Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2002:
William A. Saturno
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University

Archaeological Investigation and Conservation at San Bartolo, Guatemala
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Eastern basal terrace and axial step of Sub-1

Research Year:  2002
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Pre-Classic
Location:  Department of Petén, Guatemala
Site:  San Bartolo

Table of Contents

Investigation and Conservation at San Bartolo
List of Figures
Sources Cited


Research carried out since the mid-1970’s has dramatically altered our ideas about the size and complexity of Preclassic lowland Maya centers. We now know that features such as formal ceremonialism, craft specialization, and urbanism were already well established during Preclassic times. In many instances however, these associations have been hard-won, as Preclassic materials were often deeply buried beneath later constructions (Ringle 1999:183). This was the case with the initial discovery of monumental architecture dating to the Late Preclassic at Uaxactún (Ricketson and Ricketson 1937) as well as with subsequent materials encountered beneath the North Acropolis at Tikal (W. R. Coe 1965). A few sites, namely Cerros (Robertson and Freidel 1986; Scarborough 1991), Cuello (Hammond 1991), Komchen (Andrews V and Ringle 1992), and El Mirador (Dahlin 1984; Matheny and Matheny 1990) were largely free of the overburden restricting insight into early patterns of community organization. Nonetheless, traditional models for the rise of lowland Maya civilization have arisen from decades of archaeological investigation at sites illustrating gradual evolutionary trajectories in which descriptions of Preclassic architecture and artifacts as "simpler", "formative", and "developmental" carried with them clear evolutionary implications (i.e. Smith 1937:3; Coe and Coe 1956:372).

This, coupled with abundant and spectacular Classic period remains, fostered a bias that Maya civilization developed in the lowlands by around A.D. 300, much later than their highland counterparts, suggesting external origins in addition to a slow pace. Thompson suggested:

Such an isolated region as the Petén would hardly have witnessed the beginnings of Maya civilization, which might rather be expected in parts of the Maya area where the stimulus of contact with other cultures should have quickened development–Central Chiapas seems ideal. (Thompson 1954:50)

The work on the North Acropolis at Tikal was perhaps the first to challenge these notions as the farther down they excavated, "the elaborateness and Classic appearance of the discovered structures were no less apparent." In fact things got neither "simpler", nor "cruder", nor more "formative". (Coe and McGinn 1963:26) More recently, investigations in the "Mirador Basin" have revealed abundant Middle and Late Preclassic architectural remains and other manifestations of complex society. In fact some of the largest constructions in Mesoamerica come from this time and region (i.e. Hansen 1998). Settlement surveys at several sites have shown Late Preclassic occupations eclipsing Early and Late Classic densities. In addition, recent research has conveyed a greater appreciation for the sophistication and antiquity of early Maya ritual, deities and art (i.e. Laporte and Fialko 1990, 1995; Hammond, Clarke and Estrada Belli 1992; Hammond 1999, Ringle 1999, Fields 1991; Freidel 1990; Freidel and Schele 1988; Saturno et al. 2001; Saturno et al. n.d.).

Nonetheless, biases persist, and evidence opposing traditional models can often be regarded as simply epiphenomenal. It is hard to consider El Mirador as representative. Its sheer enormity and rapid rise at once illustrate its exemplary nature and that it is unlike anything else we have found in the lowlands. It is a sample of one, and it is decidedly not average.

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Submitted 10/05/2002 by:

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