The Actuncan Archaeological Project directed by Dr. Lisa LeCount conducted summer excavations funded by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration at the ancient Maya site of Actuncan in Belize, Central America. Using the corporate-network leadership model, the Project evaluated material and symbolic resources found in two elite households and an E-Group (a commemorative astronomical civic complex) to determine if corporate leadership persisted into the Classic period (AD 250 to 1000) at the site after network-based leadership arose in other polities, such as Tikal. The 2013 field season was one of the largest so far with six graduate students and four Ph.D. researchers supervising 26 Belizean men and women in the field and lab. University of Alabama personal included Dr. John Blitz, Luke Donohue, Borislava (Bobbie) Simova (now in the Ph.D. program at Tulane), and Emma Koenig, as well as others from Washington University in St. Louis, University of South Florida, and University of Mississippi (Figure 1).
To test the nature of early Maya leadership, the Project conducted excavations at two elite households, Strs. 29 and 73 that, based on their size and location, are likely candidates for an early ruler’s residence at Actuncan. Investigations at the site’s E-Group also examined the nature of early Maya leadership. Studies have shown that the onset of dynastic kingship, and accompanying transition to network-based authority, was marked by a shift in caching and burial practices at civic monuments. Initially, ritual practices revolved around the placement of caches in sacred monuments, but later, rulers’ ancestors were interred in them to fuse human and divine realms allowing living kings to claim descent from divine ancestors. However, the timing of these practices is site dependent, presumably tied to the timing of the shift from corporate to network-based authority.
Excavations at the two elite structures found that occupants of these houses occupied a similar social status, conformed to an architectural style canon, and displayed a uniform identity. During the height of the center’s authority, each house sported an apron molding (Figure 2). This façade style has pronounced top and bottom edges that frame a central register made by stacking and tenoning limestone blocks, which were ultimately covered in stucco and painted red. Apron moldings are not unusual in the Maya lowlands, but they have not been reported for this area. At Str. 73, the apron molding is substantially larger than that at Str. 29 or any other elite house at Actuncan, measuring at least 2 m high (Figure 3). The amount of labor required to build Str. 73 would have far exceeded that of other elite houses indicating its construction required extra-household labor. Structure 73 also is auspiciously located given that it is the closest house to the Triadic Temple Complex. For these reasons, Dr. LeCount suggests that Structure 73 is likely the early king’s house. Nonetheless, this house does not display a significantly different layout nor does it appear to be substantially wealthier in material possessions than other elite households. These findings confirm that early leadership strategies at Actuncan were corporate in nature.
E-Groups are monumental complexes containing an eastern platform and a western radial pyramid, which are thought to function as solar observatories and locations for Preclassic agricultural rituals. Excavations at Actuncan’s E-Group, directed by Luke Donohue, began in front of the central pyramid on top of the eastern platform. After locating the central staircase, he discovered caches and artifacts associated with rituals performed on these stairs. Staircases were the location of many activities including feasting, dancing, performances, presentations, offerings and sacrifices. At Actuncan, Donohue found features associated with many of these, including a staircase cache, a termination deposit, a staircase block burial, and chert eccentrics. Eccentrics are large formally shaped lithics used as offerings to ancestors, deities and sacred places (figure 4). Their position on top of the collapse suggests that they were placed there after the building had fallen apart. These practices are consistent with other instances of revisitation and veneration of sacred houses and monuments found at the site. On the summit of the pyramid, stacked stone represents the remains of a late altar. The pyramid itself was built of alternating cobble and sterile sand fill, and in one layer, many large bifaces interpreted as agricultural hoes were found. These ritually cached hoes indicate that the construction of this pyramid was tied to agriculture or annual cycles.
This summer’s excavations lend evidence to suggest that early kingship at Actuncan was more corporate than exclusive in nature. Research in the summer 2014 will continue excavating to date the earliest levels of the E-Group, and also be directed at completing two Ph.D. research projects.