Bodies and blood: critiquing social construction in Maya archaeology

Bodies and blood: critiquing social construction in Maya archaeology

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22 (2003) 26–41 Bodies and blood: critiquing social construction in Maya archaeolo...

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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 22 (2003) 26–41

Bodies and blood: critiquing social construction in Maya archaeology Stephen D. Houston* and Patricia A. McAnany Department of Anthropology, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602, USA Department of Archaeology, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA Received 11 June 2002; revision received 5 December 2002; accepted 6 January 2003

Abstract As a 21st century expression of idealism, social constructionism tends to repudiate the physical reality of the body and the biological duality of sexual differentiation. It has the earmarks of a totalizing discourse that permits only limited perspectives on human existence. The relevance and utility of constructionism for studying the past comes under review here. A pertinent concept, that of the individual, is discussed in light of assertions that agency models stumble upon universal assumptions of individuation and intentionality. The proposal by Gillespie (2001) that agency approaches in archaeology can only be improved by referencing Marcel MaussÕ concept of ‘‘person’’ as a relational entity that bridges social collectivities and personal motivation founders on the teleological, staged character of MaussÕ concept as well as factual errors in interpreting the difficult epigraphic evidence from the Classic Maya. The constructionistsÕ principle of sexual ambiguity (Joyce, 2000a) meets resistance from the available data on the Classic Maya, as does their depersonalization of royal tombs in favor of collective concerns of a vaguely defined royal house (Gillespie, 2001). Finally, the use of Levi-StraussÕ model of ‘‘house societies’’ (societes  a maisons)—a schema that privileges co-residence and the physicality of the house over bloodlines—enjoys little substantive support from royal Maya contexts. Ó 2003 Elsevier Science (USA). All rights reserved. Keywords: Social constructionism; Agency and personhood; House society; Maya archaeology; Mesoamerica

Pure versions of archaeological doctrines, whether materialist or mentalist, have two advantages. They offer a comprehensive and selfcontained vision of how to think, and they supply a capacious set of narrative frames or genres that archaeologists use to explain their data. Most such doctrines tend also to be ‘‘affirmative,’’ in

* Corresponding author. Present address: 679, Garcia St., Santa Fe, NM 87505, USA. E-mail addresses: [email protected] (S.D. Houston), [email protected] (P.A. McAnany).

that they avoid the immoderate post-modern belief that the universe is nearly ‘‘impossible to understand’’ and that it consists only of disorder, fragmentation, and instability (Rosenau, 1992, p. 170). But the reductive tendency of such doctrines, their ‘‘aspiration to. . . [be] total, relating not one thought or idea, but a whole system of ideas, to an underlying social reality’’ (Mannheim, 1952, p. 144), introduces a serious weakness. Our claim is that, by occluding alternative views, totalizing doctrines operate as epistemic discourses that drive out ideas inconsistent with, or questioning of, such ‘‘whole system[s] of ideas.’’

0278-4165/03/$ - see front matter Ó 2003 Elsevier Science (USA). All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/S0278-4165(03)00006-0

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The process of totalization is as much sociological as intellectual. The use of certain code words signals intellectual allegiances and establishes boundaries between those who belong and those who do not; failure to use such code-words or to employ canonical texts, whether Karl MarxÕs (1953, Grundrisse) or Judith ButlerÕs (1993, Bodies that matter) or Homi BhabhaÕs (1994, The location of culture) points to outsider status. Such behaviors would be expected in any agonistic discipline, of which archaeological theorizing is one (see Latour and Woolgar, 1979, p. 237). The problem is, if such doctrines rest on flawed or incompletely formulated premises, then archaeologists diminish their ability to explain the past. An added concern is that totalizing frameworks, such as the Marxian premise of exploitation and oppression or Butler and othersÕ idealism, do not fit easily with other views, either ignoring alternatives or denying their validity. Nowhere is this clearer than the current infatuation with ‘‘social construction,’’ which follows a totalizing path when expressed in its stronger, more committed forms. Selected archaeologists now pursue this idealist philosophy and follow the lead of its most visible flag waver, Judith Butler, along with other cultural historians and specialists in comparative literature (e.g., Conkey, 2001, p. 344; Joyce, 2000a; Voss and Schmidt, 2000). In its more extravagant version, constructionism is unabashedly mentalist. It appears to question the reality of any and all physical states, perceiving them as indissolubly embedded within the ideas and social setting—the ‘‘matrix’’—that labels and creates them (Hacking, 1999, pp. 10–14). This makes constructionism a strange bedfellow for archaeology, an interpretive science that relies methodologically on the ability to transform physical remains into valid and fertile statements about the past. More worrisome is the evident assault on archaeology as a discipline that can ‘‘advance’’ and ‘‘progress’’ according to three productive assumptions: (1) archaeology must move in directions determined by data; (2) ‘‘the world has an inherent structure that we discover’’; and (3) once made, advances tend to be stable (Hacking, 1999, pp. 33, 68–92, emphases ours). These assumptions correspond roughly to ‘‘realist’’ science as opposed to ‘‘nominalist’’ scrutiny, in which ‘‘[w]e make our puny representations of this world, but all the structure of which we can conceive lies within our representations’’ (Hacking, 1999, p. 83). The fact that scholars mobilize networks and


signal group identity with code-words is tangential to such movement, structure, and stability.1 Let us be clear about our own position: ‘‘soft’’ or ‘‘historical’’ constructionism (see below) has an important role to play in studies of antiquity, but its more persuasive forms must fit within the realist camp to succeed. The obligation of the ‘‘soft constructionist’’ is to ground interpretations in data, to move forward, to see structure, and to establish the stable foundations of future knowledge. To proceed, this enterprise must involve what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson call an ‘‘embodied scientific realism,’’ which couples concept and bodies within ‘‘an ongoing series of interactions’’ that are consistent with present-day cognitive science (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, p. 90). Below, we decode social constructionism and examine its premises in light of recent attempts to apply idealism to Maya archaeology. This discussion leads to a re-examination of the notion of social (as opposed to collective) identities and particularly to Marcel MaussÕ concept of personhood. Fundamental to the concept of a person is that of ‘‘body.’’ Here we propose that its physicality be acknowledged rather than simply imagined within cultural parameters. A related theme is the archaeological identification of gendered and sexual categories; we challenge the purported ambivalence of sexual categories—as suggested by social constructionists—in reference to Classic Maya hieroglyphic texts and iconography. Mortuary evidence is particularly relevant to forming an understanding of non-western perceptions of personhood. Accordingly, we review several recent constructionist interpretations and offer an alternative and factually grounded ‘‘reading’’ of hieroglyphic and archaeological evidence. Finally, we turn to the recent application of Levi-StraussÕ model of ‘‘house societies’’ (societes  a maisons)—a schema that privileges co-residence and the physicality of the house over bloodlines and thus provides a supporting example of social constructionism in action. The model has some merit in application to Classic Maya society, but it is too reductionistic and narrow in scope to 1 Latour and Woolgar dispute this by asserting that no such knowledge can be totally stable, but their questioning of ‘‘facts’’ seems closer to Berkeley than Kant: for them, a ‘‘fact’’ is the product of, and thus indivisible from, its circumstances of observation and can never be final for that very reason (Latour and Woolgar, 1979; see also Latour, 1987, p. 5).


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accurately characterize that segment of society to which it has been applied—Classic Maya royal courts. The larger purpose of this exercise is to urge caution in the acceptance and application of paradigmatic frameworks and reworked anthropological schemata to any corpus of archaeological evidence. Particular care should be taken in evaluating whether or not philosophical bents— fashionable in the early 21st century—have archaeological utility, whether they provide a credible ‘‘transcultural’’ framework for interpreting past cultures, and whether such trends are matched by resonance or resistance when examined in light of archaeological evidence.

Constructionism Social constructionists allege that all categories, even purported ‘‘natural categories,’’ are human constructs shaped by historical contingency and loosely organized meanings and dispositions that we call ‘‘culture.’’ Constructionism patently descends from George Berkeley and, to a lesser extent, Immanuel Kant. Berkeley (1996, Part I, para. 23) could speak for present-day constructionists: ‘‘When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas.’’ For Berkeley, agents were active beings that perceived ideas. It is also important to remember that Berkeley ended up as the Bishop of Cloyne: humans were the finite ‘‘spirits’’ or beings that experienced such ideas; both being and idea were ultimately created by God, the infinite Spirit. Kant was more subtle, seeing a world of external objects that existed independently of our perceptions of them (Thomson, 2000, p. 21). Nonetheless, his view of transcendental idealism sketched a world that could only be intuited by sense and had to be organized according to formal principles of understanding. Kant himself can be seen as endorsing a strong view of this model—‘‘objects are nothing but representations’’ (Thomson, 2000, p. 27, citing the first edition of KantÕs Critique of pure reason)—or a mild one—the concurrent assertion that objects do exist apart from our detection of them but that there remains an ‘‘inescapable connection between self-knowledge and knowledge of objects’’ (Guyer, 1992, p. 155). Logically and emotionally, constructionism contributes to an existential philosophy of personal choice that has been liberated from the arbitrary conventions of culture and society

(Føllesdal, 1987, p. 392, on Jean-Paul Sartre; Reddy, 1997, p. 326).2 This is why, in 1869, John Stuart Mill criticized the ‘‘artificial’’ claims about ‘‘womenÕs nature,’’ devised, he argued, and with good reason, to naturalize control over an exploited group (Mill, 1966, p. 451; also Nussbaum, 2000, pp. 6–7). Ian Hacking suggests that constructionist philosophy rests on the premise that many features of the world are neither inevitable nor ‘‘determined by the nature of things’’ (Hacking, 1999, p. 6). In weaker form, this premise can be described as a ‘‘soft’’ or ‘‘historical’’ perspective and might include Thomas LaqueurÕs finding that, in occidental thought, ‘‘male’’ and ‘‘female’’ were formerly regarded as hierarchical versions of one sex and later, for epistemological and political reasons, as incommensurable opposites (Laqueur, 1992, pp. 10–11). The recipe for such studies is straight-forward: pick a body part (breast, phallus), a practice (homosexuality), a sense (smell), a condition (fatness) or an emotion (disgust), monitor its semantic undulations through time and place, and then write a book or article, which shows that our current understandings are not the same as they once were (Barasch, 2001; Boswell, 1980, 1995; Braziel and LeBesco, 2001; Classen et al., 1994; Friedman, 2001; Miller, 1997; Yalom, 1997). Beyond such historical understandings, which are indispensable in understanding the past, are not-so-hidden agenda about what the world should be like. These escalate from a merely ironic attitude towards regrettable things that cannot easily be changed, to an ‘‘unmasking’’ that, as the Quakers would say, speaks truth to power and thus undermines the ‘‘practical effectiveness’’ of oppressive systems; the final level would commit to more tangible acts of rebellion and revolution that rework the world into a better place (Hacking, 1999, p. 20). All such deliberations are, to some, ‘‘simultaneously moral, ethical, and political debates about social and political equality and the possibilities for change’’ (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, p. 255; see also Conkey, 2001, p. 355). This is a heavy freight for archaeology, which is held by most scholars, we trust, to address the past 2 But note SartreÕs retreat from his earlier, more outlandish statements, freedom being, to the older, wiser Sartre, not a God-like ability to dictate and decide, but ‘‘the small movement which makes of a socially conditioned social being someone who does not give back completely that which his conditioning has given him’’ (Føllesdal, 1987, p. 404).

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more than the present. Yet the determining impulse behind strong forms of constructionism seems to be, not the elucidation of humans over time, but a joint embarkation to utopian or, at least, improved states of existence. Many such volumes issue from the confessional booth, Fausto-Sterling (2000, pp. 232–235) going on at length about her shifting orientations, as does Butler (1999, pp. xvi–xix). Similarly, Elizabeth Abbott enthuses about her personal commitment to celibacy, the subject of her volume on this practice (Abbott, 1999, pp. 22, 429–430), and Kathleen LeBesco is ‘‘proud’’ to ‘‘fight for fat’’ (Braziel and LeBesco, 2001, p. 2). Two assumptions undergird acts of ‘‘unmasking’’: (1) for much of history, human beings have lived in a state of definitional enslavement, arbitrarily confined by the caprices of culture and historical contingency; and (2) the intellectuals who ‘‘unmask’’ bad practices and evil concepts serve as the vanguard of self-emancipation; they open new possibilities for individual choice. By identifying and exposing the impositions of history and culture, they presumably negate the tyranny of culture over themselves and others. Some have even argued that this new form of interpretive science should stress ‘‘faith, emotion, and personal fulfillment. . . [along with] a focus on difference in the absolute sense, the unique, and the local’’; as for intellectuals, they would ‘‘speak for those who have never been the subject (active, human). . . [and] would include new voices and new forms of local narrative but not in an attempt to impose discipline or responsibility’’ (Rosenau, 1992, pp. 172–173). There are two unresolvable paradoxes in such arguments. The first is that constructionists rely alternately on the notion of relative, evolving concepts-in-this-world and, at the same time, judgments based on an unspecified and unlocated system of absolute and universal morality. But, if all is constructed, from where do such judgments come? From where the determination of moral probity? The second is the fallacy that any person can stand fully outside the world that shaped them or that ‘‘unmasking’’ does not, in fact, involve the deployment of other masks and postures. Erving Goffman showed long ago that such games characterize most human strategizing (Goffman, 1974). A striking example of constructionist thinking, although often allusive and difficult to pin down, is the work of Judith Butler, for whom ‘‘sex’’ is no longer a ‘‘bodily given’’ but a ‘‘cultural norm’’


imposed by a vaguely defined group of regulatory disciplinarians (Butler, 1993, p. 3). A spry teacher of rhetoric and an heroically obscurantist writer— recently garlanded with top honors in Philosophy and LiteratureÕs Bad Writing Contest—Butler promptly admits the opposite too, that ‘‘sexually differentiated parts. . . [and] hormonal and chromosomal differences’’ do exist (Butler, 1993, p. 10). Butler has come to understand that such word games might be regarded as ‘‘linguistic monism, whereby everything is only and always language,’’ or, as she asks plaintively, ‘‘If everything is discourse, what about the body?’’ (Butler, 1993, p. 6). But, for Butler, at least in her Gender Trouble, the ‘‘body’’ is ‘‘a variable boundary. . . a signifying practice’’ (Butler, 1990, p. 177). For her, it does not appear to be a sentient organism resulting from multiple and minute interactions between genotype and phenotype, a body that needs to feed, breathe, reproduce, and live. Martha Nussbaum has expressed bewilderment at ButlerÕs cocktail of antithetical sources, Freud shaken but not stirred with Monique Wittig, Jacques Lacan, John L. Austin, and Luce Irigaray, but takes even greater exception to the political quietism implicit in ButlerÕs brand of feminism, in which a ‘‘sly send-up of the status quo is the only script for resistance that life offers’’ (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 16). In HackingÕs classification, Nussbaum is a rebel or revolutionary to ButlerÕs un-masker. Our own disquiet results more from ButlerÕs view of the material, the physical, not as bodies and blood, so to speak, but as ‘‘a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter’’ (Butler, 1993, p. 9, italics removed from original). Read a certain way, this can only be an endorsement of Lamarckian thought or the assertion that bodies, like ideas, are infinitely plastic. Concept and matter, sign and physical body, blur unaccountably in ButlerÕs idealist vision, just as, for someone like Latour, social networks in the process of discovery seem to displace the relatively stable knowledge that derives from the laboratories he studies. Can it possible be that Latour does not take aspirin or other drugs developed in just such laboratories? Metaphors like ‘‘stabilize,’’ ‘‘construct,’’ and ‘‘sedimented’’ enhance a feeling of paradox and of indeterminate categories by invoking the claim that physical boundaries and classes are mere representations in the Kantian sense. Strangely, this is accomplished by describing mental concepts as physical things to be built,


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layered and then pried apart, just as, for sociologists, ‘‘societies’’ or ‘‘systems’’ are ‘‘reproduced’’ like so many biological offspring (e.g., Giddens, 1984, p. 27). Butler is not alone in this false physicality, as Paul Connerton and others (Connerton, 1989, p. 73; Joyce, 2000a,b, p. 9) claim that practices can be ‘‘inscribed,’’ Connerton going so far as to liken, confusingly, this ‘‘type of action’’ to ‘‘modern devices for storing and retrieving information’’ (Connerton, 1989, p. 73, our emphases; Latour and Woolgar also refer to ‘‘inscription,’’ but in an entirely different sense that refers to scientistsÕ inordinate generation of paperwork, Latour and Woolgar, 1979, p. 51). In no existential idiom that we know are events (‘‘action’’) the same as things (‘‘devices’’). But they are and can be in the idealist world of the constructionists—they are all figments of mind.

The ancient Maya and constructionism In a recent archaeological application of social constructionism to ancient Maya notions of personhood and afterlife, Gillespie (2001, p. 99) faults archaeologists who interpret the past in terms of ‘‘essentialized, ahistorical, transcultural, even natural categor[ies].’’ Particularly suspect are what she labels ‘‘ethnopsychological perspectives’’ such as those proposed by Stuart (1996) as well as Houston and Stuart (1998, pp. 92–95), who base their interpretations on a close reading of hieroglyphic texts and iconic representations of persons. These interpretations, which derive from fresh decipherments of Maya glyphs, are criticized, rather oddly given their nature, for inattention to ‘‘culturally specific social constructions’’ and for blurring ‘‘self’’ and ‘‘person’’ (Gillespie, 2001, p. 102). In the end, the difference of opinion seems to pivot on interpretive frameworks for understanding ‘‘person’’ and ‘‘body.’’ Contrary to the doctrine of constructionists, a body is not just good to think with; it remains an enduring physical fact, a reproductive organism of somatic potentials and capacities. We suggest that acceptance of ‘‘the body’’ into anthropological discussion requires that its physicality be acknowledged as existing in a somewhat autonomous state. The degree of such autonomy continues to be a matter of debate. Anne FaustoSterling sees the body rather like a nested Russian doll, with an inner, cellular layer encased within those of the organism, psyche, person to person relationships, culture, and history; as any one

layer changes, so do the others (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, pp. 22–29; see also Meskell, 1996, p. 10, who quite correctly desires an ‘‘interface and resolution between the biological, cultural and personal’’). In much the same vein, Elizabeth Grosz visualizes biological processes that exist before any meaning is assigned to them, but understands that the body and mind come into existence through tandem development (Grosz, 1994, pp. 115–121). Many such studies focus on the sparsely occupied margins of human categories, emphasizing intersexuality, hermaphroditism or unusual conditions such as androgen sensitivity (e.g., Chase, 1998; also Fausto-Sterling, 2000, pp. 30–32; Kessler, 1998). But these carefully staked out positions are anything but thorough-going idealism; they are systemic models of mind and body, not displays of totalizing systems. One of HackingÕs ‘‘rebels’’ and ‘‘revolutionaries,’’ Fausto-Sterling still addresses the corpus callosum as much as ‘‘a more diverse and equitable future,’’ whose contours she perceives from a position of declared faith (FaustoSterling, 2000, p. 114).

Agents, persons, and society: How do the pieces fit together? Of late, agency theorists have been ducking fire from those who allege that agency theory, as currently practiced, is androcentric, narcissistic or simply a reflection of the emphasis on individuals in western societies (Bender, 1993; Brumfiel, 2000; Dobres and Robb, 2000, p. 13; Gero, 2000). At the core of this critique is the recognition that intentionality and individuation are not universal states of being. In many sectors of traditional societies, moreover, human agency may be situated within a social unit that is larger than the individual. If we insist on methodological individualism, then we do little more than recapitulate a ‘‘great men in history’’ approach to the past. As Dobres and Robb (2000, pp. 9–10) lament the theoretical slipperiness of agency theory, others have actively embraced the concept that ‘‘no (wo)man is an island,’’ and sought to interpret the past in terms of collective social action and to redefine the problematic individual as one who travels through stages of culturally prescribed personhood. One such attempt to bring clarity to these murky waters can be found in Gillespie (2001), who proposes to correct the wrongs of agency theory. She stipulates that identity is at once in-

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dividual and corporate, relational and singular, not a social monad but an entity perpetually in relationship to others, living, dead, and inanimate. These are assertions with which few would argue. But in order to operationalize them Gillespie leans heavily on concepts of personhood developed by Marcel Mauss, an undoubted genius but also the least practiced and traveled of ethnographers. As Mauss makes clear in his ‘‘Une Categorie de l’Esprit Humain: La Notion de Personne, Celle de Moi’’ (‘‘A category of the human mind: The notion of person; the notion of self,’’ first issued in 1938 and one of his last published essays), this influential piece was written as both a theoretical and a topical statement. In it, Mauss exalts the ‘‘sacred character’’ of the personne, which soon might be crushed, despite all efforts to ‘‘defend’’ such ‘‘great possessions’’ against unnamed threats in that portentous time (Mauss, 1985, p. 22). Seen in this light, MaussÕ essay is less a dispassionate, anthropological inquiry about roles, persons, and individuals than a contemplation of European society in the late 1930s. The extremes he emphasizes are necessary to highlight the passion play of progress and anti-progress. Mauss stresses the moral choices before his compatriots on the eve of the Holocaust and the emerging imposition of fascist anonymities (Fournier, 1994, pp. 702– 707; see also Falasca-Zamponi, 1997, p. 187). When this topical essay is pressed into the service of supplying a theoretical framework for understanding the past, as Gillespie (2001) does under the flag of constructionism, she enters the dangerous domain of teleology, the idea that things tend toward some ultimate purpose or natural design. This danger is particularly acute with respect to GillespieÕs discussion of roles (MaussÕ personnage, as distinct from the Roman ‘‘mask,’’ the personne, Mauss, 1985, p. 12) and their relation to larger collectivities with whom social interaction creates the situated person. It is well to remember that MaussÕ terms come from Latin and French and thus fit within a notion of teleological progress that is peculiar to his intellectual heritage. To use them as stages, which Mauss and, apparently, Gillespie do, denies that our 21st century identities also exist within collectivities, or that a self-concept was possible for ancient people. We cannot believe that this is a direction in which Gillespie meant to move. Second, nowhere in GillespieÕs use of the ‘‘transcultural’’ concept—the personnage—does she define a ‘‘culturally specific’’ person who is distinctive to her case material—Classic Maya


royal society. Instead of a highly textured characterization of one or more culturally specific Maya persons, we are treated to a general discussion of living people invoking the dead. The latter could just as easily apply to Napoleon IIIÕs erection of a mausoleum for Napoleon I; another example might be the Abbey of Saint-DenisÕ retrospective tomb effigies for royal patrons, some not otherwise commemorated in that memorial to French monarchy and Benedictine prerogative (Binski, 1996, p. 75). By GillespieÕs calculation, Maya ‘‘royals’’ had reached moi but not yet the ‘‘individual’’ although they had by that point already migrated to a felicitous state beyond the personnage. A difficulty here is that, as anthropologists, our need to generalize can become a propensity to stereotype: ‘‘individuation’’ is also discernable among traditional peoples (Stephen, 1996; also Kray, 1997, p. 32), just as those in our own time and place, including 21st century academics, can be ‘‘holistic’’ in their self-definition with respect to others (Shweder and Bourne, 1984). Even in current literature, the ‘‘self’’ remains highly problematic, considered as both purely subjective experience (Battaglia, 1995; Mageo, 1995; Spiro, 1993) and as an intersection of group relationships that extends beyond individual bodies (Becker, 1995, p. 4). Apparently, the body is good to think with, but so is the ‘‘self.’’ A further question is this, can we assume that Maya royalty exhibited agency only in terms of larger social collectives, that they could not have behaved in an intentional and self-interested manner? No one doubts that networks of political relations and dependencies within and among Classic Maya royal courts complicated decision making, yet should Maya ‘‘royals’’ be conceived as prisoners to their self-concept, as suggested by MaussÕ teleological stages? Curiously, Gillespie has chosen case material that provides great ‘‘resistance’’ (Shanks, 2001, p. 292) to her interpretive framework. Members of non-elite sectors of ancient Maya society were in all likelihood constrained by their role and station in society, yet sacred rulers and other hyper-elites demonstrably controlled abundant resources and wielded great authority. Knowledge of the ancient Maya is not advanced by reducing the tremendous variability in roles, power, and self-perception that once existed in Maya society to one of MaussÕ teleological stages. Valuable insights into the tension and balance between individuation and royal roles in Classic Maya society comes from the under-developed


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field of glyphic onomastics or hieroglyphically attested naming practices. As Gillespie (2001, p. 85) notes, Maya dynasts often assumed elaborately concocted and ancestrally linked identities. Epigraphers have long known of highly variable, non-repetitious pre-regnal names (replaced by the u k’al huun k’ab’a’, as on Piedras Negras Stela 14, A14–B14) along with generationally transcendent regnal names. The former hint at individuation, the latter at muted personal identities that merge with those of antecedent rulers. The Maya themselves provided some kind of nominal classification by means of atypical and only partly understood spellings of u k’ab’a’, ‘‘his name,’’ in royal texts of Naranjo, Guatemala (e.g., Stela 21, A11). A rich inventory of noble but non-royal names has been exposed by multi-spectral scanning in the Bonampak murals of Chiapas, Mexico. Often spelled syllabically, these otherwise unprecedented nominals hints at the royal, nonroyal divisions mentioned before: that is, their form differs from those attested for royals, and include such unusual names as C/II-38/39 KANna/to-lo/wa-xi/ba-to-ka or C/I-37 pu-ka-la/a-waKAB? (letters and numbers indicate location in the murals). Further study will doubtless recover unplumbed details about onomastics and may directly address the problem of naming and personhood in Classic Maya society (Colas, 2001).

Whats sex got to do with it? The nascent field of gender archaeology has entered the fray of constructionism, moving well beyond its original linkage with issues of equity and equality (Gilchrist, 1999, pp. 8–9). The premise that gender roles are culturally constructed as opposed to a reflection of universal norms and biological imperatives is widely accepted among academics, liberals, and social activists, and it is a position we favor as well, for personal and intellectual reasons (Stein, 1992, pp. 340–350). Social constructionists take this proposition one step farther by proposing that ‘‘sex’’ is no longer a biological given but is itself a representation that is subject to cultural flux (Conkey, 2001, p. 344; Gosden, 1999, pp. 146–150). That bogey of constructionists, ‘‘essentialism,’’ the idea that things possess fixed natures, comes into play here, although some scholars do maintain a useful distinction between ‘‘biological sex’’ and ‘‘sexuality,’’ the former being inherently physical, the second a series of relations and practices (Voss and

Schmidt, 2000, p. 2). What is puzzling from a scientific perspective is why essentialism should be seen, not as a topic for inquiry, but as an approach that is thought to be empirically baseless on prima facie grounds. Is this another moral valuation that looms unremarked behind the constructionists? Nonetheless, some recent research on male and female behavior comes down heavily in favor of effects from exposure to ‘‘various sex hormones early in life’’ and particular configurations of the hypothalamus (Kimura, 2002, pp. 1 and 2; also Ellis and Ames, 1987). Moreover, by decoupling sex from ‘‘natural’’ categories of male and female, social constructionists impart a certain ambiguity to sexual (as opposed to gender) roles. Even Fausto-Sterling, who regards sexual dualism with grave suspicion, barely discusses chromosomal differences in her otherwise grounded volume and confesses that ‘‘intersexual babies,’’ those with various abnormalities relating to genotypic sex, total some 1.7% of the total population, not a large number (Fausto-Sterling, 2000, pp. 51–54; see also Dreger, 1998; Kessler, 1998). Fausto-SterlingÕs logic appears to be that, since a small number of people do not conform to dyadic anatomical order, no one fits that order; categories with fuzzy boundaries cannot be categories at all. This is rather like saying that we are all potential albinos, regardless of our specific chromosomal heritage. Among the ranks of archaeologists, followers of this movement generally search for validation of this premise among material remains from antiquity. An example of this modus operandi can be found in the writings of Rosemary Joyce, who states that ‘‘Maya scholars have assumed that human beings belong to two natural sexes coincident with two natural genders, and that these non-overlapping categories will always be separated clearly’’ (Joyce, 2000a, p. 64). Thus, to Joyce, unthinking Mayanists equate the cultural artifice of gender roles with the biological duality of sex. Joyce (2000a, p. 64) then attempts to deny this equation by referring to purported ambiguities in sex-markers from Classic Maya hieroglyphic texts. To lay some introductory groundwork, we should mention that Maya scribes signaled ‘‘femaleness’’ by use of the ix- adjective, a bound morpheme (a particle that fuses obligatorily to the following morpheme) that was represented by a female head with distinctive markings on the cheek, loose strands of hair, and a small bun or protuberance projecting from the forehead. (Joyce uses an older reading of na-,

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‘‘lady,’’ for this sign; we now know that this value is restricted to syllabic, non-logographic use of the ‘‘womanÕs-head’’ glyph and is never employed to mean ‘‘female,’’ cf. Joyce, 2000a,b, pp. 64–65.) To Joyce, ‘‘maleness’’ was indicated textually by the use of another bound morpheme aj- or its later variant a-, formerly thought to represent ‘‘he of.’’ Because persons described as aj- are sometimes shown wearing the so-called net skirt (more on this feature below), and because of later, colonial data, Joyce (2000a, p. 64) suggests that Maya hieroglyphic conventions are only ‘‘secondarily a marker of gender.’’ In other words, the sexual ambiguities stressed by social constructionists were shared by Classic Maya royalty or by those carving their monuments. This interpretation stems in part from a misreading of the ix- and aj- morphemes in Classic texts. We can repair it by declaring two basic premises: (1) there is a highly rigid and precise rhetorical register in Classic Maya inscriptions; the texts are not so much casual or random glimpses of Maya society as they are highly selective representations of hyper-elites; and (2), contextual evidence from parentage statements and accompanying imagery do indeed register ‘‘sex’’ in the biological sense. That is, an individual with breasts who is dressed in a huipil (female garment) will, in 100% of all cases in which there is an accompanying hieroglyphic text, be identified glyphically with ix- (or the unbound [standalone], nominal morpheme ixik). If described as a mother in a dyadic grouping with a father, then that woman probably and plausibly is a female rather than a cross-dresser. There is no evidence to question, as Joyce does, that hieroglyphic captions are unreliable indicators of sexual identity (cf. Joyce, 2000a, p. 63). Perhaps for genealogical reasons, biological sexual identities were in fact of supreme importance to Maya dynasts and tended, if anything, to be over-specified. This is shown in a highly repetitive pattern that is detectable hieroglyphically. Signification of a male was accomplished by prefacing the phrase with a symbol that we recognize as a ‘‘zero’’ (Ø), signification of a female by ix-; the expression aj- might be present in both cases. Thus, a male could be described as ‘‘Ø + aj + b’ik’iil or k’uhuun (Piedras Negras Panel 1, positions pB3–pB4, the ‘‘p’’ indicates an uncertain reading order), while a similar phrase signifying a female was written as ix- + aj- + b’ik’iil or k’uhuun (Piedras Negras Burial 5 shell, position J2, Denver Art Museum New Panel, position B9;


the exact translation of the final elements is still under discussion as are details of vowel length). As a result of these grammatical constructions, ajdoes not carry any precise notion of biological sex. It is equally apparent that ix- does not occupy the same functional slot as aj-. The forms are entirely distinct; ix- is used as a marking device, aj- is not. There is a statistical tendency for aj- to refer to men, but the linkage can not be uniformly assumed. Yet, there is conclusive evidence for a contrast between use of the ‘‘zero’’ (Ø) marking for males and the adjective ix- for females (Houston et al., 2001): that is, these forms are not functionally incommensurable but rather occupy the same slot. From this it follows that the absence of ix- connotes and denotes the male sex by default. Personal names, royal and non-royal also behave in this way: ‘‘zero’’ (Ø) + NAME for men and ix- + NAME for women. One of the most exalted Maya titles, ajaw, operated in the same way: ‘‘zero’’ (Ø) + PLACE NAME + ajaw (an Early Classic pattern) contrasting with ix+ PLACE NAME + ajaw (Tikal Stela 31, position I4; cf. Naranjo Stela 24, position D18); the only exceptions are patterned ones in which the adjective ix- is displaced by another adjective, k’uhul, ‘‘holy,’’ and this only in cases of reigning queens, a rare occurrence in Maya society (e.g., Naranjo Stela 24, position A8). An heir-designate might be titled as a ch’ok (meaning young or unripe) ‘‘zero’’ (Ø) + PLACE NAME + ajaw (Dos Pilas Panel 19, position E2). One possible exception noted by Joyce is misinterpreted (Joyce, 2000a, p. 64; see also Closs, 1992): what she takes as the middle of the text is in fact its beginning, with no direct connection between a royal lady and a title prefaced by ‘‘zero’’ (Ø) + aj-. Thus, a ‘‘sex’’-linkage between men and aj- is hard to make stick by any reading of the Classic Maya evidence as it appears in elite registers. Quite simply, aj- is not in free variation—i.e., functionally substitutable—with ix-. The evidence further indicates that Maya royalty were much concerned with sexual identities, not simply constructed or fluid ones, and that sexual roles were not—especially in the case of royal ladies—readily subject to redefinition and resignification. Foucault might say that the bodies of royal females were regulated with special rigor (Foucault, 1995, p. 138). In Classic Maya texts as well as Yucatec Maya prose of the Colonial period, the untitled ‘‘person’’ was labeled winik, with prefixes to narrow and specify identity (Houston and Inomata, n.d.). Such nomenclature provides a window into


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the social chasm that separated Classic Maya elites from the rest of society and begs caution in generalizing the gender roles of royal females (as well as males) to all of Pre-Columbian Maya society (see McAnany and Plank, 2001, pp. 94–99). Of the net-skirt costume sometimes worn by men—a costume that for Joyce (2000a, pp. 64–65) creates sexual ambiguity—there are two relevant points to be made regarding deity impersonation and visual allusions to aesthetic principles. For Mesoamerican rulers, ritual performance constituted one of the most visible and visibly documented aspects of their authority. On such occasions, rulers donned costumes that transformed them into deities (thus, the term ‘‘deity impersonation,’’ Gruzinski, 1989; Hvidtfeldt, 1958). Many Classic Maya deity impersonation costumes were recorded in minute detail in stone and painted media which survive to this day. We now recognize that Maya rulers performed rituals while impersonating the maize deity, the rain deity, and the fire deity among others (Grube, 2000; Houston and Stuart, 1996, pp. 297–299). The male maize deity (whether impersonated or actual) was emblematic of regeneration and often is shown wearing the net skirt. Although the symbolism of this costume is not fully understood, there is, as scholars have pointed out for years, more than a hint of sexual ambiguity in the costume, thus leading Matthew Looper to regard it as ‘‘the third gender’’ (Looper, 2002, p. 173) or Joyce to perceive a fluid, imporous boundary between male and female (Joyce, 1996, p. 182). We believe these are misreadings of the evidence. First, the Maize god is often shown being dressed by females, and, in one death scene, is being mourned by corn maidens (Karl Taube, personal communication, 2002). The recent find of a Late Preclassic mural from San Bartolo, Guatemala, shows that those dressing the maize god have pronounced breasts while he does not (Karl Taube, personal communication, 2002; OÕNeill, 2002, p. 74)—the maize god is thus a sexual rather than a pre-sexual or transsexual being. For this reason, it is likely that Classic males impersonate the Maize god, Classic females the corn maidens. Second, although some of the androgyny may come from the bisexual nature of the corn plant itself, the maize god relates above all to a finely developed system of aesthetics that is neglected thematically by Looper and Joyce: it is likely that the deity embodies the pinnacle of beauty, with smooth and supple limbs, fine hair (corn silk), high, shiny brow and unlined face, and

willowy, graceful movement. The metaphors and literal comparisons are rich and dense. His flesh is succulent, to be consumed by deities; he is the first human being, youthful and vigorous; as a freestanding stelae, surrounded by spectators, he is the finest plant in the maize field to which the royal court is likened (Houston and Inomata, n.d.). Making the ruler comely is a frequent stratagem in complex political systems (Smith, 2000). The mistake in examining the Classic Maya evidence has been to emphasize gender rather than exemplifications of beauty.

Maya epigraphy and the performance of mortuary ritual Behind deity impersonation, another type of ritual performance—that pertaining to mortuary activities—is well represented hieroglyphically, iconographically, and archaeologically. This highly visible part of ancient Maya society may be a result of the pervasiveness of ancestor veneration in Maya society and the continued importance of the body of a deceased person of authority to the continuation of dynastic privilege as well as the rights and resources of families of lesser ranking (McAnany, 1995). Regardless, this wealth of information is a powerful magnet to those wishing to study ancient death ways. The abundance is offset, however, by the hazards of working with hieroglyphic texts that are still under decipherment and for which widespread agreement regarding orthography, grammar, and even the language in which the texts were originally composed is only just emerging (Houston et al., 2000). ‘‘End-users’’ of the decipherment who desire to incorporate hieroglyphic material into their analysis must contend with such shifting sands until the decipherment stabilizes. Unfortunately, new breakthroughs can negate the factual basis of older interpretations. For instance, the first wave of the recent decipherment of the 1980s emphasized Maya concerns with blood offerings, and most ‘‘scattering’’ scenes were interpreted as blood sacrifices (Schele and Miller, 1986; Stuart, 1988). These days, epigraphers widely acknowledge that a hieroglyphic compound for blood is not easily identifiable, suggesting a more circumspect approach to blood offerings supposedly mentioned in glyphic texts. In fact, even death generally is described in highly metaphorical and flowery prose. Similar inaccuracies of fact and interpretation occur in Gillespie

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(2001), who uses iconography and texts to suggest that royal tombs speak not to biological death but to a type of collective social death endured by a royal house.3 In a nutshell, Gillespie aims to cast doubt on the personal identity of bodies that were interred within royal Maya tombs, suggesting that the identity of the deceased may have been blurred intentionally by the surviving collective group who were more intent on maintaining the power base and moral authority of the royal house (more on houses below) than on the burial and commemoration of a specific person. Although it is true that the connection between the identity of a person placed within a royal tomb and the person(s) named on nearby hieroglyphic texts is rarely straight-forward (Houston, 1989, pp. 7– 10)—except in a few cases of which one is discussed below—it is not the case that practicing Maya epigraphers blithely assign named identities to royal corpses. For example, Burial 13 at Piedras Negras (excavated in 1997 by Hector Escobedo and Tomas Barrientos, Escobedo and Houston, 1997, 1998) contains inscriptions, but they do not specifically identify a certain Ruler 4 who most likely was the occupant of the tomb, a judgment based on ancillary evidence, some textual and some archaeological. A ‘‘one-to-one correspondence’’ between text and tomb occupant is not so much ‘‘presumed,’’ at least by careful epigraphers, as it is weighed on a case-by-case basis (cf. Gillespie, 2001, p. 89). The occupant of a royal tomb was seldom named unambiguously, a practice different from our own use of tombstones. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the occupant failed to serve as the primary focus of mortuary ritual. Texts do contain references to burial places and to subsequent rituals enacted at the interment locales of important named ancestors (see data from Copan, Bell et al., 2000, and Marc Zender, from priestly urn burials at Comalcalco, Grube

3 Many of the royal names in GillespieÕs work reflect older spellings (Martin and Grube, 2000, is now the recommended text). Kan BÕahlam is a name that, in part, is ‘‘written phonetically,’’ as it has two syllabic qualifiers, ka and ma (cf. Gillespie, 2001, p. 87). There is no ruler known as Yikom but rather a Yuknoom, whose regnal name employs entirely different morphemes (cf. Gillespie, 2001, p. 89). Muk is certainly read phonetically (cf. Gillespie, 2001, p. 90), although in verbal contexts identified long ago by Peter Mathews (published recently in Mathews, 2001).


et al., 2002, pp. II-48, 51, 53–55). Most epigraphers now believe that muk (possessive form is expressed as u-muk-il) is the common term for ‘‘burial’’ with only rare use of the term muknal. Muknal may impart a very different sense, perhaps of ‘‘cemetery’’ (an example occurs on Seibal Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, position DD1). Known instances of the muk expression coupled with their widely ranging calendrical dates have been compiled by Houston (and published in McAnany, 1998, Table 1); significantly, these references are often part of a text that describes an el-naah or ‘‘fire-house’’ event. From Piedras Negras Burial 13, for example, we recognize that this remarkable ritual included the reopening and burning or incensing of a tomb which resulted in the crushing and disturbance of mortuary furniture. There is little evidence to support an interpretation of this rite as commemorating a ‘‘social’’ as opposed to a ‘‘biological’’ death; rather, it is a social ritual commemorating the biological death of a key ancestor. Such events were held at the place of final interment of the ancestorÕs body, timed to coincide with an auspicious anniversary date, and likely were orchestrated by descendants of the blood line.4 As Stuart (1998, pp. 402–409) and Grube (2000, pp. 104–105) have suggested, ‘‘fire-house’’ rituals likely assuaged concerns with ‘‘feeding’’ and maintaining the vitality of deified ancestors and their containers. Maya (royal and otherwise) continued to conduct rituals around the bodies of ancestors well after initial interment and, presumably, as long as the dead maintained their status as social interlocutors. Thus, a closer reading of textual and archaeological evidence offers some resistance to GillespieÕs goal of depersonalizing royal Maya tombs but does support her assertions that Maya royalty maintained active connections with their ancestors. One tomb for which there is a uniquely close correspondence between text and tomb occupant is that of the famous ruler of Palenque, KÕinich JanahbÕ Pakal I, who was buried beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions. The discovery of his tomb in 1954 by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier forever changed our understanding of many Maya

4 For a compelling example of the continued potency of anniversary dates in Maya mortuary ritual, see SanfordÕs (2000) account of the reburial ceremonies held in villages in Highland Guatemala for named and identified victims of the genocidal atrocities of the 1980s.


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pyramids. Ironically, an extensive text (617 glyph blocks in length) carved on three panels placed in the walls of the temple clearly identifies the pyramid as the burial place of Pakal, although given the rudimentary state of Maya epigraphy in 1954, the text could not be deciphered. Today, the situation is much improved, and the final portion of the West Tablet text can be read as follows (Robertson, 1983, Fig. 97): y-ak’-aw/juun-tan/ b’olon-yeht-naah/u-k’ab’a-u-muk-il/k’inich-janahb’ pakal-k’uhul-b’aakal-ajaw. This unusually explicit text can be translated, ‘‘he [KÕinich Kan BÕahlam, the son of Pakal] gives it, the 9 Companion (?) House, [it is] its name, the burial of KÕinich JanahbÕ Pakal, holy lord of b’aakal [the place name of Palenque].’’ In short, one might say ‘‘the writing is on the wall’’; the text appears to be transparent, obviating the need for involved discussion. The house, in this case, the temple sitting atop the pyramid, was the ‘‘gift’’ of Kan BÕahlam who appears to have fulfilled his filial duty to complete a memorial to his father. The building is described explicitly as the ‘‘guarded’’ or ‘‘tended thing’’ (juuntan) of Kan BÕahlam, but the burial underlying it is identified as that of Pakal. Gillespie (2001) skirts the explicit content of the text carved on the West Tablet and goes on to question whether the Temple of the Inscriptions really was a monument to Pakal and whether Pakal himself actually was interred within the sarcophagus. This line of questioning is bolstered by reference to dated arguments regarding the discrepancy between the age of Pakal as it was established osteologically (40–50 years) as opposed to epigraphically (80 years). Osteology is regarded by Gillespie and others as definite and privileged knowledge, epigraphy is held to be indefinite and loosely interpretative. This line of questioning denies one of the most explicit linkages between text and tomb occupant in the Maya region, along with objections by knowledgeable anthropologists familiar with the difficulty of aging human remains (Houston, 2001, p. 170; Hammond and Molleson, 1994; Urcid, 1993; Vera Tiesler, a physical anthropologist, has re-examined the bones and now come down in favor of the older estimate for Pakal, personal communication, 2002). The relevance of this example to GillespieÕs notion of collective (as opposed to individual) action can be further questioned because the decipherment strongly suggests a case of filial duty (and guardianship of the temple covering the burial shrine) as opposed to a corporate activity of a vaguely defined royal house.

The depersonalization of Maya tombs also runs into resistance offered by the burial goods placed within the chambers. Although some objects within tombs were ancestral heirlooms (McAnany, 1998, pp. 281–284, among others), royal Maya tombs are distinctive and somewhat unique in the Americas in that they also routinely contain objects on which a single personÕs name is painted or carved. That name, moreover, often matches that of the royal person who is thought to have been interred at a particular locale. This custom of ‘‘name-tagging’’ objects (Houston et al., 1989) is limited to elite tombs and does not occur in the mortuary deposits of non-elites where hieroglyphic texts are rare to nonexistent. The pattern suggests that there is a clear link between persons of authority and the material possessions that formed part of the necessary goods assembled by survivors in order to prepare the deceased for a journey to the afterlife. These objects are not easily explained as representing the collective valuables of a kin group (cf. Joyce, 2000b, pp. 202–210). Even heirlooms were labeled as objects of specific ancestors (mam, Stuart et al., 1999, p. II-63) and belonged, so the glyphs say, to certain people, not to corporate entities. We do not disclaim the social dimension of mortuary ritual, namely, that burial pyramids were constructed by large groups that were variously constituted. Nor do we dismiss the fact that death ways and burial accouterments, in the end, are determined by the survivors. Nevertheless, the identity of royal tomb occupants appears—in the examples discussed above—to have been maintained rather than blurred by surviving family members. The tendency may have been hyperexpressed among members of ruling families for whom personal and charismatic power likely constituted an important part of effective rulership with reverberations among the generations that followed. On the other hand, the more limited power base of Classic-Maya non-elite, household heads and constituent members seems to have translated into a mortuary pattern in which the identity of the occupant was sometimes overshadowed by concerns for survival and maintenance of the surviving household.

The ‘‘House’’ of constructionists: one size fits all Recently, there has been a growing interest in Levi-StraussÕ concept of ‘‘house societies’’ and a re-examination of its applicability to ethno-

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graphic and archaeological contexts unexplored by Levi-Strauss (e.g., Gillespie, 2000a,b,c). By now, scholars understand the merits of this model, particularly its ability to describe corporate entities that are heterogeneous in composition through use of the ‘‘house’’ trope, which accommodates and labels groupings according to something other than bloodlines and descent. We have explored the model ourselves and found rather rare glyphic evidence of it in hieroglyphic inscriptions (Houston, 1998, p. 521). Nonetheless, we become uncomfortable when it is freely applied to evidence that cannot be used to prove or disprove its existence. Gillespie (2001, p. 98) asserts that only the aristocracy had ‘‘houses,’’ but this narrowing cannot be shown for the Classic Maya. If ‘‘houses’’ sensu Levi-Strauss were so abundant, why did the Maya not mention them aside, perhaps, from one text, found by Houston, at the site of Tamarindito, Guatemala? In this inscription the mother and father of a local ruler are said to come from different ‘‘structures’’ or exogamous ‘‘houses,’’ naah (Houston, 1998, p. 521). In early Colonial texts, Highland Maya readily mention nimja and Nahuatl speakers calpolli or teccalli, the last translates as ‘‘lord houses’’ (Braswell, 2001, p. 317; Chance, 2000, p. 495; Lockhart, 1992, p. 16). In contrast, ‘‘houses’’ or naah of Classic Maya texts belong to deities and, by mortuary references, to specific people, never explicitly to corporate entities (Houston and Stuart, 1996, p. 294). The situation is even less corporate in reference to the term y-otoot, which is a home or dwelling with an obligatory pattern of pronominal possession; that is, a yotoot is always described as in the possession of someone, as opposed to a co-residential group. In our opinion, a socially salient entity should have achieved more rhetorical prominence than this. More to the point, it is unclear how the ‘‘house’’ concept can be disproved. Many of its general attributes fit with archaeological evidence, but that would also be true of other corporate entities. If only nobility had ‘‘houses,’’ how did they coexist and interact with other corporate groups, particularly the extended family compounds of non-elites? It is unwise to argue that any one view of Maya social organization trumps others. The emphasis within Maya hieroglyphic texts on royal persons and their position within long genealogical sequences do not provide much support for a house society model that prioritizes co-residential groupings of limited time depth over bloodlines.


For the royal Maya component of Classic society, a model of ‘‘court societies’’ provides a more relevant construct. Such societies, focused on rulers and their court establishments, offers as useful a basis for comparison as Levi-StraussÕ lumping of noble houses in Europe with the Yurok pit-houses of North America. For us, a court is the central vortex of many traditional hierarchical societies, including some that continued into the early Modern era, with similar patterns of social coalescence and faction, patronage and material production, consumption and privilege, if not with all the extreme features detected by Norbert Elias in the court of Louis XIV (Adamson, 1999; Asch and Birke, 1991; Burke, 1992; Duindam, 1994; Elias, 1983; Elliott and Brockliss, 1999; Inomata and Houston, 2001a,b; Smuts, 1987). The concept and its varying dispositions can be shifted with little violence to other parts of the world, particularly to the Maya area where highly developed notions of sacred rulership afford a hospitable milieu (Houston and Stuart, 1996, pp. 289–290). As currently fashioned, the ‘‘house’’ concept does not provide much space for the properties of court societies or their crucial axes, the rulers and their families, but rather emphasizes the coexistence of similarly constituted heterarchical groups. ChanceÕs distinction between Nahuatl calpolli, ‘‘big house,’’ and the ‘‘shadowy institution’’ of teccalli ‘‘lord house’’ (Chance, 2000, p. 485; see also Lockhart, 1992, p. 62) provides a more useful analogy to Classic Maya society, particularly when the teccalli lord was also a king (Chance, 2000, p. 488). To be effective, the ‘‘house society’’ model would need to take account of hierarchical networks among ‘‘houses.’’ The ‘‘house society’’ model sensu stricto may be more appropriately applied to non-elite Maya society, where mortuary patterns and stratigraphic sequences indicate a focus on the house as a longterm durable container through which generations of kin cycled (McAnany, 2003). The ‘‘house society’’ model can be stretched to encompass all sectors of Classic Maya society only through a highly selective and decontextualized reading of hieroglyphic texts and by ignoring salient ‘‘nonhouselike’’ characteristics of royal Maya court society, such as the emphasis on bloodlines. Hearkening back to excesses of Lewis Henry Morgan, this type of reductionism flattens the pronounced hierarchical structure of Classic Maya society and, in our view, will yield only meager transcultural insights.


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Discussion and conclusions Mauss, a good nephew to Durkheim, tended along with his compeers to privilege the social over the physical, although to be sure his studies of the body led potentially into different directions (Mauss, 1950). ‘‘Constructionism’’ descends worthily from that tradition insofar as it questions ‘‘natural’’ categories, to the extent of risking the disadvantages of a totalizing approach. Descent by reckoning of blood ties and non-affinal kinship are downplayed at the expense of cultural constructions. We will not replay old debates about kinship terminology (Scheffler and Lounsbury, 1971; Schneider, 1968, with fresh ammunition from Kuper, 1982, p. 92), but suffice it to say that the physical must be recognized. For Scheffler and Lounsbury, ‘‘genealogical connections’’ consist of ‘‘culturally posited forms of interpersonal connectedness that are held to be direct consequences of processes of engendering and bearing children’’ (Scheffler and Lounsbury, 1971, pp. 37–38). Bodies and bloodlines matter, be it in a humble household or a palace court (McAnany, 1995, pp. 22–26). Contrary to the tenets of idealism, we assert that physical existence exists and that, in their embodied gut, most archaeologists would agree with us. ‘‘Essentialism’’ may be the bogeyword of cultural studies and its archaeological offshoots (Gosden, 1999, p. 198; Johnson, 1999, pp. 85, 87), as well as the very antithesis of Richard RortyÕs notion of an ‘‘edifying discipline,’’ which eschews universal commensurability and authoritative statements (Rorty, 1980). But there is no denying that there are common—dare we say essential—experiences to the human condition that stem from the fact that we are a dyadic biological species. One does not have to return to a crude form of Cartesian dualism to acknowledge the role of physicality in human life. Researchers are right to question the wisdom of using occidental concepts in agency models and to move towards more culturally specific concepts of person which situate and often constrain oneÕs actions within a web of social obligations and responsibilities. Yet efforts to recast royal Classic Maya society as fundamentally concerned with the collective identity of a royal house capsize upon epigraphic and archaeological evidence pointing to the hyper-visibility of royal Maya persons, whatever their indigenous understanding. Upon close scrutiny, the application of LeviStraussÕ ‘‘house society’’ model to Classic Maya society is found to be overly reductionistic and

without evidentiary support from royal courts. Recent efforts to overlay the sexual ambiguity of social constructionism on Maya texts and iconography, likewise, collapse upon a closer reading of texts and a fuller contextualization of the significance of deity impersonation. There is value to admitting that cultural categories emerge from mental constructs, but we cannot accept the totalizing discourse of social constructionism to the exclusion of bodies and blood.

Acknowledgments We thank John Clark, Takeshi Inomata, Kevin Johnston, Johan Normark, John Robertson, Robert Sharer, Karl Taube, David Webster, and Norman Yoffee for their useful comments on earlier drafts. However, our theoretical orientation is not necessarily shared by all of these readers.

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