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Carlos Pallán Gayol

External Influences and their Role during the Terminal Classic Transition and "Collapse" of Central Petén Maya Polities

Among scholars there exists a growing interest in discerning the broad specter of cultural phenomena associated with the so-called "Collapse" of the Terminal Classic, a defining moment in Classic Maya history which can be placed between ca. 800 and 950 AD. While this was a broad phenomenon encompassing several regions including the central Peten, the Petexbatun/Pasion, the Western Lowlands and the Usumacinta, northern Campeche Yucatan and eastern Belize between, as well as some parts of the Maya Highlands and other neighboring areas, the present work will focus on the central Peten region, given that it offers one of the largest datasets available combining the results from extended research by several archaeological projects with a relatively rich epigraphic record. In addition, this area bears witness to some of the most abrupt contrasts in shifting rulership modes, cessation of public architecture and sculpture construction and the decay of public infrastructure leading in several cases to partial, intermittent or almost complete abandonment of centers.

The so-called Maya "Collapse" is usually regarded as part of the Terminal Classic transition. When dealing with it, different authors and schools of thought have adduced different underlying causes, ranging from overpopulation to the rise of militarism, internal revolts to migration, as well as ecological and environmental factors, including droughts, climate shifts and deforestation. Often difficult to discern from these causes are their effects and corresponding imprint on the archaeological —and occasionally also on the hieroglyphic— record. Amongst the most relevant set of causes and effects associated with the "Collapse" and the Terminal Classic sociopolitical shifts stand out the evidence of cultural contact with and the assimilation of ideas from groups external to the lowland Maya late-Classic tradition. The present work will analyze the available evidence (including some of the most recent discoveries) to assess to which degree these contacts played a role in the political fragmentation and the demise of previous modes of rulership and social organization based on the institution of divine kingship led by charismatic k'uhul ajaw rulers.


Pallan GayolThis dissertation will be based on the author's own evaluation and analysis of first-hand relevant data, namely all hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Terminal Classic period pertaining to the central Lowlands region, both from published sources and also those stemming from the result of the author's own documentation of hieroglyphic monuments from several archaeological sites in the Peten and, in search for patterns indicating modes of external influences or possibly associated political shifts within a given site's dynastic tradition of rulership. This process will include production of several new images and drawings of Terminal Classic monuments. The epigraphic data thus obtained will then be contextualized and informed by the archaeological record during the Late Classic to Terminal Classic transition, including the associated ceramic complexes, such as the introduction of new ceramic types; the architecture and construction stages, including emphasis on new shapes (C-shape buildings, round shape temples) and different building techniques, as well as the information that shifts in funerary practices and settlement patterns can provide. Also an important aspect would be to investigate the flow and dissemination of trade items and the conformation of new long distance trade and exchange networks, as there appears to be during this period a growing need for affiliation to larger Panmesoamerican trade and exchange spheres in order to gain the political and economic advantages that membership to these networks implied.

The impact of several recent discoveries witnessed over the last few years and an array of new data resulting from several ongoing archaeological Projects in the central lowlands region —such the SAHI-Uaxactun Archaeological Project with which the author collaborates, or the archaeological projects at sites like Uxul, La Corona, El Zotz, Nakum, Naachtun or El Palmar—have produced significant advancements in our understanding of the underlying causes affecting central Peten Maya polities, which in several cases led to its ultimate demise in the region, with most major centers falling into near complete abandonment—with only sporadic bursts of intermittent reoccupation—as monumental construction and sculptural programs ceased in the majority of them by the second half of the 9th and the early 10th centuries. 

Aside from looking at these complex events individually at the site-specific level, the present Dissertation will seek to integrate the information to provide a broader regional perspective encompassing the central Peten region, thereby relying on modern theories about the Maya political landscape at the end of the late-Classic, and the corresponding transformations which it underwent as dynastic succession became interrupted —as is the case at sites such as Uaxactun, Jimbal and Seibal— by the advent of mighty overlords bearing uncommon (possibly "foreign") names, or as it happened at Tikal, with a progressive fragmentation of their former political might or hegemony resulting in an array of subsidiary figures in neighboring small centers claiming to be legitimate heirs to the once powerful dynasties of times already bygone. Also important to examine will be the apparent shift to a more horizontal distribution of power in which rulers relied increasingly on non-royal Elites such as the institution of Priesthood and the heads of military power; as well as new modes of alliance and established compromises with either subordinate lords under their aegis or even relatively symmetric alliances between cities or rulers of similar status and power.

Sources and primary data

The main corpus of primary data to be examined stems from the author’s new tridimensional and RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging) documentation work of hierolgyphic inscriptions from sites such as Tikal, Uaxactún, Jimbal, El Manantial-Ch’anal,Uxul, Ixlú, Itsimté, Dos Pilas, Seibal and Ucanal stemming from his sustained collaboration with the Uaxactún-SAHI Arcaheological Project, the University of Bonn’s Uxul Archaological Project, as well as the Knorosov Center for Maya Studies. In addition, the Dissertation will be informed by the newest discoveries published by current archaological projects at sites such as La Corona, Calakmul, Oxpemul, El Zotz, Xultún, El Palmar, Motul de San José, Naranjo, Holmul and Caracol, among several others.

Main research inquiries

1. Can external influences be considered among the most important underlying processes responsible for the so-called "Collapse" of central Peten centers during the Terminal Classic, or are best seen as part of the consequences stemming from such processes?
2. Which related regions of Mesoamerica became more involved in establishing cultural contacts with the central Maya region during the Terminal Classic? Which modes of contact were predominant?
3. What is the true extent of current evidence indicating external influences and possible contact between the central Peten Maya and other parts of Mesoamerica? and at which levels can such evidence be discerned within the archaeological/epigraphic records?
4. Is the political fragmentation of formerly large polities seen at the Terminal Classic a result of the arrival of new rulership schemes introduced during the Terminal Classic or this fragmentation was a precondition paving the way to the arrival of new rulership?
5. How rulership and statehood paradigms inherited from the late-Classic Maya tradition were affected by new power modes and religious and military cults introduced during the Terminal Classic?
6. Why were the new rulership modes configured during the Terminal Classic short-lived and ultimately led many cities to its demise?
7. Can the identity and/or origins of crucial historical individuals and groups behind Terminal Classic transformative events be further ascertained or detailed by means of new decipherments and new imaging data at hand?
8. Which additional information can be gleaned from close examination of newly documented monuments based on technological advancements, which could turn relevant to the above research questions?


Betreuer: Prof. Dr. Karoline Noack

Förderung: Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst

Foto: Carlos Pallán Gayol, 2012, with authorization of Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología (MUNAE), Guatemala City. Ucanal Stela 4 showing square calendric cartouches and "floating gods" figures.