Posted by: Johan Normark | October 18, 2010

The may cycle and Classic Maya political economy

As mentioned in a recent post I am writing a review of the book The Kowoj. A central portion of this book concerns the geopolitics and political economy of late Postclassic and early Colonial Central Petén lakes region. In the book Prudence Rice once again outlines her may model which she has advanced in several studies during the past half k’atun. The seat of the may was a sacred city that held power for 13 k’atuns (256 years) before it was ritually terminated. Within this territory each k’atun was seated at various smaller towns. Rice argues that there were antagonisms related to calendrical matters such as competition to seat the k’atun. This model is largely based on the Books of Chilam Balam and similar Colonial sources.

Rice has also proposed that the may model worked for the earlier Classic and Late Formative periods. For her the Classic lowland Maya political economy was a “relatively decentralized time-knowledge-based “cosmopolitical economy.””  (Rice 2009b:70). This is a ritual economy where “the relations of production, consumption, and distribution of resources (including knowledge) are situated in and directed toward the socio-political ritual activities of a society that establish the fundamental order” (Rice 2009b:72). In a ritual mode of production the goal is not to produce valued material goods but to produce and reproduce social and cosmic order (Rice 2009b:73).

In order to show how such an economy worked she emphasizes pottery production which is her expertise. Rice suggests that the may seats created “signature” styles in ceramics, architecture and monuments that were associated with certain realms and political affiliations (Rice 2009a:142). Hence, “the highest quality elite polychromes were produced in the royal palaces of sacred may and k’atun seats; other kinds of less intricately finished pottery were produced at progressively greater social and spatial distances from divine centers” (Rice 2009a:119). Changes in production may therefore also reflect political changes in the may model. Certain styles may have been produced during intervals of the may cycle (such as during a half may) (Rice 2009a:143).

There is much to say about the may model such as if it is possible to project geopolitics mentioned in heavily Christianized Colonial period documents centuries and even millennia into the past. Few Mayanists working with the Classic and Late Formative data in the Central lowlands have been persuaded by the may cycle model. I personally believe that Rice is partially right (on the ritual economy and its relation to calendars), but that the emphasis on the may cycle itself is a later development. I also do not believe we can find such ideal patterns in the past. Too much “real” problems affect geopolitics.

Rice, Prudence M. (2009a). Late Classic Maya pottery production: review and synthesis. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16:117-156.

Rice, Prudence M. (2009b). On Classic Maya political economies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28:70-84.



  1. I think Johan is right on the money with this. I find the May model intellectually stimulating and an interesting way to generate new hypotheses, but it is difficult to falsify archaeologically or test empirically. I am concerned as well with deep-time extrapolations across major historical boundaries (e.g., the conquest and the collapse), cultures (Yucatec vs. Classic Cholan), and environments (the northern vs. central lowlands). Furthermore, the May model is an ideal abstraction. Maya Realpolitik may have veered significantly from any idealized or normative behavior. What is most interesting and directly applicable about this work is the analysis of pottery production and distribution systems.

  2. There is also a bit of choosing information that supports the model and ignoring bits of information that contradicts the model. For example, Grant Jones writes that the Itza had a more decentralized organization with 13 possible divisions (“k’atun seats”) whereas he believe that the Kowoj was more centralized and lacked these divisions (they are not mentioned anyway). It seems to me that Rice relies more on the Itza information even when she discusses the Kowoj despite possible differences in organization.

  3. As Johan knows, I am quite suspicious of the validity of the may model even for the Postclassic period. Unfortunately, this model is based off of not Postclassic documents, but colonial ones, namely the books of Chilam Balam. It is far too tempting to use these, considering we have next to nothing else for indigenous documents of the lowlands post the Classic period. Many have tried to argue that these were originally transcribed from codices but I think Steve Houston showed why these arguments don’t hold up. In a recent post on this blog Johan wrote about recent research by Hanks on the amount of Christian perspective that shows up in these books, and the only manuscripts we have were written very late, in the 18th and 19th centuries. While there is earlier material that has all but certainly been copied, I see no evidence that these earlier missing manuscripts extend back all that far. I certainly don’t see them reaching back to the Pre-conquest periods.

    So, on top of there not being any good evidence for the may model, I don’t think it makes much sense. As Geoff points out, it is an ideal model and I find it hard to believe it would have ever worked. If the Maya were fighting as much as we know they were in the Classic period it is hard to see why they would have agreed to the religious and social prerogatives of having one site commanding the katun ceremonies. The Classic period texts record that individual Maya kings celebrated their own festivities. In almost no cases, except where we clearly have a vassal-overlord relationship, do we see one lord attend the katun ending ceremonies of another.

    Even more problematic is the fact that the Books of Chilam Balam aren’t even in agreement over which sites celebrated the various katun endings for the Colonial period. Furthermore, they record ceremonies in both Merida as well as in long-abandoned ruins such as Uxmal and Chichen. That this happened I am rather skeptical of, especially as we have no evidence for any of it.

  4. There are too many correlations between the calendars in the Central Petén area and events at Mayapán (as they are described in the Books of Chilam Balam) in the Kowoj book. For example, while discussing the decorative motifs of Kowoj pottery Rice and Cecil (p. 252) notices the presence of the Zip monster which is the patron of the haab period Zip. For unknown reasons they “recall that a day 10 Zip was the day on which a Kowoj “rain priest” escaped the Kokom massacre of Xiw priests on their pilgrimage to Chich’en Itza.”

    The may-cycle itself is seen in all kinds of archaeological remains. In Structure 719 at Zacpetén incense burners had various degrees of smoke blackening (heavy, moderate and light) that indicates different degrees of usage. The authors relate this to Landa’s description of the rotation of katun idols (which most likely were incensarios). The argument is that the heavily burned inscensarios were the ones that had been used for 1.5 katun or 30 years (o.5 katun as guest of the former katun idol, then as the only lord of the next 0.5 katun and finally the last 0.5 katun it co-ruled with a new guest idol). The moderately burnt incensarios had been in use for 1 katun and the lightly burnt incensarios had been in use for 0.5 k’atun (Pugh et al. p. 209). It is an interesting hypothesis but I see this as another example of how a predetermined ideal model is imposed on archaeological data and constrains interpretations.


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