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.