Identifying Religion in the Archaeological Record: The Preclassic Lowland Maya as a Case Study


Although much has been written on the Classic Maya religion (A.D. 250-900), little is known concerning its initial appearance and development.  Much of our information on Classic Maya religion comes from hieroglyphic texts, iconography, ethnohistoric sources and ethnographic analogies.  Regarding the Late Middle Preclassic to the Late Preclassic Period (600 B.C. – A.D. 250), all that we have at hand are the material remains themselves (i.e. architecture, artefacts and osteological remains), and there has been difficulty in detecting religious activities from this data alone.  This paper firstly discusses the issues concerning the identification of religious/ritual activities in the archaeological record.  Archaeological correlates of religious activities will then be identified from material remains covering the Late Middle Preclassic and the Late Preclassic Period in the Maya lowlands.  Lastly, the role religion played in the rise of complex society and the establishment of kingship during this period will be discussed.

The Maya both modern and ancient are known to have practised formal religion on both a public and private basis, according to many ethnohistoric, ethnographic and archaeological studies (Landa 1978; Redfield and Villa 1934; Ringle 1999).  Religion is known to have permeated nearly every facet of Classic Maya society, as seen in hieroglyphic texts, and incorporated in kingship rituals (Freidel and Schele 1988; Hansen 1992:10).  The Classic Maya glyph for god is k’u meaning “god”, or “sacred entity”, and temples were considered “god houses” (Houston and Stuart 1996:293).  It is difficult to give an inclusive and satisfactory definition for Classic Maya gods. They may assume special human or animal forms (often both), and embody certain specific natural forces, such as lightning, or wind (Taube 1992).  Each supernatural figure has diverse “aspects” and sometimes overlapping attributes.  Furthermore, there is no one set of gods venerated by all Classic Maya.  Rather, there are localized cults.  Offerings were an essential element of Classic Maya religion, jade or pottery were thrown into cenotes or placed in caves, tombs or sealed into buildings as caches (Evans and Webster 2001:449).  Ancestor worship was also widespread (for more details on Classic Maya religion see Carrasco 1990; Houston and Stuart 1996; Miller and Taube 1993; Taube 1992; Thompson 1970).   Evidence concerning religion during the Late Middle Preclassic and Late Preclassic periods is meagre.  Few Preclassic sites have been excavated and little has been published.  In general, this time period has been dismissed and studies on Maya religion do not make any mention of the Preclassic Period (see Carrasco 1990).

Figure 1: Map of the Maya area with Preclassic Sites (after Sharer 1994: Figure 1.1)

The traditional view of the Middle Preclassic to the Late Preclassic period in the Maya lowlands is a period where many aspects of Classic Maya civilization, such as divine kingship, hieroglyphic writing, and a widespread art style, were in their incipient stages (Saturno 2003) (Figure 1).  The opinion was widely held that that the crystallization of Maya Lowland civilization was not fully elaborated until the Early Classic (A.D. 250-600) (Schele and Miller 1986:107).  Recent archaeological research in the Petén, Guatemala, at sites such as El Mirador (Hansen 1990), Nakbe (Hansen 1992), Cival, (Estrada-Belli 2003), and San Bartolo (Saturno and Urquizú 2003, 2004), has demonstrated that Late Preclassic Maya society was much more advanced than initially thought.  The sequence of architectural innovations in the Maya lowlands provides a visible record of the development of sociopolitical institutions in the Late Preclassic period.  Some of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Mesoamerica were carried out during this time. The El Tigre Complex at El Mirador reached 55m in height and covered 19,600 m², while the Danta pyramid rose 72 m (Hansen 2001). Triadic building arrangements and monumental art on the façades of buildings, representing complex deity portraits, also made their appearance (Hansen 1992:xxx).  It has been suggested that the Late Preclassic Maya expressed political power by the means of such decorated architecture (Freidel et al. 2002:46).  Identifying religion and its role in the rise of complex society during the Preclassic is thus an important avenue of research.

Identifying Religion in the Archaeological Record

There are several issues that need to be addressed when trying to identify religion in the archaeological record.  Firstly, we need to acknowledge that there is no universal definition of religion; it cannot be defined by any set of features.  Archaeologists have offered definitions, “religion can be defined as a specific set of beliefs in a divine or superhuman power or powers, to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator(s) and/or ruler(s) of the universe” (Flannery and Marcus 1996:353).  Yet, alternative definitions have been given by other scholars, Durkheim (1995) does not accept the distinction drawn between natural and supernatural on the grounds that some religions do not themselves make this distinction.  Instead, he stresses the social institution from which religion is inseparable.  Geertz’s (1966) definition of religion avoids both the concept of the supernatural and of a church, referring to religion as a system of symbols with a stress on belief being primary.   As such, it is better to look for “local” definitions of religion (Selka personal communication 2004).  Yet if cultural anthropologists today cannot define religion, when there is the opportunity to actually observe and participate in religious activities, how can it be defined and interpreted in the archaeological record?  At present, not surprisingly, there is no theoretical or methodological approach for studying the archaeology of religion, particularly religion of a society where there is an absence of written records.

Sacred ritual, as opposed to secular ritual, has been defined as, “the system of patterned actions in response to religious beliefs” (Renfrew and Bahn 2000:408).  Such actions are not always clearly separated from other actions of everyday life.  Indeed, religious ritual (stated as ritual from here on) can be embedded within everyday functional activity and thus difficult to distinguish archaeologically.  A good example is the Katchina doll found in the Southwest United States.  These are dolls that children play with but they do depict supernatural beings, and they are used as instruments to instruct children about the society’s religious beliefs (Renfrew 1985:21).  The term ritual is often misused in archaeology as any artefacts that don’t seem to have a function or are not understood are labelled ritual.  Indeed, on what grounds is one pit with animals bones and a few artefacts, dismissed as domestic refuse, while another is seen as a ritual deposit with evidence of sacrifice?   In what circumstances shall we regard small terracotta representations of animals and men as figurines, intended as offerings to the deity and when should we view them as toys (Renfrew 1985:2)?  The recognition of ritual must be on the basis of context and the issue of scale is important.  We need to identify a pattern in ritual practice as a single find of a possible ritual object can easily be dismissed as a toy or ornament (Renfrew 1985:15).

The identification and interpretation of religious structures have always been problematic for the archaeologist.  There is only a small body of theory relating to the archaeology of religion to aid in interpretation.  Indeed, the investigation of religion or ritual from the material remains alone has been seen as being far beyond the limits of valid archaeological inference.  How then can we use the material record in an appropriate way to identify religion?  The cultural anthropologist has various materials at hand in identifying and explaining religious activities, that is; verbal testimony relating to the religious activities of the community; direct observation of religious practices; study of non-verbal records which document the beliefs themselves; and the study of the material remains of religious practices (Renfrew 1985:12).  For the archaeologist, only the last two and more usually just the last one is at his or her disposal, hence this imposes severe limitations for identification and interpretation.   

In the absence of written testimonies, identifying signs and symbols in the archaeological record have been suggested (Renfrew 1985:13; Robb 1998).  Renfrew (1985:13) states that symbols can be intricately entwined with religion and he offers several guidelines in the identification of religious symbols.  The relationship between symbol and meaning may become conventionalized, that is, the meaning is repeatedly and regularly represented by the same form; symbols are often habitually used together within the same context and the form of symbols is often not arbitrary. Yet, it needs to be noted that there is contention over whether symbols indicate meanings or just indicate other symbols (Asad 2002).

Religion in many prehistoric cultures was not something compartmentalized or separated out from society, as is the case with certain religions today.  Religion could be seen as the superstructure in which all other aspects of life were placed, at times all aspects of a material culture could be structured by religion (Insoll 2004:12).  Thus in trying to identify religion in the archaeological record perhaps we should be following a “Durkheimian” model; investigating how religion interacts with other aspects of society.  This is a much more inclusive approach and perhaps a way forward in constructing a methodology for the archaeology of religion.  A word of caution is necessary though, we also need to be careful not to put our own thoughts and preconceptions about what we deem as religious on past societies.  Obviously, we only have our present situation to use as a model, but it should be a flexible model. We must also remember that religion, being part of human cognitive processes, will involve the intangible, the irrational and the indefinable (Insoll 7:2004). As much as we want to we cannot access religious beliefs and they will always remain elusive.

In recent years there has also been a shift in archaeological theory to looking at aspects of human cognition, that is ideology, cosmology, iconography and religion in the archaeological record. This approach has been labelled as cognitive archaeology (Flannery and Marcus 1996).

Some archaeologists have seen this approach as “armchair archaeology” that requires no fieldwork or analysis of any kind, resulting in highly speculative and fanciful assertions about prehistoric religion (see De Bock 1998).  Fortunately, others have tried to address these aspects with appropriate scientific rigour (Renfrew 1985, Marcus and Flannery 1996).  I will try and apply these approaches to the identification of religion in the Preclassic Maya lowlands.  I will be doing this under the assumption that though religious beliefs are mental constructs which cannot themselves be directly recovered archaeologically, those beliefs may direct ritual practices which are performed in buildings and with artefacts that can be directly recovered.

Identifying Preclassic Maya Religion in the Archaeological Record


The majority of Maya sites excavated are dated to the Classic Period, and religion can be investigated in the architecture, sculpture, iconography, and inscriptions on lintels and stelae (free-standing stone monuments).   In contrast, access to and knowledge of Preclassic period occupation at lowland Maya sites is seriously limited.  The reason being that most Preclassic sites were reoccupied and existing structures were modified and/or completely covered by successive architectural activity.  Preclassic construction then is often buried beneath later occupations, as a result, it can be very difficult and costly to access these remains (Healy and Awe 1995:2).  From the little Preclassic remains that have been excavated, we only have a handful of inscriptions to work with.  Indeed, inscriptions from this period are difficult to decipher, as common elements with the known Classic hieroglyphs are rare.  An example would be the glyphs on the Preclassic mural at San Bartolo (Dave Stuart personal communication 2003).   Domestic residences from this period were made of perishable materials and so have left very little in the way of remains.  The larger, permanent structures that do survive, such as pyramid-temples, are by their very nature associated with the ruling group, and so much of our knowledge of Preclassic religion is restricted to the elite’s portrayal of it.   

Ethnohistoric and Ethnographic Evidence

Ethnohistoric documents have been used to identify Classic Maya religion in the archaeological record.  There are several problems in using these documents to understand Maya religion.   The first difficulty relates to the nature of the documents.  The Spanish wrote these documents, with native informants assisting them.  The informant, who may be in the possession of traditions belonging to his people, once exposed to interrogations from a researcher who is foreign to him, may say what he feels is going to please the researcher or fit what he is looking for.  Confronted with questions derived from a different worldview, the informant may not only misunderstand the researcher but may also try to conceal what he considers sacred to him (León-Portilla 1992:315).  Furthermore, the documents were written for a particular audience and authors were biased in what they chose to include and what they chose to leave out.  Thus we cannot take these sources alone as authentic; they need to be corroborated with archaeological data.

According to Houston and Stuart (1996:305), later traditions of Central Mexico and Yucatan are reasonable models for many aspects of Classic period religion. Although the infusion of central Mexican culture into the northern Yucatan at the end of the Classic period did involve the adoption of new deities and cults, “the essential Maya-ness of the religion encountered in the conquest of Yucatan cannot be denied” (Houston and Stuart 1996:304).

It seems that although there are issues concerning the “objectiveness” of the documents themselves, colonial documents from the 16th century onwards can be used to understand the religion of a period up to 1000 years earlier.  In support, we do have Classic inscriptions from monuments to work with, so there is corroborating archaeological data.  Yet, the links between prehistoric cultures and historic cultures become more tenuous the further back in time one goes.  Thus using a 16th-century document to explain the religion of a culture living in 600 B.C. is unreliable and misleading.

Marcus and Flannery, in their work on ancient Zapotec religion in Oaxaca, Mexico, have constructed a model of the ancient religion by analyzing the ethnohistoric documents (the direct historical approach).  Their model consists of isolating elements from these documents, such as temple structures and ritual artifacts, that are likely to be preserved archaeologically, undertaking an analysis of ancient temple plans and a “contextual analysis” of ritual paraphernalia, and finally comparing and contrasting observed archaeological remains with the expected pattern derived from ethnohistory (Flannery and Marcus 1994).  Yet, they stress that when the ethnohistoric record is lacking far less success should be anticipated.  This is the main constraint with using the direct historical approach; it is useful only if there is continuity from the archaeological record to the ethnographic record.  This is true for Oaxaca and this is why their research works well for prehistoric Zapotec religion.  The direct historical approach could be used in Yucatan but not in the Petén, as there is no cultural continuity, nor ethnohistoric documents to rely on.  What method should we use then to study their religion?

There are also problems with the use of ethnography in the archaeological interpretation of religion.  Religion though usually a conservative force, does not remain static over time and changes as the culture changes.  For example, as there are changes in sociopolitical complexity, such as the emergence of the state, religion will likewise change and become institutionalized. Hence, what is described in ethnographies, or ethnohistorical records for that matter, may not be reflective of early periods, such as the Middle to Late Preclassic in the Maya Lowlands.    

Archaeological Correlates of Religion

Renfrew’s discussion (1985:18-19) of religious practice from his work at the sanctuary at Phylakopi, on the Island of Melos, has assisted archaeologists in trying to identify and interpret ritual activity.  Renfrew gives a checklist of seventeen archaeological correlates of religious ritual.  Material remains include ritual images, and special facilities such as altars, benches, pits for libations, and human or animal sacrifice.  In regards to the identification of a religious building, three steps are given; the identification of a cult assemblage; the recognition within it of certain symbols as carrying a religious meaning; and the use of symbols to identify as sacred other contexts whose ritual status might not otherwise be evident (Renfrew 1985:24).

As mentioned earlier Marcus and Flannery (1994) have used the direct historical approach with success in identifying religion among the Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca, Mexico. Marcus (1978) also tried to do the same for the Classic Maya, relying on the three existing Precolumbian codices dating from A.D. 1250-1450, colonial Spanish writers such as Diego de Landa, and recent ethnographies.  The documents showed that the Maya had a full-time priesthood who conducted important rituals in permanent temples of various types.  Domestic shrines were also mentioned.  Lastly, autosacrifice was performed with stingray spines, obsidian blades or knotted cords.  The elements in Maya religion for which archaeological evidence might be sought then would be; the temples which were the architectural manifestation of Maya religion; the burials of priests who conducted major rituals for the nobility and community as a whole; the rituals themselves including the burning of incense, human and animal sacrifice, and ritual bloodletting; and ancestor worship (1978:183).  Acts of bloodletting were represented on stelae, lintels, murals and ceramics during the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), and stingray spines and obsidian blades have been recovered from burials.  Marcus interestingly states that the figures depicted performing autosacrifice on the Yaxchilán stone monuments were women.  These depictions contradict ethnohistorical sources (Diego de Landa) that states women’s blood was not shed and they were not allowed to go to the temples for sacrifices except during one festival involving old women (1978:185).  This could be because of several reasons; perhaps Landa’s data may only apply to the Postclassic period or only to middle or lower class women.  Alternatively, the source could be wrong.  Whatever the reason this is a good example of why, in the absence of corroborating archaeological data, ethnohistory should not be relied upon.

In the identification of religion during the Late Middle to Late Preclassic periods, established elements in Classic Maya religion for which archaeological evidence might be sought will be used.  These consist of temples, ritual artefacts, burials and caches, and iconography and art from architecture.  Renfrew’s checklist (1985:18-19) will also be used to aid in identification.

Archaeological Correlates of Preclassic Maya Religion


Religious ritual may take place in a spot with special, natural associations (for example a cave, a spring or a mountaintop). Alternatively, ritual may take place in a special building set apart for sacred functions (for example a temple or church), and great investment of wealth and resources may be reflected in the structure itself (Renfrew 1985:19).  Pyramids were functionally synonymous with temples in the Maya lowlands and were located within the elite controlled civic/ceremonial core.  These structures prevailed throughout the Preclassic period, existing at sites such as El Mirador (Hansen 1990), Nakbe (Hansen 1992), San Bartolo (Saturno and Urquizú 2003), Cival (Estrada-Belli 2003), Lamanai (Pendergast 1981), and Cerros (Scarborough 1981).  There were two different kinds of pyramidal structures in the Classic period each with its separate functions.  One type had four stairways ascending to a flat, structureless top (Temple E-VIII-sub at Uaxactún), and the other type was the typical “temple-pyramid” with only one stairway ascending the main side to the door of a two-room stone masonry temple (Temple E-I at Uaxactún) (Marcus (1978:185). Both types appeared in the Late Preclassic (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2: Late Preclassic Structure 5C-2nd, Cerros, Belize. An example of a “temple-pyramid” (Sharer 1994: Figure 3.29).
Figure 3: Late Preclassic Structure E-VII, Uaxactun, Guatemala. An example of a temple with four stairways ascending to a flat, structureless top (Sharer 1994: Figure 3.30).

Another category of Preclassic ritual structures, which occurred during the Preclassic period, was round or keyhole platforms.  Based on their form, the degree of energetic investment and decoration, it has been suggested that these platforms served as open stages for the performance of rituals (Hendon 1999:117).  One of the earliest known examples comes from Cuello (Platform 34), a Middle Preclassic round platform built in the centre of a household patio (Hammond, Gerhardt, and Donaghey 1991).

There appears to have been a change during the Late Preclassic in temple construction and residential organization, which has been tentatively linked to religious activity (Ringle 1999:186).   The deployment of local temples within domestic compounds or among clusters of house mounds suggests the involvement of a now more centralized and hierarchically organized cult in this reorganization of residential life.  The placing of large platforms adjacent to local temples is seen at Komchen and the Mirador group of Dzibilchaltun (Ringle 1999:196). Temples then can be seen as a backdrop to ritual performance, with ceremonies enacted within their precincts.  Architectural groups were linked by raised causeways (sacbeob), and at times could have been used as ceremonial procession ways for these public ceremonies (Grove 1999, Ringle 1999:204).


Classic period ballcourts were seen as a place for ritual drama, the games having a public ritual focus (Scarborough and Wilcox 1991).  Panels found on the sides of some courts, such as Chichén Itzá (Cohodas 1978) or El Tajín (Wilkerson 1991), have demonstrated that ballgame symbolism centred on mythical, agricultural and calendric cycles, regarding the sun, moon and other celestial bodies, such as Venus.  Other ballgame interpretations concern dynastic succession, warfare and segmentary lineage organization (Scarborough and Wilcox 1991).   Ballcourts do exist in the Preclassic, for example at San Bartolo (Saturno and Urquizú 2003), Cerros (Scarborough 1981) and Nakbe (Hansen 2001:55), but there is an absence of ballgame imagery from this time period.  Moreover, as the ballgame was played for a variety of reasons, it is difficult to recognize from material remains alone when the game was used for sacred ritual as opposed to secular ritual.

Ritual Artifacts

Although we cannot directly observe Preclassic rituals we can recover the places they were performed.  Ritual must be performed over and over in prescribed ways to be valid, and such repetitive performances lead to patterning of ritual artefact discard (Marcus 1999:70).  Material remains include deity images, altars, human or animal sacrifice, offerings of food and drink, and votive objects, such as figurines (Renfrew 1994:18).  In accordance with religious structures, a great investment of wealth may be reflected both in the equipment used and in the offerings made.  The ritual may employ various devices for inducing religious experience (for example dance, music, drugs and blood letting (autosacrifice)).  The association with a deity or deities may be reflected in the use of an effigy or a representation of the deity in abstract form.  The ritualistic symbols will often relate iconographically to the deities worshipped and to their associated myth (Renfrew 1994:18).

Archaeological correlates for the Preclassic Maya would be figurines as votive offerings, deity effigies, altars, and implements used in autosacrifice, such as stingray spines and knives.  The most common Middle Preclassic ritual artefacts were figurines (believed associated with household ritual) found in many southern lowland sites, primarily in household rubbish.  Excavations in the earliest primary deposits at Nakbe have located numerous figurine fragments that appear to have ritual significance as they were often found in caches (Hansen 1992:179).  This tradition ends during the Late Preclassic when household architecture becomes more permanent and formally arranged and monumental architecture is constructed (Scarborough 1991:132).

According to Classic Maya inscriptions, temples contained effigies of Maya gods, although none have been found for the Classic period (Houston and Stuart 1996:302).  This is not surprising, as effigies would have been made out of perishable materials such as wood or stucco.  We do have one find from the Late Preclassic, a large figure of the rain god Chaak, which was discovered in a cave in Guatemala (Stuart and Stuart 1977:53).  At present we do not have sufficient evidence to state that deity images were used in Preclassic Maya religion.  Altars have been found in the Preclassic, the earliest dating to the Late Middle Preclassic (Nakbe, Altar 4) (Hansen 1992:180).  Stingray spines have also been found in caches during this period. One such example comes from a cache at Cuello (Gerhardt and Hammond 1991:116).

Burials and Caches

Dedicatory caches have been found in the Preclassic period at Cuello (Gerhardt and Hammond 1991), and at Cahal Pech (Powis and Hohmann 1995:71).  There has been suggestion that ethnohistoric descriptions of Maya burial practices could be beneficial to archaeologists (Marcus 1978:182).  For example, a priest is mentioned as being buried with some of his books (codices), and a man who had been a diviner would usually be buried with his stones for divination as well as other instruments of his profession (Marcus 1978:182).  Archaeologists could try to corroborate this data with what is found archaeologically.  Yet, due to the tropical environment, preservation of skeletal remains is extremely limited in the lowland Maya area, and so it is highly unlikely that burials will be found and even more so, books made of bark paper.


It has been proposed that there was a widespread acceptance of religious beliefs during the Preclassic, which is reflected in iconography from material remains (Hammond 1992).  A Late Preclassic jade ear flare depicting four profile heads was found at Pomona, a site in coastal Belize.  Two of the heads were those of the Maya sun god, identified by the glyph for kin “sun” on his cheek. A third was a maize god, and the fourth a deity with the sign for akbal, “darkness” inscribed on his cheek (Hammond 1992:143). The other signs attached to the heads have been interpreted as a statement in Yucatec Maya involving interaction of the gods and the accession of a ruler, perhaps one of the early rulers of Yaxchilan (Justeson et al. 1988).  Similar depictions occur at various other sites.  An offering in the top of Structure 6B at Cerros included four jade heads of three facial types.  An identical offering was found at Nohmul, 28 km to the southwest, in the foundations of another small temple. At least two of the head types have been found northward across the Yucatan Peninsula, a common iconography of what Hammond (1992:142) interprets as three Maya gods.  Together these finds may show us that Late Preclassic Maya already had distinct deity portraits.  Architectural embellishments such as building façades serve as panels for the depiction of deities, during the Late Preclassic, usually in the form of masks.  These modelled and painted stucco masks are found at Cerros, Nakbe, El Mirador, Uaxactún, Tikal, Lamanai, Edzna, and other sites (Grube 1992:2) (Figure 4).  Polychrome murals depicting Maya cosmology, ritual and the nature of kingship in Late Preclassic society also exists at San Bartolo (Saturno 2003).

Figure 4: A painted, stucco-modelled mask flanking the central stairway from Structure 5C-2nd Cerros, Belize (Sharer 1994: Figure 3.29).

In trying to understand Maya religion and cosmology, iconography from Preclassic architectural remains and artefacts have often been linked to specific events in the Popul Vuh, a 16th-century text written in Quiché, from Santa Cruz Quiché in Highland Guatemala.  Hansen identifies the two protagonists on Stela 1 from Nakbe as the Hero Twins of the Popul Vuh or historical figures enacting the roles of the hero twins (1992:140-1) (Figure 5). This is a good example of how cognitive archaeology should not be used and so will be explained in further detail.  Hansen states that the figures are dressed in ritual regalia but, “the presence of belt spools on both figures indicates a possible relationship to ballplayer belts…the identification of ball-player belts is only tentative at this point as I have yet to find these belts on any known ball players in Classic art.  However, if they are ball-payer belts they support my proposition that the figures represent the Hero Twins, since the Twins were ball players” (1992:142).  Firstly, as Hansen mentions, there is no evidence that relates belt spools to ballplayer belts of the Classic period.  Secondly, we do not know if these figures represent ballplayers, and even if they did why do they necessarily depict characters from a text written 1,800 years later!  Hansen, unfortunately, is not alone in his argument.  The San Bartolo murals have been linked to particular events in the Popul Vuh using similar tactics (Taube 2004).  The Popul Vuh is far removed in space and time from the Preclassic Maya.  Furthermore, the Popul Vuh is not purely Maya.  There are strong Nahuatl and Spanish influences in the document (Edmonson 1985:130).  Therefore, it is inappropriate and unreliable to try to link architectural remains and artefacts of the ancient Maya to specific events in the Popul Vuh.

Figure 5: Drawing of Stela 1, Nakbe, Guatemala (Sharer 1994: Figure 3.5).

The Role of Religion in the Rise of Complex Society: the Establishment of Kingship

In Classic Maya rituals, rulers frequently impersonated gods by the wearing of deity masks, clothing and ornaments.  Indeed, royal titles included the glyph for “god”, rulers being seen as “divine lords” (Houston and Stuart 1996:291).   It remains unconfirmed though whether Maya rulers were considered “gods”, as on no occasion has a text stated directly that living kings are gods (Houston and Stuart 1996:297).  A much clearer fusion of gods and rulers occurred when they died, where they are depicted as being transformed into deities or sacred ancestors, for example on the sarcophagus of Pakal at Palenque (Evans and Webster 2001:448).

During the Late Preclassic, in the southern lowlands, there was the spread of an iconographic complex including stucco masks, ballcourts, raised causeways (sacbeob), and imagery associated with rulership.  At Preclassic Cerros, there were hints of an emergent Maya kingship evident on the monumental architecture and associated art (Freidel and Schele 1988).  Certain symbols carved on objects of the Late Preclassic period, such as the Jester God diadem and the Principal Bird Deity, can be identified as insignia of the ruling power because of their consistent association with rulership through the Classic period (Hansen 1992).  The Jester God diadem appeared on Nakbe Stela 1 (Hansen 1992:140), the San Bartolo murals (Taube 2004), and at Cerros (Freidel and Schele 1988).  Manifestations of the Principal Bird Deity, in the Late Preclassic, occurred at El Mirador on Stela 2 (Hansen 1992:128), and on the façade of the mural room at San Bartolo (Davies 2003).

Royal divinity can be reinforced by myth and ritual as illustrated on the San Bartolo murals.  A section of the west wall of the mural room displays two scenes of royal coronation a top scaffolds, one depicts a pair of deities and the other depicts two figures that appear more human.  One of the more human figures in the coronation scene holds a ceremonial bar and is seated on a throne with a jaguar pelt (attributes of Classic kingship) (Saturno 2003) (Figure 6).  The glyph ajaw, meaning “lord” or “ruler” (Montgomery 2002) occurs next to the person.  It is not certain whether the figure corresponds to a god, or an actual king ritually impersonating the god (Taube 2004:21).  Whichever the case, this scene highlights the strong association of religion with kingship.

Figure 6: A section of the West Wall of the mural room, depicting a ruler on top of a scaffold, San Bartolo, Guatemala. Photograph courtesy of Bill Saturno.

Excavations in Structure 5C-2nd at Cerros have led Freidel and Schele to the conclusion that the structure’s, “primary function was to serve as a spatial context for shamanistic royal ritual” (1989:237) (Figure 7).  They state that Preclassic pyramids were initially designed as public arenas for shamanistic performance and that the mortuary functions of the Classic-period royal temples reflect institutional evolution.  This is another instance of “armchair speculation”.  Freidel and Schele do not give reasons for their interpretation.  Little work has been carried out on Preclassic pyramids, and so it is too early to say that Preclassic pyramids did not function as mausoleums.  Indeed, not all Classic period pyramids housed the remains of kings either.

Figure 7: A Reconstruction of Structure 5C-2nd at Cerros (Freidel and Schele 1989 Figure 15.4).

An interesting avenue of research is how religion and religious ideology was incorporated by an emerging elite as a prime mover in the cultural dynamics of Preclassic Maya society (Hansen 1992:12).  Investigations in the Mirador Basin identified a sudden and radical incorporation of religious ideology in major architectural, artistic and sociopolitical systems, during the Late Preclassic period, which could reflect an ideological transformation throughout the Petén.  The changes that occurred at these sites were as follows, (1) religious architecture was built for the most part in a single massive effort, reflecting a new direction in government priorities, (2) new and radical architectural forms, and ritual paraphernalia were introduced, reflecting a change in administrative priorities involving religious ideology in the formation of society, (3) this architecture involved the greatest investment of labor and materials, reflecting how religion become a priority of government (Hansen 1992:18).  This fusion of large-scale religion and the legitimation of governmental authority became a distinguishing characteristic of Classic Lowland Maya civilization.  Hansen’s work is a good example of trying to follow a more inclusive and tangible approach, in investigating how religion interacts and influences other areas of the archaeological record.  Instead of focusing on traditional factors such as population pressure, environmental circumscription, and warfare for the rise of complex society among the Preclassic lowland Maya, we can look instead at how the institutionalization of religion may have been one of the causal factors in the emergence of complex society.


The identification and interpretation of religion and ritual activity in the archaeological record are not an impossible feat.  Yet, it can only be done under suitable circumstances and with appropriate rigour.  We must carefully use the materials we have at hand and realize there are constraints on the data.  As much as we want to, we cannot access religious beliefs and they will always remain elusive.  It is particularly important to emphasize this point, as the archaeology of religion (cognitive archaeology) is an approach that has great potential for “armchair speculation” with imagination replacing archaeological fact.  The study of material remains is one technique archaeologists can use, but it cannot be used alone.  It is extremely difficult to study a culture’s religion without access to other materials, such as the written record.  The method of the direct historical approach is a useful way for studying cultures that do have cultural continuity and an ethnohistorical record. Yet, there are many ancient cultures for which we do not have these resources.  Archaeologists need to address this problem and try to tackle, when appropriate, this aspect in their work.  Local models for prehistoric religion are long overdue.

The focus of this paper was to try to identify religion during the Late Middle to Late Preclassic periods in the Maya lowlands, using established elements in Classic Maya religion for which archaeological evidence might be sought.  These included temples, ritual artefacts, burials and caches, and depictions in iconography and art.  From this data several features of Preclassic religion can be given.  There is evidence of household ritual in the Middle Preclassic that is later subsumed under an elite-controlled religion reflected in the temple-pyramids.  Bloodletting occurred in rituals and bloodletting implements were buried in caches. There seems to have been distinct deities at this time, evidenced from ritual objects, stucco masks and mural scenes.  Interestingly, religion played a role in the sociopolitical organization and the emerging power of elites. Admittedly, this is only a first step in the understanding of Preclassic Maya religion, more focused research needs to be carried out in order to broaden our knowledge.

Another vital area for future research is how religion affects other aspects of society, be it social, political or economic.  Maya religion was an important part of everyday life and studying Maya society without recourse to religion, is studying an incomplete society.  There needs to be a step away from viewing religion as a purely mental activity and a move towards how religion leaves tangible results on other aspects of society, such as influencing settlement and architectural distribution and organization.  Recent research has shown that the Preclassic was a transitional period where the elements of Classic Maya civilization were falling into place.  Archaeologists are beginning to realize that more work needs to be done in understanding the rise of complex society.  It is critical that religion and the role it played in Maya Preclassic society are included in this research.

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