Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2016

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation focuses on a study of political reorganization at the ancient Maya site of Actuncan, Belize following the 9th century collapse of Classic Maya society. During the Terminal Classic period (A.D. 780–1000), Maya divine kingship was gradually abandoned, leading to increased warfare, regional food scarcity, and mass migration. In contrast to broader trends, the residents of Actuncan did not leave. In this dissertation, I draw on the theoretical frameworks of resilience theory and collective memory to explain why Actuncan was not abandoned and how the local community reorganized its political and ritual institutions after the failure of divine kingship. I base my arguments on excavation, artefactual, and chemical data from Group 4, a civic center, and low platforms in Plaza A, all of which were built entirely during the Terminal Classic period. These data allow me to explore how the people of Actuncan reorganized their political and ritual institutions in the aftermath of the Maya collapse.

To consider the specific circumstances that led to Actuncan’s Terminal Classic renaissance, I frame the site’s reorganization in the terms of resilience theory and collective memory. Resilience theory provides a useful way to organize the complex processes concerning the collapse of Maya society. I draw on the resilience theory to develop four alternate hypotheses for Actuncan’s Terminal Classic organization. Evidence for the form and function of Group 4 was matched to testable correlates associated with possible hierarchical, corporate, mercantile, or ritual underpinnings of Actuncan’s new political organization.

While resilience theory provides an outline of options that communities might have taken as they reorganized their societies, I draw on collective memory as a tool to understand why they made the choices they did. To do this, I trace Actuncan’s social and political history through a reconstruction of the site’s urban development to understand how the local community remembered their past. My excavations in Plaza A targeted evidence for Terminal Classic activity in a space originally constructed a millennium earlier by the site’s Late Preclassic rulers.

My methods focused on collecting three scales of data that contributed to understanding how and why Actuncan’s community was reorganized. At the middle scale, Group 4’s architectural form was uncovered through over 400 m2 of horizontal excavations. Based on a comparison to other examples of Maya civic architecture, these data indicate that Group 4 was built to support a corporate ideology. At the small scale, I collected samples for soil chemistry and microartifact analysis from across the surface of Group 4. Based on these data, I identified evidence for food preparation and consumption. I argue that Group 4 was a council, or popol nah, and the center of a corporate form of authority.

At the largest scale, I aimed to reconstruct changes in the organization and function of Actuncan’s public spaces during the Terminal Classic period. First, my excavations in Plaza A targeted low platforms to test whether they were constructed during the Terminal Classic period. In combination with other data collected by James McGovern in the 1990s and my colleague on the Actuncan Archaeological Project, I reconstructed Actuncan’s political and household histories. Together, these data indicate that the Terminal Classic community at Actuncan transformed Actuncan’s site core to focus ritual attention on the site’s most distant past. In the part of the site around Group 4, old buildings were dismantled or desecrated.

My results indicate that Group 4 was constructed as a council house that was the seat of new inclusive political institutions. I suggest that the strategies enacted by the community and the council were a direct repudiation of the failed autocratic power of Classic period kings. I conclude that the community separated the ritual and political aspects of life. Not only were leaders no longer divine, but religious practice was physically separated from the political infrastructure. I argue the community’s inclusive reorganization drew on the memory of the site’s own Preclassic shared leadership structure and the latent power of commoner lineage heads.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

David A. Freidel

Committee Members

Michael D. Frachetti, Gayle J. Fritz, Lisa J. LeCount, Tristram R. Kidder, James V. Wertsch


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/doi:10.7936/K7BZ64FR