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Tracking the Maya after Classic collapse.

Tracking the Maya after Classic crash

Archaeologists have known for some time that the collapse of Classic Maya society around A.D. 900 did not lead to the disappearance of the once-mighty civilization. Several sites in the northern lowlands of Yucatan and Belize remained inhabited until around A.D. 1100, and new dynasties arose in the southern high-lands following the Classic collapse, although the majesty of the Maya's "golden era" vanished.

But the picture now emerging from excavations at several lowland sites, including Nohmul in northern Belize, provides "a totally unexpected sidelight on the nature of Maya society at the time of the collapse," says archaeologist Norman Hammond of Boston University. "A small number of densely populated centers developed while Classic cities were foundering. These sites flourished for decades or perhaps a century."

Hammond and his co-workers describe recent work at Nohmul in the just-released spring issue of JOURNAL OF FIELD ARCHAEOLOGY and suggest further work may reveal new insights into the Classic Maya collapse. Their investigations have extended from 1982 through 1986. The scientists mapped large areas of the settlement, surveyed artifacts and excavated public structures as well as private dwellings.

Nohmul displays an unusual "two-humped" settlement profile, Hammond says. A massive construction program took place in the first few centuries A.D. Two groups of buildings were erected and linked by a causeway. Structures include an acropolis, several pyramid-shaped temples and broad plazas laid out on large platforms.

Construction at Nohmul slumped after A.D. 400 and the site center was largely abandoned. "It became a ghost town," Hammond says.

But around A.D. 800, when the first rumbles of the Classic Maya collapse struck the civilization, Nohmul experienced a rebirth. Maya workers raised a number of large buildings in, on and between the earlier ruins. The new occupants lived in various types of dwellings, some built at ground level, some raised on low platforms and others grouped on large platforms. The wide range of living quarters points to a diversity of social levels in the community, according to the researchers.

In addition, a Maya ballcourt from the latter phase of development has been partially uncovered. Similar ballcourts are found in Classic-era cities beginning around A.D. 250. No records explaining how to play the Classic Maya ballgame have been found.

The peak population of Nohmul is difficult to estimate, Hammond says, but it was a medium-sized city of several thousand people. Pottery uncovered amid the ruins indicates settlers from northern regions in the Yucatan peninsula migrated to the site and became part of the population surge.

Nohmul's pyramids have yielded several human burials in limestone-slab crypts, Hammond says. One grave contains obsidian cores dated at around A.D. 1000. Individuals in the graves may have been among the Nohmul elite for whom the pyramids were built.

Several other cities being excavated in the northern lowlands underwent comparable building booms in the 9th and 10th century A.D. The Nohmul investigators suggest populous, densely packed communities arose in the northern lowlands during the decline of much larger Classic Maya cities to the south. A closer look at this phenomenon may shed light on the "perpetually vexing question" of why Classic Maya civilization hit a dead-end, they conclude.

For now, Hammond holds that over-population stretched Classic Maya resources and managerial systems to the breaking point, causing a political and economic collapse. Residents left the cities in the resulting power vacuum, some heading north to help found communities such as Nohmul.

Other researchers lay much of the blame on near-constant warfare during Classic times and a loss of faith in Maya kings as divine beings (SN: 6/7/86, p.360).

Whatever the case, investigators led graduate student Dirk Van Teurenhout of Tulane University in New Orleans will return to Nohmul in 1989 to begin the first of two more seasons of fieldwork.
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Title Annotation:excavations in Belize reveal new insights into collapse of Classic Maya society
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 10, 1988
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