Coaxing answers from 1500-year-old clues hidden in soil clumps, a team of archaeologists and environmental scientists identified a marketplace in an ancient Maya city, calling into question archaeologists’ widely held belief that people of the era relied on rulers to tax and re-distribute goods, rather than trading them with one another.
As reported in the December issue of Latin American Antiquity, Brigham Young University professor of environmental science Richard Terry and his student team helped confirm the location of a suspected marketplace on the Yucatan peninsula, giving Maya studies powerful new evidence for understanding the advanced civilization’s economy.
. . .
In trying to determine if the Maya of the Classic era (about A.D. 300 to 900) had a market economy, scientists had found large, open areas within settlements of the period, but no indications of the areas’ purposes. Terry’s soil analysis revealed outlines of use clearly consistent with a modern-day open-air market in the region.
It looks like a neat, innovative study. They mapped the distribution of phosphorous concentrations. I found this bit interesting:
Dahlin explained that he and other Maya archaeologists had recognized that many Maya cities appeared to have held more people than the regions’ agricultural capacities could have supported. For years, researchers sought evidence of sophisticated farming or irrigation techniques to explain this. The idea of a market economy that facilitated the importing of food and other goods wasn’t taken seriously, in part because it would be difficult to distinguish from most archaeologists’ belief that the Maya elite had a tax and tribute system and effectively paid their underlings for loyalty by passing goods down the social ladder. But proof of the existence of a market would certainly prove a market economy.
This seems like it could be similar to the (Old Kingdom, at least) Egyptian case of local markets existing in tandem with national distribution, tribute, and taxation systems (see here, the last 10-15 paragraphs). Especially in the OK, many texts imply that the king controlled virtually everything that went on throughout the country, but on the ground you find something at least somewhat different.