Public architecture and the rise of complexity in the Middle Preclassic

Authored by: M. Kathryn Brown , Travis W. Stanton

The Maya World

Print publication date:  June  2020
Online publication date:  June  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138492837
eBook ISBN: 9781351029582
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Treating the Middle Preclassic period in the Maya Lowlands as a single block of time ignores the dynamic changes that occurred over its 700 years. Recent research indicates that the egalitarian villages at 1100/1000 BC were considerably different than hierarchical communities that existed at 300 BC. In this chapter we review recent research on E Groups and ballcourts and argue that both served as nodes of religious and economic activities during this period, fostering a sense of community, while at the same time providing opportunities for nascent elites to elevate their status through the sponsorship of ceremonies at these critical places.

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Public architecture and the rise of complexity in the Middle Preclassic


Since the beginning of the millennium, the Middle Preclassic has become a major focus of Maya scholarship despite the challenges of studying this period in Maya prehistory, as discussed below. The resulting accumulation of new empirical data is not only changing earlier understandings of this time, but is increasing our appreciation of the wide-ranging variability of early Maya societies (e.g., Brown and Bey 2018b; Estrada-Belli 2011; Freidel et al. 2017; Traxler and Sharer 2016). However, broader culture historical syntheses have been slow to incorporate these new data and our changing understandings of the period. Instead, they tend to use the Middle Preclassic as a catch-all period for the long span of time from the first evidence of settled life until Late Preclassic Chicanel ceramics appear. Some authors even lump the Middle and Late Preclassic periods together as a larger “Preclassic” phenomenon (Brown and Bey 2018a). The data we present here demonstrate that treating the Middle Preclassic as a monolithic block of time ignores the dynamic changes and major transitions that occurred during this transformative era, dating from approximately 1100/1000 BC to 300 BC.

In this chapter we address the growing realization that the relatively egalitarian villages that marked the beginning of this period were considerably different than the socially and politically hierarchical communities that existed at its end. We begin by sketching the history of Middle Preclassic studies and identifying some of the challenges to studying this important period. Next, we discuss important changes that occurred over the course of the period, highlighting the cultural variability subsumed within this block of time. Due to space constraints, we focus on transformations in public/ceremonial architecture in the Maya Lowlands, although we would urge the reader to consider other aspects of early Maya lifeways—including diet, community organization, trade networks, craft production, and material culture—that have been addressed in other recent publications (Brown and Bey 2018; Doyle 2017; Estrada-Belli 2011; Freidel et al. 2017; Traxler and Sharer 2016).

Instead of following the typical ceramic focus of discussions of the Middle Preclassic, we concentrate here on the development of E Groups and ballcourts, two distinct architectural forms that have their origins in the Middle Preclassic period and were intimately tied to the development of more hierarchical forms of life during the period. Although E Groups and ballcourts represent two very different types of public/ritual architecture, we suggest that both served as nodes of religious and economic activities during the Middle Preclassic, fostering a sense of community, while at the same time providing opportunities for nascent elites to elevate their status through the sponsorship of ceremonies at these critical places. The development of both complexes laid important foundations for the institution of kingship that crystalized in the Late Preclassic.

History of Middle Preclassic investigations

Middle Preclassic remains were first recorded by some of the initial archaeologists to work in the Maya Lowlands (Brainerd 1958; Ricketson and Ricketson 1937; Smith 1955; see also Brown and Bey 2018a: 2–3). The Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) began intensive investigations at Uaxactun in 1926 to investigate the earliest vestiges of Maya civilization. This site was chosen because Stela 9 had a Cycle Eight Long Count date, the earliest known at that time. While much of their research focused on Cycle Eight (i.e., Late Preclassic and early Classic) contexts, the CIW archaeologists found much earlier remains and established the first Preclassic ceramic sequence (the Mamom and Chicanel phases, respectively correlating to the Middle and Late Preclassic periods (R. E. Smith 1955)). Much like culture historians working in other areas of the world, creating and refining artifact typologies became a primary focus in the Maya Lowlands. Importantly, ceramics quickly became the preferred material class for chronology (Vaillant 1927), a trend which continued through the establishment of the type-variety system to the present.

As research increased in other regions of the Lowlands, it became clear that Mamom pottery was widespread (e.g., W. R. Coe 1965). For example, at Barton Ramie in the Belize River valley, Mamom-like pottery was placed in the Jenney Creek complex (Gifford 1976). Given that a Pre-Mamom occupation was suspected in the Belize River valley (as had been argued for northern Yucatan by Brainerd (1958) some years earlier), the Jenney Creek material was divided into early and late facets, Pre-Mamom and Mamom, respectively. Within just a few years Pre-Mamom occupations were documented at several other sites in the south (Adams 1971; Sabloff 1975).

Despite these findings, it was not until the 1977 publication of the seminal volume entitled The Origins of Maya Civilization (Adams 1977) that archaeologists attempted a comprehensive synthesis of the Preclassic period. Although Preclassic architectural forms such as E Groups had been identified as early as the CIW project at Uaxactun (Ricketson and Ricketson 1937), it is interesting to note that discussions of the Middle Preclassic during the 1970s focused heavily on early ceramic sequences, a trend that continues today. In line with the diffusionist/externalist perspectives of early 20th-century culture historians, most of the volume participants believed that by 1000 BC farming immigrants from nearby regions had migrated into the Maya Lowlands and established small villages (Willey 1977: 418). These narratives emphasized the putative simple social and political organization of these early villages and did not recognize regional differences apart from ceramics (Willey 1977: 419). The data at hand in the 1970s led Willey (1977: 401) to suggest that there was no clear evidence of public architecture or sumptuary goods and the “social profile [of the Middle Preclassic Maya] is an egalitarian one.” The broad picture painted by the 1977 Origins volume was that social complexity did not emerge until the Late Preclassic, and that it was caused by external migration; interpretations now disproven by new empirical data.

Ideas about the Middle Preclassic began to change in the late 1970s and 1980s with the concerted efforts of several important research projects. Investigations at Cuello in northern Belize uncovered Pre-Mamom ceramics, burials, and other material culture that indicated a greater level of stratification during Pre-Mamom times than had been previously thought (Hammond 1991; Kosakowsky 1987). These new discoveries led Hammond (1991: 248) to state that “[w]?ith a society visibly complex from the latter part of the 1st millennium BC onwards the Maya can now be seen as paralleling development elsewhere in Mesoamerica, not just following them at several centuries’ remove.” Following on the heels of these investigations, research at the nearby site of Colha found similarly early pottery (Bolay phase) and extensive evidence for early lithic production (Shafer and Hester 1983).

Around the same time, investigations at the coastal Maya site of Cerros (now Cerro Maya) were directed by David Freidel. Although these investigations uncovered mostly Late Preclassic contexts, the well-preserved mask façades on the famous Structure 5C-2nd had implications related to the Middle Preclassic. In addition to the discovery of immense Late Preclassic monumental constructions at El Mirador (Dahlin 1984), the realization that such elaborate architectural decorations and symbol systems existed during the Late Preclassic at Cerros transformed our understanding of the nature and degree of complexity that existed prior to the Classic period. This discovery led Freidel and Schele (1988: 549) to suggest that the institution of kingship originated in the 1st century BC to accommodate “contradictions in Maya society between an ethos of egalitarianism and an actual condition of flourishing elitism brought on by successful trade and interaction between the Lowland Maya and their hierarchically-organized neighbors over the course of the Preclassic era.” The notion that the institution of kingship existed in the 1st century BC encouraged investigations into the roots of that institution and political complexity more broadly in the Middle Preclassic period. During the 1980s, data supported Freidel and Schele’s argument that social and political complexity emerged during the Late Preclassic and could be seen in the rapid expansion of monumental architecture throughout the southern Lowlands. As discussed below, new data show that social and political complexity occurred earlier (late Middle Preclassic period) and that there was a more gradual development over the centuries of the Middle Preclassic than previously appreciated.

Much like the work at Cuello was important for transforming ideas about the Middle Preclassic in the southern Lowlands, Andrews’ (1988) research at Komchen was critical for recognizing the importance of the Middle Preclassic in the northern Lowlands. Although research at Dzibilchaltun had identified a Middle Preclassic component in the northwestern plains (Joesink-Mandeville 1970), and Brainerd (1958) had recognized a pre-Mamom component to the ceramic sequence, research at Komchen stands as a watershed moment as the first systematic research in the north that focused on the Middle Preclassic. Results of this research included the first application of the type-variety system to Middle Preclassic ceramics in the north (placing the northern Lowland sequence in broader discussions of Maya origins) and, building on Ball’s (1977) work, the first systematic framing of the social contexts in which a sedentary lifestyle appeared in this region (Andrews 1990).

Over the past 30 years the pace of investigations into the Middle Preclassic has increased notably, resulting in a much more nuanced understanding of early Maya history. Although these more recent investigations are too numerous to list here, we briefly highlight several significant discoveries. In the Belize River valley Pre-Mamom ceramics and significant Middle Preclassic deposits have been identified at a number of sites including Cahal Pech, Blackman Eddy, and Early Xunantunich (Awe 1992; Brown, Awe, and Garber 2018), suggesting a well-established Middle Preclassic population in the region. Furthermore, Middle Preclassic public architecture, ritual activity, and craft production (of marine shell beads) has been documented at a number of sites in the region (Brown, Awe, and Garber 2018; Hohmann, Powis, and Healy 2018). In northern Belize at the site of K’axob, evidence of early ancestor veneration has been uncovered, shedding light on strategies that emergent elites utilized to gain power (McAnany 1995: 164).

Moving into Lowland Guatemala, at Ceibal, Takeshi Inomata and his team (2013) documented the earliest E Group in the Maya Lowlands to date, as well as elaborate jade offerings placed in its plaza. Research at the large Middle Preclassic ceremonial center of Nakbe has contributed much empirical data on early architecture and agricultural features, suggesting significant labor investment in early public works (Hansen et al. 2018). At Cival, Francisco Estrada-Belli and his team documented early monumental architecture and elaborate Middle Preclassic offerings, suggesting that place-making through ritual activity was an important part of early Maya society (Estrada-Belli 2011). Additionally, the Late Preclassic painted murals at the site of San Bartolo depicting a royal inauguration indicate that the institution of kingship was firmly in place by this time (Saturno, Taube, and Stuart 2005). It is important to point out that the inauguration scene occurred on the steps of a ceremonial structure, demonstrating the use of these sacred buildings within ancient Maya political theater. Furthermore, the presence of Middle Preclassic phases of the E Group at San Bartolo, where the murals were found, suggests a robust occupation (Saturno, Rossi, and Beltrán 2018), and demonstrates that public/ritual architecture was an important focus during this earlier period as well.

More recent work in the northern Maya Lowlands has also demonstrated a deeper prehistory and documented substantial Middle Preclassic occupation in a region that was once thought to have a sparse early occupation (Andrews 1990). Pre-Mamom occupations have been identified at several sites such as Kiuic, Paso del Macho, Tzubil, Xocnaceh, and Yaxuna (Andrews, Bey, and Gunn 2018; Boucher and Palomo 2005; Stanton et al., n.d.a), and public architecture such as ballcourts and E Groups have been reported (Anderson, Castellanos, and, Andrews 2018; Andrews and Robles 2004; Stanton and Collins 2017; Stanton, Taube, and Collins n.d.b).


One of the greatest impediments for studying the Middle Preclassic is the fact that the material remains typically are deeply buried under later construction phases. In most cases, archaeologists can only expose small areas due to the large amount of overburden, later deposits, and constructions, primarily from Late Preclassic and Classic contexts. The dearth of large horizontal exposures of early architecture and associated features has significantly impacted our ability to address key issues such as spatial organization of sites and activities associated with early buildings. Furthermore, the fact that many Middle Preclassic houses were either buried by later deposits or recycled into fill of later constructions leaves us with sparse data on early settlement distributions and population densities. Another complicating factor is the fact that many of Middle Preclassic material remains are in secondary contexts such as construction fill. The associated dateable carbon samples found in these contexts should be viewed with some caution as the ceramics and burned organics may be much older than the buildings and features in which they are redeposited (see Inomata 2017). These factors, combined with the penchant of the ancient Maya for clearing areas of construction down to bedrock during early foundational events, make studying the history of the earliest occupations at Maya sites quite challenging. In fact, there is still ample debate concerning when the transition to a sedentary way of life occurred, with some researchers arguing that sedentary villagers may have coexisted with mobile groups for several centuries during the Middle Preclassic (Inomata et al. 2015). As Lohse (2010: 315) states, the transition from an Archaic to a Preclassic lifeway in the Maya Lowlands “does not appear to have occurred at the same time or under identical circumstances everywhere” (see Chapter 2).

The development of Middle Preclassic public/ritual architecture

While chronology represents a continued challenge in Middle Preclassic Maya archaeology, it is increasingly clear that our reliance on ceramic sequences to order and comprehend culture change has slowed a recognition that other material data sets suggest transformative cultural change over the more than seven centuries currently subsumed in this period, more time than any other chronological block of the Maya sequence. In particular, changes in architecture such as E Groups (and later ballcourts) provide solid ground to suggest that Maya society was characterized by fairly small-scale communities lacking strong hierarchical social and political systems at the beginning of the Middle Preclassic, and that by the period’s end, some areas could be argued to be state-level formations. While other issues, such as the adoption of maize as a staple crop, are also critical to this discussion, E Groups and ballcourts played vital roles in placing early communities on the path to more complex social and political forms, even while ceramics did not change considerably.

E Groups

The earliest recognizable form of public and ritual place in the Maya Lowlands is the E Group (see also Chapter 4 by Doyle). Given this primacy, we can expect this form played a central role, both socially and politically, in the transformations that early Maya society experienced (Chase, Dowd, and Freidel 2017). E Groups have been of interest to Maya scholars since they were first identified at the site of Uaxactun (Ricketson and Ricketson 1937). These architectural assemblages “have been correlated with archaeoastronomical alignments and features related to horizon-based calendar observations, measurement, and seasonal celebration” (Chase, Dowd, and Freidel 2017: 3). Although E Groups are commonly thought of as a southern Lowland tradition, we now know these important early architectural complexes were more widespread than previously thought, as they have been located at sites across the Lowlands, including a few examples now reported in the northern Lowlands such as Yaxuna and Yaxhom (Stanton 2017). Inomata and his colleagues (2015) suggest that early E Groups may have served as gathering places for populations that were still highly mobile, and that E Groups served to fix them, and their identities, around sacred places and helped organize people around the new agricultural lifeways that were being adopted. “E Groups may have served as a magnet for social interaction of surrounding sedentary and seminomadic populations of farmers and hunter-gatherers to coexist peacefully if not with mutual benefit” (Estrada-Belli 2017: 319; see also Inomata et al. 2015). These complexes not only functioned as integrative features that united communities socially, they also tied people to the landscape in more permanent ways (Estrada-Belli 2017). The community-building efforts to clear the land, sculpt the bedrock, and raise modest platforms linked people to these increasingly more sacred places on the landscape. This connection would have intensified through gatherings and rituals to celebrate seasons and important cycles of time. The organization of these rituals and the special knowledge they entailed arguably provided a niche for emerging specialists within the community. Through time, these specialists enhanced their status in the community through ritual performances within E Group “theatres.”

The creation of sacred and communal places facilitated the expansion of social distinctions while reinforcing a community identity through a host of social, political, economic, and religious activities. Moreover, the rituals that occurred seasonally, overseen by ritual specialists, brought people together for communal celebrations that included feasting and most likely the exchange of goods, encouraging long distance trade (Doyle 2017; Stanton 2017).

Recent scholarly arguments suggest that there was a “cultural standardization” centered on E Groups in the Maya Lowlands during the Middle Preclassic (Chase et al. 2017: 8). Although there appears to be some sort of standardization, E Groups exhibit great variability in size, elaboration, and placement across the landscape. E Groups are often found near the center of Maya ceremonial cores, however some E Groups are associated with smaller communities in hinterland zones; for example, the Belize River valley sites of Chan (Robin 2012) and Tunchilen (Yaeger, Brown, and Cap 2016). One interesting aspect of the earliest documented E Groups is the importance of clearing down to bedrock and shaping the natural bedrock into early architectural features (Brown et al. 2018; Estrada-Belli 2011; Inomata et al. 2013). The shaping and incorporation of bedrock into early ceremonial structures is fairly common in the Preclassic period and is not just limited to E Groups. At Early Xunantunich, a Middle Preclassic flat-topped platform incorporated bedrock into the purposeful design of the building, highlighting the merging of natural and built features (Rawski 2019).

Clearing the landscape and exposing natural bedrock to create enduring places for communal ceremonies had other implications. As Freidel (2017: 182) points out, the earliest village centers were likely cleared of trees, as were the agricultural fields. Thus, cleared village centers and farmed fields provided opportunities for tracking the daily path of the sun as well as celestial bodies in the night sky, facilitating sky watching activities (Freidel 2017: 182). Furthermore, cleared plaza spaces framed by buildings (even low platforms) created performance venues. Performances in these sacred places would have allowed ritual specialists to demonstrate their skills and arcane knowledge to the congregants, re-enforcing their special and elevated role within early Maya society, a role that could eventually be converted into social and political power.

Along these lines, Chase and Chase (2017) suggest that E Groups may have been built to commemorate important calendric cycles such as the beginning of the bak’tun. Although scholars have noted that there is great variability in Preclassic E Groups across the Lowlands (Doyle 2017; Estrada-Belli 2017), there are also strong similarities. These similarities may represent a basic template that reflects an underlying and deeply rooted pan-Maya belief system, while regional and local differences in form and orientation of E Groups may reflect the combination of different “solar events, cosmological constructs, and local geomancy” (Estrada-Belli 2017: 324). These places inscribed calendrical cycles on the landscape, whereas the construction, maintenance, and functioning of these places were overseen by a group of emerging specialists. While all societies have some level of inequality, the data from the early Middle Preclassic period (when E Groups were first developing) do not suggest that these specialists were an “elite.” We suggest these emerging specialists performed a particular role in a society that was still fairly egalitarian, a role that would eventually be leveraged into increased authority and hierarchical positioning in later times.

The earliest iterations of E Groups typically exhibit a long north-south-oriented platform (sometimes shaped from bedrock) located on the eastern side of a plaza facing a small western structure. Markers may have been used on the low eastern side to “create sight lines for observing the sun’s annual movements and the yearly agricultural cycle” (Aimers and Rice 2006: 92). Through the Middle Preclassic, we see the elaboration of the E Group form. This is most apparent in the eastern architectural complex. The eastern platform is modified through time to include a central structure forming a Cenote Style E Group (Chase and Chase 1995), named for the site of Cenote. Further elaborations of these architectural assemblages culminate in the Uaxactun Style E Group that exhibits three structures on the east platform facing a radial pyramid on the west (Chase and Chase 1995). Uaxactun Style E Groups are more commonly seen during the Late Preclassic and Classic periods.

Caches, often including greenstone, were placed routinely in E Group plazas and they appear to be an important aspect of the sanctification of these public places in the Middle Preclassic. Presumably, these consecration events were overseen by ritual specialists. At Ceibal, researchers found greenstone celt caches on the centerline in the Plaza (Aoyama et al. 2017). At the site of Cival, excavations recovered an elaborate Middle Preclassic layered quincunx cache that contained greenstone and water jars in front of the eastern architectural complex (Estrada-Belli 2011). A similar pattern, albeit much less elaborate, was found at Las Ruinas de Arenal in the Belize River valley. Small pieces of polished greenstone were placed within a series of postholes cut into bedrock within the plaza. This suggests that “planting” greenstone caches was an important part of the consecration of early E Groups and may represent the planting of maize (Taube 2000). It is significant to note that maize became increasingly important during the Middle Preclassic. The conspicuous consumption of exotic goods such as greenstone indicates not only long-distance trade, but most likely ties into behaviors associated with competitive displays and increasing differences in prestige. Furthermore, greenstone continues to have important symbolic meanings in later times, tied directly to Maya political ideology and the institution of kingship. Thus, the sanctification of early E Groups through greenstone offerings may have been the inspiration behind greenstone ornaments that functioned as royal implements of power and later sanctioned the political authority of Maya kings.

By the end of the Middle Preclassic, many E Group complexes had increased substantially in size and elaboration (Inomata et al. 2013; Stanton, Taube, and Collins n.d.b). In the centuries that followed the Middle Preclassic, some of these architectural groups, if not abandoned, were the loci of royal tombs, dynastic stela placement, and visual programs related to the institution of kingship (e.g., Saturno, Taube, and Stuart 2005). Situated in increasingly urban environments, E Groups at the end of the Middle Preclassic seem to have moved away from their communal roots as gathering places, and became fixtures of the landscapes of power that emerged with the crystallization of state-like formations by 300 BC. The competitive displays of the early period set the stage for hierarchical social and political structures to thrive. While the physical spaces had not changed drastically, the social world around them was substantially different.


Our current understanding of Preclassic ballcourts in the Maya Lowlands is not as well developed as for E Groups, but data suggest that ballcourts were also important components in the transformation of the Middle Preclassic world. The ballgame is traditionally linked with elite rituals and political institutions of the Classic period (Scarborough and Wilcox 1991), but its origins can be traced back to at least the Early Preclassic, as seen at Paso de la Amada (Hill, Blake, and Clark 1998) and ballcourts are reported for many different regions of Mesoamerica. In the Olmec region of the Gulf Coast, Preclassic ballcourts have not been found, but rubber balls, figurines, and sculptures representing ballplayers are well known, demonstrating that some form of the ballgame was played (Ortiz and Rodriguez 2000).

New data from the northern Maya Lowlands is changing our understanding of the origin and function of ballcourts in the Maya region. Recent investigations in northwest Yucatan have documented approximately 25 Middle Preclassic ballcourts, suggesting a much longer duration for this formal public/ritual architectural complex (Anderson, Castellanos, and Andrews 2018). It is significant to note that most of these Middle Preclassic ballcourts were found at relatively small villages with only one notable exception, a Middle Preclassic ballcourt found at the larger center of Xtobo (Anderson, Castellanos, and Andrews 2018). This pattern suggests that Middle Preclassic ballcourts may have served a communal, public function within smaller communities. It seems plausible that the ballgame represented an avenue for skilled players to demonstrate their physical prowess in order to elevate their status and prestige within the community. The building of a Middle Preclassic ballcourt at the larger site of Xtobo may reflect a strategy by the emerging elite to connect with a “popular commoner tradition” (Anderson, Castellanos, and Andrews 2018: 214) in order to expand their political authority.

Recent work indicates that a few Middle Preclassic ballcourts have been found outside the northwestern corner of the Yucatan. One is documented at the Puuc site of Paso del Macho (Parker and Bey 2019), for example. In the central and southern Lowlands, Kathryn Reese-Taylor (personal communication 2019) and her team have discovered four Preclassic ballcourts at Yaxnohcah, two of which date to the Middle Preclassic. In the Belize River valley, not yet published excavations from 2018 within the ballcourt alleyway at Las Ruinas de Arenal uncovered a series of plastered surfaces, the lowest of which likely dates to the late Middle Preclassic. It is interesting to note that this particular ballcourt is attached to the southeast side of the site’s E Group eastern structure, a pattern that we return to below. With increased settlement survey, penetrating excavations, and the use of LiDAR, it is possible that more Middle Preclassic ballcourts will be documented in the future. Nevertheless, our current data suggest that at this time ballcourts were perhaps more regionally restricted and associated predominately with smaller communities.


An interesting pattern can be seen in the distribution of Middle Preclassic E Groups and ballcourts. E Groups are more commonly found within the southern and central Maya Lowlands, with only a handful of examples in the northern Maya Lowlands. In contrast, Middle Preclassic ballcourts appear to be concentrated in the northern Maya Lowlands, specifically the northwest Yucatan region, with only a few exceptions. The fact that these two apparent forms of public/ritual architecture appear to be somewhat spatially separated in the Middle Preclassic has implications for regional variability in ritual activities that may reflect broader distinctions in early religious practices (Brown and Bey 2018: 412). Yet, both forms of public architecture “may have had similar functions as integrative tools, possibly with calendrical associations” (Stanton 2017: 452). By the Late Preclassic, ballcourts became widespread throughout the Maya Lowlands and were often found at larger ceremonial centers, a shift from the Middle Preclassic pattern that is seen in northwest Yucatan.

A number of scholars have noted a link between E Groups and ballcourts beginning in the Late Preclassic. Aimers and Rice (2006: 89; see also Reese-Taylor 2017) state that the “association of E Groups with ballcourts, ballgame imagery, and sacrifice is notable.” At a number of sites, ballcourts are even attached to E Group complexes or are found in close proximity. This association should not be surprising given that both E Groups and ballcourts are thought to be associated with solar events, agriculture, and sacrifice. Some scholars have argued that the ballgame itself is thought to symbolically represent the sun’s descent into the underworld (Cohodas 1991). One of the most compelling associations between E Groups and ballcourts comes from San Bartolo, where a miniature ballcourt was constructed within the Late Preclassic E Group complex. This small ballcourt was intentionally placed on the east side of the western radial pyramid (Saturno et al. 2018). Although the small size suggests that the ballcourt may not have functioned as a space for actual competition, the presence of a cached offering and painted ballcourt marker supports the notion of a symbolic function, linking its western location with the setting sun. Saturno and colleagues (2017: 344) point out the penchant for Maya rulers to connect themselves to the ballgame, and therefore, embody the physical prowess of ballplayers. While physical strength, agility, and endurance were clearly important characteristics of a strong ruler, having specialized cosmological and calendric knowledge was key to embodying the sacred and connecting to important deities and ancestors. The merging of strength and sacred knowledge through rituals associated with the ballgame and E Group celebrations both sanctified and legitimized political authority. Thus, it does not seem to be a coincidence that E Groups and ballcourts became strongly associated by the beginning of the Late Preclassic period as the institution of kingship takes hold. But, is it useful to consider extending this function of the ballgame into the Middle Preclassic? Just as for E Groups, we believe that the role of the ballgame changed over time. Middle Preclassic ballcourts were most likely related to strategies of community integration (where competitive displays could be acted out) rather than part of the suite of strategies available to more stratified leaders at the end of the Middle Preclassic and during the Late Preclassic had at their disposal for maintaining and negotiating power. Only more research at these early ballcourts will shed light on these questions, however.

Summary and conclusion

In this chapter, we traced the development of early Maya civilization over seven centuries, a span of time that began with the first settled villages and ended with a highly stratified society on the verge of urban life. We intentionally focused our chapter on the development of two key public/ritual complexes, E Groups and ballcourts. By moving away from the overreliance on ceramics to gauge culture change, we can begin to better appreciate the truly transformative aspects of the period we currently call the Middle Preclassic. The work on E Groups in particular has moved the field away from the “tyranny” of ceramic sequences inherited from the pioneering culture historians in the Maya area. While much more work needs to be undertaken, an emerging narrative paints a very egalitarian and more mobile picture at the beginning of the early Middle Preclassic Maya, a picture that envisions E Groups, and potentially ballcourts, as permanent performance spaces that helped to spatially integrate peoples who were transitioning to a sedentary, agricultural form of life. Versions of these same architectural complexes, however, seem to have taken on new roles by the end of the period, providing spaces for emergent elites to reproduce and negotiate substantially complex power structures in communities on the verge of urbanism. Only by pulling apart the Middle Preclassic and studying the nuances of culture change over this more than 700 year period, however, will we be able to more fully appreciate the pace and pattern of what we oftentimes refer to as the “origins” of Maya society.


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