Author Archives: Elaina Wilson

Cortes: Spain’s Trojan Horse

One topic I find really interesting the the Spanish conquest of Mexican Peninsula, specifically the campaign of Cortes. The first European to arrive in the Mexican territory was Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, who  landed on the Yucatan Peninsula having sailed from Cuba with three ships and about 100 men in early 1517. The reports that Cordoba gave upon his return to Cuba prompted the Spanish governor there, Diego Velasquez, to send an evel larger force back to Mexico. This force was placed under the command of Hernan Cortes. In March of 1519, Cortes landed at the town of Tabasco, where he learned from the natives about the great Aztec civilization, then ruled by Montezuma II. Defying the authority of Velasquez, Cortes founded the city of Veracruz on the southeastern Mexican coast, where he stayed for some time while he trained his army into a disciplined fighting force. From there, Cortes and several hundred soldiers marched into Mexico. Their way was made with the help of a native woman who served as a translator (she would later be vilified by the natives as a betrayer of her people). Because of the somewhat instable structure within the Aztec empire, Cortes was able to form alliances with other native peoples, notably the Tlascalans, who were already at war with Montezuma.

In November of 1519, Cortes and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, where Montezuma and his people greeted them as honored guests according to Aztec custom. There is also a case to be made that this was also partially due to Cortes’ physical resemblance to the light-skinned Quetzalcoatl. Cortes’ arrival apparently aligned with the prophesied coming of Quetzalcoatl according to aztec legend. Because the Aztecs did not immediately treat them as invaders, and Cortes was able to immediately take Montezuma and his entourage of lords hostage and gain control of Tenochtitla, despite the Aztecs having far superior numbers. The Spaniards then murdered thousands of Aztec nobles during a ritual dance ceremony, and Montezuma died under uncertain circumstances while in custody. Cuauhtemoc, his young nephew, took over as emperor, and the Aztecs drove the Spaniards from the city. With the help of the Aztecs’ native rivals, Cortes mounted an offensive against Tenochtitlan, finally defeating Cuauhtemoc’s resistance on August 13, 1521. In all, some 240,000 people were believed to have died in the city’s conquest, which effectively ended the Aztec civilization. After his victory, Cortes razed Tenochtitla and built Mexico City on its ruins; it quickly became the premier European center in the New World.

I Blame the River

If I were asked to pinpoint the cause of the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, I would have to point my finger at the environmental changes in that time period. This collapse was marked by the weakening of the monarchy and allowed provincial governors to assume royal power over their region. This breakdown of the Old Kingdom, however was caused by the sudden and unexpected reduction in the Nile floods the persisted over two or three decades. As we have seen the evidence for in class, a severe famine gripped the region, and it is this that in turn paralyzed the central political institutions

We can clearly see this lapse in flood levels, shown by sediment cores collected from the area. These low floods were related to a larger scale global climatic cooling which reduced the amount of rainfall in Ethiopia and East Africa. In Iceland, researchers have detected a transition from birch and grassland vegetation to arctic conditions in about 2150 BC. This correlates with a shift to drier climate in south-eastern Europe c.2200 – 2100 BC. Also, the reappearance of oak at White Moss, UK, suggests fluctuating wetness in around 2190 – 1891 BC. In Italy, drier conditions are found around 2200-1900 BC in Lake Castglione. Dry spells have also been detected as far away as Western Tibet at Lake Sumxi.

The most interesting, and relatively recent discovery, was made when scientists made a high-resolution study of dust deposition from Kajemarum Oasis in north-eastern Nigeria. The study conclusively revealed that a pronounced shift in atmospheric circulation occurred in around 2150 BC. This data indicates that an abrupt, short-lived event of cold climate led to less rainfall and a reduction of water flow in a vast area extending from Tibet to Italy. This of course, led to the catastrophic events that we see depicted in studies from the Egyptian Old Kingdom.

From year to year, the long-term variations in Nile floods may be beyond the perceptions of people living at that time, without the use of accurate measuring devices, but the effects are surely felt. The volume of flood discharge varies wildly in episodes, which range from decades to hundreds of years. Furthermore, there is the impact of freak years where the floods can be disastrously low or high. The Nile, today and during the prosperous times of the Old Kingdom, can be regarded unquestionably as the source of life in Egypt. Ironically it seems, the Nile had just a big a hand in destroying the State it had built.

An interesting article on the topic (even if it is a bit old)


It doesn’t fit in our box.

On thing that has particularly interested me in this class so far is the history of archeology itself. Throughout that history, the field has evolved not only in its practices, but also in its motivations. The reasons we look at the past seem to be as different and numerous as the schools of thought that have emerged as a result of the looking.

The modern public’s idea of archeology tends toward the misconception that it’s about adventuring and treasure hunting: the Indiana Jones modus operandi. Where this does have some basis in truth if we look at 19th century “archeologists”, it is far from the modern day process. In those days, it seems to me, that there was more a preoccupation with collecting history rather than understanding it. The removal of artifacts and the application of modern ideals and standards to states long decimated by time.

In lecture, we discussed the “legacy of the 19th century” in which the philosophies and social structure of modern western culture have skewed our vision when we look at ancient states. The concepts of progress, technology, racism, elites, bias, and rate of change all change the way we want to understand the artifacts and evidence that we find. We see what we expect to see.

In the last half of the 20th century, the archeological process was shifted. There is an attempt  to avoid empirical assumptions as an answer to the question of “why”. Our textbook, in the first chapter, briefly discusses the realm of physics and other natural sciences, which can offer concrete, testable answers on not only what the natural world does, but why these things happen. In studying human history, we can only make reasonable guesses at most of the “what happened” and even less certain is the “why it happened” and as agreed by most, we cannot know. And yet, these are the questions that archeology seeks to answer.

As we move through the semester, examining  several Ancient States, it will be important to keep in mind that these people are not living in the Midwest of the United States in 2013, and therefor may not think, plan, and live as we do. If we try to fit the evidence we find into our own pattern of thinking, we block the potential for new discovery and may in-fact lead ourselves to making assumptions that are woefully inaccurate. We must resign ourselves to the fact that we may have to say we don’t know.