Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Viking houses in Aarhus, Denmark

Model of early Viking Aros
I am in Aarhus, Denmark for a 3-day conference on early cities. Papers are focusing on cities and methods for studying cities, particularly for the Viking era, Medieval Europe, the late Near East, and the East African coast. I had a couple of hours free before the sessions started, so I visited the Viking Museum in downtown Aarhus. This is a gem of a museum that marks the spot where some Viking houses and deposits were excavated several years ago. It is a small self-guided museum in the basement of a modern building.

Reconstructed plank road
Aarhus, called Aros in the Viking era, was an important craft and trading center. The site was fortified, and then the fortifications were expanded by King Harald Bluetooth in the tenth century. I posted about Harald Bluetooth and his planned circular structures previously.  He founded a church, in the plaza here, and eventually the Cathedral was built in its place. Inside the fortification wall ran a plank road. The archaeologists recovered several of the planks intact, and a portion of the plank road is reconstructed in the museum. You can still see the cart tracks in the original boards, and they are shown in the reconstruction.

House outlines drawn on the floor.

Pit house with skeleton, reconstructed
Pit house excavation with skeleton
One of the things I like best about this museum is that the locations of the excavated houses are shown drawn on the floor.  There were several rectangular pit houses here. In one, a skeleton was excavated in the middle of the floor. This find is reconstructed in the museum.

Urban houselot in Viking Aros
The museum has a painted reconstruction of an urban houselot from the Viking period. Notice the yard around the house, something shown in the town model at the top here (Soren Sindbaek, Viking archaeology specialist and co-organizer of the conference, thinks that the houses in the model may be shown with a more regular layout of the town than actually existed). These houses showed evidence of regular domestic activities, as well as several kinds of craft production. People produced craft goods in their homes,; dedicated workshops separate from houses were a later development.

Runestone from Aros
The museum also shows some nice carvings found in Aarhus (although not at this particular excavation). The runestone says, "Toke Smith raised this stone
after Trolle Goodman's son, who gave him gold and redemption." Was old Toke an ancestor of mine? I love these old runestones. I was impressed at the numbers of them spread over the landscape, still standing, when Cindy and I visited Uppsala a few years ago.
Carving of Loki

There is also a small carved stone with an image of the Norse god Loki. Harald Bluetooth introduced Christianity to Denmark, and Viking carving show both indigenous and Christian images and messages.

The Aarhus cathedral
The museum is just across the street from the Aarhus Cathedral. The church has very nice centuries-old paintings preserved, and it is full of large old gravestones. I could not resist taking a photo of a gravestone that must mark the burial of an archaeologist or a bioarchaeologist.

Grave stone in the cathedral
We took a break from the conference sessions today to make a trip down to the Moesgaard Museum, just south of Aarhus. This is a fantastic museum of anthropology and archaeology, focusing on the Danish past.. The building is brand-new, with a large gently sloping roof planted in grass. Kids were sledding down the hill - that is, the roof of the museum - today. The exhibits on the Iron Age, the Viking period, and the bog-people exhibits are first-rate. There are some innovative features in this museum; its well worth a visit .

I have really enjoyed Aarhus: the conference, the museums, and people, and the food. Thank you to the conference organizers, Rubina Raja and Soren Sindbaek. They direct the "Centre for Urban Network Evolutions" at Aarhus University.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The original status symbols of Teotihuacan

Fig. 1. Almenas decorating the roof of the Bird-butterfly palace

This photo of the "Bird-butterfly palace" at Teotihuacan (fig. 1) shows some of the roof ornaments that decorated the building in ancient times. These objects are called "almenas." They were placed at the edge of the roof of houses and temples throughout the ancient city. Back when I wrote my senior honors thesis on Teotihuacan as an undergraduate (Smith 1975), I thought that almenas were status symbols that marked houses of the high and mighty. I didn't have any data to prove or disprove this idea, it is just something that seemed to make sense. When I began looking closely at the site of Teotihuacan again in the past couple of years, I assumed that someone must have figured out how almenas were used, what they stood for, or their overall significance at Teotihuacan. But I was surprised to find that there were no systematic studies of almenas at all. Individual objects were described in art books, and a couple of interesting ones had received attention (for example, there is one with Maya style images. Wow, what was that doing at Teotihuacan??).

Many whole almenas are in museum collections, and quite a few have been published in museum catalogs, art books, and other works on Teotihuacan. I had an anthropology major, Jenny Melgoza, organize images of these objects and work out a typology (fig. 2).
Fig. 2.  Typology of almenas
Some are made of stone, and others are ceramic. Many are stepped, with or without simple decoration. Some types are more complicated, with depictions of animals, gods, and geometric designs. I asked George Cowgill whether the Teotihuacan Mapping Project had included fragments of almenas when they made collections of artifacts from the surface. The answer was yes, but it seems that no one had gotten around to analyzing these things. So when I was at the ASU lab last May, I engaged the help of Teotihuacan archaeologist Clara Paz, and we took a look.
Fig 3. Clara Paz with almenas

There were hundreds of these things! We dumped out the field specimen bags, most dated to 1964. I don't think anyone had looked at these fragments for almost 50 years! We applied the typology to the fragments, and classified over 700 pieces. This was a pretty quick study: classify the piece, record some attributes (ceramic or stone? evidence of paint?), and took some photos. Clara did most of the work. We immediately noticed that type 4, with the fanciest and most complex design, was the most popular type.

Fig. 4. Temple with almenas
But the real secrets of this collection only came out back at Arizona State University, when I matched up the collection numbers with Cowgill's Teotihuacan database. When doing household archaeology -- as opposed to monumental archaeology, focused on big architectural contexts -- the major discoveries typically come long after the fieldwork is done. They come when one has studied the artifacts and looked at their distribution at the site.  (If you want to explore this theme of the nature of discoveries in household archaeology, read my book, At Home with the Aztecs, due out in a couple of months).

Here are a couple of our findings, reported in a paper that was just published in the journal Mexicon (Smith and Paz 2015). First, almenas were recovered from most types of structures at Teotihuacan: houses of different types, temples, platforms, and open spaces. An engraved image of a temple from a pot (Fig. 4) shows almenas on the roof.  Second, and most significant, almenas are found more commonly on houses of high status than low status. This table (Fig. 5) shows the data.
Fig. 5. Frequency of almenas on different types of structure
Members of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project divided the houses of Teotihuacan into these three categories. Most of the apartment compounds at the site are of intermediate status. Compounds that were larger or fancier than most were classified as high status. And small houses built of perishable materials are the low-status residences. As you climb the status hierarchy, an increasing proportion of the houses had almenas. This finding supports my old undergraduate hypothesis that these were status symbols. But the picture is complicated. Even the lowest status houses could have an almena or two. And temples also had these things. Want to know more? You can read the article (in Spanish) here.
Fig. 6.  Three almenas in the sculpture garden at Teotihuacan
What's next? There is still more to do with these several hundred almena fragments from the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. With more time and more student help, I want to study these things in greater detail, to learn more about their forms and materials. And the whole almenas in museum collections and publications can yield more information if analyzed systematically.

This was just a small study of a small collection of artifacts, but it illustrates some important points.

  1. First, artifacts can yield new insights many years after excavation, IF they are properly stored and cataloged. This is one of the reasons for the existence of the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory.
  2. Second, fragmentary artifacts are often more informative than whole objects, particularly when the fragments have good contextual information and the whole ones lack such information.
  3. Third, quantification of artifacts is the key to unlock their potential information about the nature of past life and society.

And finally, check out the almena now embedded in one of the local churches near Teotihuacan (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Almena in the wall of a church (arrow)


Smith, Michael E.
1975    Temples, Residences, and Artifacts at Classic Teotihuacan. Senior Honors Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University.

Smith, Michael E. and Clara Paz Bautista2015    Las almenas en la ciudad antigua de Teotihuacan. Mexicon 37 (5): 118-125.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Unsung heroes in the distant past

unsung hero (n) : one who created positive change in history by improving the lives of others, and has yet to be recognized for his or her actions.
I have been wondering lately whether the phrase "unsung heroes" might be appropriate to describe the common people of the distant past. They were important for posterity, yet we don't know their names and they rarely get much credit. Historians long concentrated on kings, generals, and other important people, while archaeologists focused on tombs, temples, palaces, and pyramids. But with the development of the fields of "social history" and "household archaeology," those of us who work on the past now have methods and concepts to study  the lives of everyday people. Farmers, weavers, merchants, soldiers, builders, midwives, shopkeepers, bureaucrats -- all the people who kept society going in the distant past.

Most of my career has been dedicated to excavating the places where the Aztec common people lived and worked, and to the reconstruction of their lives and the wider society of which they were part. After decades of writing technical articles and reports (and a textbook), I decided a few years ago to try and make sense of my excavations in a way that people who are not archaeologists could understand and appreciate. I initially thought this would just involve writing in clear prose, but a writing coach and my agent convinced me that I really needed to restructure the way I write. And my rewriting and restructuring led me to re-think the story of the Aztec farmers whose lives I was reconstructing.
Aztec women making tortillas. Drawing by Kagan McLeod.

A visit to the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kansas, got me thinking about this concept of unsung heroes. My daughter Heather is the Director of Economic Development for the City of Fort Scott, and during a visit she took Cindy and me to the Milken Center. This is a fascinating and unique educational resource center and museum. It got its start after a National History Day project led by local high school teacher, Norm Conard, uncovered the life of Irene Sendler. Sendler, a Catholic, was a Polish social worker who saved several thousand Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. Her story was almost unknown until it was discovered and documented by three Kansas high school kids working on a project with Norm. The excellent and moving book, Life in a Jar: The Irene Sendler Project, by Jack Mayer, tells the story of the Kansas project, as well as Irene Sendler's life and activities (this is a great read!).

Norm Conard won a teaching award from by the Milken Family Foundation, and conversations between Norm and Lowell Milken led to the establishment of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott. The center has exhibits on the lives of Irene Sendler and many other unsung heroes, all documented by students' history projects. The center offers fellowships, grants, and workshops for teachers and students, and promotes the study of unsung heroes. Here is their definition (from the Center's website):
unsung hero (n) : one who created positive change in history by improving the lives of others, and has yet to be recognized for his or her actions
This concept, which focuses on identifiable people form the recent past, does not precisely describe the common people of antiquity. But the idea got me thinking about those Aztec farmers in a new way, as unsung heroes of a different kind. Here is a passage from my book (At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Daily Life, due in early 2016):

Aztec commoners were the people who carried ancient Mesoamerican cultural traditions into the Spanish colonial period, and their descendants transmitted this tradition through the subsequent centuries. When we order tacos and beans at a Mexican restaurant today, we can thank Aztec peasants more than their noble overlords. The basic elements of Mesoamerican cuisine (and many other traits, from language to myth to house construction) have been preserved across the Spanish conquest only because the peasants continued their traditional lives and practices. Their noble overlords, in contrast, did everything they could to act like Spaniards, from eating wheat bread to speaking Spanish to riding horses. Aztec farmers and other commoners are the unsung heroes of their culture, the ones responsible for carrying it into the Spanish colonial period and on up to the present.  (chapter 1)
Lowell Milken, Norm Conard, and staff at the Center

But I think the usefulness of the unsung heroes concept goes farther than this. My Aztec peasants, for example, were heroes not just for preserving the Mesoamerican cultural past, but for doing the work to build and support their communities and their society. While they had to obey kings, contribute labor to state projects, and pay rent to noble landlords, these ancient farmers had a fair degree of autonomy and self-determination in their lives. If we find value in the Aztec or Mesoamerican past today--and I think we can--I would attribute this less to the kings and nobles and more to the common people. These were the true unsung heroes of the distant past.

(note: What got me thinking about all this tonight was a request for an interview from a student doing a National History Day project!).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Religion and early cities in Mesoamerica

When you hear "religion" and "early cities" in the title of a work, watch out! Chances are, you are about to read a speculative account about the mystical symbolism of ancient cities. This is a popular topic in some circles. The basic argument is that all ancient cities were highly sacred places, and that this religious symbolism was the reason people moved into cities. Religion shaped peoples' lives, perhaps even more than everyday activities. At its most extreme, this reasoning slips into the silly notion that ancient people worried about death and the afterlife more than they thought about their daily life. Egypt is the most common target of this silliness, although the Classic Maya and other ancient societies have also been implicated. Give me a break! Ancient peoples were no more obsessed with death and the afterlife than you or I.

Now, there is a more respectable line of thought on ancient religious symbolism and cities, but it too is often slips into speculation and even nonsense. Associated with the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, it goes like this. Ancient peoples believed that life on earth was a direct parallel of the cosmos. When cities were built, especially political capitals, they were more successful if they were planned and laid out as models of the cosmos. Since the cosmos are laid out in a four-directional plan (north-east-south-west, with a center point), then cities should follow an orthogonal layout, with a center point where the north-south and east-west axes met. This model does fit some early urban traditions--most notably in China, India, and
Southeast Asia. For early cities in these regions, we have written texts and images that clearly illustrate how cities and buildings were laid out to mimic the organization of the cosmos. Such cities and buildings are often called "cosmograms."

The idealized Chinese city above was a kind of cosmogram, but the Aztec city next to it (actually the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan) was NOT a cosmogram. How do we know? Because we have written and pictorial records that describe the symbolism of the Chinese city, how it was laid out in imitation of the cosmos, and how emperors picked the sacred place to build their new capital city (see below).

For some reason I have yet to figure out, this idea of cosmograms has been so attractive to some scholars that they go out of their way to find cosmograms all over the place. For China or India, this is fine. But when they start talking about cosmograms in ancient Mesoamerica, they are arguing more from personal bias than from evidence. There are NO WRITTEN RECORDS claiming that Aztec or Maya cities, for example, were cosmograms. But that hasn't stopped these scholars from claiming to have found cosmograms. If you haven't guessed, this kind of speculation dolled up as scholarship drives me up the wall. Ten yeas ago I published two critiques of this kind of reasoning (Smith 2003, 2005), but it still persists in some quarters.

So perhaps I can be excused if I got worried at the title of a new book from David Carballo of Boston University: Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico. Would this be the same old kind of speculative account, claiming that ancient people went around pondering the mystical symbolism of their cities? Thankfully, the answer is NO. Carballo finds ways to address the relationship between cities and religion that is based on evidence, and uses contemporary social concepts such as collective action theory rather than the worn-out universal claims of Eliade and his followers.

Rather than worrying too much over the content of religious symbolism, Carballo looks at rituals: actions that people carried out in specific places, that left material traces:
I am less interested in attempting to define religion in an overarching sense and more interested in examining what religion did and the spatiality and temporality of its performance, within the context of urbanization.   (p. 19)
Hear, hear, this is the kind of approach we need more of in Mesoamerican archaeology. For Carballo, ceremonies in formal plazas generated social cohesion in urban populations, contributing to the success of urban life in the centuries leading up to the great Classic-period urban center of Teotihuacan. Carballo does not ignore the content of ancient religious ideas, and his discussion is reasoned and evidence-based:

Issues of greatest collective concern -- such as creation, existential dualisms, and fertility cycles -- fostered cohesion and, in continuing to feature prominently in indigenous religion, have proved the most resilient. In contrast, group divisions along the lines of lineage, status, and community were fostered through other means and saw much greater turnover through time.  (p. 201)

This is an excellent book, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the Mesoamerican past and anyone interested in new ways to look at how religion and urbanization were intertwined in the early states.

Carballo, David M.
2015    Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico. Oxford University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2003    Can We Read Cosmology in Ancient Maya City Plans? Comment on Ashmore and Sabloff. Latin American Antiquity 14: 221-228.

2005    Did the Maya Build Architectural Cosmograms? Latin American Antiquity 16: 217-224.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The big pyramids and the small houses

Most cities -- ancient and modern -- show a big contrast between large civic architecture and the houses of the common people. I've been thinking about this contrast a lot recently. Last week I helped guide a tour of visitors from the Heard Museum to the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City, and then to Teotihuacan. Most of what we saw was the big civic architecture. The Templo Mayor was one of the largest pyramids in ancient Mesoamerica, sitting in the heart of the biggest city of the pre-Columbian past (known as Tenochtitlan in Aztec times). This was a BIG pyramid, and the archaeological ruins are quite impressive, both for the size of the structure and for the richness of the offerings that have been excavated in and around the temple. The visitors were suitably impressed.

On that same short trip to Mexico, I started correcting the proofs of my new book, At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Domestic Life (due out in February). The topic is the households and communities of Aztec commoners in the provinces, near Cuernavaca. These people didn't build huge pyramids, and they didn't engage in the sensationalist human sacrifices that the Aztecs are known for. They were everyday folks, farmers and traders who strived to make a good life for themselves. Yet their lives were connected to the big pyramids, whether they liked it or not. A painted bowl from Yautepec (site of my second major excavation project) somehow ended up in an offering at the Templo Mayor. Some of the taxes paid by the folks whose houses I excavated went to build the pyramids and support the luxurious lifestyles of the Aztec nobility.

When we got to Teotihuacan, my colleague Saburo Sugiyama led the tour. Saburo has been excavating at Teotihuacan his whole career, and he knows the site like no one else. Most of what we saw on the tour were temples and pyramids, and some houses of the Teotihuacan rich and famous. There wasn't time to go see where the regular folks lived. You have to go outside the official archaeological zone to see the apartment compounds. Yet those residences tell an amazing story. Somehow, the people of Teotihuacan managed to forge a prosperous way of life for themselves. The average Teotihuacano had a far more luxurious life than the average Aztec, a millennium later. In fact, the Teotihuacan commoners had a better quality of life than just about any of the commoners of ancient Mesoamerica. How did they achieve that?  Sounds like the topic for a research project.........Some of the answers are in the artifacts excavated over the years at Teotihuacan, and stored in our laboratory at the site.

How did these ancient urban societies manage to link the commoners who lived in their small houses to the kings and nobles who lived in big palaces and built huge temples? To me, this is one of the key questions in the study of ancient cities, states, and empires. To get an answer we have to know about both kinds of contexts, and we need to have concepts and theories that link them together. Just looking at one kind of setting is not enough. We need a broad perspective, and that is something archaeologists are struggling to come up with. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Is there a science of human settlements?

I returned two days ago from a meeting with our scaling group at the Santa Fe Institute. We started working on "urban scaling" in premodern societies a couple of years ago (for some background,  see this post,   or this one). We quickly became convinced that the scaling models should apply to all human settlements, urban and non-urban alike. Rural settlements in an urban society should conform to the scaling regularities, as should settlements in small-scale farming societies without state institutions. We now have data that confirms the latter. And according to the basic behavioral model that underlies the scaling project (Bettencourt 2013), even the non-permanent settlements of hunter-gatherers should display similar quantitative regularities.

At this meeting, we decided to "go public" with the project. We decided on a name for the project, and we will soon set up a website. We are:

"Settlements as social reactors: Data, theory, and models through history" 

Bonn cathedral
The project directors are:
  • Luis Bettencourt, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute
  • Jose Lobo, an economist at Arizona State University
  • Scott Ortman, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado
  • me (archaeologist at ASU).
(Rudolf Cesaretti (ASU) was our Research Assistant last year, and Caitlyn Davis (Colorado) is a Research Assistant this year. John Hanson will be a postdoctoral scholar (at Colorado) for the project starting in January. We have been funded by the Santa Fe Institute, the ASU-SFI Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, and a grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation to Scott Ortman).

A 12th century English manor
We have a model, a theoretical approach, and growing data that can be described as a "science of human settlements." We don't claim to explain everything about human settlements, but we do have the tools to explain a number of key features in a rigorous scientific fashion. When I got back from Santa Fe, I decided to gather information on past comprehensive scientific approaches to human settlement in order to have some background for our own contributions. But I found -- much to my surprise -- that there is no previous approach like this.

Archaeologists have been so obsessed with "settlement patterns" that we haven't bothered to define the concept of settlement. And archaeological settlement pattern research is divided into two camps: work on hunter-gatherers, and work on sedentary agricultural societies. Each camp analyzes things differently and pays little or no attention to the other camp. For the most part, this is fine. The settlements and settlement dynamics of hunter-gatherers are very different from those of sedentary agrarian societies, and they require different concepts, methods, and theories. But without a comprehensive approach, how would we know whether or not there are continuities and regularities of human settlements that cut across the hunter-gatherer / agrarian divide?
Hadza campsite

Neighborhoods of RV's in Quartzsite
The basic messages of this blog are that "urban" settlements around the world and through history share many features, and that many things we may describe as "urban" in fact are found in non-urban settlements. The existence of neighborhoods is one of the obvious examples (see my prior post on this, or "cities of tipis?",or check out the article, Smith et al. 2015). My neighborhood research shows that the seasonal aggregation sites of some nomadic hunting peoples are organized into neighborhoods. This research provides some basis for integrating hunter-gatherer and agrarian settlements into a common framework, but it is not a very general approach.

So where is the comprehensive theoretical approach that can analyze human settlements from nomadic campsites to modern cities? The closest thing I could find is Roland Fletcher's work on the limits of settlement growth (Fletcher 1995). I admire this work very much. Fletcher analyzes some of the negative consequences of the growing sizes and densities of settlement. But there are also positive consequences of settlement size that he does not analyze, and his work is too limited to be considered a general "science of human settlements" (and he, like most of the authors I've been checking yesterday and today, fails to provide a basic definition of "a settlement"). I also looked at the field of settlement geography. There are many models and data in this field, but nearly all of it ignores (or treats badly) non-agrarian settlement.

So it looks like our "social reactors" model of settlement scaling (Bettencourt 2013) may be the most comprehensive scientific approach yet to human settlement size and its consequences. Is that too grand a claim? Stay tuned: our publications will be appearing before long. And I'll have more to say here about settlement scaling and its place in the wide urban world.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A.  (2013)  The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340:1438-1441.

Fletcher, Roland  (1995)  The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov and Bridgette Gilliland  (2015)  Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8(2):173-198.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Reconstructing life in an ancient city

Teotihuacan shows off the best archaeological research in the two major approaches to fieldwork at ancient cities: monumental archaeology and social archaeology. Recent and continuing excavations of the main pyramids by my ASU colleague Saburo Sugiyama and by Mexican archaeologist Sergio Gómez are uncovering new information about the ancient religion and politics of the city. This is the monumental approach. I'll talk about this work in a future post.

And current work by David Carballo and Kenneth Hirth in the Tlajinga area of Teotihuacan showcases the advances and accomplishments of the social archaeology approach.

(((WONK ALERT !!!  I use the term "social archaeology" here to describe analyses of ancient social patterns using rigorous methods.  I do NOT use the term in its idiosyncratic postmodern definition that refers to subjective and speculative interpretations of the archaeological record, as exemplified by papers in the "Journal of Social Archaeology" and other works of that ilk. In my usage here, social archaeology focuses on excavation of houses and analyses of the conditions and activities of ancient households, especially non-elites. If you want to know why I don't like the alternative, postmodern meaning of "social archaeology" concept, see this post in Publishing Archaeology)))

Here, I want to point to an excellent description of the current Tlajinga project that focuses on households and obsidian tool production in domestic contexts. Check out the new article, "Lessons from Teo," in the Boston University Research magazine. It is quite good! The artifact analyses of that project are being done in the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory.  I wish we had more university PR departments that produce stories as intelligent, literate, and exciting as this one. My hat is tipped to David Carballo for telling the story of the Tlajinga excavations, and to the Boston University writing and filming crew for doing such a good job communicating that story.