The Copan Formative Project undertaken by the University of Queensland has yielded a number of key deposits dating to the earliest occupation of the Copan valley. The fruit of these excavations is a long, almost unbroken ceramic (and presumably occupation) sequence for the Copan valley. A number of significant finds have also resulted from these excavations, including domestic deposits from previously unknown eras of Copan’s formative history. These deposits include ceremonial caches and specialised trash deposits that demonstrate the deposition of special artefacts, including ceramic figurines and animal bones, in ritual contexts. These excavations have also yielded the only skeletal material known from Formative period deposits at Copan that are not directly related to the elaborate Gordon phase burial complex.
This thesis explores these significant domestic finds to evaluate change in the dialectical processes involved in the performance of ritual in the early Copan community. This exploration of the ritual transformation of Copan society is structured around testing a hypothesis about the institutionalisation of social practices, in particular shamanism, during the Formative period. The evaluation of this concept takes place in the context of a critical evaluation of what is already known about Copan during the Formative period. This existing narrative is dominated by the spectacular Olmec style Gordon phase burials both in the Sesesmil valley and in the Las Sepulturas area of the Copan pocket. This narrative is truncated by a suspected decline in population following the Middle Formative period.
I argue that these previous models were based on limited knowledge of early deposits at Copan and led to several problematic assumptions about sociopolitical complexity at Copan during the Formative period. A central theme of this narrative is that social complexity evolved largely as a consequence of external influence from neighbouring communities. Whether invoking Early Formative Mixe-Zoquean colonists, the presence of ‘Olmec’ burials, the migration of Cholan-speaking Maya in the Terminal Formative or refugees from the early Classic eruption of Illopango, culture change at Copan has characteristically been defined as resulting from interaction with distant communities. Consequently, Copan is often positioned as a ‘periphery’ community that was a passive recipient of technological and ideological knowledge. Herein, I critique this perspective and offer an alternative model that recognises the agency of the Copan community in this interchange of ideas and materials. Establishing a model of ritual agency predicated on the recursive relationships between individuals, small groups and ‘communities’ in the broader patterns of social interaction, facilitates a re-evaluation of the existing narrative. Examination of the manner in which material culture was employed in the performance and assertion of this fluid social identity becomes the critical objective. Employing analysis of Formative deposits, figurines, and ceramics, the potential role of the ceramic medium to understand internal social dynamics is explored. I argue that a complex dialectic involving both interaction and intra-action of several groups and small ‘communities’ was engaged in the absorption, rejection and redistribution of ideas and objects. External influence as a catalyst for social change can then be re-evaluated in light of the internal dynamics in which such influence was actively negotiated. The heralded indices of social change at Copan are then re-evaluated: the role of the Gordon phase burials in the context of the expansive Uir phase habitation of the valley in the early Middle Formative, and the Late Preclassic ‘anomaly’ in the context of emerging evidence for nucleation of settlement during the Late Formative.
To establish a new narrative about the role of ritual artefacts and agents in the emergence of social complexity I draw on the anthropology of consciousness. The nuerophenomenological perspective of Charles Laughlin and colleagues (1992) is employed to explicate the social apparatus of human agency during the Formative period. In doing so I address a number of shamanistic themes that arise in the ceramic culture of Formative Copan, and point to how such processes are subject to realignment in the context of changing social circumstance. Rather than suggesting such symbolic changes are the passive consequence of sociopolitical change, I argue that such symbolism was active in affecting change in the context of ritual. This ritual transformation of identity provided the capacity for new types of agents to emerge in the context of changing ecological and demographic circumstances in the region. Rather than affected from without, cultural change at Copan was largely structured from within.