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CHAPTER 11 Maya Commoners: The Stereotype and the Reality joyce marcus Commoners made up the bulk of Maya society, though for various reasons , I suspect the percentage was closer to 90 percent than to the 98 percent proposed by some authors.1 Ironically, commoners have received relatively little attention in spite of frequent suggestions that we should study Maya economies ‘‘from the bottom up,’’ building from the household to the palace, from the commoner to the king. All scholars recognize that the labor of commoners was essential to the construction of major public works, to the maintenance of diverse agricultural strategies, to the movement of goods between sites, to craft production, and, in general, to the creation of a thriving economy. Nevertheless, attention to commoners ’ daily round of activities throughout the community still lags, as does a strong focus on their role in intersite trade, joint military efforts, and labor projects that united manpower from several different sites. All archaeologists agree that commoners affected the economy and urban structure in each Maya city. It seems likely that hard-working commoners would become influential actors, particularly those individuals who showed initiative and great skills. The articulation between the commoner household economy and the community’s economic and political standing vis-à-vis other Maya cities is also a link we need to understand. This is not a new chord to strike in Maya archaeology. Seventy years ago, Robert Wauchope (1934:113) stated: ‘‘We know very little of the great residue of the Maya, the people who were numerous enough to provide the sheer man-power that made possible the pyramids and the palaces.’’ Where did these commoners live? In the 1890s, Edward H. Thompson (1892:262, 266–267) noted numerous house mounds in the vicinity of Labná in northern Yucatán. At the turn of the twentieth century, excavations were being made in individual ‘‘house mounds’’ at various sites, 256 Joyce Marcus Figure 11.1. A house and associated structures from the Maya village of Chan Kom. Although both the house and storehouse are apsidal in shape, the house is larger. The house-lot includes a fenced-in garden, square chicken houses, orchards, and uncleared bush (redrawn from Wauchope 1938: Fig. 47b). including Copán (Gordon 1896:26), Uaxac Canal (Seler 1901:43–44), and Quiriguá (Hewett 1912:242–243). And, in the 1920s and 1930s, other scholars (Gann 1925:228–229; Schufeldt 1950:226; Tozzer 1913:149–150) remarked on the omnipresence of ‘‘house mounds’’ around and between Maya cities. The first major publication devoted to ordinary Maya residences was House Mounds of Uaxactun, Guatemala, published in 1934 by Robert Wauchope . A few years later, in 1938, Wauchope published another landmark, Modern Maya Houses: A Study of Their Archaeological Significance, the first ethnoarchaeological study of Maya commoners and their houses (Figures 11.1–11.3). Given these pioneering studies on houses and house mounds, it is surprising that commoners did not become a major focus of Maya archaeology until the 1950s, when Gordon Willey, William Bullard, John Glass, and James Gifford (1965) began their project in the Belize River Valley. Later, in the 1960s, archaeologists such as William Haviland (at Tikal) and Gair Tourtellot (at Seibal) focused on low mounds and produced new excavation data to show that not all ‘‘house mounds’’ were actually houses. Their work did much to modify the ‘‘principle of abundance’’—the assumption that since (1) commoners constituted most of Maya society, (2) the family was the most numerous component of Maya society, (3) low mounds were everywhere, and (4) low mounds were the most numerous kind of mound, it followed that those mounds must have been houses. Maya Commoners: Stereotype and Reality 257 Haviland (1965, 1966, 1988), Tourtellot (1988a, 1988b), and Linda Manzanilla and Luis Barba (1990) have shown that although some low mounds were dwellings (the sleeping quarters of a family), other mounds had different functions (serving as altars, shrines, storage areas, work platforms, and kitchens; Figure 11.4). Haviland and Tourtellot showed that in cases where three or four mounds formed a patio or courtyard group, sometimes only one of the four mounds was an actual dwelling. This discovery has implications for population estimates (Haviland 1967, 1972a, 1972b, 1982; J. E. S. Thompson 1971). Tourtellot (1988b:264) says, ‘‘As many as one-third of the small strucFigure 11.2. A house and associated structures from Chan Kom. In addition to the house, there is a beehive shelter, chicken...


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