Archaeological Site Concept and Meta Data

We would like to introduce our inventory with an initial discussion of the term “site” itself, which we understand to be a terminus technicus in the context of this project. The history and significance of previous lists of sites at which inscriptions were discovered will thereafter be highlighted, because they constitute the conceptual templates for the working list to be introduced here, whose structure and metadata fields will presented in conclusion. Finally, the site list is not only designed as a resource from the community for the community. Rather, it is also intended that users will comment on the entries, suggest revisions or additions, and in this manner communicate to the project additional sites with bibliographic references that have not yet been registered. Contributions from colleagues will be incorporated into the “Remarks” section of the site database as citable sources.

Definition of an „Archaeological Site“

Sites of Maya ruins are former human settlements of varying dimensions and structural organization whose archaeologically documented settlement elements exist in a direct spatial relationship with each other and are the result of a long process of human interaction in space, which is attested by artifacts and features encountered in this spatial relationship (Baumeister 2010:7–9). Maya settlements with central temple and residential compounds are defined as cities, and their ruins appear subjectively to be an organizationally associated and also formally to constitute a “unit of self-documenting, spatial section of the cultural landscape (Fehn 1975:69). Each site has been shaped by humans over the course of time and thus presents a unique, contained, and thus subjectively definable appearance, which is referenced linguistically by toponyms in Spanish, English, a Mayan language, or other terms.

The usual designations for the former Maya cities and settlements that are used in the literature and on-site refer in the first instance to visible and archaeologically documented structural-spatial remains of a former cultural landscape. Over the course of human interaction, these remains have been subject to processes of change in which old elements were replaced with new ones, or existing settlement elements were changed or supplemented. A site’s delimitation relative to neighboring settlements is often impressionistic and the result of the particular topography and forestation of the Maya region: for centuries, Maya settlements lay like islands hidden in the green of the tropical forest, whereby the impression arose upon their discovery—and still persists today—that the cities as settlements were also spatially delineated by forest or scrub savannahs, and were thus organized as socially and politically discrete entities. Epigraphic research may have confirmed the existence of city-states (Mathews 1991) and thus this subjective viewpoint in certain respects, but the space between the large settlements and cities is now known to have been more densely populated than was previously acknowledged. Thus, the issue of the affiliation of smaller settlements on the periphery and in surrounding areas with larger cities is a research question that is now being intensively investigated in the context of archaeological projects.

It has not been a seldom occurrence in the history of the field that sites previously viewed as independent have been recognized as actually constituting peripheral regions of other sites that had already been defined, as in the case of the site Macanxoc, which was identified over the course of archaeological survey as a part of Coba, as it was connected to the center by means of a sakbe (Thompson et al. 1932; Graham and von Euw 1997). Due to its high concentration of construction, monumental architecture, and inscribed stone monuments, Coba itself is defined as the core of a settlement agglomeration whose external sectors (primarily patio groups) are smaller in terms of their surface area, are connected with the core by means of sakbe . This arrangement creates the impression of a homogenous, interconnected settlement area that resembles the modern, western “city.” In this manner, individuals develop both consciously and unconsciously subjective impressions of villages or city-like settlement structures that are evoked when evaluating the built space (Heineberg 2006:155).

In the case of cognitive maps, for example, Kevin Lynch (1960) maintains that spatial relationships are generated and summarized with a linguistic term by means of 1) paths, 2) areas occupied by residents that bear with local names (districts), 3) points of conjunction like intersections or plazas (nodes), 4) emblems, public memorials, or symbolic objects in space (landmarks), and 5) perceptible borders within the settlement area, such as banks, escarpments, dams, etc. (edges).

As soon as space is bounded by forest or topography and thus is separated into zones, these zones are usually defined as separate settlement units with their own name. The designation of sites is thus impressionistic, and it was not uncommon in the past for sites to be defined as independent units that, upon more detailed examination, were found to exist in a direct spatial and historical relationship with one another.

Cahal Pichik, Cahal Cunil, Hatzcab Ceel, and Tzimin Kax in Belize, which were previously defined as separate sites, are actually linked to each other by sakbe and in the pre-Hispanic era comprised a settlement unit that is referred to in the modern literature by the name Mountain Cow. Consequently, Hatzcab Ceel and Tzimin Kaax are used as alternative names for Mountain Cow or, in some cases, to refer to two patio groups within Mountain Cow (Morris 2004). Chichen Itza-Yula-Halakal and Yaxchilan-Dos Caobas provide additional examples of sites that were defined as discrete locations in the early history of investigation, but which in reality stood in direct spatial relation to each other and from a historical perspective were settlement units whose relationship with each other was one of mutual dependency.

Archaeological investigations indicate that borders between such settlement areas were definitively marked and defended with walls and palisades (Golden et al. 2012). The erstwhile cultural landscape cannot be readily conceived of in a Western sense through demarcation into defined areas. Instead, it was a historically cultivated and heterogeneous entity consisting of patio groups in a settlement compound and cities, which we today distinguish with different names and thereby try to separate from each other. Implicitly, however, we refer only to the structural-spatial remains, each of which we subjectively perceive as an organizationally cohesive unit and thus as distinct from one another. Archaeological research will have to indicate whether interactions between the center and the periphery, or between settlements, were taking place and, if so, at what level of intensity. For this reason, models exist that use visible and buried architecture to define settlement zones according to varying quantitative and qualitative parameters, such as settlement density or construction volume (Benavides C. 1981a:24, 105–115, 1981b:210–215). Intermediary settlement compounds may thus result in agglomerations of sites. Research has only established a basic understanding of the extent to which the political affiliations attested epigraphically influenced settlement patterns (Eberl and Gronemeyer in press).

The fact that archaeologists apply different names to neighboring settlements should not in and of itself automatically lead to the conclusion that there were no sociopolitical interactions between them, whether at a certain point in time or even over longer periods, or that the spaces with their structural-spatial settlement structures were perceived as homogenous cultural landscapes, rather than as separate units. Only critical archaeological-historical research of this cultural area can shed light on this problematic issue. Identifying sites as formerly occupied settlements is a documentary workaround which, from the perspective of settlement geography, has its own scientific legitimacy and thus is being utilized in the context of this project. Nonetheless, we want to indicate the problematic of artificially drawn borders and delineations of space. Modern names for Maya ruins thus have more of an operational character and should be perceived as linguistic, toponymic references to structural-spatial settlement structures that do not (necessarily) correspond to the sociopolitical reality of the earlier cultural landscape. Lists of site names always reflect the current state of work and research, and consequentially are operational per se.

Appellatives of Archaeological Sites

The individual names of sites that are used, besides historically situated names such as Uxmal, Chichen Itza, or Mayapan, are local field names that refer to mountains, forests, bodies of water, fields, plants, or animals found nearby or at the site itself and were passed down among local speakers as place names (Roys 1935; Gifford 1961). If local descriptors are lacking, the names used may refer to contexts of discovery, objects, or inscriptions, for instance, as in the case of the site Uaxactun, which Morley had named based on an inscription that features a calendar date recording Baktun 8. Another example is the name of the site Xnaheb Ahse Enel in Belize, which means “place of laughter” in Q’eqchi and is named after an incident in which the discoverer of the site, Dennis Puleston, slipped and fell down, making his companions laugh (Wanyerka 1999). It can only be proven for a few sites that the archaeological place name corresponds to the original toponym used in pre-Hispanic times. The place name Yaxha (Peten, Guatemala), for instance, is attested as such in local hieroglyphic texts and has been continuously used up through the present (Stuart 1985).

Lists of Archaeological Sites

The first work to classify Maya sites with inscriptions in stone, wood, and stucco was a working paper with a register of texts and calendrical dates that Sylvanus G. Morley prepared in 1945 in the context of his work for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and which was eventually published in the same year in which he passed away (Morley 1948). The list is not only a register of the 115 sites with Maya inscriptions that were known at the time; in addition, it presents in table format an overview of 1313 hieroglyphic inscriptions that had been identified and documented by 1945. The list nonetheless did not include texts on ceramic vessels or murals, or miscellaneous texts on jade, bone, shell, or other materials. Morley’s site list is sorted hierarchically according to site size, rather than alphabetically, with a distinction drawn between I) larger and II) smaller sites, as well as a third section for texts of unknown provenience. The text carriers, which are not systematically organized in the list, are sorted by site and each is presented with its respective designation and place of discovery. The text carriers are numbered consecutively from 1 to 2008, although Morley left a sizeable quantity of numbers unassigned for each site, in order that any inscriptions found in the future could later be added to the list. Little information is provided about the sites of discovery themselves. Morley notes alternative site names, but does not specify in which country, department, or state the site is located, and references to further reading are similarly sparse.

These desiderata were partially addressed some years later in a site register that Eric Thompson prepared as an appendix to his Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs (Thompson 1962:404-411). The list, which is sorted alphabetically, includes 147 sites, 32 more than Morley, yet does not include a register of the texts discovered at each location. The innovative component of Thompson’s site list is that he integrates place names and inscription types into his hieroglyph catalog in abbreviated form, such as Cop. for “Copan,” Nar. for “Naranjo,” St. for “stela,” or L. for “lintel.” This technique was also employed years later in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions (CMHI) Program initiated by Ian Graham at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge. The project was established in 1968 with the goal of systematically documenting and publishing all text carriers, except for the codices and those on ceramic vessels, and relevant, general information about them (metadata) (Graham 1975:1:7).

This research program’s publications and descriptive conventions have become standards in the field. For this reason, they constitute the foundation for the present project’s site and inscription catalogs, in which documentation of all extant text carriers of known and unknown provenience occupies the foreground. Ian Graham explained in the introduction to the first CMHI volume that he aspired to unified standards for the nomenclature of text carriers and the naming of sites (Graham 1975:1:9). In his opinion, sites that are cited in the literature under various designations present a particularly controversial situation, as in the case of Moral/Morales or Benque Viejo and Xunantunich. The project’s inventory lists preferred and alternative denominations in the description of each site. Additional conventions established by Graham that are used in the current project include the suppression of accents in writing Maya names and abbreviation conventions for monument types and site names, which have since been adopted, modified, and supplemented by various other projects (Mayer 1983; Riese 2004; Mayer 2011, 1997).

Site names are abbreviated with a three-letter code, such as YAX for Yaxchilan, PUS for Pushilha, or CPN for Copan. The different classes of free-standing, portable, or architecturally integrated text carriers are similarly abbreviated according to their English designation, for instance Mon. for “monument,” Trn. for “throne,” or Lnt. for “lintel” (Graham 1975). Lists of all sites known at the time of printing and their respective three-letter codes and locations have hitherto been published in three printed fascicles (Graham 1975, 1982; Graham and Mathews 1999) and in an online CMHI publication (Fash and Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program 2012). The list published in 1975 presents 202 sites, which grew to 268 and then 278 in the 1982 and 1999 publications, respectively. The compilation presented in 2012 as a PDF document lists 457 entries, and the current working list of the Bonn project contains over 500 sites.

The list of archaeological sites in Mesoamerica at which Maya inscriptions have been reliably documented that is published here goes above and beyond previously published lists with respect to both concept and content. Whereas the CMHI placed general information concerning the site, such as alternative names, location, accessibility, research history, maps, register of inscriptions, and relevant literature, in the introductions to the volumes about each site, the goal of the present project is to enter such metadata into a database, and to thereby publish them dynamically and make them searchable. Bibliographic references, which were omitted from previously published lists, are especially important in this context, as they will enable users to understand the reasoning underlying our specifications and to check them if need be. Metadata concerning the database, which can be found in the sidebar on the right-hand edge, indicate how many entries it contains, when new sites have been entered, and which existing site entries were most recently edited; it also allows users to provide feedback on the site database, for instance by suggesting corrections or reporting new sites.

Meta Data

The multilevel site database is accessed by means of a three-column table listing all sites that has been released for publication on the website. The first, blue-colored column contains the preferred name of the site in accordance with the conventions of the CMHI. If applicable, alternative names appear in black under the main entry, and in the case that multiple alternative names exist, they are separated by an equals sign “=”. The table is sorted in alphabetical order by site name; it may also be re-sorted by clicking with the cursor on the downward-pointing in the header field of the two columns “Acronym” and “Country/Region.” The former column contains previously established acronyms that have appeared in published sources (Riese 2004; Graham 1975, 1982; Graham and Mathews 1999; Fash and Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program 2012; Mathews 2005), as well as new abbreviations, which are added and indicated with an asterisk “*”. The sort function allows the user to obtain an overview of which sites do not yet have a corresponding acronym. The third column records the location of each site (country, state/department/district), although entries can only be sorted here by country. A search field allows the contents of this page to be filtered, and in keeping with standard practice, sites in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can be shown with a click of the button/mouse. Entire or partial names can also be entered into the search field to display the corresponding sites.

The site’s preferred name also serves as a link to the second level of the database, which contains detailed information concerning the site. In addition to indicating when the entry was most recently edited, the second level allows users to send the project corrections via a feedback button on the right-hand sidebar. General information about the individual sites includes 1) designations, 2) identification numbers, 3) location, 4) quantity of inscriptions from earlier inventories, 5) online presence, and 6) remarks and references for further reading. In the “Designation” field, we list under “Alternative Abbreviations” and “Alternative Names” acronyms and additional site names that appear in the literature, and the site’s preferred name appears as the header. Providing alternative names is essential because multiple names often circulate in the literature in reference to the same site. Another option for clearly identifying a site is to cite existing identification numbers from normative data and thesauri and to link the site database entries with these normative data sets. Normative data are standardized descriptions that can be used as key words (descriptors) in documentation. They thus permit clear and unified classification and identification of personal names, geographic features, topical subject headings, corporations, publication titles, etc. The Maya sites are also linked to the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online (TGN). This thesaurus from the J. Paul Getty Trust hierarchically represents historical and contemporary designations in various languages and was developed for use in museum documentation. It also contains additional information about the registered places, such as approximate coordinates or a categorization by location type. The thesaurus is available as open metadata and can be expanded and modified by users. Sites in our database are thus not only linked with the TGN normative data; in addition, the project will also enter its own normative data, for example if existing data are not correct or entries are missing. If a TGN entry is available, it will appear in the field “Getty ID”. These entries will be supplemented over the course of the project. Similarly, sites will be linked with their identification number as given in the vocabulary of GeoNames in the field “GeoNames”. This database contains over 10 million geographic names, each of which is categorized in one of nine classes and one of over 645 codes. Latitude and longitude, elevation above sea level, population, and administrative classification are also entered in the database, in addition to place names in various languages. All coordinates use WGS84 (World Geodetic System 1984), which is also used in GPS. To the extent possible, the site database also offers discipline-specific identification numbers. For Mexican sites, the official ID from INAH (Instituto Nacional de Arqueología e Historia) is given, and for Guatemalan locations, the site codes established by IDAEH (Instituto de Arqueología e Historia).

The exact position of most sites has been well-documented. In addition to information about the nation and political subunit in which the site is located, its precise location can also be determined with the aid of geographic coordinates (WGS84). For the country names included in the database, we use ISO 3166, internationally standardized system of two- and three-letter country abbreviations that consist of three components. The first component (ISO 3166-1) is for contemporary nations, the second (ISO 3166-2) for subunits of nations, and the third (ISO 3166-3) for abbreviations for historical country names that have been deleted since 1974. The cited geographic coordinates are presented in decimal format and are taken from various sources acknowledged under “Remarks”. The accuracy of each entry is checked using Google Maps or other portals: is the given geographic location plausible, and how precise are the measurements? In many cases, the data, most of which can be looked up in the literature, can be verified using Google Maps. Instances of uncertain or problematic measurements are noted in the “Remarks” field, when relevant. The position of each site is supported with a reference and can be checked by the individual user with the embedded Google Maps feature.

The “Quantity of Inscriptions” field lists the number of texts that were documented in the two previously published inscription inventories. The first of these is the aforementioned work by Sylvanus Morley from 1948. The second is an overview compiled by Berthold Riese, whose inscription documentation included not only a register of all sites with texts known by 1980, but also the number of the extant inscriptions at that time (Riese 1980; Morley 1948). This area will later be supplemented with information from the CMHI and the present project. Furthermore, under “Online”, we have linked the sites with the research projects’ online presences, made reference to resources such as perspectives from Google Street View, and provided links to Facebook and Twitter for those research projects which use these social media channels. Comments about the site, bibliographic references, and reliability of geographic coordinates, etc., may be found in the fields “Remarks” and “References”. The latter field incorporate references to further reading that are maintained in the Project’s Zotero literature database and thus are up-to-date, in addition to the works consulted in creating the entries themselves. The literature search function has not yet been activated, but it will be made available in the future. The entries concerning individual sites are thus selective and incomplete.


Baumeister, Stefan
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Benavides C., Antonio
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1999 Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Volume 6, Part 3: Tonina. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
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