Main content area

The production and exchange of moulded-carved ceramics and the ‘Maya Collapse’

Ting, Carmen, Martinόn-Torres, Marcos, Graham, Elizabeth, Helmke, Christophe
Journal of archaeological science 2015 v.62 pp. 15-26
archaeology, calcite, ceramics, energy-dispersive X-ray analysis, lowlands, politics, raw materials, scanning electron microscopy, traditions, volcanic ash, Belize
This paper examines the production and exchange of a particular type of ceramic vase designated ‘Ahk'utu' moulded-carved’, by using thin-section petrography, INAA, and SEM-EDS. These vases were produced and circulated in the eastern Maya lowlands during a transitional period known as ‘Terminal Classic’, ca. A.D. 800–950. Significant changes, generally referred to as the Classic Maya Collapse, occurred in the socio-political order in the Maya lowlands at this time, although the pace and events leading to such changes remain poorly understood. By studying a selection of 62 Ahk'utu' moulded-carved vases from various sites across Belize, we seek to offer a new perspective on the nature of this important transitional period. Our findings reveal that two main ceramic traditions – one employing calcite and the other volcanic ash temper – are represented by the vases. These traditions guided the selection of raw materials, surface finish, and firing methods. Vases of the calcite tradition were mostly used at or around the sites where they were produced, whereas those of the volcanic ash tradition appear to have been circulated over a wider region. The co-existence of multiple production groups and distribution spheres of the Ahk'utu' vases, along with their style and decoration, is interpreted as indicating a proliferation of an ascending social segment and greater flexibility and fluidity in how the social hierarchy and political structure were maintained in the eastern Maya lowlands from the 9ᵗʰ century and onwards.