Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

   People sometimes think that ancient cities and sites must always have some kind of sacred symbolism. One idea is that the entire material world was sacred in ancient times, but we have since lost the symbolism sometime and now live in a degraded, secular world today. Personally, I don't think ancient people were any more obsessed with sacred symbolism than people are today. But this notion that ancient people were wild with symbolism is common today. In  my opinion, however, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" (it turns out that this statement, often attributed to Sigmund Freud, cannot be verified. But it is still a great phrase that applies to ancient symbolism).

Hope pottery design
I am going to discuss two examples of this attitude as applied to the layout of cities and buildings. But first, a few words about pictorial decoration as symbolism in general. Maybe you think you can identify ancient sacred symbols just by looking at them. Well, consider ethnographer
Hopi pot
Ruth Bunzel's (1929) study of Southwestern pueblo pottery.  Here is what she said about Hopi designs:

"Among the Hopi,  there are no 'stories,' that is, no complex situations influencing the affairs of man. Nor is any magical potency ever imputed, even secondarily, to designs. Designs, when they have any significance at all, are pictures of material objects ." Bunzel (1929: 70).
Acoma pot

Yet many people have looked at the nice Hopi designs and assumed that they must be sacred symbols. Bunzel found the same thing for the potters of Acoma: 

" At Acoma there is no trace whatever of symbolism in design. Even my most communicative informant could give no meaning of any kind. She said, 'We have only three names for designs: Red, black and striped. The designs to not mean anything'." (Bunzel, p. 71).
Burley's plan for Canberra

Theosophist symbols
Now I turn to city symbolism. In his book, The Secret Plan of Canberra, author Peter Proudfoot argues that planner Walter Burley Griffin, who laid out the Australian capital Canberra around 1910, incorporated secret Theosophist symbols into the design.Theosophy was a system of esoteric philosophy popular in the nineteenth century. I don't find Proudfoot's argument at all convincing, and the book reveals far more about his own ideas than about the plan of Canberra.
Theosophist symbols

El Escorial
Taylor's interpretation of El Escorial
Taylor's interpretation of El Escorial
My second example is the palace of El Escorial, built for Philip II in the 16th century outside of Madrid. René Taylor (1967) argues that Philip's architect was into esoteric philosophical symbolism and designed the building to express these symbols. He could not let anyone know he was doing this, however (including Philip), since his beliefs were against the teaching of the church, and the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing. (But NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition). George Kubler (1981:128-130) has an easy time critiquing Taylor's rather screwy interpretations. Again, like Proudfoot's account of Canberra, Taylor's odd theory reveals more about his own thinking than about the plans of El Escorial or the thoughts of its designer.

El Escorial today
 I had the good fortune to spend some time around El Escorial at a "Curso de Verano" on the Aztecs a number of years ago. Hosted by my friend and colleague José Luis de Rojas, this was a very nice week-long course with several Aztec specialists and an excellent audience of students and others. José's new book on the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan will be released shortly; it is an excellent book.

Anyway, back to Sigmund Freud and Groucho Marx (I'd like to include some Groucho Marx quotes about cigars, but I can't because this blog is family-rated). In a couple of journal articles I have criticized the notion that ancient Maya cities were sacred symbols (Smith 2003, 2005). I am not sure why many people today—both scholars and others—have the idea that ancient peoples were obsessed with death, with myths, and with sacred symbolism. There is a nice You-Tube video on the myth that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death. But if one takes a skeptical and empirical (that is, scientific) perspective, there is remarkably little hard evidence for an ancient preoccupation with sacred symbolism. This notion seems to fit our modern biases and preconceptions about ancient people, so it gets tossed around in the absence of evidence. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

Bunzel, Ruth
1929    The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art. Columbia University Press, New York.

Kubler, George
    1981    Building the Escorial. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Proudfoot, Peter R.
1994    The Secret Plan of Canberra. University of New South Wales Press, Kensington, NSW, Australia.

Taylor, René
1967    Architecture and Magic: Consideration on the Idea of the Escorial. In Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, edited by Douglas Fraser, Howard Hibbard, and Milton J. Levine, pp. 81-109. Phaidon Press, London.

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

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