Anthropology, Images, and Social Memory

Carlo Severi, an Italian anthropologist, has studied the connection between images and social memory. By asking questions such as, how images contribute to a society’s understanding of itself, and where history and tradition intersect, Severi has uncovered incredible findings about the aesthetic world. Perhaps the most important discovery of Severi’s is the necessity of images and how they allow cultures to interpret thoughts and build a common memory. He explains the value of seeing images as more than aesthetic materials; instead they have both historical and theoretical value that connects a society together.

Severi’s study of Mesoamerican and Catholic culture represents the importance of images and social identity. The Spanish conquest of Mexico not only took away political power and basic agency from Native societies; it also replaced their culture with European principles and values. Indigenous religions were systematically destroyed as people were forced to adapt to a foreign culture. Since worldview is fundamental to societies, this destruction of culture caused incredible strife for Native people. As one can imagine, affected societies struggled to hold on to previous traditions in the face of major social change. The common memory of historical Mesoamerican societies used images to hold onto their religion as the Spanish converted the area.

A major theme in indigenous Mesoamerican religion is respect towards death and the dead. However, death is seen as dark and evil in many Anglo-Saxon cultures and adaptations of Christianity. Upon the Spanish attempts to convert societies to Catholicism, a sect of people retained culture via the incorporation of Dona Sebastiana, or the Saint of Death. Paintings, sculptures, and other religious materials were created to depict Dona Sebastiana and death’s triumph over Jesus. Catholics from Europe obviously do not condone such iconography.

By retaining an important figure as they were being converted to a new religion, native Mesoamericans were able to hold on to a piece of their culture. Images created in honor of Dona Sebastiana allowed communities to build a image and interpretation of the Saint of Death and ultimately allowed a common memory and tradition to be created. Besides the significance of Dona Sebastiana in historical religious terms, the icon also represents the inversion of the death of Christ, revealing the triumph of death rather than the opposite, which is traditionally celebrated in Catholicism. Moreover, in social terms, there image of Dona Sebastiana’s arrow piercing Jesus shows the conflict of enemy cultures. All in all, Severi’s presentation illuminated the connection between social changes, images, and common memory.

by Kathryn Marshall

Wait…This Isn’t History Class.

History is the study of the past, usually in a narrative sequence of events. History places events in nice neat time periods ignoring the complexities of how the transitions occurred. Archaeology helps provide the understanding of how these changes occurred through examining and analyzing culture. One of the ways this is done is through fieldwork.

In class we examined the Cultural History of Anasazi; Anasazi is the archaeological term used to describe one of the four prehistoric Puebloan peoples in the region of the American Southwest right above Mesoamerica. In the Cultural History we learned that Anasazi culture dated back as far as 1,500 BC and has been spilt into eight time periods based on their tools, religion, architecture, and agriculture. The first time period is framed from 1,500BC- AD 50, where they used cave campsites for storage but in the next time period from AD50- AD500 they developed pit houses. Pit houses were built partially underground with a mound above the surface and a hole in the roof called a sipapu that symbolized the entrance into the spirit world.

This is a reproduction of a pit house at Mesa Verde National Park. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

This is a reproduction of a pit house at Mesa Verde National Park. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

Over time agriculture became more developed which led to communities being formed as well as a spiritual structures called kivas. The communities kept expanding to large pueblos and many kivas until the seventh time period from 1350 AD- 1600AD where the kivas started to become very scarce. Then the last time period from 1600AD- present the Spanish arrive and establish missions.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Example of how the Pueblo Society became.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. Example of how the Pueblo Society became.

All of this is a great framework of history of Anasazi but it doesn’t tell us the hows and why. We know from 1350AD- 1600AD the kivas became very scarce but why? What happened to the religion that could have caused that, did the Katchina cult development have any bearing on the disappearance of the kivas? These questions are where archaeology becomes helpful. To explain, Patricia Lambert of Utah State University and Brian Billman and Banks Leonard of Soil Systems excavated a pit house near Cowboy Wash in southwestern Colorado in the late twelfth-century A.D where they found a lot of inconsistency to the cultural history layout. The site was a Pueblo III habitation, during this time period pit house have been long outdated and replaced with large pueblos. They also found that the sipapu had been sealed and the criteria for cannibalism had been met. With this newfound information we can start to make theories as to why these particularities had occurred. Some believe the land was a marginal environment not fit for agriculture which wouldn’t allow this particular area to have time to create large complex housing. The cannibalism could have occurred simply from a lack of food and desperation; however other believe it could have been a spiritual offering since the sipapu had been sealed.

As you can see history gives us a nice framework to work within but archaeology allows us to closely examine and analyze the convolution of these events through culture.


April Beisaw, Archaeology 100, Class #15

A Case for Cannibalism,” ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1994

Amélie A. Walker, Anasazi Cannibalism?, Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997