Structure abandonment and landscape transformation: Examples from the three rivers region

Lauren A. Sullivan, Jon B. Hageman, Brett A. Houk, Paul Hughbanks, Fred Valdez

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Studies of landscape (e.g., Brady and Ashmore 1999; Stanton and Freidel 2005) and social organization (e.g., Fowler and Hageman 2004; Gillespie 2000b; Joyce 2000; McAnany 1995) have recently become prominent in Maya archaeology. Thomas (2001) has suggested that the former is an embodiment of the latter, in that landscape can be considered the result of practices and relations conducted as part of the reproduction of social organization. Taking this idea a step further, Bradley (2002) has examined the relationship between a society's perception of its past and the modification of its landscape. A lived landscape represents the interpersonal relations that existed among peoples of the past, as played out over the centuries (Thomas 2001:173-174). In particular, land can be connected through ancestry to the people who reproduce their social organization in the form of various structures on its surface. For example, the clearing of the land by ancestors (and the landscape that emerged) "provided a continuous reminder of the relationship between the living and past generations, and consequently [of] lines of descent and inheritance" (Thomas 2001:175; see also McCall 1995). The continued use of a specific place over time would draw attention to the "historically constituted connections which exist between members of a community" (Bender 1999, cited in Thomas 2001:175). Yet the deliberate abandonment of certain areas or structures can also reveal aspects of community organization and group identity. Landscape, then, is a means by which seemingly disparate practices and relations of the past can be addressed. In this chapter we explore the implications of the relationship between landscape and social organization in an effort to understand why the Maya of what is now northeastern Guatemala and northwestern Belize destroyed and rebuilt certain buildings over the centuries while leaving others untouched. The manner in which buildings were constructed and distributed across the landscape has the potential to reflect the relationship among the elite, other members of society, and their connection to the past. Data from the Three Rivers Region (Figure 4.1) focus on the changing nature of architectural space and structure use, how these changes may reflect elite activity, and how the deliberate abandonment of structures reflects shifts in power. The cultural meaning of specific buildings was such that some architectural forms were demolished or modified, while others were left relatively untouched. Each of the three examples included here focuses on different aspects of these behaviors. The data from Río Azul detail the ritual burial and complete abandonment of Str. G-103, as well as the subsequent relocation of the site's primary temple complex associated with a takeover by Tikal. Structure abandonment is also observed during the Terminal Classic at the sites of Chan Chich and Dos Hombres. At both of these sites, the ritual destruction of elite residences signifies a change in the way architecture and space were viewed and coincides with significant political and social transformations that occurred throughout the Maya area. In contrast, the third example, from the site of Guijarral, shows the continued use (ca. 200 years) of a shrine (Str. A-8) that served as a constant reminder to the living of their ancestors. While other structures at the site were torn down and rebuilt, the shrine was not. All the examples included here demonstrate how the use, reuse, and redefinition of public and private space suggest a complex pattern of constantly changing social, political, and physical landscapes.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRuins of The Past
Subtitle of host publicationThe Use and Perception of Abandoned Structures in The Maya Lowlands
PublisherUniversity Press of Colorado
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9780870818882
StatePublished - 2008


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