Abstract: The Classic Kingdoms of the Maya: New Discoveries, Novel Ideas


Classic Maya society has long been celebrated for its architectural, artistic, and literary achievements. Moreover, the decipherment of the Classic Maya hieroglyphic system has opened a window into the history of the ancient complex civilization. Provided with a record of dates, events, and names, archaeologists have been able to determine how noble Classic Maya families arose, ruled, warred, and declined for almost a millennium. However, kings alone do not make a kingdom, and Classic Maya city-states were complex entities that included much more than the ruler and his relatives.

Thanks to the hieroglyphic record, there is a vast record regarding the varied nature of Classic Maya political hierarchy. In fact, there exists a lively and continuing debate on the extent of their realms, the size of their populations, and efficacy of elite power, and the integration of city-states. Some have claimed that Classic Maya kings had only a loose kinship-based control over their dominion; others claim that they were “moral” figureheads enclosed by a large complex court. Finally, still others see them as the powerful heads of a complex and highly-differentiated state government.

New archaeological research focusing on the “kingdom” rather than on the “king” (and his royal center) is helping to better explain Classic Maya political organization. To present a more comprehensive model about Classic Maya society, this talk will focus on recent research from the regions corresponding to the kingdoms of Copan, Piedras Negras, and Calakmul.

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