Program & Lecture Schedule

Be sure to download the full itinerary & schedule for speaking times, lecture abstracts, workshop information, and much more.



Logosyllabic Scripts of the
Ancient and Modern World
Thursday 9am - 2:30pm

Marc Zender — Tulane University
Stanley Guenter — AFAR
Harri Kettunen — University of Helsinki
Mary Kate Kelly — Tulane University

It can be tempting to think of Maya hieroglyphic as a completely foreign and intricate system in which “anything goes”, particularly when seen from the perspective of the alphabetic scripts which predominate in the modern world. For some of the first Western students of Maya writing, for instance, it was easy to regard the hieroglyphs as whimsical pictures rather than a record of the sounds of the Maya language. However, while almost all of today’s alphabets stem from a single ancient script (the theme of Sunday’s forum), almost all of the other early writing systems around the world were logosyllabic in nature (e.g., Egyptian hieroglyphs and the cuneiform scripts), and several logosyllabic writing systems remain in widespread use today (e.g., Chinese and Japanese). In this forum we will examine several of these logosyllabic scripts, with a focus on comparison and contrast with Maya writing. This forum is open to all, and no prior knowledge of any of these writing systems is either required or assumed. A handout package of inscriptions and script examples will be provided to participants.


“So It is Written …”: A Survey of the Evolution of Alphabetic Scripts and Their Comparison with the Logosyllabic Scripts of Antiquity
Sunday 9am - 12Pm

Stanley Guenter — AFAR
Marc Zender — Tulane University
Mary Kate Kelly — Tulane University
Harri Kettunen — University of Helsinki

The ancient Maya hieroglyphic script was one of many logosyllabic scripts used in antiquity. Logosyllabic scripts are the most common type of writing system found in the earliest civilizations. Yet today, apart from in east Asia, almost all widely-used scripts in every other part of the world are a type of alphabet, almost all of which can be traced back to a single original script developed by Semitic speakers living in Egypt nearly 4000 years ago. In this forum, we will examine the history of alphabets and their three main different types, as well as how they were used and what kind of information we can glean from ancient inscriptions using these different writing systems. This forum is open to all and no prior knowledge of any of these writing systems is required or assumed. A handout package of inscriptions and script examples will be provided to participants.




Archaeology in “Foreign” Places: The Personal and Professional Value of Archaeological Research in Regions Outside of Our Focus
Thursday 3:00 - 4:00pm

C. Mathew Saunders — AFAR; Davidson Day School

Six years ago, I was asked to organize a field school program at a Medieval castle in central Spain. Although the prospect sounded exciting, the thought of a Mayanist of twelve years working anywhere outside of the Maya World seemed irrational and irresponsible. So I of course said yes and I now find myself carrying our research in four very different sites across the globe annually. This presentation will discuss my experiences working in research areas outside of my scope of study and experience and will highlight the benefits and obstacles I’ve faced through these “foreign” branches of research.


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Microcosms among the Classic Maya and 19th-century Texas: A Cross-Cultural Comparison
Friday 9:00 - 10:00am

Brett A. Houk — Texas Tech University

Many archeologists who study the the ancient Maya refer to the practice of symbolically structuring the built environment as site planning, a term popularized by the late Wendy Ashmore. Proponents of Ashmore’s approach argue that rulers would use site planning for two common purposes: first, to symbolically recreate or express a cultural worldview by creating a microcosm of the universe or cosmos, and, second, to politically link a site or building to a powerful peer through architectural emulation. In addition to conveying symbolic information through architecture, site planning can also include the manipulation of time to relate events in the present to important dates in the past. Critics, however, often dismiss site planning studies as highly speculative, given that the ancient Maya left us no architectural plans or written texts related to city planning. Cross cultural comparisons, however, provide examples of other cultures’ manipulating architecture and landscapes to convey meaning and suggest the practice was common around the world. In this presentation, I use downtown historic Austin, Texas as an example of 19thcentury American site planning and demonstrate that the leaders of Texas created a microcosm of the republic in the design of Austin in the late 1830s and decades later completed the plan with the construction of the state capitol building. This example provides a springboard for discussing likely microcosms in Classic-period ancient Maya city design.


From Phaistos to Palenque:
Paleography in Translation
Friday 10:00 - 10:30am

Emily Davis-Hale — Tulane University

Thanks to the complexity and ongoing decipherment of the Mayan writing system, subdisciplines of epigraphy such as paleography are relatively new to our field. Aside from Alfonso Lacadena’s pioneering work in the last several decades, Mayan paleography must necessarily be informed by cross-cultural perspectives. To this end I present the methodologies of earlier paleographic work, particularly on the Greek alphabet, and discuss their applicability to our investigations moving forward.


Cross-Cultural Approaches to
Ancient Mayan Linguistics
Friday 11:00 - 11:30am

Mary Kate Kelly — Tulane University

Writing is speech made permanent. As such, the written word can be used to understand linguistic features of long-ago forms of languages, those with descendant languages spoken today and those that have since passed entirely out of existence. Speech is fickle, and over generations changes accumulate which make the spoken language of today sound differently than it did in the past. Thus, any written form of language tends to be conservative, maintaining spellings that were fossilized in earlier stages of the spoken language, and does not necessarily change in order to keep up with the pace of language change. Additionally, writing has traditionally been accessible only to the elites, and thus the language recorded in documents becomes a prestige language – exclusively used by those of the upper echelons of society.

Despite these paired challenges – the fact that writing is inherently a crystallized form of language, and that generally writing records a prestigious language form – there is much that we can glean about historical language diversity by looking at variation in ancient textual linguistic features. By comparing to the work done on other ancient scripts, such as Latin from the beginning of the first millennium and Middle English, we can glean tools for deconstructing linguistic features in Mayan texts and gain insight into the linguistic landscape of the ancient Maya.


2019 AFAR Reports
Friday 11:30am - 12:00Pm

The students of Davidson Day School

A summary of the major findings of the four AFAR field schools of the summer of 2019, presented by student-archaeologists of Davidson Day School.


Medieval South Mesoamerica: Comparing Western Upper Medieval Europe and The Classic Maya
Friday 1:00 - 2:00pm

Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire — Davidson College

Cross-cultural analogies are a preferred tool of archaeologists for coloring the past and making it recognizable to us and our audiences. As such, these comparisons are useful pedagogical tools, which can however be misleading if used uncritically.
While direct analogies between Medieval Europe and the Classic Maya world are fairly common in passing, they have rarely made it to print. And when they have, they were generally poorly received. Yet, many loaded terms used in our Mayanist vocabulary can be directly related to the Medieval world – more specifically Western Europe. For example, terms like divine king and queen, royal court, regal palace, feudal, nobility, peasant, courtier, or tribute are used by Medievalists worldwide. In this paper, I discuss key parallels and distinctions between Upper Medieval Western Europe and the Classic Maya Lowlands. By doing so, I explore aspects of Classic Maya geopolitics, regimes, economy, and technology. This process will identify key misconceptions about Medieval Europe while also highlighting its relevance as a comparative case-study to help us solve enigmas about the ancient Mayas.


From Belize to Bagan: A Personal Journey into the Realm of Cross-Cultural Comparison
Friday 2:00 - 3:00pm

Gyles Iannone — Trent University

Although eschewed by post-modern scholars, and disregarded by most Mayanists, the comparative approach remains an essential instrument in our archaeological toolkit. Indeed, cross-cultural comparison remains an invaluable part of the analogy building process – itself a fundamental aspect of most archaeological interpretations – because it adds depth and nuance to our reconstructions of past lifeways. After all, the archaeological record – due to its constitution, transformation, and archaeological reconstitution – is always an imperfect representation of the complex processes that produced and reproduced the ancient communities we are interested in knowing about. This does not mean that all cross-cultural approaches are the same. Some represent little more than the “cherry-picking” of decontextualized bits of data in order to support or refute a specific interpretation. More effective comparisons involve considerations of both similarities anddifferences across case-studies – between source and subject – with particular emphasis on the “relational” aspects of those mechanisms and relationships deemed essential to the particular processes being investigated. Such analogy building can be further strengthened by following the idea first espoused by Julian Steward and later presented as a “canon” by Robert Ascher (1961:319), which suggests that we should “seek analogies in cultures which manipulate similar environments in similar ways." Finally, in order to fully comprehend the intricacies of our source analogies – thereby reaching a level of understanding essential to carrying out relationally structured comparisons – we are required to firmly contextualize our datasets using “data proximity” methods. This criterion can be met through rigorous engagement with primary data and primary sources, or better yet, through fully immersive, onsite visitations. These criteria for effective cross-cultural approaches will be presented as part of a chronicle outlining how the author, unintentionally, shifted his archaeological research program from Belize to Bagan, Myanmar.


“There is only one way to skin a dead cat, but many tools that can be used to do it”: Comparative Approaches to Maya Stone Tool Analysis
Friday 3:30 - 4:30Pm

Rachel A. Horowitz — Appalachian State University

Lithics, or stone tools, are one of the most widely discovered archaeological materials. While the study of lithics has focused mostly on mobile, hunter-gatherer societies, they can provide us with important information about the life-ways of all stone-tool using peoples, including the ancient Maya. This talk addresses why stone tools are of interest to Mayanists and what they can tell us about ancient Maya life-ways.  By utilizing comparative perspectives, particularly in terms of the techniques used to interpret lithics, we can gain a better understanding of the ways stone tools were integrated with other aspects of Maya life including social, economic, and political activities. Through a case study examining the manufacturing of different types of tools in western Belize this paper explores the utility of these analyses for understanding past Maya economies, with a focus on the role of elite and non-elite individuals in lithic production.  This paper will focus on two lithic production areas, Callar Creek Quarry, a locus of generalized tool production, and the Succotz Lithic Workshop, an area of specialized production.   This paper will employ these examples to illustrate the utility of cross-cultural comparison and studying tool production to shed light on the daily practices of the ancient Maya.   

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Cross Cultural Comparisons in Maya Archaeology: A Cautionary Tale 
Friday 4:30 - 5:30pm

Jaime J. Awe — Northern Arizona University

The application of cross-cultural comparisons with Asian, European and Middle Eastern cultures has had a long history in Maya and Mesoamerican studies. In some cases, these comparisons have led to hyper diffusionist models designed to explain the rise of civilization in middle America. In other cases, specific subjects, such as Maya urbanism, Maya political organization, warfare, and human sacrifice, to name a few, have also been examined through the lens of comparative data. In this presentation, I attempt to demonstrate that too often some of these cross-cultural comparisons are made with certain biases, and with a certain lack of scholarly rigor. I further suggest that a better understanding of contemporary Maya culture can sometimes provide us with significantly more accurate clues for understanding their ancient predecessors.



Losing the landscape: settlement transformations during the Preclassic abandonment of Holtun and the 21thcentury crisis in Detroit, Michigan.
Saturday 9:00 - 9:30am

Rodrigo Guzman — University of Central Florida

The abandonment of a human settlements results from the interaction between the community and adverse factors that reach breaking points. This was experienced by ancient civilizations during periods of social instability or collapse, which is archaeologically observed in the decrease of material culture. Nevertheless, modern cities are also susceptible to abandonment and urban decay, indicating failures in local social systems. The archaeological site of Holtun, in Guatemala, experienced a population decay near AD 100. It was part of a regional phenomenon that affected several centers in the Maya Lowlands at the end of the Preclassic period (2000 BC –AD 250). Concomitantly, the city of Detroit, Michigan, experienced a demographic decrease and increase of urban decay since the 50s. The historic context and factors that led to the partial or total abandonment might differ between both Holtun and Detroit, as much as the strategies of resilience and revitalization. However, the mediation of the social and natural landscape, as well as the transformations of meaning and value of living space might provide elements for a cross-cultural analysis. The objective of this paper is to analyze people’s interaction with the social and natural factors that shaped their cultural landscape. The archaeological research performed at Holtun during more than a decade facilitates information that allows scholars to understand the process of settlement and adaptation of the site. Additionally, archaeologists and paleo-environmentalists have documented and hypothesized factors that led to the Preclassic abandonment. Maps, research reports, and publications constitute the corpus of information regarding Holtun abandonment. A comparative analysis with the information documented regarding the case of Detroit expands the field of knowledge of social transformations. Moreover, Holtun and Detroit are poignant examples how communities mediate their location, and exhaust strategies to continuously occupy the land until more suitable alternatives materialize.


The Afterlife History of the Dead: The Ancient Maya
Saturday 9:30 - 10:00am

Rachel Gill — University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The physical act of death does not say as much about a society as their treatment of the dead postmortem. Afterlife histories of bodies and spirits vary cross-culturally and are enacted based on the belief systems of the living. Some faiths, like Islam, demand the immediate burial of the dead, while others, like the Ancient Egyptians, take several days and a sequence of rituals before the dead can be laid to rest. Several Native American tribes, like the Zuni, do not care what happens to the physical body once the spirit has departed it. These beliefs turned into action ultimately leave physical evidence that can then be examined. Archaeological evidence has shown that the Classic Period Maya interacted with their dead in a variety of ways, and it is through this life history of the afterlife that we can gain a deeper understanding of the interactions among the living. Using both archaeological evidence of burials of Classic Maya people as well as cross-cultural cases of the treatment of the dead, this paper seeks to explore these different afterlife histories (e.g., ancestors, sacrifice, human caches, violence against the “other”, etc.). It is supposed that only 10% of family members are buried in residential-related buildings (houses, temples, shrines, etc.); therefore, we also seek to posit explanations—based on current understandings of Ancient and Modern Maya belief systems—for the large portion of the Classic Maya population whose remains are, at this point, unaccounted for.


Chronology & Causation: Comparative Approaches to the Study of the Collapse of Ancient Civilizations
Saturday 10:00 - 11:00am

Stanley Guenter — AFAR

One of the most intensely debated and popular topics in archaeology is the study of the collapse of ancient civilizations, that of the Classic Maya being one of the most prominent examples. However, there are a number of other comparable examples, such as the Bronze Age Collapse, and the collapses of the Roman and Khmer Empires. Suggested explanations and causal factors for these varied collapses are remarkably similar and the majority of scholars in each of these areas now argue for either climate change, multi-causal explanations, or simply attempt to downplay the extent to which these cases can even be characterized as “collapse” and prefer to reframe these as examples of mere culture change and emphasize them as cases of “resilience” of local populations instead. In this presentation I will explain how much of this disagreement stems from inaccurate and/or poor resolution in the chronology of collapse and note how this confusion over the order of events in the process of collapse leads to confusing symptoms for causal factors in these studies. Furthermore, common influences from modern society, both in the academic and nonacademic worlds, have had a profound effect in the direction and evaluation of research in all of these different studies of collapse and  often these result in poor arguments becoming widely accepted and unquestioned. By questioning these tropes of collapse studies and more closely examining the actual evidence in each case, and by tightening the chronologies by which we order this evidence, we can better clarify not only the actual histories of collapse for the Classic Maya and these other cases, we can better understand collapse as a general phenomenon the cultural evolution of civilizations.


Contrasting Trends in Early Monumentality between Mesoamerica and North America
Saturday 11:00am - 12:00pm

Jayur Mehta - Florida State University
Haley Holt Mehta - Florida State University Schools

The Gulf Coast of Mexico unites two distinct culture-historical regions, the Southeastern United States and Mesoamerica. In the Southeast United States, precocious earthen and shell monument construction dates to as early as 6500 BP and precedes agriculture by thousands of years. In Mesoamerica, the first public building dates to the early-middle Formative period, at around 2800 BP, after the development of corn agriculture. Other than differences in agriculture, what else divides these two regions? What unites these two regions? This paper strives to abandon a culture-historical perspective and consider an “Archaeology of the Americas” united by the Gulf of Mexico and related regions.


A Radically Different Theoretical Direction to Solutions of the Enigmas of Ancient Maya Economy, Politics, and the Classic Maya Collapse
Saturday 1:00 - 2:00pm

Arthur Demarest — Vanderbilt University

Progress in many aspects of Maya archaeology has come to a halt due to three overarching problems:  1) The lack of success in refining ceramic chronologies leading to long periods of 50 to 250 years within which change beyond the epicenters. That means that change cannot be evaluated at the site or regional level,  2) broad interpretations based on both such low resolution chronologies and huge interregional areal frames for analysis, and  3) nearly complete isolation from the development of new concepts and approaches in Sociology, Economics, Philosophy, and Political Science.  

The term multi-disciplinary usually refers to new scientific technologies and processes for data recovery and physical analysis. Broader interpretation is either ad hocor uses desultory, decontextualized, and poorly understood bits of ideas from other fields. Over the past ten years, however, collaborations with non-anthropology social scientists have led to integrated applications that have yielded credible solutions to many of the enigmas in the study of lowland Maya economy, politics, and especially the Collapse of the Classic Maya city-states. Here the logic and concepts from the enormous body of integrated social theory from the interdisciplinary fields of Institutional, Organization, and Strategic Management Studies will be presented using examples from recent studies proposing new understandings of ancient Maya economy and solutions to the “mysteries” of the Classic Maya Collapse, as well as drawing lessons for our looming crises today.

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A Cosmology of Conservation in the Tropical World: The Ancient Maya
Saturday 2:00 - 3:00pm

Lisa J. Lucero — University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In this presentation I will attempt to merge two seemingly disparate topics—cosmology and sustainability—into a cohesive narrative with two goals: 1) to understand how these two concepts intersect using cross-cultural cases, including the Maya; and 2) discuss possible implications of this intersection for sustainability issues today, particularly in tropical regions.  I attempt to show that a cosmology of conservation resulted in embedded, long-term sustainable practices.  This worldview was expressed in their daily existence—rituals, farming, hunting, socializing, etc.  A cosmology of conservation espouses a belief system where humans were one of many parts (animals, birds, trees, clouds, stone, earth, etc.) with mutual responsibilities to maintain the world they shared.  Maya civilization emerged in a world where everything was animated, connected, and played a part in maintaining their home/world/environment. The Maya thus worked with nature, not against it; nor did they attempt to control it.  As such, it was a non-anthropocentric, sustainable existence. I will show how such a view promoted biodiversity and conservation based on how the Classic Maya (c. 250-850 CE) interacted with their environment.  This embedded system worked for the agricultural Maya for four thousand years and supported more people in the pre-Columbian era than presently—and without denuding the landscape.   This embedded system, found elsewhere in the tropical world and beyond, provides insights for facing today’s challenges in devising a sustainable future.


Classic Mayan accent from
a comparative perspective
Saturday 3:30 - 4:30pm

Marc Zender — Tulane University

In linguistics, stress or accent refers to a relative emphasis or prominence given to a certain syllable in a word, usually by increasing the volume, raising the pitch, lenghtening the vowel, or fully pronouncing the vowel. Unstressed syllables, by contrast, are often reduced or even omitted. For these reasons, stress has long been known to play an important role in language change around the world. Because of this, many writing systems dutifully record accents that deviate from expectations. Spanish, for instance, marks unexpected accented syllables with an acute accent. Nonetheless, other scripts are ambiguous in this regard, relying on context and readers’ knowledge of the language to fill in this important detail. English, for example, stresses the word present differently depending on whether it means “gift” or “give”; and different dialects of English stress laboratory quite differently (e.g., as lábratory in the U.S., and as labóratry in England). Like English, Classic Maya writing does not mark stress, so the question arises: how do we know which, if any, syllables took stress in Classic Mayan? And how can we reconstruct the kind of stress-related changes the language might have undergone over time? This paper compares and contrasts modern and historically-attested Mayan languages to reconstruct ancestral stress patterns, and closely examines the epigraphic record for variant spellings and orthographic developments attesting to stress-related changes over several centuries. An ancient system of weight-related accentuation is proposed, and this is traced into modern Ch’orti’, where vestiges of this system still remain, and into the Western Ch’olan languages, where it was long ago replaced by a system of canonical final-syllable stress.

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Tancah, Quintana Roo, Structure #6 Sketch

Siguese su a, b, c: Mesoamerican Writing Systems and the History of Conflicting Worldviews
Saturday 4:30 - 5:30pm

Harri Kettunen — University of Helsinki

Throughout the history of studying world’s writing systems, Mesoamerican scripts have been classified from proto-writing and pictographic scripts to true writing systems. While some Mesoamerican writing systems, such as Mayan, have been promoted to the status of “true” or “full” writing systems, some others are still considered by many to fall into the category of pictographic, ideographic, or semasiographic writing. This presentation addresses the varying Western academic notions regarding the nature of Mesoamerican scripts, the very issue of what constitutes “writing” – and whether there can be a cross-cultural understanding behind the concept.

The Lesser-Known Sites of Coastal Quintana-Roo: An Art Exhibit

by Steve Radzi

Steve Radzi will present an exhibition of his most recent illustrations reflecting some lesser-known sites that still remain in the Maya coastal regions of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. 

Steve was born in Devon, England of Polish parents. He attended Croydon College of Art in South London.  His career has included animation (The Hobbit/Hanna-Barbera), editorial illustration (Miami Herald), set design and book illustration.  He has been illustrating the Maya sites of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, for over 35 years.  Steve is a South Florida resident, and a former board member of the Institute of Maya Studies.  In addition to his commercial art projects, Steve is always searching for Maya-related projects that beckon illustration.  His archaeological subjects may be viewed at