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Cuello: An Early Maya Community in Belize.

Although Cerros and Cuello show signs of occupation as late as Postclassic times (15th century AD), both communities thrived much earlier in the Preclassic or Formative Period. Coastal Cerros is best known for its Late Preclassic phase, from c. 300 BC to AD 150, and Cuello for its long Preclassic sequence extending from the Swasey phase in 1200 BC to the Terminal Preclassic, c. AD 200. The terms 'Preclassic' and 'Formative,' not unlike the term 'pre-dynastic' used in Mesopotamian and Egyptian studies, reflect the history and orientation of the discipline as much as they reflect ancient reality. We anchor ourselves to a time in which rulers, or someone who knew about them, left records of their reigns, and everything is seen to fall before, after or in-between. Maya archaeologists have always been anchored to the Classic Period of lowland tropical urban splendour, when the writing media of dynastic recording expanded beyond perishable materials such as bark-paper and wood to include monumental stone and painted pottery. Though temples in some lowland Maya cities reached their greatest heights by Late Preclassic times, it was during the Classic Period that masonry architectural expansion and renewal seem to have been the order of the day.

Despite its Classic tether, the Preclassic now suffers in name only. Intensive excavations like those carried out at Cerros and Cuello are helping us to see what we have always called 'Classic' Maya achievements as part of a continuum with deep roots in the lowland Maya past. A viable parallel in the Old World would certainly be the Ubaid and Uruk periods on the Mesopotamian flood-plain, when what would come to be known as the culture and religion of the Sumerian dynasties were formed.

Of the two Belize publications in question, both essential reading for Mayanists, the Cuello volume will be found easier to use by non-Mayanists for two reasons. The first is that it is a complete final report on excavations, and includes 11 separate chapters on different aspects of the work by different authors; thus anyone with an interest in a particular aspect of reporting or analysis would find his or her way easily to the relevant section. The Cerros volume is part of a large, multi-volume series on the site's excavations edited by David Freidel. Except for its focus on the Preclassic, Scarborough's volume is not comparable to the Cuello publication in coverage or format. The second reason why non-Mayanists might find the Cuello report more interpretable is that the first chapter is geared to a general audience. It summarizes what is known about Maya prehistory and sets the Cuello work within this frame. Beyond this, however, and like the Cerros volume, the remaining chapters have the most meaning for those in the field of Maya studies. In the Cerros volume, Scarborough is concerned with the settlement and environment of the Preclassic community. As ruins were mapped, so also were the different types of standing vegetation that covered the site. The mapping of vegetation was important because it served to indicate areas of prehistoric quarrying, canal construction and intensive settlement build-up. From this and from excavation data Scarborough has been able to reconstruct the environment at the time of initial colonization through the changes brought about by increasingly intense settlement and trade activity. He tracks the growth of the community from the nucleated village stage during the Ixtabai phase (c. 300-200 BC) when the inhabitants were dependent on local resources, through the C'oh phase (200-50 BC) when the main canal was excavated around the site, to building expansion and residential aggregation in the Tulix phase, (50 BC-AD 150), when the community was characterized by regional interaction and long-distance coastal trade. The canal, one of the highly interesting features at Cerros, allowed canoes access to interior portions of the site but also served as a drainage device, although water run-off is also believed to have been held in reservoirs or 'canal basins' for use during the dry season. During the Tulix phase there was a great deal of construction in the central precinct, and the agricultural landscape included raised fields. Scarborough's comprehensive and well-planned chapter on the settlement excavations is expectedly the longest in the volume, because it presents the raw data that were ultimately synthesized to present an overall picture of the Cerros settlement pattern. A mound typology, devised on the basis of form, size and groupings, has been used to stratify the sample. The lack of standing masonry architecture means that emphasis has been placed on size of mounds and their groupings. An unexpected result of the Cerros survey and excavation is the lack of burials from the settlement zone, in contrast with the 31 burials that were recovered from an area underlying the central ceremonial precinct that was sealed and apparently protected by plaza floors. Scarborough believes that, outside the central precinct in the settlement zone, the high seasonal water-table coupled with the stone construction core of the mounds promoted rapid decomposition of bone and organic matter. The dearth of burials in the settlement zone is perhaps made up for by the presence of two Late Preclassic ball-courts. Scarborough feels that the degree of similarity of the two courts suggests that the ball-game was already standardized by Preclassic times. In the final chapter of the volume, Scarborough places Cerros within a wider northern Belize and greater lowlands context. The most unusual feature about the site is its almost complete abandonment during the Early Classic period. For archaeologists, this turned out to be an advantage in that the Preclassic remains were not buried by masses of Classic construction. Why Cerros was abandoned is a fascinating question, and it is in the final chapter that Scarborough addresses the issue. He proposes that Cerros' demise was connected to realignments in political power. Elsewhere in the lowlands, some centres began consolidating large constituencies, while others lost their support. This is not an unknown phenomenon in the growth of urban civilizations, and Scarborough's suggestion is intriguing. The upshot is that some centres grew at the expense of others, and part of this growth involved monopolizing symbols of power. Cerros' position as a centre of regional trade through which luxury goods passed may have made it particularly vulnerable in this regard. The Cuello volume, because it is multi-authored, provides a wide variety of information about the site. In addition to the general introduction that discusses Maya civilization and Cuello's position in Maya prehistory, the remaining chapters cover: the history of the work at Cuello from 1975 to 1987; the reconstruction of the Preclassic sequence from earliest to latest phases; the ecology and economy of the site; the ceremonial core; household and settlement change; the skeletal population; craft production; external contacts and trade; and ritual and ideology. The final chapter by Hammond summarizes the results of the work, and in fact provides a range of information that is most helpful as an introduction to the volume; it should be read first, along with Chapter 1.

Hammond's contributions, but also the volume in general, are well written. Hammond's prose is polished, his grasp of comparative literature is impressive and his organization of the volume well done. His editing has produced consistency and clarity in explanation, and the volume succeeds admirably not only in presenting a wide range of information about the site but also in integrating the information in a way that enables us to envision a three-dimensional, living community. This is particularly important in view of Cuello's considerable time-depth. As Hammond notes in Chapter 1, by the mid 1970s Early Preclassic occupation had been documented in other regions of Mesoamerica such as the Pacific Coast of Guatemala and Chiapas, the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca and the Maya highlands. It began to seem odd that Early Preclassic occupation in the Maya lowlands was so elusive. Cuello was to change this with the discovery of occupation dating to the late 2nd millennium BC a phase now widely known to Mayanists as 'Swasey'.

Both of these volumes are valuable contributions to Maya studies. Although their approaches differ, both provide integrated pictures of the substantial population growth and centralization that took place in the Maya Preclassic Period. They also help to document the emergence of elites, the emergence of a coherent iconography and the trend toward centralized control. Knowing more about the deep roots of such forces at these two lowland centres has already begun to help us make a lot more sense of Maya civilization's florescence.

ELIZABETH GRAHAM Department of Anthropology, York University, Ontario
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Author:Graham, Elizabeth S.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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