Aztec Archaeology and Anthropology Book Reviews Examples

Published: 2021-06-24 12:55:05
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Category: Human, Culture, History, Music, Mexico, Aztec, Museum, Archaeology

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The four articles summarized and discussed in this annotated bibliography were selected because they deal with some of the civilizations of the first Americans, the Aztecs in particular. There always seems to be a lot of information and research into Western and pre-Western archaeology and anthropology, such as studies about Celtic, Roman, and Egyptian culture and mythology, but less about pre-Columbian America. All four of these articles were selected from peer-reviewed journals. Journals were selected instead of a book because it seemed like the best way to get a general idea about some very diverse topics regarding the Aztecs. Topics for three of the articles (Both, Graulich, and Joyce) were selected because their ideas were completely unfamiliar, while a fourth article (Walsh) was selected because of its intersection with today’s popular culture and ideas about Aztec culture. They were also selected because they were published since the year 2000.

Both, Arnd Adje. “Aztec Music and Culture.” The World of Music 49.2 (2007): 91-104. Print.

Arnd Adje Both’s paper specifically explores the musical culture of the Aztecs from 1325-1521 AD (91). His anthropological examination determines that there are at least two primary types of music, temple music and court music. A combination of archaeology and “a survey of sixteenth-century historical documents is useful, if not necessary” (91) in order to develop a detailed idea concerning what Aztec music was like. Part of what makes the paper so interesting is that Both uses renderings from his sixteenth-century sources, such as the Codex Mendoza, the Codex Florentinus, and the Codex Magliabechaino to illustrate the musicians and their instruments (92-94). The archaeology and codices reveal many types of instruments and their functions. Ceramic, marble and reed flutes, drums covered with coyote, deer, jaguar, and ocelot hides, and trumpets of marine shells. Types of instruments and their names. Materials used in making the instruments are just a few of the unique instruments Both writes about (93). One of the most interesting parts of the paper is the description by various sixteenth-century sources about exactly how Aztec music sounded, because the adjectives used are so diverse.

Sixteenth-century writers described Aztec music as “extremely sad . . . horrifying . . . shrill . . . cheerful . . . very graceful . . . restrained and moderated,” and more, and Both attributes its diversity to the “range of different purposes and motivations” for which this music was utilized (101). For instance, Functions of music included invoking “magical support for any given aim” such as producing rain as well as “a means of communication with the spiritual realm” (95). Aztec culture often seems very mysterious and resigned to legend, and Both’s paper is interesting because it brings a distinct aspect of the culture to life with its clear, detailed descriptions and illustrations. Both’s paper offers an informative view about how current archaeology as well as other sources such as the sixteenth-century texts can combine to offer a startlingly detailed description of some of the first Americans.

Graulich, Michel. “Human Sacrifice as Expiation.” History of Religions 39.4 (May 2000): 352-371. Print.

Before reading Michel Graulich’s paper, it was necessary to look up the definition of expiation, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online defines as “1) the act of making atonement; 2) the means by which atonement is made.” The paper’s specific focus contests the explanations offered by researchers over the years for why Aztecs performed human sacrifice, because research has led Graulich to believe that “the more fundamental meaning and end of Aztec sacrifice was expiation of sins or transgressions in order to deserve a worthy afterlife” (354-355). Graulich points out that his selection of less-biased research, which “has never been provided by priests or other specialists” and therefore corrupted by Christian bias; he uses Historia de los Mexicanos por sus printuras and Leyenda de los Soles because they offer the complete Aztec creation story (356). Graulich also uses the version of Antigüedades copied by Torquemada and Mendieta, saying that it gives a context to the myth that all other research has failed to incorporate (358). This aspect of Graulich’s paper, while technical, is very important to his presentation because it shows he has a thorough knowledge of past research concerning Aztec human sacrifice so that his theories can be presented as innovative and superior. It shows some of the different methods by which anthropologists rate, select, and compile sources to theorize about societies that can no longer be directly observed.

Graulich’s conclusion is that the reasons behind Aztec expiation were varied although in most cases it is to bring the sacrificed to “a worthy afterlife” (371). Failing to recognize the creators as superior were reasons not only for the deaths of animals who were then subject to being hunted by all, but also for the people including purified slaves and prisoners of war (357). Evidently, it has been common belief that the reason much of Aztec human sacrifice occurred is because there was an “idea that the sun had to be constantly nourished,” but Graulich sees this as a political reason to justify constant war (361). The research is interesting because it brings to light some of the interesting details that allowed what appears to be a simple barbaric practice into a highly civilized and complex culture.

Joyce, Rosemary A. “Girling the Girl and Boying the Boy: The Production of Adulthood in Ancient Mesoamerica.” World Archaeology 31.3 (Feb. 2000): 473-483.

Rosemary A. Joyce’s paper describes the gender socialization of Aztec children. Joyce believes that the development of children has been neglected by many historians and researchers who “rarely [consider] the experience of childhood or transitions in the life course” of Mesoamerican people (473). Like other researchers, Joyce spends a lot of time discussing her sources, their strengths and weaknesses. Although the sources she relies upon are Aztec sources, they have still suffered the bias of some of their sixteenth-century recorders and translators, for instance, “biases include substitution in the text of a normative male actor for mixed males and females” (475).

Joyce’s research itself provides a fascinating picture of a very complex development process for children in order that they could become “a properly decorous adult” (474). By the time an Aztec child reached the early teenage years, they were categorized as one of three “approved” genders, which included “potentially reproductive male, potentially reproductive female and celibate” (474). Rituals toward this end began at birth and continued in a gradual manner throughout childhood, utilizing hair styles, ornaments, and clothing to “create distinct social identities, above all those of adult genders and labour roles” (476). Joyce describes some of these hair and clothing styles in detail and also relates its importance in terms of status by comparing it to some of the adults’ reasons for style choices. For example, a male warrior who acquired a fourth captive on his own was allowed to wear a new particular hairstyle. Through her examples, Joyce stresses that physical appearance was not a fashion statement, but a status statement meant not only for the society at large but also to influence the internalization and psychology of a person’s role (480). She emphasizes that the “costume” which was seen as simple fashion by researchers of the past should, in light of research like her own, be viewed as “active mechanisms for socialization” (480-481). Although Joyce’s research is captivating, it would be more interesting if she would have included visual examples of some of the life-transition styles she discusses. Even though she may presume that her readers have access to her sources or a familiarity with the ones that she mentions, it would still be useful even to the experienced anthropologist specific visuals of some of the examples she considers to be the best evidence for her theories.

Walsh, Jane MacLaren. “Legend of the Crystal Skulls: The Truth Behind Indiana Jones’s Latest Quest.” Archaeology 61.3 (May/Jun. 2008): 36-41. Print.

Jane McLaren Walsh’s paper concerning the “Legend of the Crystal Skulls” is a testament to the fascination ancient cultures, especially the Aztec, have provided to both serious researchers and the public. Even the title of the paper insinuates the connection between popular media and serious research. As Walsh says, “Crystal skulls have undergone serious scholarly scrutiny, but they also excite the popular imagination because they seem so mysterious. Some believe the skulls are the handiwork of the Maya or Aztecs” or even, as in the Indiana Jones movie, come from aliens (36).

Walsh brings up some excellent reasons why these crystal skulls have popularly been attributed to the Aztecs or other Mesoamerican cultures, because she says that there are many “genuine pre-Columbian depictions of skulls . . . [as] an important motif in Mesoamerican iconography” (37-38). The caveat is that the crystal skulls in museums or other displays do not come from any “documented excavation, and they have little stylistic or technical relationship” to those pre-Columbian skull depictions (36). Additionally, genuine skull carvings by Aztec or Toltec people were almost always made of basalt and painted (40). Walsh points a finger at a French man named Eugène Boban, “who served as the official ‘archaeologist’ of the Mexican court of Maximilian” and a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico in the 1800s (38). According to Walsh, Boban lived in Mexico beginning in his teens and made “his living selling archaeological artifacts and natural history specimens through a family business in Mexico City” (39). Walsh’s depiction of Boban makes him seem like a cultural profiteer who was even “denounced” by the curator of Mexico’s national museum for trying to sell fraudulent artifacts to the museum and was also “accused . . . of smuggling antiquities” (39). This is interesting, because it suggests that not all of the items that Boban dealt with were considered to be fakes. Although he had little success with Mexico’s national museum, he did manage to sell many of his artifacts and books in the late 1800s to Tiffany & Co. in New York who then sold it to the British Museum (39). Having made it to the hands of the esteemed auctioneers and to the official capacity of the British Museum, it is no wonder that researchers or the public did not immediately demand verification of the authenticity of the skulls.

However, many of the techniques and equipment used for verifying authenticity of artifacts available today did not exist in the 19th century. Walsh writes, “I examined the British Museum and Smithsonian skulls under light and scanning microscope and conclusively determined that they were carved with relatively modern lapidary equipment, which were unavailable to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican carvers” (41). Of course, these advanced microscopes were not available to the archaeologists and anthropologists of the 19th century. The skulls authenticity may be confusing to the public because in some places such as Mexico’s national museum, skulls are still displayed as being genuine Mesoamerican artifacts, but in the British Museum they are used as examples of fakes (41).

Walsh’s article brings up an important aspect of archaeology and anthropology which could be described as “myth-busting.” Although there are many fascinating and genuine artifacts of Aztec and other cultures, there are also many fakes perpetuated by people seeking to profit from tourists, researchers, museums, and other sources. In order for archaeologists and anthropologists to be able to do accurate research and come up with viable hypotheses and theories, verification of authenticity of these artifacts and sources is a must. In spite of Walsh’s declaration and evidence that the popular Aztec crystal skulls and other artifacts are fakes, a strength of her article is that it is written in a friendly manner which invites the reader to enjoy further archaeological exploration rather than simply offering a negative viewpoint which could turn people away from the field.

These articles were very interesting and diverse examples of the anthropology and archaeology research being done concerning Aztec and other Mesoamerican culture. Relatively recent research (published since the year 2000) was selected because it seems as if it would represent the current important topics and theories. Both’s, Graulich’s, and Joyce’s papers especially helped to develop specific yet complex ideas about the Aztec people. This was especially important because oftentimes popular culture distills ancient cultures into facades of food, costume, and some particularly unique tradition, such as Aztec human sacrifice or Egyptian cat-worship. These papers show that the culture is far more than that, another reason why it is important to look into scholarly research and not just popular stories, anecdotes, and rumors. Walsh’s article was different because it directly confronts and defeats some popular ideas about the Aztecs and their artifacts rather than presenting new information about cultural traditions and practices as the other articles did. However, it is important that myth-busting research like Walsh’s is done so that the works of researchers like Both, Graulich, and Joyce have reliable information to develop from. For anyone who enjoys reading about pre-Columbian American culture, articles like these provide further fuel for the fascination.

Works Cited

Both, Arnd Adje. “Aztec Music and Culture.” The World of Music 49.2 (2007): 91-104. Print.
Expiation. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Web. Accessed 15 Nov. 2013. .
Graulich, Michel. “Human Sacrifice as Expiation.” History of Religions 39.4 (May 2000): 352-371. Print.
Joyce, Rosemary A. “Girling the Girl and Boying the Boy: The Production of Adulthood in Ancient Mesoamerica.” World Archaeology 31.3 (Feb. 2000): 473-483.
Walsh, Jane MacLaren. “Legend of the Crystal Skulls.” Archaeology 61.3 (May/Jun. 2008): 36-41. Print.

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