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Posted On February 19, 2021 | 09:21 am | by mayw | Permalink
Alejandra Roche Recinos unearths classic Maya obsidian trade networks

Alejandra Roche Recinos, PhD candidate in anthropology at Brown University, is a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her research report, “Regional Production and Exchange of Stone Tools in the Maya Polity of Piedras Negras, Guatemala” proposed a new understanding of Maya marketplaces and production through lithic study.


Q&A with Alejandra Roche Recinos 

What do we know about Maya markets, and what do we still have to learn?

We have evidence from historical sources from central Mexico and a little bit from the highlands that tell us what Maya markets might have looked like and what was sold there. Sources describe markets as big areas where people came in, set up their goods, and sold and prepared them, and we even have imagery, like the murals at Calakmul, depicting people selling and buying goods. But we don’t yet understand how markets worked more broadly in the sense of standardized currencies, prices, or regulations. I am trying to understand the economic dynamics of the region, such as how goods moved between production sites and marketplaces and who participated in this trade.


What have you learned from Piedras Negras and Budsilha? 

For my dissertation, we excavated this big open area at Piedras Negras that previous projects had suspected—because of the configuration and goods found—might have functioned as a marketplace. Previous studies found artifacts ranging from stone goods to bones, ceramics, and shell. We returned in 2016 and 2017 and conducted further research there, and we found lots of half-produced and finished goods and raw materials. We also found a lot of sand, which is strange because plazas or other ritual spaces usually had stucco rather than sand floors. But sandy floors would make sense if goods like the stone and ceramic ones we found—or even ones of less durable organic material like textiles—were produced there, because they could have just buried waste or other excess materials under the sand. And high foot traffic, as might be expected at markets, would have damaged stucco floors but not sandy ones. I’m also looking at a subordinate site to Piedras Negras called Budsilha, where we found remnants from the production of obsidian blades, which the main site of Piedras Negras lacked. Given the political relationship and physical proximity of these two sites—they are about ten kilometers apart—we made the connection that the two sites were probably trading obsidian goods.

Usually when archaeologists have studied markets or places of production, they have assumed that someone, like a ruler, controlled the goods being imported, produced, and purchased, but we have found this was probably not the case for this specific market and workshop. First of all, the marketplace allowed for the distribution of artifacts beyond the elite class, and was probably not as restricted as people have proposed in the past. People from different echelons of society could go to the market and acquire goods, even goods like obsidian. While obsidian was not very common in Piedras Negras compared to other sites, every household still had obsidian goods. And in the obsidian production site in Budsilha, we see evidence they had trade networks with other areas in the region, including other sites that were enemies of Piedras Negras, so it seems like Budsilha was probably trading goods on their own without necessarily being controlled by this main site.


Why is lithic study important for understanding the classic Maya? 

I think lithics—not just because I study it—are very important, especially in the Maya area, because preservation is terrible. Perishable goods like textiles or plants preserved elsewhere are not preserved in Mesoamerica. But goods made of stone are still here, and by studying the production process we can understand what people were making and how they were trading it to different areas. There are idealized production chains of how goods, like blades for example, were produced from big pieces of obsidian. The waste tells you what stages of production happened at each site or in different areas, how obsidian arrived at the site, and whether it arrived in big chunks or smaller ones. Also, obsidian, which is a volcanic glass, can be traced to very specific places, so you can know that it moved from area A to site B some 400 kilometers away. The fact that the stone can be easily traced to its source helps us understand trade networks and production in an area. 

Also, lithics are exciting to study in the context of Maya markets because we can start to think about the role of women in these spaces. People don’t usually think of women as producers of goods that were sold, but in markets that’s totally different. Markets in Latin America are predominantly female spaces; it’s women who go there and establish their own exchanges and social networks, and in Maya markets it was probably the same. The mural evidence at Calakmul shows women selling goods, so it’s interesting to think about women as having more of a role outside domestic spaces—it’s possible they were also knappers and making their own tools.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.