Of Shells, Soda Straws, Caves, and Kings: Crafting, Body Practices, and Identity Making Among The Ancient Maya of Pacbitun, Belize

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Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology


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Nearly 30 years of archaeological research in and around the ancient Maya site of Pacbitun, Cayo District, Belize has revealed evidence of shifting patterns in the identity formation practices throughout the site’s occupational history. We argue that Pacbitun was linked to a larger network of sites throughout central Belize during the Middle Preclassic period (900-300 BC), which together would have been recognized as a shell bead production region for the Southern Maya Lowlands. This collective identity shifted to individualized statuses during the Classic period (AD 250-900), a time after which many settlements had recently transitioned from small egalitarian villages to socially stratified cities. Nevertheless, shell objects continued to be used in identity production. In particular, marine shell objects were regularly interred in elite burials, suggesting that this material was indicative of elevated social status. Recent research at Actun Lak cave, a locus of elite ritual activity approximately 1.5 km to the southeast of Pacbitun, has recovered limestone and speleothem jewelry that was likely worn by a local king. The finding of these “cave jewelry” pieces represents the discovery of a previously unrecognized artifact class of elite body practice.

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