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Death and Burial among the Classic Maya

Andrew K. Scherer, Baylor University, Fellow 2008–2009

My research at Dumbarton Oaks was directed towards the preparation of a book on Classic Maya mortuary practices. Many scholars treat Classic Maya burials as expressions of a single monolithic funerary tradition. In contrast, my work advances the thesis that although the Classic Maya held certain universal beliefs about death and burial, localized traditions developed regarding the proper treatment of the dead in funerary contexts. My research demonstrates that different Maya polities maintained distinctive funerary rites that distinguished them from the rites performed in other polities.

My research at Dumbarton Oaks focused on the western Maya kingdoms of Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan, and Palenque. These three polities provide particularly interesting case studies; despite their proximity and entangled histories, they developed distinctly different funerary traditions by the Late Classic period. I argue that these differences in part relate to the construction of polity identity at these Maya centers. Importantly, aspects of these polity-specific traditions are replicated across all social strata and also at subordinate communities within these respective kingdoms.

Aside from this primary research project, I co-edited the 2008 research report of the Sierra del Lacandón Regional Archaeology Project, presented the paper Water in the West: Chronology and Collapse of the Western Maya River Kingdoms at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, and lead-authored the article Tecolote, Guatemala: Archaeological Evidence for a Fortified Late Classic Maya Political Border which was submitted and is currently under review with the Journal of Field Archaeology.