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Ritual, Violence, and the Fall of the Classic Maya Kings$

Gyles Iannone, Brett A. Houk, and Sonja A. Schwake

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062754

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062754.001.0001

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Concepts of Legitimacy and Social Dynamics

Concepts of Legitimacy and Social Dynamics

Termination Ritual and the Last King of Aguateca, Guatemala

(p.89) 4 Concepts of Legitimacy and Social Dynamics
Ritual, Violence, and the Fall of the Classic Maya Kings

Takeshi Inomata

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Investigations at the Classic Maya center of Aguateca, Guatemala, have shown that dense artifact deposits resulting from termination rituals are found in and around buildings associated with the last king of this center, Tahn Te’ K’inich. These data suggest that the identity of the community was closely tied to the person of the king. During the following Postclassic period in the Maya lowlands, monumental representations of rulers as embodiments of their communities became far less common. These observations compel us to critically examine the complexity and multiple dimensions of divine ruler-ship and legitimacy by considering the political fortune of individual kings, changes in the notion of ruler-ship, and the loyalty and acquiescence of subjects.

Keywords:   Divine Rulership, Legitimacy, Political Processes, Terminal RitualAguateca

In the introduction chapter of this volume, Iannone and colleagues advocate a focus on the cross-cultural comparison of divine rulership for a better understanding of Classic Maya politics. I strongly agree with them about the importance of this approach in general. Elsewhere I have suggested that the concept of divine kingship can be successfully applied to the Classic Maya case (Inomata 2001, 2006a, 2008b). My underlying view is that analyzing Maya rulers in this perspective would allow us to move away from the overly functionalist explanation of Maya politics, which attributes a strong managerial role to rulers as individuals or the ruling elite as a group and characterizes them as the main movers of political processes, resembling political players in modern Western societies. The perspective would help us pay closer attention to the symbolic aspect of rulership and the royal court, which may have been as much caught in the constraints of historical traditions as their subjects. As Iannone (chapter 2) notes, the symbolic representation of the ruler as an embodiment of the polity does not necessarily equate with the ruler’s supreme power. The ruler may not have much say in the day-to-day management of the polity, which may be run largely by the officials, and the ruler’s authority may be challenged by those elites. Iannone’s excellent review of relevant cases from around the world advances this line of study substantially.

A more specific question that Iannone and colleagues ask (chapter 1) is whether this model is applicable to the explanation of what happened at the (p.90) end of the Classic period. With regard to this specific issue, I am skeptical about the utility of the divine rulership model. We need to be aware of the limitations and weaknesses of this theory as addressed by Iannone et al. In their recent review of political anthropological theory, Hansen and Stepputat (2006, 298) note that the study of divine kingship, which followed the tradition of Frazer (1993 [1922]) and Hocart (1936) and culminated in the work of Evans-Pritchard and Fortes (1940), among others, was largely ahistorical and ultimately advanced a Durkheimian view of political authority because it was grounded in the idea of a collectively shared will. Because of these shortcomings, according to Hansen and Stepputat, this substantial body of work on kingship has contributed little to later studies of postcolonial and modern states. More important for our purpose, the ahistorical and Durkheimian nature of this tradition offers little utility in explaining changes in the system of divine kingship itself. The significant social transformation that occurred at the end of the Classic period presents such a challenge.

A related issue is the concept of legitimacy, which Iannone and colleagues also address in their chapter. Archaeologists often use the concept of legitimacy, explicitly or implicitly, following the original formulation developed by Weber. In my view, however, the uncritical adaption of Weber’s concept leads to unrealistic or inappropriate understandings of premodern societies. Common archaeological narratives go like this: when a state or polity remains stable, it retains its legitimacy, and when it declines, its legitimacy is lost. In other words, the legitimacy of the king is challenged at the time of crisis. However, we need to question monolithic, one-dimensional views of legitimacy, following the intense critique and evaluation of Weber’s theory raised in political philosophy, political science, and sociology. Various critics have noted that the fundamental problem of Weber’s conceptualization derives from his formulation of legitimacy as people’s belief: the regime is legitimate when the subjects express their belief in its legitimacy (Beetham 1991; Friedrich 1963, 186; Malešević 2002; Pitkin 1972, 280–286). Blau (1963), Schaar (1970), Grafstein (1981), and others have argued that in this conceptualization legitimacy is equated with acquiescence: as long as the regime remains stable and people do not express dissent, it is considered legitimate, although in reality people may covertly disapprove of the regime. This is a circular argument.

As alternatives to Weber’s formulation, various scholars have proposed that legitimacy needs to be examined on the basis of normative measures, including the correctness and fairness of procedures (Beetham 1991; (p.91) Grafstein 1981; Schaar 1970). In a particularly influential work, Habermas (1975, 97–102) has suggested that Weber’s conceptualization presents ethical and moral problems and that the study of legitimacy needs to question people’s beliefs. The fundamental problem of Weber’s conceptualization of legitimacy is that it affords little explanatory potential for social change. Various archaeologists still appear to assume implicitly or explicitly that social change ultimately derives from deterioration in material conditions and that the failure of legitimacy and associated ideologies is an end result of environmental or economic calamities. Habermas’s central argument, however, is that we need to explore the possibility of social change emerging from the negotiation of ideologies. In his view, a legitimation crisis does not necessarily arise from factors external to society but is an endemic state to which modern states are subjected because of their internal processes. I should also add that it is not clear how applicable Habermas’s notion of legitimation crisis, which was developed specifically for modern societies, is to the explanation of social dynamics in premodern contexts. In my view, the use of his concept as an explanatory model for the collapse of premodern states is a misapplication. If we are to gain inspiration from Habermas’s work, we should focus on the reflexive aspect of his philosophy to critically evaluate researchers’ conceptualizations. In other words, we need to problematize the notion of legitimacy by examining not only the time of political turmoil but also that of apparent stability of the regimes.

The problems related to applying Weber’s version of legitimacy to archaeological contexts should be obvious. When written records are not available, archaeologists cannot directly access people’s beliefs, and we should not simply equate the state of a polity or people’s behavior, as estimated from the archaeological records, with common beliefs in legitimacy. Particularly suggestive in this regard is Scott’s (1990) discussion of discrepancies between publicly visible behavior of conformity and internal or covert resistance waged by subjects. He contends that although in the public domains non-elites typically follow the “public transcripts” that conform to elites’ views, they often express their “hidden transcripts” behind the scenes, demonstrating dissent with the authorities. Thus, legitimacy is not necessarily monolithic and coherent. It follows that a legitimation crisis may exist at the time of apparent political stability. We need to examine the multilayered, fragmentary, and inconsistent nature of legitimacy (Beetham 1991).

In examining multiple layers of legitimacy, we need to pay attention to the following points. First, we need to distinguish between the relevant (p.92) conceptualizations regarding individual kings and the conceptualization about the entire political regime, including divine rulership. Discussion by some archaeologists may focus largely on the legitimacy of individual rulers. In my view, however, the central question, particularly in the study of social change at the end of the Classic Maya period, should be that of the overall regime. A divine king may be killed when his health or sexual potency declines. In this case, the king may be viewed unfit to rule, but the resulting regicide may not mean that the broader political regime is considered illegitimate. Acts of regicide are rooted in the very notion of divine rulership and serve to maintain the political system tied to this ideology. As Taylor (this volume) notes, the individual fortunes of specific kings may be ephemeral, but the ideology of sacred kingship can be more resistant to change. Second, the recognition of multiple layers of legitimacy implies that complex processes of negotiation exist. Instead of treating legitimacy as a monolithic entity, we need to ask what aspects of legitimacy may have been challenged at the end of Classic period and what aspects may have persisted by situating such changes against the dynamics of political negotiations during the time of seeming stability. It should be clear that most critics of Weber’s conceptualization are not throwing away the concept of legitimacy altogether. Neither do they deny the presence of dominant forms of discourse and representation. Instead, they compel us to pay closer attention to how dominant discourses and public transcripts interact with subjugated discourses and hidden transcripts.

Historical Settings

I examine the nature of Maya rulership and the dynamics of its legitimacy through the analysis of termination ritual remains and other evidence of destruction at Aguateca. Evidence of termination rituals associated with settlement abandonment or military conflicts is now well demonstrated at various Maya sites (Freidel et al. 1998; Suhler and Freidel 2003). Typically, large buildings such as royal palaces and pyramidal temples were intentionally destroyed or burned, and in many cases numerous broken objects were deposited. The detailed analysis of such symbolic acts should provide important information about the nature of social relations, prevailing ideologies, and political strategies. Investigations at the Classic Maya center of Aguateca, Guatemala, provide a significant data set in this regard (figure 1.1). Following a military defeat at the end of the Late Classic period, large-scale termination rituals were conducted in the royal palace complex and (p.93) in the main ceremonial plaza. Destructions were selective, focusing on the buildings tied to the last ruler of this center. This pattern probably reflects the importance of a ruler as an embodiment of communal identities and political power for both the community members and their antagonists.

Aguateca, located in the southwestern lowlands, was a subject of intensive archaeological investigations from 1990 through 2005. Various publications (Inomata and Triadan 2010, 2014; Inomata et al. 2001; Inomata et al. 2002; Inomata 2003) have reported the results of the initial mapping and excavations as part of the Petexbatun Regional Archaeological Project from 1990 through 1993 and of the large-scale excavations of the royal palace group and the adjacent elite residential area that were conducted as the Aguateca Archaeological Project First Phase. Here I summarize these data and discuss the results of excavations in the Main Plaza carried out as part of the Aguateca Restoration Project and the Aguateca Archaeological Project Second Phase from 2002 through 2005 (Inomata et al. 2009).

The primary focus of this chapter is the epicenter of Aguateca, which includes the royal Palace Group complex; the elite residential area along the Causeway south of the Palace Group; and the Main Plaza, which was most likely the primary stage for communal ceremonies (figure 4.1). To the south of the Main Plaza, outside the epicenter, an area in the middle of the steep escarpment that we called the Barranca Escondida was used for the placement of stelae and ritual activities. Our initial investigations demonstrated that the elite residential area was burned during an enemy attack that probably dates to around AD 810. These buildings contained numerous complete and reconstructible artifacts, ranging from such utilitarian items as storage jars, cooking vessels, and grinding stones to precious objects such as jade ornaments, elaborate polychrome vessels, and shell and bone ornaments carved with glyphic texts. Prior to this event, the residents of Aguateca probably felt the increasing threat of an outside attack.

The dynasty of this center appears to have suffered a military defeat in AD 761 (Houston 1993; Martin and Grube 2008). The royal family and the elite left their primary capital of Dos Pilas and moved to the secondary capital of Aguateca, which was in a more naturally defensible location. The last ruler, Tahn Te’ K’inich, tried to regain the former glory of the dynasty through a series of military campaigns and the erection of large stelae. However, the political situation surrounding Aguateca continued to deteriorate. The residents of Aguateca suspended the ambitious construction of a pyramidal temple, L8-8, on the western side of the Main Plaza and began to build a series of concentric defensive walls to protect the (p.94)

Concepts of Legitimacy and Social DynamicsTermination Ritual and the Last King of Aguateca, Guatemala

Figure 4.1. Map of the Aguateca epicenter.

center. The ruler and his family appear to have evacuated the center, nearly emptying the Palace Group and placing select royal possessions in a sealed storage room of this complex. The attack of the enemy came quickly. The remaining elite did not have time to carry away their possessions. The areas outside the epicenter were not burned, and inhabitants were able to empty their residences when the center was completely deserted soon after the attack.

(p.95) Termination Deposits at Aguateca

Before the complete abandonment of the center, the victorious enemies appear to have conducted termination rituals in the royal palace complex and in the Main Plaza. The excavations of Structures M7-22 and M7-32, the main royal residences of the Palace Group, revealed clear evidence of such symbolic acts. The enemies probably found most rooms empty, but they opened the sealed storage room (the easternmost room of Structure M7-22) and intentionally broke some stored objects, scattering their fragments in the area in front of the room. During the termination ritual, the enemies deposited numerous broken objects around Structure M7-22, in the front room, in part of the central throne room of Structure M7-32, and in the areas on the sides of the building. In the central room of Structure M7-32, the capstone of the niche in the side wing of the throne was removed and part of the throne surface was damaged. Broken objects were thrown in the exposed niche and on the damaged part of the throne. Excavators found thin layers of white soil, possibly of limestone origin, which appear similar to the marl layers reported from some termination ritual deposits at other sites (Freidel 1986; Freidel and Schele 1989). These buildings and the associated deposits of artifacts were severely burned. The thick plaster layers in the sealed storage room turned gray and crumbled in many parts, suggesting that they were exposed to heat of 700 to 800°C (see Birbhushan et al. 1996). Participants in the ritual probably deposited a large amount of organic fuels in and around the buildings to make this substantial fire (Inomata 2014).

All major buildings around the Main Plaza have been at least partially excavated, and the results allow us to evaluate different treatments of these buildings at the time of abandonment. Structure L8-8, an unfinished temple, does not appear to have been subjected to ritual destruction. Structures L8-4, L8-5, and L8-11 were nearly completely excavated, but the excavators did not find unequivocal evidence of termination rituals (Valdés et al. 1999). The clearest evidence of termination rituals was found at Structures L8-6 and L8-7 (Ponciano et al. 2009). Some portions of their cut stones were dismantled and a large quantity of broken objects was deposited over and in front of them. From stratigraphic evidence alone it is impossible to determine the exact timing of the rituals; whether they were carried out by the residents of Aguateca before the center was attacked by the enemies or whether they were perpetrated by the victorious enemies after their successful attack on Aguateca is uncertain. Although we should continue (p.96) to evaluate various possibilities, circumstantial evidence favors the latter interpretation.

Prior to the attack by enemies, the remaining elites of Aguateca, though feeling the threat of an imminent attack, were trying to maintain the traditional courtly culture with activities such as refurbishing royal headdresses and guarding ornaments carved with the ruler’s name and the Aguateca emblem glyph. It is unlikely that the residents of Aguateca destroyed those temples. I should also note that important monumental buildings may have continued to receive ritual visits that resulted in an accumulation of dense deposits over a period of time (Navarro-Farr 2009; Navarro-Farr and Arroyave Prera 2014). This, however, was probably not the case at Aguateca, as various lines of evidence suggest that Aguateca was completely abandoned soon after the final attack (Inomata 2003; Inomata et al. 2004). The dense deposits at Structures L8-6 and L8-7 and those in the Palace Group were most likely placed immediately after the attack by the invading enemies.

Excavations at the base of Structure L8-6 revealed a dense deposit of broken artifacts similar to those found in the Palace Group (figure 4.2). In front of the stairway, the dense deposit was placed directly on the plaza floor, but in the area south of the stairway a layer of yellowish sandy soils was found between the plaza floor and the artifact deposit. This layer, which accumulated against the retaining walls of the pyramid and was up to sixty centimeters thick, did not contain artifacts or large pieces of cut limestone blocks. The origin of this soil presents a vexing problem. One possibility is that some of the cut blocks that covered the stairways and retaining walls were removed prior to the deposition of broken artifacts and that the yellow soil accumulated in this area during the process of dismantling or is attributable to subsequent erosion. The yellow soil appear to be identical to the material in construction fills found immediately behind veneer stones. In the excavation of the stairway, two courses of steps were found in situ, but blocks of the upper steps were absent, and both over the stairway and in the area south of it the number of cut blocks in the collapse layer was relatively small, supporting the interpretation that some portion of blocks was removed. Another possibility is that the enemies brought the yellow soil from other locations as part of the termination ritual. If so, this material may be comparable in function to the white powdery materials found in the Palace Group and the marls identified in termination rituals at other sites.

The deposits of artifacts found in front of Structure L8-7 were not as dense as those of Structure L8-6, but they still contained a considerable (p.97)

Concepts of Legitimacy and Social DynamicsTermination Ritual and the Last King of Aguateca, Guatemala

Figure 4.2. Dense deposit of artifacts found south of the stairway of Structure L8-6.

quantity of broken objects. Unique features found during the excavation of this building included piles of irregular stones placed over and in front of the stairway. Underneath the stone pile found over the stairway excavators was a dense deposit of broken objects placed on the plaza floor directly in front of the stairway. We also noticed that in the area to the east of the pile the second and higher steps of the stairway had been removed, whereas the first step remained in its original position (figure 4.3). These observations suggest the following sequence of events. The invading enemies deposited numerous broken objects over and in front of the stairway during a termination ritual for this building. They then removed cut blocks in the eastern part of the wide stairway and piled irregular fill stones removed during this process in the central part of the stairway. However, they left intact blocks of the first step of the stairway that were embedded in the plaza floor. In addition, blocks covered by the piles of irregular stones were left untouched. It is not clear where they took the removed blocks.

Examining the specific contents of these deposits helps us understand their nature. Table 4.1 compares the quantities of ceramic types found in the deposits associated with the Palace Group, the Causeway area, Structures L8-6 and L8-7, and the Barranca Escondida. As to the deposits found in (p.98)

Concepts of Legitimacy and Social DynamicsTermination Ritual and the Last King of Aguateca, Guatemala

Figure 4.3. Stairway of Structure L8-7 after removing the pile of stones viewed from the west. Note that in the eastern portion, the second and higher steps have been dismantled. A pile of irregular stones was placed over the preserved step, where a tree root is visible.

the Palace Group, they have close similarities to those found in the Causeway area. A large part of the Causeway area materials consist of complete and reconstructible vessels left in residences and associated buildings, thus representing common domestic assemblages, whereas those of the Palace Group derived substantially from the dense termination deposits. The close similarities between the materials from these areas accord with the hypothesis that domestic refuse materials were transported and deposited in the Palace Group during the termination rituals. In both areas the ratios of Encanto Striated, which mostly served as storage jars, are highest, and those of Pedregal Modeled, which were almost exclusively used as censors, are low. Those assemblages also show similar quantities of other common domestic types: Tinaja Red and Pantano Impressed, which were predominantly liquid-containing jars; Subin Red and Chaquiste Impressed bowls used for cooking and storage; and Saxche-Palmar Polychrome and other Petén Gloss types, largely representing serving vessels. (p.99)

Table 4.1. Frequencies of ceramic sherds found in different areas of Aguateca

Palace Group

Causeway Area

Barranca Escondida













Uaxactun Unslipped


   Cambio Unslipped











   Encanto Striated











   Pedregal Modeled











   Other Uaxactun











Unslipped types

Petén Gloss Ware

   Tinaja and Pantano











   Subin and Chaquiste























   Other Petén Gloss












Other ware











Total identified























The main difference between the assemblages of the two areas is that a substantial portion of the ceramics from the Causeway area consisted of complete or reconstructible vessels, whereas most materials from the Palace Group could not be refitted. This observation adds further support to the view that a large portion of the Palace Group materials consist of secondary deposits taken from middens. The somewhat lower ratios of Tinaja and Pantano jars and Saxche-Palmar and other Petén Gloss serving vessels in the Palace Group assemblage suggest that these materials derived primarily from middens associated with food-preparation areas, whereas those of the Causeway area were found in residences, thus representing the vessel composition of food-consumption areas. Other objects found in the Palace Group deposits include numerous chert and obsidian tools, fragments of grinding stones, and animal bones that were probably transported from middens along with broken ceramics. These deposits, however, also contained items uncharacteristic of domestic middens, such as human skeletal (p.100) remains and a substantial number of greenstone and shell ornaments. The deposition of such precious items during termination rituals is reported from other sites (Garber 1983), and in the Palace Group of Aguateca these items were probably added to the transported midden materials as part of the ritual.

The compositions of ceramics from Structures L8-6 and L8-7 are similar to those found in the Palace Group and in the Causeway area, indicating that these materials, like those of the Palace Group, originated from domestic middens. In this regard, the clear difference from the materials found in the Barranca Escondida is suggestive. The Barranca Escondida is a ritual location marked by stelae and a probable shrine that does not have common domestic structures (Inomata and Eberl 2010). The assemblage found there is characterized by the markedly low ratios of typical domestic types of Encanto Striated, Subin Red, and Chaquiste Impressed and by the high percentage of Pedregal Modeled censors and other possible ritual items. The pyramidal structures L8-6 and L8-7, which are associated with stelae, most likely served as temples, and we might expect that their original artifact assemblages would be characterized by an abundance of ritual items like those from the Barranca Escondida. The predominance of domestic objects on and around Structures L8-6 and L8-7, however, suggests that these deposits did not result from the original use of the buildings but are secondary (that is, transposed) deposits placed during a termination ritual. I should add that there are some differences in the composition of ceramics in the Palace Group, the Causeway area, and Structures L8-6 and L8-7. Such small variations are expected, as the use and discarding of specific vessels vary from one group to another and from one social context to another. But the percentages of ceramic types associated with Structures L8-6 and L8-7 are essentially identical. It is probable that the materials deposited at these temples were taken from the same middens.

As in the case of the Palace Group deposits, most ceramics from Structures L8-6 and L8-7 could not be refitted. In addition, the deposits at those temples contained numerous chert and obsidian tools, animal bones, and fragments of manos and metates, all of which most likely came from mid-dens. Greenstone and shell ornaments and other elaborate art pieces are present (Figure 4.4), but their quantities are substantially smaller than those in the Palace Group deposits. It is not clear whether those ornaments were originally included in the middens or whether they were added during subsequent rituals. (p.101)

Concepts of Legitimacy and Social DynamicsTermination Ritual and the Last King of Aguateca, Guatemala

Figure 4.4. Fragment of a carved limestone object found in the deposit of Structure L8-6.

The ritual and secondary nature of the deposits in the Palace Group and at Structures L8-6 and L8-7 appears to be comparable to those found at Structure 3 at Blue Creek, Belize (see Guderjan and Hanratty this volume). Clayton et al. (2005) report that the dense deposits covering this pyramidal structure, which was located in a public plaza, also consisted mostly of sherds that could not be refitted. They argue that these materials were transported from middens, but unlike the Aguateca materials, they may have been taken from feasting refuse rather than from common household middens. The early literature on termination rituals emphasized the presence of reconstructible or partial vessels that were probably smashed and scattered as part of the ritual (Freidel 1986; Robertson 1983, 112; Walker 1998). The Aguateca and Blue Creek deposits reflect different activities from those examples, suggesting that variations existed in the practices associated with what we call termination rituals (see Houk this volume).

(p.102) Termination Rituals and the Last King of Aguateca

A plausible explanation for the specific distribution of termination ritual deposits at Agauteca is that the enemies specifically targeted for ritual destruction the buildings associated with the last ruler of Aguateca, Ruler 5, Tahn Te’ K’inich. Structures L8-5 and L8-6 are both pyramidal buildings located on the eastern side of the Main Plaza and appear to be comparable to Structure 3 at Blue Creek (Clayton et al. 2005) and other eastern shrine structures identified at Tikal and at other centers (Becker 1971; McAnany 1995; Navarro-Farr 2009). The presence of dense deposits at one building and their absence at another seem puzzling at first glance. Structure L8-5 must have been one of the earliest and most important temples at Aguateca. It was associated with the largest number of stone monuments—Stelae 1–5, and Altars A–E and S—many of which had been dedicated by Ruler 3 and his successor, Ruler 4, K’awiil Chan K’inich (Graham 1967; Houston 1993). Its importance in the dynastic history of Aguateca is evident, and that could have made this building a natural target for symbolic destruction. The enemies, however, chose structures tied to the last ruler of Aguateca and spared the older Structure L8-5. Other buildings in the Main Plaza, Structures L8-4 and L8-11, may have also been associated with the early kings, or as range structures they may not have had heavy symbolic value comparable to the temple-pyramids. Given the shared elite culture and close interaction, it would not be surprising that some outsiders had knowledge of specific temples.

Structures L8-6 and L8-7 were most likely closely connected to the last ruler. In front of Structure L8-6 were Stelae 6 and 19, both dedicated by Tahn Te’ K’inich. Our excavation in front of this building revealed the base part of Stela 6 in situ, confirming the original placement of this monument. Stela 7, which was placed in front of Structure L8-7, is also the monument of the last king. The other three stelae found near Structure L8-7, Stelae 8, 9, and 10, are heavily eroded, but their large sizes suggest that the last ruler also erected them. The earlier kings, Ruler 3 and K’awiil Chan K’inich, dedicated relatively small monuments at the secondary capital of Aguateca while erecting larger stelae at their primary seat of power, Dos Pilas. After the probable military defeat of K’awiil Chan K’inich, his successor, Tahn Te’ K’inich, reestablished Aguateca as the primary capital of this troubled dynasty and then began to erect large stelae that rivaled those at Dos Pilas. At the same time, Tahn Te’ K’inich appears to have invested in substantial construction at Aguateca. Structures L8-6 and L8-7 were probably the main (p.103) temples he commissioned and used as the primary stages of his ritual activity. Whereas the earlier temple, L8-5, had a superstructure made of perishable material (Inomata 2010), Structures L8-6 and L8-7 boasted vaulted temples. Although we did not directly confirm this by excavating the top of those buildings, our excavations at their bases revealed vault stones that originated from the masonry-roofed buildings that once stood on those pyramids. Tahn Te’ K’inich apparently ordered the even more ambitious construction project of Structure L8-8, but it was suspended in the deteriorating political situation prior to the final attack.

The Palace Group may also have been associated primarily with Tahn Te’ K’inich rather than with his predecessors. We can safely assume that the Palace Group of Aguateca was the main residential complex of Tahn Te’ K’inich and his family (Inomata et al. 2001), but uncertainty remains about whether this palace complex was established during the reigns of his predecessors. Excavations into the basal platform of Structure M7-22 and the patio of the Palace Group showed that this structure (and possibly the entire compound) was built essentially in one construction episode directly on the bedrock (Inomata and Triadan 2010; Ponciano 2009). Likewise, most of the elite residences located along the Causeway appear to have been built in one construction stage. The fills of the Palace Group and residences along the Causeway contained a small quantity of Chablekal Fine Gray and volcanic ash–tempered ceramics that largely date to AD 760 to 810 (Foias 1996) mixed with a large quantity of less time-sensitive Late Classic types. These data point to the tantalizing possibility that much of the elite core of Aguateca was built after the probable military defeat of Dos Pilas in AD 761; that is, during the reign of Tahn Te’ K’inich. At the same time, I need to note the possibility that some portion of Chablekal Fine Gray and volcanic ash–tempered wares dates earlier than has been commonly assumed. Even if the Palace Group was constructed earlier, Aguateca appears to have been considerably less important for the earlier kings than Dos Pilas; they probably spent little time at the secondary center. The Palace Group must have been strongly tied to the deeds and image of the last king, Tahn Te’ K’inich.

These data suggest that the remains of termination rituals are concentrated at the buildings that were strongly associated with the last king, whereas the temples dedicated by the earlier rulers lack comparable traces. The destruction of important buildings probably represented a symbolic defeat of the enemy that is comparable to the Aztec practice of burning enemy temples (Berdan and Anawalt 1992). However, the concentration of termination ritual remains at the structures associated with the last ruler (p.104) may tell us deeper stories about the nature of Maya rulership and communities. It appears that the dominant form of representation at Aguateca was the individual king rather than broader notions of dynasty or polity, and it was therefore the king who strongly defined the unity and identity of the community for both community members and opponents.

The importance of the individual king at Aguateca may have derived partly from the personality and charisma of Tahn Te’ K’inich. This ruler brought a major transformation of the community for the local residents of Aguateca when he established it as the primary seat of dynastic power. Not only did he erect monuments significantly larger than earlier ones at this center but he also ordered ambitious construction projects, including vaulted temples of Structures L8-6 and L8-7. In particular, Structure L8-8, though it was never finished, was probably intended to be a large pyramid that would have far surpassed any existing buildings at Aguateca. Tahn Te’ K’inich also appears to have been (or at least to have presented himself as) an active warrior. His preserved monuments, Stelae 6, 7, 13, 14, and 19, all depict him with war captives (Houston 1993; Martin and Grube 2008). As Iannone (this volume) notes, these activities may have represented his desperate attempts to reestablish the glory of the Aguateca polity under deteriorating circumstances. The grand construction projects and war campaigns may have fostered pride in the community centered on the ruler, but they may have at the same time strained the resources of the already weakened population and exacerbated antagonisms with other groups.

As significant as the personality of an individual is, I would like to emphasize the importance of the ruler’s body and physical action in shaping the image of a community. This is a more general organizational property that was shared by various groups in the Maya lowlands. I have argued elsewhere that in Classic Maya society the abstract institution of polity as an object of loyalty and emotional attachment may have been relatively weak (Inomata 2006a, 2006b). Senses of belongingness were probably fostered to a substantial degree by physical interactions among social agents set in specific historical and spatial contexts. I suspect that under such conditions the bodily presence of the ruler and his physical actions strongly shaped community members’ perceptions of their relationship to the political authority. The ruler was indeed an embodiment of a political community (see also Iannone this volume). People’s senses of loyalty, affection, hatred, and fear were tied to the physicality of an individual ruler rather than the abstract notion of collectivity that modern scholars may variably term polity, state, or nation. In this sense, the destruction and rituals focused on the (p.105) buildings associated with the last ruler of Aguateca were not carried out by chance; instead, they closely reflected the nature of Maya political organization. Defeating an individual ruler and destroying material symbols tied to that person must have been the primary way to weaken the unity and continuation of the community.


The events that happened in the final days of Aguateca were shaped by the historical settings of this short-lived center. Some of the monumental buildings at Aguateca, including Structures L8-6 and L8-7 and possibly also the Palace Group, appear to have been built during the reign of the last ruler, Tahn Te’ K’inich. These buildings were probably tied strongly to the person and deeds of this king, in the minds of both community members and some outsiders. After the enemies attacked this center and destroyed its elite residential area, they conducted termination rituals specifically at the buildings associated with the last ruler. To seal their victory over Aguateca, the enemies focused their symbolic battle and destruction on the last king and his buildings. It appears that the unity and identity of the community hinged strongly on the physical presence and acts of an individual king.

I do not necessarily think that the political organization at Aguateca closely applies to other Maya centers. After all, communities are flexible and variable and present different forms and configurations across time and space. This variability may depend partly on how strongly the personality of an individual ruler affects the affairs of the political community. In addition, we need to keep in mind that the main occupation of Aguateca dates to a time of drastic social change in the Maya lowlands. With warfare intensifying and many centers declining, the traditional forms of ruler-ship and political organization were challenged. In particular, the complete abandonment of Aguateca after its military defeat marked a major break from the Classic period tradition in which defeated groups typically maintained their own centers and dynasties.

Yet the events that happened at Aguateca probably reflect the common nature of Maya political communities of various groups in the lowlands. The integration of a community in the Maya lowlands during the Classic period was based significantly on physical interactions among social agents, and political authority was created and maintained through public events at which people could witness the body and act of the king and other elites. The durability of buildings associated with the ruler and his political (p.106) authority probably complemented the fleeting nature of power relations that depended on physical interaction. These material symbols lent a sense of persistence to the unity of the community and the authority of the king and elites. This means that these buildings could be a target of destruction even after the battle was over.

I should note that the focus on the person of the king and on his buildings and monuments as extensions of his quality as targets of bellicose attacks was a common practice throughout the Classic period (e.g., Suhler and Freidel 2003). In this regard, we see certain similarities and differences in practices associated with divine rulership in the Maya area and Africa. Among the Classic Maya, kings were required to conduct auto-sacrifice in the form of bloodletting rituals and they were the ones who had to be sacrificed in the wake of military defeats. These practices reflect the nature of Maya rulers as embodiments of their respective polities, analogous to the ideologies associated with divine rulership of Africa and other parts of the world (as detailed by Iannone this volume). Nonetheless, in Classic Maya society there is no known case of regicide in the sense described by Frazer. In this sense, we see historical uniqueness of Maya rulership.

If the sacrifice of defeated kings by the victorious enemies was a common practice throughout the Classic period, such killings do not necessarily signal the loss of legitimacy for the institution of divine rulership or even for the defeated polities. Defeated polities may have endured humiliation and certain political meddling from their vanquishers, but the dynasties typically continued without surrendering their autonomy completely. The ideology and institution of divine rulership persisted through many episodes of victories and defeats. But if we accept the criticism of Weber raised by Habermas and others, we should not equate the persistence of rulership with coherent and universal beliefs in its legitimacy.

Most important, there is a fundamental difference between what happened at Aguateca in early ninth century and what went before. At the end of the Classic period, the dynasty at Aguateca died out and its center was completely abandoned following the military defeat. Similar disruption and decline occurred at many other centers at about the same time, as is documented in the various chapters in this volume. This pattern reflects a significant change in the nature of rulership and political ideologies beyond the fortunes of individual kings. The coexistence of old practices of sacrificing defeated kings and their key buildings with a new systemic change in political ideologies and regimes may fit the concept of the residual discussed by Williams (1977); certain elements of an old era persist (p.107) through social transformations. After the abandonment of Aguateca, the nearby center of Seibal (aka Ceibal) prospered in an effort to revive its old dynasty. This residual element of the Classic period regime is reminiscent of the persistence of certain elements of sacred kingship in modern Rwanda that Taylor describes (this volume). However, the dynasty of Seibal did not survive for long. Although the institution of rulership continued in the Maya area in the Postclassic period, monumental representations of rulers as embodiments of their communities became far less common. There appears to have been a significant change in the nature of rulership and in associated ideologies and symbolism.

The theory of divine rulership that Iannone (chapter 2) explores presents an important perspective for the study of Classic Maya society. Nonetheless, its application to specific historical instances requires careful evaluation. In this regard, the question of legitimacy that Iannone and colleagues address (chapter 1) is critical. We need to distinguish the notion of fitness of individual kings to rule, the superficial conformity of subjects to the regime of rulership, and the attitudes of subjects toward rulers. These different layers and dimensions of legitimacy are mutually related but are not coterminous. Our task is to examine the interplay of their complex dynamics in specific historical contexts.


Archaeological investigations at Aguateca were carried out under a permit generously issued by the Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala. Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation (BCS-9707950, BCS-9910594, BCS-0414167); the Mitsubishi Foundation; the National Geographic Society (#5937-97, #6303-98); the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.; and the H. John Heinz III Charitable Trust.