ArchaeoLit: Maya Mobility & Isotopes
Warning: this week’s reading is heavy on the chemistry. “New isotope data on Maya mobility and enclaves at Classic Copan, Honduras” by Price et al. (2014) in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology reviews the isotope analysis of burials at Copan, and uses these analyses to reconstruct mobility patterns. Taking the dive into archaeological chemistry can be overwhelming, but understanding isotope analysis is not as scary as it might seem.
Isotopes are unstable elements which essentially decay at different speeds, and their level of decay can be measured using mass spectrometry which separates isotopes based on mass. Different isotopes tell archaeology different things. Most people are somewhat familiar with carbon isotopes, which allow archaeologists to tell how long organic material has been decaying and thus provide a date for the material. Strontium isotopes tell archaeologists about the food people consumed, while oxygen isotopes tell us about body water which when used with geographic data can be linked to their location.
Strontium, oxygen and carbon isotopes are measured in human tooth enamel from 32 human burials in structural complex 10J-45 at the Classic Maya site of Copan in western Honduras. These results are compared with similar information from the Copan Acropolis, common graves throughout the site, and base-line information from the surrounding region and the Maya area in general. More than one-third of the burials are identiﬁed as non-local based on strontium and oxygen isotope ratios. These non-local individuals came from a variety of different places. Two of these persons appear to be dynastic rulers or highly placed nobles in Copan society. The high density of non-locals and the location of the burials suggest this area may have been an enclave of foreign Maya at the site. The presence of non-local rulers in both this area and the Acropolis supports the concept of ‘‘stranger kings’’ in the Maya realm.
Don’t be afraid to skim the article and focus on the discussion and conclusions portion. It’s always important to understand methodology, but I’ve found that reading the results first and then reviewing the methodology and chemical techniques helps me to better understand the value of those techniques without getting caught up in the technical jargon. Read the article here, and don’t be afraid to drop me a message if you have any questions or comments!