Power Networks in the Late Post-Classic Naco Valley


Round structures, Site PVN306, Naco Valley

by Edward M. Schortman and Patricia A. Urban

A debate that has long fascinated us concerns the ways in which political relations emerge from, and are sustained by, daily interactions among individuals of all ranks. The traditional approach in our discipline, archaeology, has tended to stress the out-sized roles of elites in shaping hierarchy and concentrating power. Those arguing against this position often use the literature on resistance as a guide to understanding the diverse ways subalterns subvert the ambitions of would-be rulers. This dialogue, though fruitful, is limited by the assumption that political structures are formed primarily through the direct confrontation of the arrogantly powerful and the cannily powerless. Such a perspective ignores how processes of cooperation complement and complicate the competitive relations highlighted by such concepts as domination and resistance. It was in trying to capture this interplay of alliance and struggle that we developed a network approach to studying ancient political processes.

Networks refer here to groups of people who cooperate in manipulating resources, and the rules by which they are obtained, in support of shared political projects. These projects include defending one’s ability to define and meet goals and/or to achieve dominion over others. Securing power in either sense requires staking privileged claims on goods, labor, and symbols, claims that can only be successfully advanced with the help of others. These ‘others’ often include people of diverse ranks and backgrounds who, in turn, are members of multiple networks. Thus, rulers ally with peers in distant realms from whom they obtain crucial economic, military, and symbolic resources even as they stress affiliations with those they lead at home. Their subordinates, in turn, participate in nets that link them with immediate neighbors even as some are distinguished by connections to trading partners, political leaders, and co-religionists living at varying distances and from whom essential assets are obtained. The resulting political formations, therefore, are characterized less by clear and enduring hierarchies than by shifting networks of networks among which people, goods, and ideas move with varying ease, over variable distances, with different political consequences.

Ceramic Figurine, SIte PVN306, Naco Valley

Political change can arise when enterprising individuals take advantage of their participation in multiple nets to redirect resources from one network’s projects in the service of their own ambitions. When successful, such shifts can enhance the preeminence of a few while undermining the abilities of those from whom assets are stripped to define and meet their own goals. Political centralization and hierarchy building can then arise from contests waged within and across networks over the rules according to which crucial resources are distributed. There are significant obstacles to re-writing the cultural schemas by which resources are allocated. This is especially so when those rules are embedded in practices that instantiate webs antedating the appearance of elites. Direct assaults on such well-established conceptual structures risk alienating prospective followers. Consequently, some accommodation with pre-existing structural arrangements of norms and resources must be achieved. To the extent that these concessions leave the majority with some control over political assets, they are in a position at least to negotiate the terms of their subordination.

In Networks of Power we apply this perspective to the study of political structures that existed from AD 1300-1532 in the 100km² Naco valley of northwestern Honduras. A major problem in using a network approach here is that, as archaeologists, we (fortunately) never dig up individuals actively engaged in politics. Instead, we must infer power relations from the materials people left behind. Reconstructing political practices from ancient garbage is not straightforward and much of “Networks” is devoted exploring how it can be done. In essence, we argue that artifacts and buildings were integral to the operation of ancient political networks as bearers of meaning and the means for performing essential tasks. These items were among the resources over which people organized in webs contended, the symbols they used to signal net membership, and the materials whose exchange made tangible abstract connections linking person to person. By tracing the distribution of these items, and inferring their roles in power contests, we seek to write a chapter in the Naco valley’s two-millennia-long political history.

Networks of Power thus diverges from most archaeological analyses of political change by re-casting the political arena as a network of networks rather than a spatially bounded society; allowing for complex mixes, in power contests, of cooperation and competition among people of different ranks residing in diverse locales; and, attending to the active uses of varied materials in these competitions.

We start by outlining the theory sketched here in greater detail as well as what is known generally about the prehistory of the Naco valley (reaching back to at least 1200 BC) and neighboring areas (Chapters 1 and 2). The three sites whose extensive investigations provide the material bases of the inferences advanced herein are then described (Chapters 3-5). Special attention centers on reconstructing the social networks that were enacted by the residents of these settlements through their manipulation of tangible and symbolic resources. How these performances translated into power differences are described in Chapter 6 while Chapters 7-9 consider, in turn, the ways in which craft goods, religious symbolism, and historical precedents were employed by members of different webs to claim power and challenge those pretensions. Chapter 10 summarizes these findings, reconstructing the volatile political relations that were taking shape when the process was brutally cut short by the Spanish Conquest.

Stone Monument, Site PVN306, Naco Valley

Archaeologists, especially those of us working without recourse to deciphered texts, must infer the profound from the profane. “Networks of Power” is no exception; by striving to grasp how people of all ranks shaped power relations in consort with some and opposition to others, we can understand ancient political structures as the contingent outcomes of lived experiences. That view is always partial and subject to revision as research progresses. Still, imperfect as our reconstructions are, they can provide a hint of the dynamism and uncertainty that characterizes most human actions in all times and places. That is what we set out to accomplish in “Networks of Power.”

About the Authors:

Edward M. Schortman is J. Kenneth Smail Professor of Anthropology at Kenyon College. His principal research foci center on two related topics: the manner in which rulers and those they seek to rule contend for political power within hierarchical societies; and the impact of external ties on local social and political developments.

Patricia A. Urban is J. Kenneth Smail Professor of Anthropology at Kenyon College, specializing in the prehistory of Mesoamerica, a culture area beginning in northern Mexico and including Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Nicaragua.