Oct. 22, 2019

UCalgary archaeologist uncovers secrets of Tenam Puente marketplace

New excavations in Mexico reveal system of government surveillance and economic control in ancient Mayan society
Elizabeth Paris, assistant professor of archaeology at Tenam Puente.
Elizabeth Paris, assistant professor of archaeology at Tenam Puente. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Paris

A new archaeological research project in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, at the ancient site of Tenam Puente, is providing new insights into the state of government surveillance, security and economic control in Mayan societies. 

The UCalgary led excavation, headed by Dr. Elizabeth Paris, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, is currently focused on the Late Classic period, around 800 to 900 A.D. 

Built on a mountaintop which overlooks the Comitan Plateau, Tenam Puente was strategically built along a historically significant transportation artery between the region’s highlands and lowlands, cutting across numerous Mayan language groups. This made the site an important point of trade and cultural contact. 

“Tenam Puente was truly dynamic and it really came to power during the Late Classic period,” says Paris. “It’s a kingdom that probably controlled a good portion of the southern plateau region.” 

A prominent feature of Tenam Puente was a large Acropolis, built into the side of the mountain, which overlooked the site’s Main Plaza, with its partially enclosed marketplace. The Acropolis was the home of Tenam Puente’s rulers and elites and it included four large terraces, supporting temples, palaces, ballcourts and other elite ritual and residential spaces. 

Paris asserts that the site’s distinct layout was strategic. “It’s very clear in the architecture of Tenam Puente, with the marketplace built right under the elite’s Acropolis, that this was no accident,” she says. “You have a perfect sight line view into the marketplace, the centre of commerce, from atop one of Tenam Puente’s biggest temples. The acoustics of the site are perfect too, and if you’re standing in the temple you can hear everything that’s happening down in the marketplace.” 

At a time of commercial expansion in Tenam Puente, when the site was emerging as the economic epicenter of the region, Paris believes that this architectural layout provided the elites with a means of monitoring and controlling the marketplace.

“We know that the Aztecs had marketplace spies – a pretty intense network of them,” Paris notes. “The Mayans might have had something similar.” 

Paris also found that Tenan Puente’s marketplace was surrounded by long, low structures that created restrictive access points. This would would have made it easier to keep track of people coming and going. Furthermore, Paris and her team discovered a hidden staircase leading from the rear of the marketplace to a restricted area of the Acropolis. “We think the rulers might have been using this to take taxes or goods up the back staircase,” she says. 

The issues of political rulers seeking to control or monitor economic spaces, potentially compromising urban privacy, is a matter that remains relevant today, Paris notes. 

“In the modern era we struggle with our smart cities and the ways in which our governments collect data, partnering with these large tech corporations to monitor how people move through our urban spaces,” she says. “We often assume that our ancient civilizations were not so sophisticated. And, certainly, they didn’t have the same technology. But I think they had similar concerns about monitoring and controlling their commercial spaces. This really is a timeless tension.” 

As the excavation continues, Paris and her team hope to gain a clearer picture as to the political surveillance over Tenam Puente’s marketplace. “The elites could have had a light hand or a heavy touch,” she says. “Maybe they kept things at the level of surveillance or maybe they were intervening directly in the commercial markets.” 

She adds: “We’re interested in how the political forces of the site were shaping the economics. How much of an impact did the elites have? Did they simply have their finger on the pulse, or, was it more of a thumb on the scale?” 

The project is co-directed with Dr. Roberto López Bravo of the Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas in Mexico, and Maestro Gabriel Lalo Jacinto of INAH-Chiapas, and represents an important international collaboration that involves researchers and students from both universities, along with members of the local Maya community. Next year’s excavations will target the structures surrounding the marketplace, as well as the site’s residential zone.

This ongoing project is funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, along with a URGC Faculty Seed Grant Award from UCalgary and by the Annual Budget for Archaeology Funding from the Escuela de Arqueologia, Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas. (UNICACH)

Site of Tenam Puente

A view of the main ball court on Tenam Puente’s plaza.

Courtesy Elizabeth Paris