Ancient people lived among ruins too. What did they make of them?

Around 500 C.E., a new government arose in the community now called Río Viejo, near the coast of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It was once the largest city in the region, but it had shrunk by half and lost its political authority. The new rulers aimed to step into that power vacuum. But they had one problem: the ruins of a complex of ceremonial buildings built by Río Viejo’s last centralized government centuries earlier. When that government collapsed, the temples and plazas had been ritually burned and left to decay, a reminder that hierarchical rulership had already failed once in Río Viejo. How would the new leaders manage the threat it posed?

Arthur Joyce, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, has found they did so by putting their stamp on the ruins with a massive offering and portraits of themselves, set on top of the eroded surface of the old buildings. “These new rulers may have been trying to assert control over this thing that by its very existence would have questioned the inevitability and legitimacy of their power,” Joyce says.

Previous generations of researchers tended to treat the massive ruins that dot Mexico and Central America as “inconsequential” in the lives of the people who lived nearby in later periods, Joyce says. Once a site emptied out and started to crumble, archaeologists typically concluded its importance had faded for people in the past. But a growing number are now recognizing that for people in precolonial Mesoamerica, “ruins, ancient objects, and ancestors were active parts of their communities,” says Roberto Rosado-Ramirez, an archaeologist at Northwestern University.

In a session he and Joyce are organizing at this week’s conference of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Portland, Oregon, researchers will share new findings and ideas about ruins’ roles in ancient Mesoamerican communities. “People in the past had their own past,” says Christina Halperin, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal. By looking at how people interacted with the ruins around them, archaeologists can get a glimpse of how those communities conceived of their own history.

In Europe, archaeologists and historians have long studied the role of ancient monuments such as Stonehenge in the cultures of later people. But in Mesoamerica and other colonized places, European settlers—and archaeologists—“pretended that the people they were colonizing had no real history, and therefore no claims to their land,” says Shannon Dawdy, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago and a discussant in the SAA session. Studying ruins in the past is a way to center Indigenous perspectives about history that researchers previously ignored or denied, Rosado-Ramirez says.

Those ruins possessed spiritual, historical, and political power, which ambitious elites sometimes tried to manipulate for their own ends. At Río Viejo, Joyce found the rulers who took control around 500 C.E. placed their elaborate offering right in the center of the old complex, now called the Acropolis. The offering consisted of several burials, including three bodies interred within large ceramic vessels, and burned human and animal bones that indicate sacrifice, all topped with a layer of earth and two stone monuments called stelae. Three carved stone monuments dedicated to the new rulers, complete with their names and, in two cases, their portraits, were installed just to the north. “They attempted to appropriate [the Acropolis] by … putting their images on it,” Joyce says.

In Ucanal, a Maya city in Guatemala where Halperin works, leaders may have used ruins to mark a break with the past, rather than try to reclaim it. In the early ninth century C.E., when many nearby cities were collapsing, writing on monuments shows a new regime took over in Ucanal. It tore down many older buildings and used their stones to construct new ones, but a few, including a small ballcourt, were left as ruins in the middle of the city. “It seems like they are purposely trying to generate a new era of their own history,” Halperin says. It worked. Ucanal not only survived a time of widespread political crisis, but grew bigger than ever.

In other places, commoners, not elites, engaged with ruins. Around the time Ucanal was thriving under new leadership, the Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ was faltering. The royal family had lost power, many people were moving away, and the remaining residents were struggling to maintain the city’s centuries-old main temple. Olivia Navarro-Farr, an archaeologist at the College of Wooster, found offerings of everyday objects, such as domestic pottery and stone tools, deposited on either side of the temple staircase during the time the city was being abandoned.

When the city was at its height, the temple was home to royal tombs and stone monuments dedicated to past rulers. These late offerings are “the same materials [common] people used in their own homes,” Navarro-Farr says. She thinks they were a way for common people to honor the building’s long history and their ancestral connection to it during a time of political and social upheaval that may have threatened those bonds.

Many Indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America continue to leave offerings to ancestors, forest spirits, and deities at ancient sites, but archaeologists haven’t always respected the tradition. Josuhé Lozada Toledo, an archaeologist at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, works with Lacandon Maya communities in the Mexican state of Chiapas. For centuries, they made pilgrimages to the ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán near the Mexico-Guatemala border, which they consider the home of the creator god Hachakyum. But they stopped in the 1980s, when more archaeologists and tourists began to visit Yaxchilán and practices such as burning incense inside the temples were prohibited, Lozada Toledo says. Few Lacandon people now remember the pilgrimage routes. At the SAA session, Lozada Toledo’s team will describe how it is trying to help preserve them using ethnography and mapping software.

For contemporary Maya people, the remains of ancient buildings and settlements are never empty, even though they may no longer be occupied by humans, says Genner Llanes-Ortiz, a social anthropologist at Bishop’s University who is Yucatec Maya. “They are sacred places, they are inhabited places, and they are places with their own character,” he says.

Because of this, Llanes-Ortiz, who is not participating in the SAA session, questions the use of the term “ruin” to describe older sites. “I appreciate [the session’s] approach of trying to interrogate the Eurocentric idea that ‘ruins’ are just decayed buildings,” he says. But words for these sites should emphasize their active, vibrant role in present and past communities. In Yucatec Maya, for example, an archaeological site is often called a múul, or hill. “Mountains or hills are also agents in the life of the community,” with a personhood similar to human beings, Llanes-Ortiz says.

“A lot of us [archaeologists] tend to think that Western ways of seeing the world are somehow natural or obvious, or the only option,” says Sarah Kurnick, an archaeologist at CU who is participating in the session. “I’m looking forward to seeing an elevation of non-Western viewpoints as critical to understanding the past.”

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