpe
In 2023, with support of the Lam Family Academic Excellence Fund and Wake Forest University, I began a new research project in southern Veracruz, Mexico. I am currently applying for external funding and permission from the Mexican government to conduct survey and excavations beginning in summer 2024.
Around the world, archaeological evidence shows that communal building projects and public rituals often predate, and potentially contribute to, the development of complex societies. In many places, relatively egalitarian, sometimes mobile, groups built monumental structures for ceremonies, which likely played a role in the transition to a more sedentary lifestyle and facilitated social differentiation. While inequality was part of that differentiation, rituals also created more egalitarian relationships, and early complex societies were not necessarily very centralized or hierarchical.
Mesoamerica is one of the few regions where state-level societies developed without the external influence of preexisting states. Recent analyses of light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data show a surprising number of early ceremonial complexes spread across a broad area that includes the Olmec and Maya lowlands. These newly recognized sites pose important questions about the role of public spaces in the transitions to sedentism and intensive agriculture and the formation of Mesoamerica as a cultural area during the Early and Middle Formative periods (c. 2000-400 BCE). Did the early Olmec originate the practice of building monumental, formal, earthen architecture for public rituals, influencing distant communities? Or, alternatively, did the practice emerge through intercultural interactions? Were the complexes built by fully sedentary people, semi-mobile people, or a mixture of both, and how did their construction affect the gradual transition to a sedentary agriculturalist lifestyle across Mesoamerica?
In the Suchilapan Archaeological Project, we will investigate the adoption of formal ceremonial architecture and its relationship to the transition to sedentary life at multiple sites along the Coatzacoalcos River in southern Veracruz, Mexico. The objectives are 1) to date the ceremonial complexes; 2) to locate residential areas associated with the complexes; and 3) to recover evidence of early foodways. The project will include a LiDAR survey, pedestrian surveys, excavations in public and residential areas, radiocarbon dating, analyses of ceramics and other artifacts, and both micro-plant and macro-plant paleobotanical analyses. We will test the hypothesis that the practice of building monumental architecture for public rituals spread from the Olmec cultural region to the Maya lowlands c. 1400-1000 BCE, and that the communal activities associated with these structures contributed to the transition to a sedentary lifestyle.
Collaborators: Lourdes Hernández Jiménez, Takeshi Inomata, Amber VanDerwarker, Ashley Sharpe