Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Polity Consolidation

By Johnston, Kevin J. | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Polity Consolidation


Johnston, Kevin J., Antiquity


Introduction

Archaic states exhibit oscillations in scale, complexity and integration that reveal vulnerability to fission and segmentation through factionalism, internal rebellion and other political stresses (Feinman & Marcus 1998). Particularly vulnerable to fission were weakly centralized polities like those of the Classic Maya, which lacked the instruments of coercion available to elites in more highly centralized states. To dampen fission, and thus maintain their power and authority, the rulers of weakly centralized polities employed culturally variable, historically contingent `integrative mechanisms and strategies' (Feinman 1998: 114). As Feinman observes, the 'replacement of largely mechanical integrative mechanisms by more bureaucratic, organic strategies' (as defined by Durkheim [1960]) is one of the primary organizational differences between weakly centralized archaic states and highly centralized ones.

Most of what archaeologists know about the operation of integrative strategies in weakly centralized states is the product of historic and ethnohistoric research on preindustrial, nonarchaic political entities. The historical record shows that integrative strategies in weakly centralized polities frequently took the form of competitive displays motivated by political objectives but justified through reference to ceremonial imperatives. The effectiveness (or lack thereof) of these strategies accounts in part for the temporal oscillations in the complexity, scale and integration of archaic states (Feinman & Marcus 1998). For an archaeology of the political dynamics of archaic states, the identification of these strategies and the stresses to which they were responses is an important task.

This paper examines the operation of integrative strategies as exemplified by a distinctive and previously undocumented form of competitive display practised by the southern lowland Classic Maya: the capture in battle, public disfigurement and execution of scribes in the service of enemy royalty. Maya scribe capture illustrates how in weakly centralized polities, competitive display serves as a fission-dampening integrative mechanism.

The political dynamics of weakly centralized states

Ethnographic, historical and archaeological data (e.g. Southall 1991; 1998; Geertz 1980; Tambiah 1976; 1985; Bentley 1986; Feinman & Marcus 1998) show that weakly centralized polities display several distinctive organizational attributes. First, their rulers exercise sovereignty mostly in the primary centre and its immediate hinterland, and thus a king's relationship to those who command ostensibly subordinate centres is one of overlordship rather than direct political control (Southall 1998; Tambiah 1976; 1985). Second, the primary centre's exercise of authority often depends upon the consensual delegation of it by subordinates, who do not recognize the ruler's right to enforce or maintain the relationship through coercion (de Montmollin 1989: 19; Southall 1998: 61-4). Third, because state margins are vulnerable to fission, they frequently break away to form new polities or join rival ones (de Montmollin 1989: 27; Southall 1998: 61; Bentley 1986: 292-3).

To rule, the king of a weakly centralized polity has to do two things:

1 dampen the centrifugal forces that threaten polity cohesion; and

2 hold together the loyalty of those subordinates upon whose support (provided in the form of labour and materiel) her or his power depends.

Although the manner in which kings accomplish these objectives has varied culturally, often it has involved competitive displays of a ceremonial or military nature. For example, in historic South and Southeast Asia, kings ceremonially enacted at capitals human-god relations in which kings played a central mediating role (Geertz 1980; Tambiah 1985; Bentley 1986). Such enactments were competitive because they were designed to improve the king's access to and control over labour (often provided as tribute), much of which resided in sectors of the polity where the king's authority was less developed than that of his subordinates. …

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