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!).

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