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Expanding the Ritual Landscape: Politicized Use of the Spaces Outside of Caves during the Late Classic Maya Collapse


The 7-10th centuries C.E. collapse of the social, economic, and political systems of the Classic Maya in the Southern Lowlands was prompted by a series of long-lasting droughts, overpopulation, and deforestation. Across the Lowlands, the ways in which the events of the “collapse” were handled varied by region. During this period of chaos and transition, major changes occurred in the way that rituals were conducted in the Southern Lowlands. Caves, believed to be the source of clouds and rain, the entrance to the underworld, and a symbol of creation and life, had been coopted as sacred spaces early in the development of Maya social complexity by the elite classes for ritual performances to legitimize their positions in society. As the prosperity of the Classic period was upended into a period of chaos and volatility, the growing dissatisfaction with the divinely-appointed elite classes caused the populace to begin to question their world order. The inefficacy of the rulers of the Southern Lowlands in maintaining the established order during the events of the collapse was evident. The dramatic increase in water-related rituals taking place in caves during the collapse and their subsequent and widespread termination in the Southern Lowlands after elite abandonment is indicative of the crisis of faith that accompanied the ritual failures of the rulers during the collapse.

To date, very few studies of Maya cave archaeology have included the exteriors of caves, and no single systematic evaluation of the patterns of such exterior modifications has ever been conducted. In this dissertation, I turn to these archaeologically neglected spaces and introduce data from eleven cave sites across Belize which demonstrate that it is during the collapse that caves across the Southern Lowlands had their exteriors modified for the first and only time. I propose that it was the crisis of the Late Classic collapse that drove various groups to formalize the areas outside of caves for first time in order to expand public participation in their efforts to maintain order and reinforce a sense of community identity and social solidarity that was in real danger of being lost.

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