Friday, July 17, 2015

Can we decipher the "meaning" of ancient buildings?

Many people wonder about the "meaning" of ancient buildings and sites. Why was the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan built? Was it dedicated to a specific god? What meaning did it have to the people who built it, and those to witnessed ceremonies there for centuries afterword? I am a skeptic about talk of ancient "meanings" of this sort (see a previous post about high-level meanings.) I agree with my colleagues Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus (1993) that this kind of religious symbolism and meaning cannot usually be deciphered without written texts that explain ancient myths and beliefs. There are no such texts from Teotihuacan, so it is unlikely that we can figure out just what this pyramid meant in ancient times. But we do have some clues. This position is explained in general terms by architectural theoretician Amos Rapoport, one of the top scholars on wide urban topics and one of my heroes.
Amos Rapoport

Rapoport developed a very useful scheme of how architecture communicates information. He identifies three levels of communication in the built environment: high-level meanings, middle-level meanings, and low-level meanings (see Rapoport 1988, 1990). High-level meanings communicate messages of symbolism, cosmology, and religion. In ancient societies, these high-level meanings are typically understood by only a small number of specialists and elites; many commoners know little of them. High-level meanings are culturally-specific; for example, Egyptian symbolism is completely different from Mayan symbolism. Today, scholars can reconstruct high-level meanings only if there are explicit written texts, or in some cases, very rich archaeological finds.

Middle-level meanings communicate messages of power, control, stability, wealth, and other positive values that rulers and elites want their subjects to receive. These meanings are more general and widespread than high-level meanings. Big buildings signal power, whether in ancient Mesopotamia or Classical Rome. Because these messages are valid across cultures (and not culturally specific), archaeologists can often interpret them from the mute remains of ancient architecture.
The Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan

Finally, low-level meanings concern the specific ways that people interact with buildings. They provide cues for how to behave appropriately, where to enter or exit, and other messages concerning movement, privacy, accessibility, and the like.

The Coyolxauhqui stone
The birth of Hutziliopochtli
I will illustrate Rapoport's scheme with the Aztec major temple, the "Templo Mayor" in their imperial capital Tenochtitlan (today the ruins are in the middle of Mexico City). It turns out that we have a good idea of the high-level meaning of this temple, mainly because of a key find of a stone monument, coupled with written evidence of Aztec creation myths. The monument, a stone slab some 10 feet in diameter, depicts the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who has been dismembered. It was excavated in front of the main front steps of the Templo Mayor. This monument illustrates the birth of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, whose first action after birth was to kill his sister Coyolxauqui (yes, that sounds odd; if you want the whole story, check one of the many books on the Aztecs, such as my book, The Aztecs). We know this myth from written sources, and from some early Spanish pictures (see the illustration from Sahagun's Florentine Codex). In terms of religious symbolism (high-level meaning), the Aztec main temple was a model of Serpent Hill, where their god Huitzilopochtli was born and killed his sister Coholxauhqui. The human sacrifices that took place on top of the Templo Mayor were re-enactments of Huitzilopochtli's birth.

The middle-level meanings of the Aztec Templo Mayor were messages of power and wealth. No other Aztec city had a pyramid this big, with such sumptuous offerings. The Aztec emperors were powerful, and the city and empire were wealthy. Visitors to the city from foreign lands may not have known the myth of Huitzilopochtli's birth, but they could clearly understand the middle-level messages being sent deliberately by the Aztec emperors through their main temple. The low-level meaning of the Aztec Templo Mayor concerned access to the temple: who could approach it, who could climb the steps, and what were people expected to do when they approached the building.
Feathered serpent temple, Teotihuacan

Let's return to Teotihuacan to see if we can glean any information about high-level meanings from the main temples. We lack the myths of the Aztecs, in written and painted form. But one of the main temples, the "Feathered Serpent Temple", was covered elaborate carved images. One of the key images is the feathered serpent, a major deity at Teotihuacan. So in this case we can suggest that this temple was dedicated to a particular god. But we can't say much more than that about it's high-level meanings.

A recent discovery at the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan furnishes a clue about possible high-level meanings at this largest temple. Archaeologists have known for some time that another major god at Teotihuacan was the "Old fire god," whose stone sculptures are often excavated in houses. A very large example was excavated a couple of years ago in the Pyramid of the Sun; the photo here shows archaeologists Alejandro Sarabia and Nelly Zoe Nuñez working on this find in the lab. While we are a long way from being able to show that rituals at this temple reenacted key myths (as at the Aztec case), this find does provide a clue about the possible symbolism (high-level meaning) of the Pyramid of the Sun. So while we are not "clueless" about the ancient symbolism of this structure, we really know very little about its high-level meaning. But its middle-level meanings are much clearer, as anyone who has approached the building from the west can attest. We can understand the power and wealth and stability communicated by this building, even if we know almost nothing of the culture, language, or myths of Teotihuacan.

If you want to learn more about the three levels of communication, the place to start is with Rapoport's publications. I discuss them in several papers, and Flannery and Marcus discuss very similar ideas. There are several levels of meaning in the wide urban world, and some are more accessible to us today than others.


Flannery, Kent V. and Joyce Marcus
1993    Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3: 260-270.

Rapoport, Amos
1988    Levels of Meaning in the Built Environment. In Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Non Verbal Communication, edited by Fernando Poyatos, pp. 317-336. C. J. Hogrefe, Toronto.

1990    The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach. rev. ed. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Smith, Michael E.
2007    Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6 (1): 3-47.

2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 167-192.

2012    The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

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