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Objects of Power on the Edge of the Maya World: Early Copan Acropolis Tombs, Offerings, and Special Deposits

Ellen E. Bell, California State University, Stanislaus, Turlock, CA, Fellow 2010/11

My time at Dumbarton Oaks has been among the most productive and enjoyable periods of my academic career. The fellowship provided me with the time, resources, and mental space necessary to explore the roles of ritual deposits, monumental architecture, and social memory in narratives of political legitimacy in Classic-period Maya kingdoms. My project takes as its starting point primary deposits in the early levels of the Copan Acropolis excavated by members of the University of Pennsylvania Museum project (1989–2000). It then broadens to contextualize these deposits and their contents within the Maya world. This study will be published as a monograph, divided into two principle parts: descriptions of the tombs, burials, offerings and other deposits, and a detailed artifact catalog with extensive comparative material.

During the course of the year, I completed the bulk of the deposit descriptions and made substantial progress on the artifact catalog. I began the term with a thorough review and (re)organization of the object database and assembled the site reports, artifact catalogs, and exhibition catalogs for the comparative project before delving into the deposit descriptions. Following the incredibly productive Dumbarton Oaks Copan Acropolis workshop hosted by the Pre-Columbian Studies Program in January, I spent a large portion of the second part of my fellowship term combing the extensive Dumbarton Oaks Library holdings of published site reports and exhibition catalogs for comparative materials, and I leave with both a partial draft of the comparative section and an extensive compendium of citations and examples.

As my work progressed, I discovered unexpected treasures in the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Museum collections, greatly expanding my understanding of the roles certain objects and vessel forms played in Early Classic funerary practices, as well as the extent of connections Early Classic Copan rulers enjoyed both within and beyond the Maya area. One chance discovery highlighted the use of butterfly imagery in the Margarita Tomb at Copan, and initiated a deeper exploration of this iconography and its meaning.

Dumbarton Oaks has been a haven, providing both the opportunity for spirited discussions with colleagues and the peace and quiet needed to complete projects. In addition to my core project, I submitted one journal article, one book review, and one Proceedings volume paper; made final revisions and copyedits to two chapters in edited books; presented five lectures (3 academic, 2 public); and completed most of an article on social memory at Copan, all of which form part of my investigation of life, death, and dynastic ritual in the Classic-period Copan kingdom.

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