The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.

Chronology

The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.

Geography

When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Places

  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.


Related links

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (4) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Slavery is the normal condition of the negro… as indispensable to his prosperity and happiness… as liberty is to the whites. (From a petition sent to Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the 56th Virginia regiment against allowing black soldiers to fight for the Confederacy, quoted on page 836)

Racism…

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were wrong if they meant to include Negroes among ‘all men’, said Alexander Graham after he had become vice president of the Confederacy.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (quoted on page 244)

Repeatedly, every few pages in this long book, the reader is slapped in the face by quite breathtakingly racist statements made by all classes of Americans in the 1860s. Here is the southern newspaper, the Richmond Whig, in 1865, discussing the heretical idea of arming the South’s slaves to fight for it. The idea was:

a repudiation of the opinion held by the whole South… that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave. (quoted p.834)

It is one of the characteristics of McPherson’s immensely thorough account of the American Civil War that he lards his text with quotations – from speeches by presidents, senators and congressmen, from newspaper articles and editorials, from the diaries and letters on both sides of the argument, and statements from the lowliest, barely literate, farmhands-turned-soldiers.

In other words, McPherson gives you deep insight into the minds of people at every level of society on both sides of the war.

And one of the big things that comes over is a level of anti-black racism at all levels of 1860s American society which is staggering, almost beyond words to describe.

Nowadays the word ‘racism’ is quickly applied to the slightest verbal slip or misspeak. It is eye-opening to come to understand what institutional racism really means, in the sense of a quite overt, explicit, unashamed and widely popular belief, promoted by politicians from the (Confederate) president at the top, throughout the entire (Confederate) press – that black Africans are a separate and inferior race, quite incapable of education, higher thought, or serious mental activity, a race set aside by GOD specifically to perform the most menial, humdrum, mindless activities. And a race which posed a permanent terrorising threat to all decent white folk.

As the Charleston Mercury put it, emancipation would mean:

the poor man… reduced to the level of the nigger. His wife and daughter are to be hustled on the street by black wenches, their equals. Swaggering buck niggers are to ogle them and elbow them. (p.836)

I suppose it was obvious that this would be the mindset of the southern plantation-owning class but it is still shocking to read.

But almost worse is the revelation that even in the north whose politicians were anti-slavery and who eventually turned the war into a crusade to emancipate the slaves, there was, of course, a strong abolitionist movement, particularly in snooty, Puritan New England – but there was also anti-black sentiment almost as strong as in the south, and just as profoundly racist.

Many northern soldiers, and their newspapers and congressmen, went out of their way to explain that they were fighting the war against rebels but certainly not for uppity Negroes. In the north, there were protests against the new draft introduced in July 1862, where protesters carried banners saying things like:

We won’t fight to free the nigger (p.493)

MacPherson quotes a Union soldier as writing: ‘I am not in favour of freeing the negroes and leaving them to run riot among us’. It wasn’t isolated bigots, but the state legislatures of Illinois and Indiana who called the Emancipation Proclamation ‘wicked, inhuman and unholy’. It was an Ohio newspaper editor who described it as ‘monstrous, impudent and heinous… insulting to God as to man, for it declares those “equal” whom God created unequal.’ (p.595)

In the 1863 congressional elections in the north, the remaining Democrats (a party mostly associated with southern slave-holders) campaigned as the peace party, expressing such vehement opposition to the war that one of their leaders, Clement Vallandigham, was forced to flee the country and campaigned from Canada. He wrote:

In considering terms of settlement we should look only to the welfare, peace and safety of the white race, without reference to the effect that settlement may have on the African. (quoted page 592)

The editor of New York’s leading Catholic weekly told a mass meeting that:

when the president called for them to go and carry on a war for the nigger, he would be damned if he believed they would go. (quoted p.609)

The Democrat Party in the north split into war democrats and peace-at-any-price Democrats. The most outspoken wing of the peace Democrats was given the nickname ‘copperhead’, after a particularly venomous American snake. A copperhead campaigning in the Ohio elections wrote:

Let every vote count in favour of the white man, and against the Abolition horses, who would place negro children in your schools, negro jurors in your jury boxes,  and negro votes in your ballot boxes. (quoted page 686)

Being a democratic politician means you have to listen to the people, you have to take their beliefs into account, even if you think they are ignorant and prejudiced beliefs. As Lincoln himself put it:

A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. (p.128)

All of this evidence, which McPherson marshals so effectively, explains why Lincoln had to proceed slowly, retaining as many allies as he could, in the political class as well as among the broader population, in a culture awash with anti-Afro-American thoughts and prejudices.

But it’s still a shock to read the remarks he made to a group of black leaders in the White House on 14 August 1862. Slavery was:

the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.

But even if slavery were abolished, racial differences and prejudices would remain.

Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.

Blacks had little chance to achieve equality in the United States.

There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free coloured people to remain among us… I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I could.

This fact, Lincoln thought, made it necessary for black people to emigrate to another land where they would have better opportunities. He asked the black leaders present to ask for volunteers for a government-sponsored pilot scheme to resettle black Americans in Central America. (p.508) So even the leader of the North and the proclaimer of the emancipation of the slaves thought the only real solution to the ‘Race Problem’ was to pack off the ‘other’ race to a different country. Wow.

It makes for a lot of unpleasant reading, but it also gives the reader a sense of the deep, deep, deep racist, anti-black sentiments which were central to American society, had been for decades beforehand, and would continue to be for decades afterwards. It helps you understand why profoundly racist attitudes continued in full flood well into the 1960s and beyond, and had to be combated by black movements which themselves were often radical and violent.

It makes you understand that African slavery and the racism it engendered is the Original Sin which just can’t be cleansed from the American soul.

… and constitutional law

It’s easy to overlook because it’s so much less shocking than the racism, but in among the descriptions of the economy, of banking and then – of course – of the paraphernalia of war, the recruitment, arms factories, train lines and battles – a steady hum which, once you notice it you realise makes up most of the book, is the central importance to American politics of the law.

Having read Alan Taylor’s book about the American War of Independence I now understand that the American constitution wasn’t some pristine and perfect theory of government devised by political philosophers working in a vacuum, but an extremely hard-headed set of compromises between the squabbling thirteen colonies who all had particular interests to protect, not least the southern slave states who fought to ensure that slavery was protected, even if it was nowhere explicitly mentioned.

Reading this book helps the reader to understand the uniquely complex and legalistic nature of American society, whereby each state has its own elected officials and supreme court, which may – or may not – be overridden by federal i.e. national president, congress and Supreme Court.

In other words, any two parties caught in a civil or criminal case, has at least two sets of authorities to appeal to, state and federal. When U.S. society split from top to bottom in the civil war there became in effect four sets of law. And since each state had its own traditions, made its own laws, and elected its own officials, the reality was something more like 30 squabbling states, plus two overriding federal authorities who were at war with each other.

What is fascinating is the extent to which neither side really appealed to moral or religious principles, but tried to dress up their decisions in the cloak of the Constitution. The main arguments of the civil war occurred at the where Law meets Political Theory. Both sides appealed to the Constitution, but gave their own (wildly conflicting) politico-legal interpretations of it.

Thus the most obvious thing, to us, today, about the quote from the Confederate vice-president at the top of this review, is its repellent view of race: but what’s symptomatic of its era is that it is couched not in terms of scientific theory or morality or religion – but as a theory of government.

When politicians argue in this book (and they argue all the way from page one to page 860) of course they sometimes express themselves in terms of ‘racial theory’ or religion but, when push comes to shove, they argue strongest about laws and the basis of all American laws, the Constitution.

They argue whether the Kansas-Nebraska Law of 1854 is constitutional, whether the president has powers to proclaim emancipation, they argue whether states have the right to secede under any circumstances, about what a state actually is (early in the war West Virginia seceded from Virginia – was it allowed to? who said so?).

What’s easy to forget in all the bloodshed and in the inflammatory rhetoric of racism, is that this was a highly articulate, well-educated argument taking place among sometimes blunt and rude but often very subtle and clever lawyers.

If one obvious element of Battle Cry of Freedom is to rub your face in some very unpleasant racist ideology and make you appreciate how deep and enduring anti-black racism has been in America – a less immediately obvious but just as important conclusion is the extent to which America is a country meshed in a fascinating and endlessly complicated web of state and federal laws and courts and legal powers.

Something which goes a long way to explaining why outsiders often find American politics confusing and end up with a simple-minded focus on the personality of whoever happens to be in the White House (JFK, Nixon, Barack, Donald), ignoring the complex web of political, legal and constitutional wrangling which go on continually at lower levels of American political life, and which are often more important in determining the lives and livelihoods of most Americans.

And explains Americans’ apparently ceaseless appetite for TV shows about lawyers. Are there any British TV series about solicitors? No, because their work is very boring. Whereas American law really is a) more complex, challenging and swashbuckling; b) seems to automatically offer the possibility of a career progressing into state politics and then, potentially, on into national politics.

In terms of its racial heritage, and its legal-political arrangements, this books helps the reader really come to appreciate what a very different country from our own America is.


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