Archaeology of the 99%

The vast majority of people in antiquity were too poor to leave many artifacts behind. But archaeologists have learned how to look beyond the temples and palaces.

(23 Jul 2019, feed from Knowable Magazine) Until the past few decades, archaeology was all about the grand and the wealthy, focused on temples, palaces and spectacular artifacts — think King Tut’s tomb, or the great temples and palaces of the Mayan city of Tikal. Jeremy Sabloff, an archaeologist now retired from the University of Pennsylvania and the Santa Fe Institute, was part of the generation that changed that. Sabloff built his career on the study of the common folk of the Maya civilization of Mexico and Central America, mapping and excavating entire cities to study who lived where, and how.

In the 2019 Annual Review of Anthropology, Sabloff looks back over the 50-plus years of his career and reviews what archaeologists have learned about the Maya through the study of settlement patternsKnowable Magazine spoke with him about the archaeology of common folk. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why had archaeologists overlooked the commoners for so long?

Before World War II, archaeological research was funded mostly by museums or wealthy individuals or foundations. They wanted spectacular finds — temples and palaces, not the remains of perishable structures of everyday life. They wanted royal burials, such as King Tut’s tomb, the royal treasures of Ur, great sculpture, murals, beautiful pottery, jade, what have you. They were looking for materials that they could bring back and display in museums.

And why did that change?

For the Maya area specifically, the galvanizer was Gordon Willey at Harvard. He had already been a pioneer in what was called the settlement pattern approach: He wanted to see the whole settlement of an archaeological site, not just the major buildings. He was just as interested in mapping the remains of perishable wooden thatched houses, what little was left, as in stone temples and palaces. It’s not that houses of ancient Maya peasantry had been ignored, but Willey was the first to concentrate attention on these and say: How can we understand Maya society as a whole?

This concern with settlement pattern, with looking at the 100 percent instead of just the 1 percent, not only broadened our understanding, but completely changed it. The older view of the Maya was of a non-urban, peaceful people ruled by priest-astronomers. The elaborate temples people had found at Tikal and elsewhere were thought to be merely ceremonial centers with minimal populations, and not cities in their own right. But mapping projects at Tikal and other places showed that they weren’t just ceremonial centers — there were large numbers of remains of houses. These were actually urban centers of some kind. That totally changed the understanding of the pre-Columbian Maya.

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