In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mesoamerican Archaeology

  • Introduction
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Regions, Chronology, and General Perspectives
  • The Rise of Civilization(s)
  • Interregional Interaction and Connections
  • Economics
  • Urbanism and Settlement Patterns
  • Rural Life and Household Archaeology
  • Ritual and Religion
  • The Natural and Modified Landscape
  • Art and the Mind
  • The Human Experience: Class, Gender, Sexuality, and Life Stages
  • Literature, Hieroglyphs, Philosophy, and Science
  • Collapse and Conquest
  • Ethics and the Politics of Archaeological Discovery

Anthropology Mesoamerican Archaeology
Brent Woodfill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0194


Mesoamerica, a region located in modern-day Mexico and northern Central America, is one of the cradles of early civilization in the New World. It is home to myriad culture groups, from the well-known Maya, Aztecs, Olmecs, and Toltecs to more obscure but equally fascinating peoples. The culture area is defined by multiple traits shared by these different groups, including hieroglyphic writing, science and astronomy, a highly stratified society, and shared ritual and architectural programs. Within Mesoamerica there are two primary cultural “nodes” where most of the investigations have taken place—highland Mexico and the Maya region (southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and western El Salvador and Honduras), often referred to, respectively, as Western and Eastern Mesoamerica. Areas of secondary research interest are the borderlands between these two regions (especially the Olmec heartland in the southern Gulf Coast) and the peripheral areas in northern Mexico, eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, and northwestern Costa Rica. The first scientific investigations in Mesoamerica date to the late 19th century; these scholars leaned heavily on early Spanish accounts and wore their colonialist biases on their sleeves. The indigenous groups were often seen as cyphers for the underlying beliefs of the time—they were viewed as naturally inferior to the European conquerors, justifying their continued oppression. At the same time, they were typically privileged over North American victims of American westward expansion, and Mesoamericans were at times thought to be colonizing forces presaging the European entrada. As Western science has advanced, we have gotten a better understanding of these civilizations on their own terms, and our interpretations have gotten more detailed and refined. The articles, books, journals, and book chapters in this annotated bibliography are distilled from tens of thousands of possible texts. The Maya, the Aztecs, and their neighbors have been a major subject of Western scholarly writing since the arrival of the first Spaniards, and archaeological investigation of the region has grown exponentially over the past century. Since it is a prolific and living field, while curating these readings an attempt has been made to skew toward newer texts to sidestep some of the outdated ideas of the past. Unless the text is particularly important, this bibliography skews toward easily accessible (both in terms of publication and writing style) works in English.

Journals and Book Series

When researching specific themes, readers should pay special attention to the primary journals of the discipline. Ancient Mesoamerica and Mexicon are both devoted exclusively to Mesoamerican archaeology and ethnohistory; the former consists of longer articles, and the latter is primarily a repository of short articles, reports, and news bulletins. Latin American Antiquity became the primary publication for Mesoamericanists and South Americanists by the Society for American Archaeology after it spun off of American Antiquity in 1990. Other important articles are published in general archaeological and anthropological journals—the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, Journal of Field Archaeology, American Anthropologist, and Current Anthropology. The Carnegie Reports are now defunct but are a wealth of data from archaeological projects through the mid-20th century, and multiple universities have their own monograph series to write up the major regional projects. Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard museums, the Vanderbilt Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology, and Brigham Young’s New World Archaeological Foundation have multiple publications of interest. All are peer-reviewed.

  • Ancient Mesoamerica. 1990–.

    Ancient Mesoamerica is the largest journal devoted entirely to Mesoamerican archaeology. It mostly publishes longer articles rooted in archaeological investigation, with a larger theoretical bent that is of interest to a broad archaeological audience. The journal comes out four times a year and there are often special issues that are partly or entirely devoted to a specific theme or archaeological project.

  • Carnegie Reports.

    The Carnegie Institution of Washington supported multiple archaeological projects in Mesoamerica during the early 20th century. It published an occasional series of reports by project members and affiliated scholars that are fantastic sources of primary data, although due to their antiquity, many of the interpretations are out-of-date.

  • Dumbarton Oaks.

    Dumbarton Oaks is a private institution and museum in Washington, DC, affiliated with Harvard University. It focuses on supporting research in pre-Columbian and Byzantine archaeology. It publishes a fantastic series of books that are written or edited by former fellows who apply to spend a year in residence there.

  • Latin American Antiquity. 1990–.

    This is probably the journal on this list with the widest circulation. It is open to everyone working in Latin America, but Mesoamerica features prominently alongside northern Mexico, lower Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. Latin American Antiquity is published by the Society for American Archaeology, the largest archaeological association in North America, and is one of their flagship journals. Articles tend to be rooted in a specific region or site, with a larger theoretical point that is of interest to a broader audience.

  • Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

    Harvard’s Peabody Museum has a long history of sponsoring research in Mesoamerica, beginning with the early “gentleman explorers.” Under Gordon Willey, Harvard became a major force in Americanist archaeology in the mid-20th century, and the Peabody Museum became the primary publisher of many of the monographs that came out of his projects. The ceramic monographs of Seibal, Barton Ramie, Mayapan, and the settlement survey of Copan are still foundational texts, although they have been updated by more recent work.

  • Mesoweb.

    This is an online publication that mostly consists of short reports focusing on iconography and epigraphy. Mesoweb is primarily used to get new insights and results out to the academic audience quickly.

  • Mexicon. 1979–.

    Mexicon is a sort of trade journal for Mesoamericanists, and it is full of short articles with a quick turn-around that are primarily raw archaeological or epigraphic data. It has great general descriptions of cutting-edge research in English, Spanish, and German.

  • Middle American Research Institute.

    MARI is one of the oldest and most respected academic organizations focusing on Mesoamerican archaeology. It is based out of Tulane University; as of 2018 it had published seventy-one volumes, spanning nearly a century. The publications cover archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnography, and while many of the works are focused on the Yucatan peninsula, it is an exceedingly diverse portfolio of work.

  • New World Archaeological Foundation.

    Brigham Young’s New World Archaeological Foundation has a long-standing monograph series, with many useful titles. One of NWAF’s primary foci is the rise of civilization in Mesoamerica, and many of the seminal works on the first cities are published here. There is an implicit bias in many of these monographs toward viewing the Olmec as a “mother culture” instead of one of many contemporaneous groups developing the trappings of rulership together, so some of the broader interpretations are out-of-date.

  • University Museum Monographs, University of Pennsylvania Press.

    The University of Pennsylvania is most famous for its faculty’s groundbreaking excavations at Tikal during the mid-20th century, which produced some of the best archaeologists of the time. Unfortunately, the monographs are slow to come out—many are still in prep—but those that are out are full of useful information. Penn scholars have also published research at other sites in this monograph series, including the Salama Valley in highland Guatemala and Chalchuapa in El Salvador.

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