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Time, Power, and the Maya

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Prudence M. Rice*
Office of Research Development and Administration, Mailcode 4709, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 700 South Normal Avenue, Carbondale, IL 62901 (


Time is an abstract concept that has been examined relatively less by Americanist archaeologists as compared to Europeanists. The lack of consideration of time is particularly curious among Mayanists, because the Classic Maya assiduously recorded events in the lives of rulers and their kingdoms according to time's passage in multiple, precisely calibrated calendars. This essay examines some of the ways in which time has been conceptualized, and its political and economic roles explored, by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and others. I apply these findings to the evolution of calendars in Mesoamerica and their function in underwriting early leadership positions, such as that of shamans or “daykeepers.” I explore the role of time in structuring late (Postclassic) Maya geopolitical organization and the possibility that such principles also guided that of the Classic Maya. Time, calendars, and particularly the movements of the sun came to be viewed as being “controlled” by Maya sacred kings, aided by their retinue of daykeepers/calendar priests. This awesome cosmopolitical power led to the identification of the king with the sun and his legitimization through control of the means of social and cosmic reproduction.



El concepto abstracto del tiempo ha sido estudiado relativamente poco por los arqueólogos americanistas en comparación con los europeanistas. La carencia de consideración del tiempo es particularmente curioso entre los mayanistas, porque los mayas clásicos proporcionaron mucha atención al recordar eventos en las vidas de los soberanos y sus señoríos segun el pasaje del tiempo en varios calendarios precisamente calibrados. Este ensayo tiene por su tema algunas de las maneras en que el tiempo fue conceptualizado y sus rols políticos y económicos, por los antropólogos, sociólogos, historiadores y otros. Aplico algunos de estos observaciones a la evolución de los calendarios en Mesoamérica y su papel en suscribir los posiciones de liderazgo, como él de los shamanes o de los guardianes del tiempo (“daykeepers”). Investigo el rol del tiempo en estructurar la organización geopolítica postclásica y la posibilidad que tales principios también determinaron la organización de los mayas clásicos. El tiempo, los calendarios y sobre todo los movimientos del sol vinieron ser vistos como “controlados” por los reyes sagrados mayas, respaldados por su equipo de sacerdotes calendaricos. Este espantoso poder cosmo-político contribuyó a la identificación del rey con el sol y su legitimación por el control de los medios de reproducción social y cósmico.

Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2008

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