What role did religion play in the origin and development of the earliest states (societies governed by bureaucracies)? Did religion become "bureaucratized" as part of the state formation process? Questions such as these will guide the excavations that will be carried out in the temple precinct of the archaeological site of El Palenque, near San Martín Tilcajete in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico. Previous investigations at El Palenque recovered evidence of early state institutions dating to 300-100 BC, including a large royal palace and a pair of specialized, multiroom temples. These discoveries have made El Palenque a key site for investigating the evolution of early state organization in ancient Mexico, which is one of the handful of places on the planet where early states evolved in a pristine fashion -- the others include Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, China and Peru. Since all these developments took place before detailed written records were kept, they are most effectively studied through archaeology.

Two seasons of excavation in El Palenque's temple precinct are designed to test the hypothesis that a specialized priesthood made up of a hierarchy of priests and other religious specialists developed along with other state institutions between 300-100 BC. The available historical accounts of Aztec and Zapotec temple precincts indicate that a full-time priesthood might be manifested archaeologically by the existence of priestly residences adjacent to the temples. Also potentially detectable through archaeology is the range of activities that the historical accounts report were performed regularly by the priests and other religious specialists in the temple precinct. The proposed excavations in El Palenque's temple precinct will focus on the areas adjacent to and behind the two multiroom temples discovered previously. An international team of archaeologists from the United States and Mexico led by Drs. Elsa Redmond and Charles Spencer will conduct the excavation. The data collected on the structures, activity areas, features, artifacts and ecofacts adjacent to the two morphologically distinct temples have the potential to shed significant light on the timing and development of religious institutions--multiroom temples staffed by a hierarchy of priests and other religious specialists-- in the process of early state development.

The project's broader impacts include the training of two female Mexican students, who will participate in the excavations and in the preliminary laboratory work. Two Spanish-speaking students from the New York area will assist in data processing at the American Museum of Natural History. The project will cultivate close collaborations with local colleagues and townspeople in Oaxaca.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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American Museum Natural History
New York
United States
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