The Importance of Mesoamerica

Of all the sites we studied throughout the semester, though many were extremely interesting and of great importance, the American sites stood out to me as the most significant. The sites in Europe and Africa were from the Old World, either a direct part of or influenced by the rise of Western civilization.  The sites of the New World, on the other hand, were utterly independent of that rise.  They represent a parallel development to what the inheritors of the Old World tend to think of as the single, inevitable development of the West.

This independence from the west applies to the Mississippians, the Maya, and the Inca, but each of these are interesting for different reasons.  The Mississippians baffled Europeans for decades because the idea of complex civilizations in North America was seen as absurd.  The Mississippians created an advanced culture capable of great feats entirely on their own.  The same can be said of the Inca, who unified a vast empire and developed systems of agriculture, record-keeping, and inheritance that, while alien to Europe, were undoubtedly advanced.  The most interesting to me, however, is the civilization of the Ancient Maya.

The Ancient Maya built greater structures and left a greater record of themselves than the Mississippians, but disappeared, their civilization sinking away into the jungle.  This, to me, is what makes them more interesting than the Inca.  The Inca collapsed at least to a great part due to the influence of European invasion.  The Maya collapsed all on their own.  Separate entirely from the continuity of European history, the Ancient Maya rose and fell, completing the full life cycle of a civilization without a word from the inheritors of Rome.  We may still speculate as to what the Inca could have accomplished without the sudden curse of Pizarro upon them, but we know exactly how the story of the Ancient Maya would end – because it did.

It may seem strange to be fascinated by a civilization because of it’s collapse, but the existence of both a rise to such great heights and a fall into obscurity, both without any interaction with the Old World, represent something almost unique in world history.  It affects our view of natural cultural development and of history as a linear march of progress.  It informs us of what is essential to human societies, which parts of their growth and subsequent withering are the same whichever side of the Atlantic they appear on.  It is this that makes the Maya so interesting to me – they serve as a microcosm of human civilization free from the baggage of Old World contact.  Among so many great discoveries, they stand out as unique, and yet representative of greater, underlying characteristics of humanity.


One of the strangest features of archaeology to my mind is that it is, almost exclusively, a field focused on studying ruins and other such sites.  This might not seem so odd at first glance, but think about it – archaeology is the study of those things which humanity has left behind.  One does not generally excavate a site that is inhabited today, or at least not the parts of it still in use.  One excavates empty cities and buildings, the abandoned and the lost.  Often those sites of greatest value are those brought down by some cataclysmic event and preserved frozen in their prime, like Pompeii.  Archaeologists, to learn more about past and present, study that which has died, been lost, or been thrown away.

This focus would seem to make the whole field somewhat morbid.  Archaeologists spend the vast majority of their time among the dead and the forgotten.  The people they study are not only long dead, but lost to history, their culture and way of life forgotten.  Humanity moved on, left these people and places behind.  They are often the root of modern things, to be sure, but the reason why they pass into the purview of the archaeologist is because they collapsed.  They grew, flourished, withered, and died, and in doing so left the bare skeleton that an archaeologist seeks to give flesh.

I note this tendency not only because it all seems a bit depressing, but because it  tempers what we know and study of the past, the things we have to learn from.  More is known about the burial practices of many peoples than is known of their lives.  More is known of ancient cities that succumbed to the desert or the jungle than of those that became our modern metropolises.  More is known of some cultures that fell out of existence than of some that grew and changed into those of the present day.  The dead speak to us, those things that were lost tell us of those that were not.  Pompeii, for one, was destroyed, but remains preserved, like a bug in amber, as a record of those cities that lived.  The “bog people” were killed and cast out, but remain as the best witnesses to their contemporaries.  The great cities of the Maya disappeared into the jungle, but persist as a record of their greatness.  It is only from the forgotten that we may learn.

One wonders what we will leave for the archaeologist of the future.  A city abandoned after some nuclear disaster, perhaps?  Some massive industrial complex that fell silent with a change of the economy?  It will not be those things that continue, for the most part.  It will be those that we allow to sink away, to wait in the darkness for new life as new discoveries.  Those things that we forget will become, for the world, our memory.

Leaps of Faith

One of the characteristics of archaeology that I find most striking is how very little material archaeologists must (and do) use to derive a great deal of information.  In history, everything is more often than not spelled out in plain ink – just right there in text, meaning exactly what it says and all too often precious little else.  If Suetonius says that Nero killed his mother it means that Suetonius thought Nero killed his mother – or wanted us to think so – and while it also means that Suetonius probably didn’t like Nero very much, it doesn’t mean a great deal more than that.  In archaeology nothing is spelled out like that.  There are no real accounts to be believed or disbelieved, no voices from the past to doubt or credit.  Instead there is this array of objects which, be they scarce or numerous, are utterly mute.  The task of the archaeologist is not to validate them (though falsehood is occasionally a factor) but far more so to make them speak.  And somehow, they do.  When every object is related to those around it, to the context in which it belongs, a narrative can be formed, an image of people and their lives that is remarkably clear considering its taciturn source.  From a sherd a pot can be extrapolated – from a pot, a culture.

That being said, the link between the tangible and the extrapolated can seem extraordinarily tenuous.  To those used to gaining knowledge from the direct, transmitted word, learning that basic assumptions about an entire culture are based on the contents of a single grave or an ancient latrine can be deeply distressing.  Sometimes, after being familiar with certain facts for years, it can be startling to discover what those facts are actually based on.  Many of the assumptions archaeologists seem to make without batting an eyelash are logical leaps that I would hesitate to make.  Does the presence of an artifact associated with a certain culture really indicate the presence of individuals from that group, or might it be indicative of trade between groups?  Can a specific design on a pot really be used to date it, or was some craftsman merely feeling particularly creative that day?  Though these are not necessarily the best examples, I frequently find myself challenging the necessary assumptions of archaeology in my head, wondering if that much can really be taken as given.

All fields, obviously, have assumptions they require to operate properly.  One must assume that the laws of mathematics will never change before attempting to solve an equation, and  presume the existence of an external world before tackling most questions of philosophy.  The question, however, is in how much is permissible.  Many of the assumptions of archaeology are most probably true.  Many operate simply by Occam’s razor.  But there will always be that question – how much can be extrapolated from each find?  In an increasingly complex world where proof proves perpetually elusive, what is the acceptable distance for a leap of faith?

The Trouble of Preexisting Narratives

Throughout history, one of the greatest problems encountered by academics of all kinds in revealing new information has been the very human tendency create narratives.  These narratives are necessary to human being – we use them to explain the world around us and arrange the cosmos in a way that makes some semblance of sense.  The trouble is that new information often requires the creation of a new narrative, a new worldview, and the preexisting ones must be fundamentally altered or gotten rid of entirely.  More often than not, people are more than willing to simply ignore fact to preserve the way they see the world.

Take, for instance, heliocentrism.  It does not seem, to the modern person, to matter all that much to the daily life of any given person whether Earth orbits the sun or the other way around.  When heliocentrism was first conceived of, however, it was difficult for people to accept because the idea that the earth was the center of the universe was an important part of their narrative for existence.  If the earth was just a proximal part of even our solar system, then humanity might not be what everything is all about after all.  It’s very easy for people to accept this today because we were taught it from birth, but when it contradicts a preexisting worldview, controversy ensues in the face of facts.  This happened not only with heliocentrism, but also with evolution, the origin of ancient monuments like the pyramids, the debunking of scientific racism, and the gradual realization of people all over the world that their kingdom/nation/city was not the center of the world.

The sad part about this is that so often it seems like variations of the same narrative need to be broken over and over again.  Almost every time science, history, or archaeology run up against a worldview, the basic problem is that accepting the necessary changes to that worldview would somehow take the holder’s ego down a peg.  People, it seems, almost always form narratives in which the world is in some way about them.  Therefore they cannot accept that the earth is not the center of the solar system, or that humans are descended from a common ancestor with great apes, or that non-Europeans are not inherently less intelligent than their white counterparts and could even have built the pyramids.  The good news is that this means that when narratives are rewritten, in spite of what might be said about violating the sanctity of whatever or lowering whoever to whomever else’s level, the world is becoming a gradually less egocentric place.  We must simply remember to always keep an open mind and never reject fact for the sake of sentiment.

To dig or not to dig?

As a fairly cautious individual who likes to control as many variables as possible before taking action and gather as much information as possible before reaching conclusions, archaeology positively terrifies me.  The inherently destructive nature of archaeological excavation referred to in one of the first lectures of this course means that data can really only be gathered once from any find, and conclusions must be extrapolated from only that one set of data.  When one considers the possibility for error and the constant increase in technology that allows ever more data to be extracted from a single site, the natural impulse (for me at least) is to delay excavation until the optimal resources are available.  There are, of course, two obvious problems with this approach.  As time goes on better resources continually become available, and archaeological sites continually degrade.  There is, therefore, no best possible time to excavate.  The decision to dig must be made based on the ever-changing factors of development, decay, and – of course – funding.

I am driven further towards caution by the losses of the past.  Though their work laid the foundation for modern archaeology, one cannot help but wonder what could have been found if those excavating in previous centuries had waited for modern tools and modern thinking before plunging into their work.  Stories about Heinrich Schliemann digging rapidly and carelessly in his single-minded quest for Homeric artifacts make the modern reader cringe, as do accounts of fabrics and other delicate materials disintegrating just after the opening of sealed chambers.  Many items were simply removed from their sites for the purpose of filling out museum collections and private curio cabinets with no scientific care whatsoever.  The discovery of a site often led to just as much destruction by looters and tourists as it did to the advancement of knowledge.  How much more could have been found with modern methods and sensibilities?  More importantly, will the archaeologists of the future look back at us the same way?

The difficulty of deciding whether or not to excavate a site is exemplified by the debate over the tomb of the first Qin emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Though the location is famous for the army of terra-cotta warriors outside, the actual tomb itself has never been excavated.  The reluctance of the Chinese government is partly due to respect for the dead, but largely because it is feared that an excavation with the present technology would destroy much that could be preserved by an investigation farther down the road.  The terra-cotta warriors themselves provide an example of what the government fears.  When they were originally unearthed, the original pigments flaked off the warriors soon after their exposure to air.  Two thousand colorless statues later, a technique has been developed to preserve the pigment after the warriors are dug up.  If the tomb is as lavish as surviving accounts claim, it could be well worth the wait, but how long exactly should the government delay?  That debate has gone on for decades, and will likely rage until the day when – for better or for worse – the tomb is opened.  In the meantime, with every new discovery and piece of unbroken ground, archaeologists must confront the eternal question: to dig or not to dig?