Strategic Location and Territorial Integrity: The Role of Subsidiary Sites in the Classic Maya Kingdoms of the Upper Usumacinta Region

Armando Anaya Hernández

Centro de Investigaciones Históricas y Sociales, Universidad Autónoma de Campeche, Ave. Agustín Melgar S/N, Colonia Buenavista, Campeche, Campeche, México. CP 24030.

Cite this as: Hernández, A.A. 2006 Strategic Location and Territorial Integrity: The Role of Subsidiary Sites in the Classic Maya Kingdoms of the Upper Usumacinta Region, Internet Archaeology 19.


The Upper Usumacinta region was the scene of an intense interaction between the different kingdoms of the Classic Maya Period. This interaction took the form of political and marriage alliances as well as warfare and is well attested in the inscribed monuments of the region, especially towards the Late Classic Period (c. AD 600-900). Through this interaction the Maya rulers would not only assert their claim to power but also ensure the boundaries of their kingdoms, with an eye to accruing a vaster domain.

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The definition of the political organisation and territorial extent of the Maya Lowland kingdoms is an issue that has attracted the attention of various scholars (Adams 1981; Adams and Jones 1981; Ball and Taschek 1991; Flannery 1972; Freidel 1981; Hammond 1974; 1981; Inomata and Aoyama 1996; Mathews 1988; 1991; Sanders 1981). Like these scholars, I have presented a model aimed at estimating the territorial extent of the kingdoms of the Upper Usumacinta region, taking into account the physical characteristics of the terrain (Anaya Hernández 2001). In this article I approach this issue again, focusing this time on the importance that the subsidiary centres located at strategic locations across the landscape had for the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the kingdoms of Pomoná and Piedras Negras. The political importance of these sites is reflected in the efforts that the kings of these polities went through to warrant the loyalty of the rulers of these secondary centres, as can be attested by the presence of a sculptured stela at the site of Panhalé, in the vicinity of Pomoná, and an inscribed wooden box found within the Redención del Campesino Valley that makes reference to a Piedras Negras ruler.

To address this issue I took advantage of the capabilities that GIS offers to model movement across the physical setting in order to define the potential boundaries between the aforementioned kingdoms in the light of the available archaeological and epigraphic data. Regarding the latter, the hieroglyphic inscriptions record a couple of devastating attacks that Piedras Negras launched upon Pomoná in AD 792 and 794. I argue on the basis of the characteristics of the physical landscape and the territory controlled by each of these polities that, in order to carry out a successful campaign, Piedras Negras must have exercised control of one of the few natural passes that separate the coastal plains, where Pomoná lies, from the remainder of the Upper Usumacinta region, where Piedras Negras is located. One of these passes lies in the Redención del Campesino Valley; however, no subsidiary site of significance was known to exist in this valley. In this sense our 2004-2005 archaeological reconnaissance of the valley was geared to search for a site of this nature.

Once again taking advantage of the spatial modelling capabilities of GIS, a probability model based on Dempster-Shafer Theory was designed to identify the areas of high potential where the presence of this type of site may occur. The probability model was tested in the field and a site located that, due to its monumental architecture, could be characterised as a subsidiary site of high strategic and political relevance.

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