Another book I’ve read recently that isn’t directly related to Chaco is A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya by Linda Schele and David Freidel. This is something of a classic by now; it was among the first popular works on the Maya to incorporate the results of the recent and considerable changes in Maya studies made possible by the decipherment of the Maya writing system. It’s a lively, readable book with a very clear agenda: telling the “untold story” of Maya history, as related in the Maya’s own recently deciphered words, to a modern audience for the first time. As a result, the tone is very pro-Maya, with frequent pauses to reflect at length on the brilliance and creativity of Classic Maya civilization. This is understandable, of course, given that Schele and Freidel are both archaeologists who played key roles in the revolution in scholarly understanding of the Maya. They do have a tendency, however, to slow down the pace of the storytelling with these passages, and it might have been preferable to spend more time just telling it and letting the achievements of the Maya speak for themselves.
Another potentially more serious issue with the book is that it is told as history when it’s really archaeology. That is, although the inscriptions can be read, there is still a considerable amount of uncertainty about both what they say and what they mean. Schele and Freidel present their interpretations as established facts, but in the copious endnotes they make it clear that there is still a lot of disagreement within the field about a lot of things. Much of this may have been resolved by now, of course, since the book was published in 1990 and some parts are surely a bit dated, but it may not all have been resolved in favor of the interpretations Schele and Freidel put forth.
Despite these potential problems, this is still a good book. The stories it tells are complicated and not always easy to follow, but such is the nature of the events described. Schele and Freidel definitely succeeded in their aim of presenting the story of the Maya to a broad audience, and the gist of it shines through even if the details are a bit murky or controversial. Certainly for a nonspecialist like me it was an excellent introduction to a topic I know little about.
It also provided me with some quite useful parallels to Chaco. This is a lot closer in both time and space to Chaco than the other books I’ve read recently on different subjects, and I think the Maya are a particularly useful place to look for analogies, if we are indeed going to do that, to help explain Chaco. The main reason is that here we have the only example of an indigenous American civilization which left a written record we can now read. We can see the Maya world the way the Maya saw it, or at least the way the literate elite among the Maya saw it, and we therefore have a much better understanding of the structure of Maya civilization than we have for almost any other precolumbian culture.
The evolution of scholarly interpretations of the Maya is also eerily relevant to Chacoan studies, since there was a marked shift during the twentieth century from a consensus view of the Maya as peaceful astronomer-priests to a new consensus view, once the inscriptions were deciphered, that sees them as warmongering shaman-kings. The implications for understandings of Chaco, which over the same period have oscillated and splintered in various ways between the poles of peaceful egalitarianism and violent imperialism. While it’s extremely unlikely that there will be any breakthrough in Chaco research comparable to the decipherment of the Maya glyphs, the possibility of major shifts in understanding should be borne in mind, and the direction of the shift in this particular case is also noteworthy.
More specifically, there are two parts of A Forest of Kings that I found particularly relevant to Chaco. The first is an early chapter, about the beginnings of Maya kingship, which focuses on a place called Cerros, in Belize, where a Maya community apparently began to develop into a city-state led by a king and marked by a central complex of integrative ceremonial architecture, including pyramids, but then for some reason abandoned that type of organization and went back to their previous way of life, which was apparently a fairly egalitarian system based on subsistence-level farming and fishing supplemented by considerable trade. This happened quite early in Maya history, before the widespread adoption of writing and public inscriptions, so the interpretations here are all based on architecture and other traditional archaeological realms of inquiry. Even more intriguing, this rise and fall of local kingship seems to have happened quite rapidly, perhaps within a hundred years.
The parallels to Chaco here are remarkable. The Chaco system was impressive, but quite short-lived, with its major period of florescence only being about a hundred years. It has also been interpreted by many scholars, whom I have termed “Aberrationists” (though I’m now thinking that may not be the best way to categorize Chacoan research), as having a degree of social complexity well beyond that seen in the modern Pueblos. Some archaeologists, most notably Steve Lekson, have even argued for centralized rule by powerful individuals who could be termed “kings.” That’s a rather extreme position not accepted by many, but the short duration of the Chaco Phenomenon and the ambiguous evidence for social hierarchy suggests that something like what happened at Cerros could be one way to see Chaco: a tentative move toward centralized, hierarchical leadership, but ultimately unsuccessful. The reasons for the failure of this experiment, of course, would still be murky, but that would be the case anyway.
The next few chapters after the one on Cerros are the heart of the book, and they go through a series of Classic Maya city-states describing particular episodes in their history, as recorded in their inscriptions. This is all quite interesting in and of itself, but not particularly relevant to Chaco, which definitely never reached anything like the level of hierarchy and centralization evident at places like Tikal and Palenque.
The last of these chapters, however, talks about the Postclassic era, after the collapse of most of the major city-states in the southern lowlands and the rise of the polities in the Yucatan. Some of these, such as Uxmal, were fairly orthodox Maya kingdoms, but they ultimately succumbed to the power of a very different type of polity: Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza has long been understood as being quite different from other Maya kingdoms. It arose later, shows a considerable amount of influence from other parts of Mesoamerica, and has many fewer public inscriptions and much more monumental art. This was long interpreted as indicating a conquest of an originally Maya kingdom by invaders from central Mexico, considered “Toltecs” since the time period was that generally associated with a “Toltec” hegemony (though this interpretation of central Mexican events has since been questioned, on which much more later). Schele and Freidel argue persuasively, however, that the Itza rulers of Chichen Itza were quite Maya in most respects, but innovative and cosmopolitan in others. They consider the adoption of Mexican motifs part of this overall openness to outside ideas, and interpret the lack of inscriptions during the height of the city’s greatness as a deliberate strategy by its Maya leaders rather than the result of a conquest by illiterate Toltecs. This interpretation is supported by clear archaeological evidence that the “Maya” and “Toltec” portions of the city were largely contemporary.
The innovations of the Itza went beyond architecture and art, however, and included, at least in Schele and Freidel’s telling, a shift away from the “divine king” model of governance, in which authority is vested in the individual monarch as intermediary between the city and the gods, toward some sort of rule by a council or committee of lords, the exact nature of which is hard to determine given the dearth of inscriptions. In this corporate type of leadership, the divine aspects of kingship are more abstract and transcend the individual nature of any particular person. This apparently allowed the Itza to conquer their rivals in other parts of the peninsula and incorporate them into a stable empire, something the squabbling kingdoms to the south had never been able to do. Schele and Freidel attribute the long-lasting stability of the Itza hegemony in the Yucatan in contrast to the remarkable collapse of the southern kingdoms to this creativity and innovation, although the details remain a bit murky.
The relevance of this to Chaco lies not only in the lack of inscriptions, which is however interesting, but in the corporate leadership. This is similar to some of the models proposed by the “Continuationist” side to account for the apparently greater complexity of Chacoan society compared to the modern Pueblos. (Again, I’m not as enthusiastic about the labels as I was before.) Rather than kings, which Lekson sees in Chaco, these scholars see corporate groups, perhaps clans or religious societies, holding the strings of power. The leaders of these groups would be “faceless,” not drawing attention to themselves in the manner of a traditional king or chief, though they may still have had considerable wealth and prestige, as represented in things like grave goods. The corporate leadership of Chichen Itza, a capital far larger and more elaborate than Chaco ever was, suggests that this sort of organization may be quite plausible for a complex society. Interestingly, Chichen Itza also seems to be roughly contemporary with Chaco.
These parallels are quite interesting, and I think illuminating, in showing the possibilities for social organization in precolumbian America. Direct connections between the Maya and Chaco can, however, be safely ruled out, I think. In addition to the distance, which is a big enough problem on its own, a mere glance at the physical manifestations of the two cultures is enough to make direct influence pretty dubious. I look at Maya iconography and architecture and it looks very alien. Both aesthetically, with its exuberant elaboration, and technologically, with its use of huge stone blocks and plaster molding, Maya architecture is worlds away from the spare geometric forms of Pueblo buildings, and the same goes for other aspects of material culture such as pottery. The parallels are more abstract, and while they may reflect common Mesoamerican themes transmitted to the southwest from the other end of the Mesoamerican culture area, it is more as analogies and examples of possibilites that they are useful for understanding Chaco.
One of the major issues in Chacoan studies for which I think a Maya perspective is enlightening is the recent contentious issue of whether such power and hierarchy as existed in Chaco was “ritual” or “political” in nature. The “ritual” side tends to be associated with the school of thought I have termed “Continuationist,” which sees Chaco as more of an egalitarian society united by a common religious or ideological system, while the “political” side is associated with the “Aberrationist” school, which sees Chaco as more of an integrated, hierarchical polity. Lynne Sebastian, in a book chapter I seem to keep coming back to, criticizes this dichotomy specifically and suggests that looking at a wide variety comparable societies around the world may shed more light on these back-and-forth disputes. Here I follow her advice by seeing what light the Maya example sheds.
Quite a bit, it turns out. The way Schele and Freidel present it, Maya kingship was hierarchical, political, and ritual all at once, and voluntarily accepted by the populace to boot. The king was unquestionably the supreme political (and military) leader of his city, but the source of his power was his ability to perform rituals in which he summoned the spirits of divine ancestors to harness the power of the Otherworld for his people’s benefit. Thus, one of the main activities of Maya kings was organizing the construction of monumental structures in which these activities were carried out, including pyramids, ballcourts, and vast plazas for the people to gather in to watch the king’s actions on their behalf. For the Maya, it seems, there was no meaningful distinction between “ritual” and “political” power. It was all the same, and it was manifested in the person of the king, who was obligated to wield his awesome power for the benefit of his people or risk the collapse of his kingdom. The eventual collapse of all the Classic Maya kingdoms indicates that this was a very real possibility if a king was unable to deliver what his people needed.
The implication of this for Chaco should be clear. Disputes over “ritual” versus “political” power seem a bit silly in this light. This starts to seem like a false dichotomy and an artifact of our own culture’s tendency to divide aspects of society into separate compartments and deal with them individually, which is not at all a universal characteristic of human societies. In many, perhaps most, traditional societies (including, crucially, the modern Pueblos), the ritual is the political, and political power often flows directly from ritual authority. This still doesn’t really address the question of hierarchy, of course, but it does suggest that a strong role for ritual in the Chacoan system is quite compatible with a hierarchical political system, though there are of course many counterexamples showing that this association is by no means necessary.
Thus, comparison to the Maya case reveals that at least one argument about Chaco is not likely to produce much insight. This has a broader implication as well: in at least some cases, though surely not all, the fact that even after all this research on Chaco we have so few answers suggests that maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.