This story was originally published by Knowable Magazine.
Until the past few decades, archaeology was all about the grand
and the wealthy, focused on temples, palaces and spectacular
artifacts — think King Tut’s tomb, or the great temples and palaces
of the Mayan city of Tikal. Jeremy Sabloff, an archaeologist now
retired from the University of Pennsylvania and the Santa Fe Institute, was part of the generation
that changed that. Sabloff built his career on the study of the
common folk of the Maya civilization of Mexico and Central America,
mapping and excavating entire cities to study who lived where, and
In the 2019 Annual Review of Anthropology, Sabloff
looks back over the 50-plus years of his career and reviews
what archaeologists have learned about the Maya
through the study of settlement patterns. Knowable
Magazine spoke with him about the archaeology of common folk.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why had archaeologists overlooked the commoners for so
Before World War II, archaeological research was funded mostly
by museums or wealthy individuals or foundations. They wanted
spectacular finds — temples and palaces, not the remains of
perishable structures of everyday life. They wanted royal burials,
such as King Tut’s tomb, the royal treasures of Ur, great
sculpture, murals, beautiful pottery, jade, what have you. They
were looking for materials that they could bring back and display
And why did that change?
Until the middle of the 20th century, much of archaeology was
also carried out by people of wealth. The makeup of the field
changed significantly after World War II, and its practitioners
became much more middle class. One reason is there were a lot more
jobs available, particularly at state universities. And you started
to be able to get grants for fieldwork that wasn’t based on looking
for objects or spectacular finds. All of this is related to the
switch from the 1 percent to the 99 percent, as I’ve flippantly
For the Maya area specifically, the galvanizer was Gordon Willey at Harvard. He had already been a
pioneer in what was called the settlement pattern approach: He
wanted to see the whole settlement of an archaeological site, not
just the major buildings. He was just as interested in mapping the
remains of perishable wooden thatched houses, what little was left,
as in stone temples and palaces. It’s not that houses of ancient
Maya peasantry had been ignored, but Willey was the first to
concentrate attention on these and say: How can we understand Maya
society as a whole?
This concern with settlement pattern, with looking at the 100
percent instead of just the 1 percent, not only broadened our
understanding, but completely changed it. The older view of the
Maya was of a non-urban, peaceful people ruled by
priest-astronomers. The elaborate temples people had found at Tikal
and elsewhere were thought to be merely ceremonial centers with
minimal populations, and not cities in their own right. But mapping
projects at Tikal and other places showed that they weren’t just
ceremonial centers — there were large numbers of remains of houses.
These were actually urban centers of some kind. That totally
changed the understanding of the pre-Columbian Maya.
Why did you choose to focus on the archaeology of
There are really two answers to that. One is, I was a student of
Willey’s. I started in 1965 on a project in the tropical rainforest
of Guatemala that was looking at the full range of Maya remains. So
I was thrust into that. But also it was related to my general
interest, which was: How do we understand the development through
time of Maya civilization? Clearly, if you were going to ask
questions like that and get useful answers, you had to look at the
full range of ancient Maya society.
How do you study settlement patterns?
We want to get a sense of the distribution of all the kinds of
housing and how they’re situated on the landscape, and in
particular find information about the inhabitants of the different
kinds of architecture through detailed collection of materials on
the surface, and excavation where that was possible.
One of the projects that I co-directed was at the site of
Sayil in northern Yucatan, south of modern-day Merida.
We wanted first of all just to produce a map of the urban area, so
we could get some idea of the extent and nature of the structures.
One reason we chose to work at Sayil is that there had been very
little disturbance after the 16th century. Where there had been a
wooden thatched house, the single row of stones that supported the
wooden poles of the walls was still there, so you could actually
see the layout of rooms, the platforms they might have been built
on, and so forth.
We also did a little excavation of these more perishable structures,
so we could fill in a little more. Could we get a sense of
household composition? How many rooms would a family have had? What
would we find in the kitchen area? One of the interesting things we
found is that open spaces between houses, which used to be thought
of as small plazas or something, in fact were vegetable gardens
where they’d been growing beans, squash, tomatoes and so on.
We found stone tools made of obsidian, which is not available
locally. So you start getting into questions of trade.
Economically, where could you find marketplaces? What was being
sold there? Were goods accessible to both elite and non-elite, or
are some things available only to one and not the other? All of
those let you ask questions about how the ancient society
functioned, and also how this might have changed through time. It’s
a much richer picture of pre-Columbian ancient Maya society.
The richer picture we’re getting of the 100 percent is aided by
tools that archaeologists 50 years ago just didn’t have available.
In terms of settlement-pattern mapping, one of the huge technical
breakthroughs in recent years is remote sensing, particularly
LIDAR, where low-flying aircraft or drones send down laser beams
and you can see the ground without the trees. You can see stone
courses. You can see the remains of houses, causeways, roads,
defensive fortifications. That’s going to make the mapping of sites
much simpler, particularly in difficult situations like tropical
rainforest or a heavily wooded area. We’re able to cover much
bigger areas with much greater detail and accuracy than ever
before. New LIDAR-based studies in the Southern Maya Lowlands are
showing that many pre-Columbian Maya cities were more extensive
than previously thought, although these new data are awaiting
confirmation by on-the-ground research.
What were the lives of commoners like?
First of all, what we learned is it’s difficult to talk about
Maya peoples as a whole at any one time. Throughout the Maya area —
and that covers parts of modern-day Mexico, Belize, Honduras,
Guatemala, El Salvador — there was a great deal of variability,
both through space and through time. Someone living in a small town
in Northern Yucatan may be different from Maya living in the
highlands of Guatemala or Honduras.
It’s an agricultural society. But clearly you had artisans of
all sorts. Some of them are family-based, producing pottery, stone
tools, decorative materials; others — for example, weavers or those
making especially beautiful painted pottery — might be supported by
Has looking at the whole picture given scholars a
different view of postclassical Maya civilization?
One of the best sites for understanding that is the city of
Mayapan, not too far from modern-day Merida in the Yucatan. There’s
been work going on there for a number of years by a large
international team. This was a walled city that thrived mainly from
the mid-13th to mid-15th centuries. It was thought to be a decadent
period — Maya gone downhill — because you didn’t have these large
investments in beautiful architecture, in the temples and
But we found that economically and socially, things were just as
complex, if not more complex. The rulers of the city weren’t
sinking their capital into grand architecture or elaborate tombs,
they were using it to develop warehouses, trading routes, boats —
all the infrastructure of local and long-distance trade. To my
mind, that’s not decadent at all.
Are there lessons we can learn from the Maya that apply
Classical Maya civilization collapsed in the 9th century, but
the Maya didn’t disappear — there are over 10 million Maya speakers
today. What allowed them to continue after their cities collapsed?
This gets into questions of population growth, of warfare, drought and climate change, which are
all relevant. Answers to those aren’t necessarily going to solve
modern problems, but I’m a firm believer that there are potential lessons from the past. What were they
successful at? What did not work? How were they resilient in the
face of drought or warfare? Obviously the pre-Columbian Maya and
other ancient states are different from today, but they can at
least give background and context to illuminate modern problems. I
think this is why archaeology classes are still booming around the
And archaeology goes on up to the present day. There’s a huge
interest in this country in the archaeology of slavery. Even though
that’s recent history, the written history did not give you the
same kind of detail of the lives of the slaves as they did of the
people living in the main house. Archaeology is helping reveal
There are archaeologists looking at the remains of homeless
camps to try to get more insights into something that’s happening
today. That’s an example of a fuller archaeology of all the groups
no matter how spectacular or seemingly non-spectacular their
material remains are.