Unconventional or Contextual? The Power of the Present in Understanding the Past

If I told you to get a bunch of your friends, bring them to an old building, eat bones, drink blood, and kneel at the feet of a dead nail ridden body you would be taken aback.

What if I told you that your children were encouraged to hide their identities, visit strangers, and threaten those strangers to give them cavities?

These traditions sound unreasonable, when in actuality they are going to a Catholic mass and trick-or-treating. Their true meaning is lost when taken out of context and the same applies to archaeology. Although the field has improved from a time of speculation to one of evidentiary support, the discussion of some archaeological topics is still distorted. The Mayan civilization is an intriguing area of archaeological study, but how much truth is there in this civilization’s portrayal by popular media?

It is believed, by the general public, that the Mayans spread as far as Roatán, Honduras. This Mayanization began when early archaeologists used document sources by Christopher Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, to identify private collections of Roatán artifacts as Mayan. As Ferdinand depicted these Honduras natives as possessing Mayan watercrafts, the archaeologists misinterpreted their origins. This misinterpretation is substantiated due to the tourist attraction, Maya Keys. At this site there are replicas of Copán (Mayan) artifacts, and so the visiting public assumes that Honduras was Mayan as the island representatives have taken these artifacts out of context to increase tourism.

Figure 1: Mayan city Copán’s hieroglyphic stairway replicated in non-Mayan Maya Key, Roatán, Honduras

However, archaeologist Christopher Wells has been able to use modern tools to correct this geographic misconception. Through geographic information systems (GIS) he created maps and gathered environmental data to interpret the material culture found on the island and reveal that its artifacts fit the typology, or style, of the Pech and Miskitu Indians. These populations are indigenous to mainland Honduras, dating 600 to 1,000 years ago, and are not of Mayan descent.

Mayan civilization is also associated with the end of the world and black magic to maximize public interest. Yet when compared to present cultures and analyzed with modern techniques, these practices had a more mundane purpose. Due to volcanic activity, a natural formation process, archaeologists have uncovered well preserved art illustrating the Mayan’s use of rituals to prepare for war. This art shows tzompantli, or racks of skulls, were used not for dark voodoo, but to instill fear in their enemies much like current day burglar alarms do, and teotlacualli, or a paste made of poisonous insects for spirit communication, was used in order to be able to learn from the past when developing war strategies. Additionally, through examining the trash of the Mayan elite or artifact scatters of ceramic shards, which before the use of regional survey techniques could have been overlooked or lost to excavation, archaeologists have been able to determine that Mayan sorcery was simply a way of advancing political agenda demystifying the civilization further.

Figure 2:Mayan monument of royal woman conjuring deceased warrior spirit for aid with dispute between royal houses

Ultimately, to understanding the real Mayan civilization of the past the sampling techniques and context of the present must be applied.

Read More: http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/archaeologists-discover-two-long-lost-ancient-maya-cities-jungle-mexico

Figure 1: http://www.mayakeyroatan.com/content/en/activities/images/DSC_0086.jpg
Figure 2: http://www.learner.org/courses/globalart/assets/non_flash_386/work_237.jpg

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (2010) Archaeology Essentials. 2nd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.
American Archaeology Magazine Vol. 16 No. 3 “That Old Black Magic” and “Revealing the Real Roatán”


3 thoughts on “Unconventional or Contextual? The Power of the Present in Understanding the Past

  1. Your post mentions that the Maya Keys in the Honduras attracts visitors through the promise of an “archaeological” experience. People want to go to this site to learn more about the Maya or about the past. However, as you note, they leave with fundamental misconceptions about the people represented. Archaeotourism is a quickly growing industry that brings about both positive and negative effects. The ethics of this industry are often difficult to navigate as it “raises awareness of our shared cultural heritage and encourages people to visit archaeological sites and historical places, but also subjects these precious resources to increased stress” (archaeological.org). This form of tourism therefore benefits the public through greater access to archaeological knowledge and greater transparency in the archaeological process. However, it also runs the risk of exploiting peoples/cultures for the sake of profit and threatens physical well being of sites (something also brought up in Lydia’s post on the New Deal). Is archaeotourism ethical? How can we ensure that archaeotourism is safely and consciously practiced?

    For more information on archaeological tourism, check out:

  2. Archaeologists have to be masters of context – from stratigraphy to the ethnographic present. Unfortunately our audience thinks we are masters of objects, regardless of where they came from. If we could correct this misconception consumers of archaeotourism would be better at spotting fakes and misdirections in the name of profit.

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