University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sarah Kurnick

Negotiating the Contradictions of Political Authority: An archaeological Case Study from Callar Creek, Belize (Department of Anthropology)

Politically authoritative relationships are prominent and persistent features of ancient, other, and our own lives. What strategies do rulers use to acquire and maintain political authority? And, why do subjects often choose to recognize the authority of rulers? These questions lie at the heart of political association and have been the subject of extensive debate. In this dissertation, I combine classic and contemporary social theory with data collected over four seasons of archaeological fieldwork in Belize to advance a novel understanding of the operation of political authority generally and to ascertain the specific strategies that engendered, reproduced, and negated politically authoritative relationships at the low-level ancient Maya community of Callar Creek. I construct three related arguments. First, I maintain that the exercise of political authority is best understood as a process of negotiating contradictions. Rulers must reinforce social inequality and bolster their own unique position at the top of the sociopolitical hierarchy, yet simultaneously emphasize social similarities and the commonalities of all. Second, I contend that ancient Maya rulers derived their authority from their ability simultaneously to compare and contrast themselves to their followers, contemporary leaders of other communities, and past members of their own communities. And finally, I argue that, at Callar Creek, rulers initially acquired their authority by emphasizing their connections to nearby, larger centers, and later maintained their authority through a continued emphasis on their connections to other, larger sites in the region, and through the veneration of ancestors. This work underscores the importance of community, foreign connections, and the past to the exercise of political authority, and speaks to the larger issue of how the past can be used to study the present. Studies, like this one, of politically authoritative relationships among early complex polities provide a means by which to understand and question such relationships in the contemporary world. My goal is to stimulate reflection on politically authoritative relationships both among the ancient Maya and in our own lives.

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