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Volume 55 / Social Sciences

ANTHROPOLOGY: ARCHAEOLOGY


Mesoamerica

JOHN HERNDERSON, Professor of Anthropology, Cornell University
GARY FEINMAN, Professor of Antropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison


MESOAMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGISTS HAVE NEVER SHARED a single overarching theoretical perspective nor explicitly oriented their investigations in terms of common research themes and questions. Studies that deal with Mesoamerica as a whole or with large regions are most often synthetic rather than theoretically explanatory. The recent cycle of research covered in this overview continues to reflect this diversity of paradigms, perspectives and interests.

Although it is not possible to characterize investigations in this extensive region in terms of a few tightly-defined key themes, much current work can be seen as exploring broad issues of inter-relationships both within societies - at the level of households, social groups, and communities - and between polities. Emphases vary widely, from the largely material to the purely ideological. Some studies focus on durable goods as indicators of economic systems, exchange networks, and the nature of craft production and specialization; some use settlement pattern data as a guide to political systems; others analyze domestic architecture and refuse as a reflection of household organization; still others mine hieroglyphic texts, monumental architecture, and art for clues to shared belief systems or to the specifics of political and social organization. While certain studies examine and emphasize the hierarchial relations within and between ancient Mesoamerican social groups, others stress the symbolic and conceptual systems that served to define and bind different populations and polities. Within this diversity of approaches, there is a common (but not always explicit) focus on inter-connection and communication.

Studies of the "technology" of communication - iconography, writing, and other forms of notation - include analyses of inscriptions, painted documents, murals, and sculpture from all parts of Mesoamerica. Epigraphy and iconography continue to be well represented in the Maya literature. Teotihuacan art and notation are attracting increasing attention. Several studies focus on postclassic Mixtec painted codices and on late formative "pre-Maya" writing. A continuing controversy in this area revolves around the issue of whether these sources should be used as primary data to create detailed historical frameworks, or whether they are best treated as complementary to material data and the archaeological frameworks based on them (item bi 95014029).

Research on late postclassic central Mexico includes a strong emphasis on the political structure of the Aztec State, on the nature of articulation among groups within it, on the composition of and linkages between households, and on the organization of craft production. At a larger scale, others explore the nature of the relations between the Aztec polity and other contemporaneous Mesoamerican states. In the same way, much current work on Teotihuacan focuses on the nature of the ties between the city and its hinterland and on the center's relationships with neighboring regions (item bi 94005417). Analyses of burials, residential compounds, and urban barrios at Teotihuacan reflect a strong interest in internal social and economic organization within the city (item bi 95013974). In central Mexico as well as elsewhere, characterization studies (especially of ceramics and obsidian) and lithic analyses (item bi 95011926) represent key strategies for investigating inter-connections and craft production.

Large-scale excavation projects, focusing on individual cities and their hinterlands, and regional settlement survey programs continue in the Maya region (items bi 95012235 and bi 93012431) as well as elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Within this framework, there is healthy and expanding emphasis on the residential contexts of ancient communities, including both aristocratic and non-elite segments of society, and on demography. In some cases, these house excavations have been buoyed by the application of new methods and techniques for the analysis of ancient living surfaces. Regional surveys and household archaeology are particularly well represented along the fringes of the Maya lowlands, especially in the southeast which remains an intense focus of investigation (item bi 93012099).

While Mesoamericanist scholars continue to collect a rich and diverse corpus of material and ideological insights on the similarities, differences, and changes that characterized the ancient Mesoamerican world, there seems to be little consensus concerning the specific frameworks that are necessary to synthesize and interpret this burgeoning empirical record. Nevertheless the interest noted above in how different social segments and groups expressed themselves is a productive trend, especially as the variability and change in their articulations are explored in more explicit fashion. From our perspective, the current overarching interest in the social, material, and ideological relations among individuals, households, kin groups, communities, regions, polities, and macro-regions should foment healthy reevaluations and refinements of archaeological concepts and units, as well as the further development of useful theoretical bridges to other social, historical, ecological, and humanistic disciplines.


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