The organization of chipped-stone economies at Piedras Negras, Guatemala

Zachary Xavier Hruby
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside
July, 2006


The study examines patterns of chipped-stone production, distribution, and consumption during the Late Classic period at Piedras Negras, a medium-sized Maya polity located in the Middle Usumacinta region of the western Petén. The city center had a rich lithic tradition that crosscut spatial and temporal status boundaries. Most chipped stone goods made of obsidian and microcrystalline quartz were used in utilitarian capacities, but some were important in royal rituals, especially 'eccentrics' (likely a type of god effigy), which were cached in temple and stela dedication contexts. This study is the first large-scale analysis of chipped-stone artifacts from this region, and one of the few carried out at a major Maya center that featured the full complement of Classic Maya culture traits: hieroglyphic history, royal palaces, the stela altar complex, and temple burials. Quantitative and qualitative data on technology, material type, use-wear, and in some cases, symbolism, were collected from nearly 10,000 chert and obsidian artifacts. The sample was comprised of artifacts collected from the recent Piedras Negras Archaeological Project excavations and also the University of Pennsylvania excavations of the 1930s. Replication experiments were conducted to reproduce the local manufacturing traditions, and these data were used in the technological and symbolic aspects of the analysis. Ethnographic and ethnohistoric examples of ritualized production provided possible analogues for Classic Maya lithic traditions. Drawing from a combination of practice and economic theory, one of the main goals of the study was to examine the social role of craft production and craft producers in ancient Maya society. In particular, ideologies of production and the practice of ritualized production were theorized as important elements of the production and exchange of material capital, and the creation of symbolic capital. It was found that the system of production and exchange was inherently tied to symbolic and material capital, which had the effect of creating solidarity, at times, within the community through the ritual deposition of goods made by a number of experienced hands throughout the city center. The royal family at Piedras Negras attempted to control some forms of chipped-stone production, particularly obsidian and microcrystalline-quartz eccentrics used in royal rituals.