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. Recognizing that practices at the household level contribute to social change, I study the role of domestic ritual in the development of social complexity in the Maya lowlands and Panama. 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 current research at Ceibal, an early Maya site, builds on my dissertation work at the University of Arizona. In my
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 will investigate two Preclassic residential areas at Ceibal, documenting the accessibility and restriction of ritual spaces and objects, as well as investments in architecture. I am applying for further funding to support subsequent stages of the project, including excavations at small, Preclassic sites around Ceibal and GIS-based geospatial analyses using LiDAR survey data. Undergraduate and graduate students will be encouraged to participate and develop their own research projects. I will also continue and expand a school outreach project in a Q’eqchi’ Maya town near Ceibal.
Main collaborators: Takeshi Inomata, Daniela Triadan, Melissa Burham, Flory Pinzón, Juan Manuel Palomo, and Ashley Sharpe.
AZUERO PENINSULA, PANAMA
In parallel with my work in Guatemala, I am beginning another research project focused on the development of social complexity in the southern Azuero Peninsula of Panama, a key area for trade and migration throughout the pre-Hispanic period. I will compare this region to the Maya area to better understand how some sedentary, agriculturalist societies were maintained without the emergence of states, rulers, and extreme inequality.
As a Fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and in collaboration with STRI Researcher Ashley Sharpe, I am currently refining the regional ceramic chronology and identifying sites for the investigation of household activities, social organization, and interregional interactions. Starting in early 2022, I will conduct surveys, test excavations, ceramic analysis, and radiocarbon dating. Based on the results, Sharpe and I will apply for funding to expand our investigations in the southern Azuero. This project will provide training and research opportunities for Panamanian and international archaeology students.
Main collaborators: Ashley Sharpe, Tomás Mendizábal, Nicole Smith-Guzmán, and Richard Cooke.
Photo by Tomás Mendizábal