Posted by: Johan Normark | April 11, 2011

Session marathon at the SAA’s

I returned from the SAA meetings exactly one week ago. I primarily visited sessions concerning Mayanist studies and unfortunately several such sessions ran at the same time.

The first and second paper I attended on Thursday concerned the now popular term “materiality” and a couple of references to Latour popped up. My former thesis opponent Scott Hutson presented his ideas concerning the 18 km long causeway between the sites Ucí and Cansahcab. Like I have argued before for “my” causeways at Ichmul and Yo’okop, the Ucí-Cansahcab causeway began to affect its surroundings once it had been constructed. People settled closer to the causeway even though a causeway is not necessary for transport in this flat area. In another session Justin Lowry showed how rejolladas were used for agriculture at Xuenkal.

I decided to attend a session on Maya cosmology, which is a topic that I am quite skeptical to. However, in Rex Koontz’s interesting paper he argued that the representations of the Veracruz related ballgame equipment of stone yokes and hachas in Maya iconography (at Copan) were associated with the ruler of the underworld. The second tier nobility at Copan wore the yokes and they may have been important in the transition of royal power. Zachary Nelson discussed ancient Maya measurement. A measurement unit appears to have been 36 mm long and it shows up in several artifact forms. An interesting observation is that 20 bifaces form a circle. Joanne Baron argued that only patron deities of sites interacted with humans and that these should be separated from ancestors and general deities. Jennifer Weber presented information on a 2.6 km long causeway that connects central Pacbitun with a cave. Garth Norman ended this session with an archaeoastronomical study on 2012 and Izapa…

After lunch I basically dropped my note taking so the discussion of the other papers I attended will be briefer. Before I joined the session where I presented my first paper together with Justine Shaw I listened to a couple of papers concerning Maya households, communities, and polities. During the evening session I joined a session on tropical low-density urbanism which basically mixed studies from the Maya area and Angkor. Nothing new actually came out of this session but it was nice to see the satellite images of Caracol.

On Friday I attended too many papers on water management in the Maya area (I mean, how many new perspectives on this topic can one actually come up with nowadays?). Dunning, Lentz, Scarborough and others reported on agroforestry and water management at Tikal. After hearing “drought” the tenth time (or so) I went to a session on spatial constructs in the Maya area. Kaylee Spencer had an interesting paper on portraits at Palenque and Travis Nygard discussed space at Yo’okop (one of “my” sites). After a brief return to the water management session I listened to my colleague Tatiana Young’s presentation of data from the Cochuah region. I made the mistake of attending a second water management session after lunch. Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach’s paper on the data from El Zotz was of interest but I left the session soon thereafter and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday morning was primarily spent in a session on ritual, violence, and the fall of the Classic Maya kings. Droughts appeared here and there as well, particularly in the papers concerning Minanha (even though the papers were interesting, particularly Sonja Schwake’s contribution). Demarest discussed the execution of the royal court at Cancuen around AD 800. He also pointed out that the AD 760 drought occurred at the end of the turmoil in the Petexbatun region, it did not initiate it. I left the session to listen to Rani Alexander’s paper on the population trends in Yucatan. Based upon the archaeological record there appears to be less decline in the Colonial period population than in textual documents from the same time (yet another nail in the “droughts explain collapse” coffin if you ask me). After lunch it was time to listen to and present my own paper in the symposium on “blogging archaeology”. See my links in this earlier post. After the symposium I listened to my colleague Dave Johnstone’s paper on the Middle Formative ceramics from the Cochuah region.

On Sunday the conference had lost most of its participants and I only stayed around for a session on Mesoamerican cave archaeology. Apart from this session I also listened to a couple of papers in the session on an archaeology of heritage (Cornelius Holtorf, Anne Pyburn, and Liv Nilsson Stutz). The papers by Smyth and de Anda discussed Yucatecan caves and cenotes. Of course, the word drought appeared a couple of times here as well. Several papers, including those by Brady and Cobb, discussed the Midnight Terror Cave in Belize where ritual pathways have been found. The cave has also experienced an earthquake since Prehispanic times. The final paper I listened to was Moyes’ discussion of the earliest ritual caves, which dates back to roughly 1,400 BC. After this paper I had to rush back to the hotel, check out, and head for the airport.

Most interesting news on the conference according to me? It appears that the hypothesized causeway between El Mirador and Calakmul actually exists.



  1. I enjoyed your paper w/ Justine. I missed the other one. Seems like you missed my two, but you were busy in sessions on “drought.” Look, the Terminal Classic drought existed. That now is just an empirical fact. But some people are asking interesting anthropological questions out of that fact, and others are just dumping all interpretation onto it w/o asking the important anthropological questions. In that sense, “drought” is like “earthquake” or “tsunami.” Now the hard work begins.

    “Materiality” is just the word du jour in Americanist archaeology, which means it is at least ten-years old in anthropology, 20-years old in real thought, and few of the archaeologists are using it correctly. The last 20 years have also witnessed the misunderstanding of the words “embodiment,” “Habitus,” and even the simple “engender.” But it makes grad students feel good to use such words, even if they don’t quite understand them. Professors, too.

  2. Your papers always coincided with other papers that were of interest to my current research.

    Sure, I never question the existence of the droughts, I only question them as the fundamental causes for the changes we see. In that case I am not alone but contrary to other opponents of the mega-drought (i.e. Demarest) I argue that the whole mega drought model is based upon colonial and modern analogies and that there are a couple of question marks as far as how these analogies are suitable for the Terminal Classic. The Terminal Classic and Colonial settlement in the Cochuah region are quite different and the main reason for this change is the reducción. It will be interesting to see the reactions from the peer-reviewers once I submit the article.

    I had already dropped materiality before my article in JAMT was published (where I do use the word materiality). Materials as Ingold suggests is not that good either. I have now settled for plain and simple objects. At least it is fashionable these days…

  3. There Were Stone Yokes From The Monte Alto Culture,Their Use Was Conjectured As Being Placed Across The Front Of The Neck To Help Immobilize The Safricant.There Is Also A Giant Stone Bowl,Supposedly Used For Blood Offering?

  4. Unfortunately my knowledge about Monte Alto is rather limited…

  5. Not Much Info Out There On Mes-america’s First Culture,A Small Museum And About 20 Sculptures In El Centro La Democracia,Guate.


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