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TEXTILES AND THE MAYA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RECORD: Gender, power, and status in Classic Period Caracol, Belize

  • Arlen F. Chase (a1), Diane Z. Chase (a1), Elayne Zorn (a1) and Wendy Teeter (a2)

Abstract

Textiles formed a major part of any ancient Mesoamerican economy. Based on ethnohistory and iconography, the Maya were great producers of cloth for both internal and external use. However, the archaeological identification of textile production is difficult in any tropical area because of issues of preservation. This paper examines the evidence for the production and distribution of cloth that is found in the pre-Columbian Maya area and then focuses on archaeological data relative to textiles from the ancient Maya city of Caracol, Belize. Archaeology at Caracol has been carried out annually from 1985 to the present and has resulted in the collection of data that permits insight into the economic production and social distribution of cloth at the site. This is accomplished through examining the contexts and distributions of spindle whorls, bone needles, bone pins and hairpins, bone awls, and limestone bars. All of these artifacts can be related to weaving, netting, or cloth in some way. Importantly, perforated ceramic disks are not included in this grouping because of contextual information from the archaeological record that these artifacts likely functioned as backings for ear assemblages. Spindle whorls are the artifacts most clearly associated with textile production and 57 of these have been recovered at Caracol, 38 of them in 20 different burials. Several of these interments are of high-status women placed in the most important architectural constructions at the site. The contextual placement of these burials stresses not only the link between women and weaving, but also the high status associated with such an activity, thus signaling the importance of cloth and spinning in ancient Maya society. The prevalence of female interments in the major ritual buildings at Caracol also reflects the importance of women to Maya social structure during the Classic period (a.d. 250–900), pointing to difficulties in hieroglyphically based interpretations of ancient Maya social organization and suggesting that the traditional focus on males in the sociopolitical organization of the Classic Maya is incorrect.

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Corresponding author

E-mail correspondence to:achase@mail.ucf.edu

References

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