Prudence M. Rice and a team of American and Guatemalan archaeologists will examine processes of societal survival and regeneration through the famous Classic southern lowland Maya civilizational "collapse." Investigations focus on the Great Ballcourt at the site of Nixtun-Ch'ich', on the western edge of Lake Peten Itza, Peten, Guatemala, which thrived from the late Early Preclassic (ca. 1000-800 B.C.) into the Postclassic and historic period (early 18th century).

Societal survival through collapse depends on many factors, one being mechanisms that enhance socio-political integration and group solidarity. In Mesoamerica, the ballgame is one such mechanism; with deep mythological significance, its earliest formal court of play dates to 1400 B.C. Nixtun-Ch'ich's Great Ballcourt architectural complex boasts a playing alley >100 m long and 30 m wide, the largest ballcourt in the southern lowlands, and it resembles in size and plan the Great Ballcourt at Chich'en Itza (to the north in Yucatan, Mexico). Nixtun-Ch'ich's ballcourt is hypothesized to have been a key setting for public rituals of integration, accompanied by displays of competition and feasting. It is proposed that these, together with yet-unknown politico-economic ties to Chich'en Itza in the north, furthered the site's survival during the Maya "collapse."

Project objectives include: (1) dating the construction of Nixtun Ch'ich's Great Ballcourt complex; (2) examining the complex's use in public ritual through evidence of feasting; and (3) investigating relations with Chich'en Itza's ballcourt complex through architectural and ceramic comparisons. These objectives will be achieved through a clearing and excavation strategy that involves: (1) determining the exact dimensions of the ballcourt playing alley; (2) shallow transverse trenching across one of the ballcourt's structures; (3) deep test-pitting to investigate construction history; (4) identifying archaeological deposits (middens) behind (exterior to) the court, as evidence of feasting; and (5) testing ancillary structures for evidence of superstructural remains comparable to those at Chich'en Itza.

The intellectual merit of the project lies in answering questions about why some societies collapse and others continue, and what conditions result in irreversible declines while others permit continuity or regeneration. In studying one large Maya center that forestalled decline while others succumbed to "collapse," seeds of continuity can be examined through the integrative mechanism of public ritual and feasting associated with the ballgame. Relations with Chich'en Itza, a large, distant site with a similar ballcourt complex, will also be explored.

This research contributes to general questions of societal collapse and regeneration, deepening understanding of the role of public ritual as a socio-political integrative mechanism. It provides a better understanding of the complex mosaic of the southern lowland Classic Maya "collapse" and the role of the Mesoamerican ballgame. The project contributes to the history of the Itza Maya, whose descendants still reside on the shores of Lake Peten Itza, and returns to them their Classic-period history of survival through collapse. In addition, Guatemalan students will be trained in archaeological field and lab techniques and the results of the work will incorporated into a local museum that is focused on the archaeological history of the region.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
United States
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