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Building on the Past: Temple Histories and Communities of Practice at Caobal, Petén, Guatemala

Jessica Munson, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, Junior Fellow 2010–2011

My dissertation project examines architectural changes and ritual practices associated with monumental buildings at the minor ceremonial center of Caobal during the Preclassic (ca. BC 900–250 AD) and Classic periods (ca. 250–850 AD). Located near the ancient Maya city of Ceibal, Caobal dates among the earliest Maya sites with monumental architecture in the southern lowlands. Excavations from this site provide important data to investigate the relationship between community formation, ideology, and the development of political institutions in ancient Maya society. My research demonstrates two key transitions in the organization of community ritual practice during the Preclassic period that have important implications for political centralization in later centuries. First, I examine how organized communal gatherings can precipitate social inequalities. Second, I argue that formalization of these practices and their architectural setting promotes social cohesion but also creates tension within the community. The integration of Caobal into a more centralized political system, organized by Ceibal elites, marks the early stages of institutionalized power in the Preclassic period.

While at Dumbarton Oaks I wrote drafts of five chapters for my dissertation, published one article, and prepared two coauthored articles for submission. The library resources were instrumental for researching comparative case studies in the Maya area and developing a comprehensive literature review on theories of power, ideology, and social inequality. The time and space afforded by this fellowship gave me the opportunity to think critically and holistically about these ideas. Daily conversations and exchanges with other fellows, staff, and visitors at Dumbarton Oaks have inspired and challenged my scholarly thinking.