Posted by: Mayan Musings | March 1, 2012

Looking at Land and Layout in Mortuary Ritual




Mortuary space and placement are vital to an archaeological understanding of death and internment.  Body placement, what direction bodies face, and where bodies are interned in relation to the home and other monuments all reflect Mayan attitudes about gender, death, and the reoccurring concept of the axis mundi, or the connection between Heaven and Earth (Ashmore 2005, p. 87).  Here, we explore characteristic burial in Tikal, Caracol, and Copan, three Mayan sites that have provided archaeologists with many clues regarding the connection between internment position and social roles.

Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites of the Maya civilization.  The monumental architecture at this site shows some of the militaristic and political qualities of the Maya civilization, but the many burials found here reveal so much more.  Like every site, Tikal had issues of degradation and natural aggravations such as trees roots invading the shallow graves.  But according to Haviland, another reason why some of the bodies were not in prime conditions were because of the positioning of the bodies (1967, p. 316).  The bodies were sometimes in an extended position or often in a flexed position, such as lying or seated and the bones would thus become dismembered.  But the interests of the bodies’ positions is not in how those positions might or might not have dismembered the body, but rather like Metcalf and Huntington wonder, why were they positioned this way?  Does the manipulation of a corpse show anything significant about the status of that person during their life? Metcalf and Huntington explain the importance of the corpses’ positioning by saying, “it enables us to penetrate the meaning of mortuary rituals by paying attention to the details of the treatment of the corpse” (1991, p.84).  So the analysis of the mortuary rituals revealed that the people that were in “extended position seemed to be of greater stature than those interred in flexed position” (p.320).  And according to Haviland, the bodies found in the flexed position were presumably female.  So, even though Pearson states that while trying to pursue archaeology without a bias we often “impose our unacknowledged misconceptions”, in this situation it is hard not to see some sort of sexual dimorphism in regards to stature in Maya society (2000, p.104).  In addition the positioning of the bodies at Tikal led to hands-on work with the bones.  Haviland thought that the bones revealed that “Tikal was settled by people of medium stature…fairly stable, increasing only slightly , if at all” (1967, p.319).  He also said that the bones revealed the land to be at an agricultural level, but because of the increasing population at the time, there were issues with ‘nutritional stress’.

Like Tikal, spatial issues play into the mortuary archaeology of the large Mayan city of Caracol as well. Located in modern day Belize and spanning over 177 square kilometers with a population of over 115,000 people at its height, Caracol was made up of a series of causeways that linked outlying sites to the central point of the city (Chase 2002: 5). A major point of spatial interest in the mortuary analysis of Caracol comes in the form of burials associated with buildings. Chase and Chase study the pattern of spacial-chronological internment in reference to structures L3, 4P46, P64, and B34 (2002: 13). The first burial at each structure appears in the construction core as the structure was built, with all following internments being associated with whatever happened to be the newest renovation of the building. In essence, if stairway extensions were added to the structure, each new burial would be associated with each new extension. While no directionality is stated for the human remains, the authors do note that a mixture of articulated corpses and disarticulated remains were discovered (Chase 2002: 13-14). On a larger scale, the cardinal directionality of mortuary sites seemed to have been of some importance. Structures involving veneration of the dead seemed to have been placed, in many cases, on the eastern side of residential complexes (Chase 1998: 311).  Located on the eastern side of theses complexes were “single- and multiple-individual tombs, all other classes of burials, stalagmites, finger bowl caches, and “face” caches” (Chase 1998: 311).  As Ashmore and Geller stated, these sites associated with mortuary events become liminal spaces in both time (in the first example) and space (in the second example) (Ashmore and Geller 2005: 84).

Archaeological studies of spatial burial practices at Copán provide an even deeper understanding of the importance of Mayan directionality in internment. Because soil quality is more varied in this region than at other Mayan sites (Webster et. al 1990), and less acidic due to suggested cultural introduction of lime plaster at site 9N-8 (Person et. al 1990) a richer supply of skeletal remains here provides clues that are less prominent from studies at Tikal or Caracol. In particular, analysis at Copán 9N-8 suggests a relation between body placement and cardinal directions. A majority of Mayan burials at this site were found in a north-south orientation, with the most single burials exhibiting western facial orientation. Furthermore, most bodies were found flexed, just as they were at Tikal (Coones, 2007). Paired with concepts of Mayan art and cosmology from the Popul Voh, these orientations have been interpreted as appropriate, as the west represented death, darkness and the underworld, and the north either recognized elite social status or exalted the ancestors (Schele, 1986). By resting their dead in these positions, the living infuse these remains with their interpretations of the afterlife, and leave archaeologists eternal hints about Mayan ritual practices. While the findings at 9N-8 are interesting, however, it is important to note that much variation still exists beyond this specific burial site at Copán, so generalizations should not be extrapolated. Regardless, this relatively consistent site provides an exciting spatial dimension to the varying practices of burial throughout the Mayan Classic Period (250–900 AD).


Works Cited

Ashmore, W.  (2005) Social Dimensions of Mortuary Space.  In Interacting with the Dead:

Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium, edited by G.F.M.

Rakita, J.E. Buikstra, L.A. Beck, and S.R. Williams.  University Press of Florida, Gainesville.  pp. 81-92

Chase, Diane and Arlen Chase. “The Architectural Context of Caches, Burials, and Other

Ritual Activities for the Classic Period Maya (as Reflected at Caracol, Belize)”.

Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture. Dumbarton Oaks Research

Library and Collection, Washington D.C.: 1998.

Chase, Diane and Arlen Chase. “Patterns of Burial and Residential Cycles at Caracol, Belize”. Fourth Mesa Redonda de Palenque. University of Florida: June 2002.

Coones, Julie Dennis, M.A.. Cardinal directionality in Maya burials. University of Houston:

2007. 243 pages.

Haviland, William A. “Stature at Tikal, Guatemala: Implications for Ancient Maya Demography

and Social Organization.” American Antiquity 32.3 (1967): 316-25.

Metcalf, Peter, and Richard Huntington. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary

Ritual. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Parker, Pearson Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A & M

UP, 2000. Print.

Person, Donald A., Widmer, Randolph J., Taylor, William. Soil Chemistry and

Archaeological Preservation at Copan. Paper presented at the 55th Annual Meeting of

the Society for American Archaeology. Pittsburgh. 1990.

Schele, Linda, Miller, Mary. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth:

Kimbell Art Museum. 1986.

Webster, David and AnnCorinne Freter. (1990) “Demography of Late Classic Copan.” In T.

Patrick Culbert and Don S. Rice (Eds). Precolumbian Population History in the Maya

Lowlands. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 37-61.


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