Posted by: Johan Normark | May 29, 2012

Water weakening Earth’s plates

My “water project” keeps on expanding. I had planned to set the global climate system and the oceans as the largest scales where water affects other objects (as being part of the hydrological cycle). Looks like I now need to include a vertical subsurface affect as well. A new study suggests “that water on the surface may also help Earth balance its thermal budget, — by slightly weakening the Earth’s rocky plates and making them more readily churned and recycled in a vigorous, sustainable convective stew.”

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 27, 2012

2012: Osmanagic and public archaeology

You may remember that the Bosnian pyramid inventor Semir Osmanagic was invited to speak at a Swedish university a while ago. The reactions following this invitation caused some critical comments in the blogosphere. What you may not know is that this led to a forum discussion in issue # 2 of AP: Online Journal in Public Archaeology. My contribution can be found on pages 35-37.

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 23, 2012

Trade and the Maya collapse

Debates regarding the Maya collapse never end and in recent years various versions of the “drought” hypothesis have dominated (I tend to criticize them on various grounds). A new study on the distribution of obsidian at Classic and Postclassic sites has brought back an old collapse scenario to life. Changing trade networks led to the collapse in this study. Some details are new but not the idea itself.  Read more about it in Antiquity. I guess the debate will continue.

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 22, 2012

The extirpation of idolatry in Colonial Yucatan

The extirpation of idolatry (idolatria) in the Maya area is a sad history of religious intolerance. During Colonial times idolatria meant “the adoration or cult that gentiles give to creatures or statues of their false gods” (p 149). From the earliest days of Christianity, idolatry became linked with superstition which was seen as a confession of unbelief by external worship.

The Spanish crown argued that the higher posts in the ecclesiastical hierarchy should be held by those clerics who were well educated, served in cathedrals or had extirpated idolatry. However, it was a futile endeavor that never succeeded because the Spaniards misunderstood what the Maya did with their “idols”. They did not “worship” them but more on the problematic use of Christian terminology in describing Maya ritual activities in a later post. Hence I use “” around terms like deity, god, religion, etc. to show their problematic uses.

In this post I will describe the historical sources to our knowledge about these activities. These are the dossiers or relaciónes de méritos that the priests and friars or an agent of them brought to Spain to show their merits. Some historians have argued that these are dubious sources as torture may have been used to make people confess. Chuchiak downplay the use of torture being used in the confessions because the local parish priest relied on local scribes and the Spaniard was quite isolated, or as one of them said “I am a lone island of Spanish civilization amongst a furious sea of idolatrous natives” (p 147).

Clendinnen and Tedlock argue that the clergy over-reported the cases of idolatry because this would look good to Spanish administrators. Chuchiak argues the opposite because the clergy had much to lose if people reported that widespread idolatry persisted. They could be removed from their office for failing. Sometimes even the clergy was blamed for being the cause of the idolatry. In fact, bishops and governors broke up large parishes where reports on idolatry persisted. Hence, the local priests would lose part of their annual revenue if idolatry persisted.

The Catholic clergy did not deny the powers of the idols but they attributed them to the devil. The term cizin (“devil”) came to stand for all Prehispanic “deities”, “religious” images and rituals. However, for the Maya their “gods” were both benevolent and malevolent. They changed their minds and the Maya propitiated them with gifts and sacrifices. Since these images were not important for their “worship”, the clerics broadened the definition of idolatry to include everything that was different from Spanish Christian society.

The campaigns against idolatry have been subdivided into three periods. The first is the period of the iconoclast bishops that began with de Landa (1572-1636). The second period, the “Era of the Zealous Juez Provisor”, ran from 1636 to 1714. These chief judges of the episcopal court called the Provisorato de Indios led the campaigns. The third era (1716-1827) is called “Era of Clerical Disillusionment”. During this time the clergy lost the hope of converting the Maya. They rather focused on idolatry among mestizo, mulatto and Spaniards. The clerics became more and more negative towards the Maya and after 1812 when the Maya were freed from tribute the clerics became hostile. The parish priests disappeared and they delegated the responsibilities to vicarios. Hence, idolatry became more and more. In fact, of the 399 known idolatry cases 347 or 87% did not involve worship of idols or images.

Chuchiak IV, John F. (2002). Toward a regional definition of idolatry: Reexamining idolatry trials in the “Relaciónes de méritos” and their role in defining the concept of “idolatria” in Colonial Yucatán, 1570-1780. Journal of Early Modern History, 6(2):140-167

Diego de Landa

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 14, 2012

2012: New Age reactions to the Xultun discovery

On Friday 11 May, John Major Jenkins (JMJ) wrote this on Facebook in response to the Xultun discovery:

“Good news of new inscriptions. But scholars are using it to dismiss 2012. They are doing that by saying that it’s not about doomsday. DUH. Maya time is cyclic and goes on beyond 2012 — DUH. But then what about 2012? How did the ancient Maya think about it? What about the astronomy at Izapa and in Tortuguero Monument 6? Nothing said. Professional Maya scholars are far behind the curve of investigating the evidence for how the ancient did think about 2012. They are fixated on reacting to the silly doomsday meme in the marketplace, and in so doing they are forgetting to do their jobs.”

This is a typical response from one of the leading New Agers in the 2012-circus (although he claims he is not a New Ager…). First of all, JMJ has a personal grudge against pretty much anyone who disagrees with his ideas and points out problems with them (he sees academics as gatekeepers of knowledge). Two of the authors of the Science article, David Stuart and Anthony Aveni, have criticized him before. Now, JMJ believes they are using the Xultun discovery to dismiss 2012. He has clearly not read the article where there is no mention of this at all. JMJ cannot separate what interest media from scholarly interests. The authors of the article simply answer the questions being asked by journalists.

I am not sure if JMJ directs the second “DUH” (about Maya time being cyclic and going on beyond 2012) to scholars or to what he believes is “common knowledge”. What the new data from Xultun informs us about is that there is no end of a 13 baktun cycle (as believed by JMJ). Some Maya calendars are cyclical but the Long Count is primarily cumulative.

And why would these scholars mention Izapa and Tortuguero in this context? JMJ seems to believe all calendar stuff and archeoastronomical data must be about  or relate to his galactic alignment idea. It is all about him and he continues to spread disinformation by claiming that scholars are “fixated on reacting to the silly doomsday meme in the marketplace, and in so doing they are forgetting to do their jobs”. Saturno and others have done their job very well by making a contribution that will stand the test of time. It is always amusing when an amateur tells professionals how to do their jobs.

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 14, 2012

Quote of the day: spiny hedgehogs

My son Simon is in today’s Göteborgsposten (p 7), one of Sweden’s largest newspapers (only in the paper version as far as I can tell). We went to a family day at the city museum of Gothenburg. The theme of the day was “cultivate now”, to get people more interested in growing plants. My son began to paint a “house” for hedgehogs in black paint which will be set out in Slottsskogen, the city park. His mother told the journalist that he likes black paint and hedgehogs. My son added “Yes, even if they are spiny”. The journalist got his last name wrong, they used his mother’s name instead of mine.

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 11, 2012

2012: The Xultun discovery in Swedish news

I had planned something else for this post, since it is #666, but I changed my mind this morning when I saw a 56 seconds long clip on the Rapport news on SVT (Swedish television) concerning the discovery of the astronomical tables at Xultun that I mentioned in my previous post. Vetenskapsradion, on the Swedish Radio, wanted me to check the Science article a couple of days ago before they reported on it today. I wish SVT had done the same thing because this short clip is full of disinformation. It is in Swedish (apart from some snapshots of William Saturno) so I will just mention the faults and correct them for any Swedish reader (you may not be able to see the clip abroad as well). For a more correct view of the contents, check this video on National Geographic.

The reporter claims the astronomical tables and their associated calendar information is/are similar to the “one that some people interpret as saying that the world will end in December this year”. Well, this is the main reason why there is a media hype surrounding this discovery. People make a connection to 2012 even if there is none. The columns relating to the moon do include the three lowest periods of the Long Count but these are not related to the “end” in 2012. The only “similarity” is that the periods of “moons” being referred to here is around 13 years long and number 13 is important in the Maya Long Count (the supposed “end” date is 13 Baktun). The other columns that begin with a tzolkin date are followed by Distance Numbers that in at least one case is longer than the assumed 13 Baktun “cycle”. This is why there is evidence that the Classic period Maya did not see any end in 2012, but that is only an indirect piece of information.

The reporter says that this discovery (at Xultun) is a proof that the Maya astronomers “prophesized” that 2012 would be the beginning of a new cycle. No, this contradicts what Saturno says. He says that the Maya believed in an infinity that they were tracking with the movements of the planets and stars. Sure, infinity may be cyclical but the Distance Numbers found at Xultun (and other sites) suggests there is no cyclical repetition of the Long Count.

How the Maya could be so good astronomers back then remains a secret according to the reporter. No, it is no secret at all. They simply used naked-eye astronomy but observed the sky for long periods. This is no mystery at all.

At the end of the clip the reporter says that the Maya “kingdom” (there were dozens of kingdoms) mysteriously went extinct 1000 years ago. How come the last independent Maya kingdom was conquered in 1697 then?

When there are so many major misunderstandings in less than one minute one wonders how good background check the same reporter(s) do with issues that I know nothing about…

And here it is, my celebration of reaching 666 blog posts:

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 10, 2012

Classic period astronomical tables

Most of the archaeoastronomical information from the Maya area concerning the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets like Venus, Mars and Mercury has been found in the Postclassic codices. In the recent issue of Science, Saturno, Stuart, Aveni and Rossi report on early 9th century wall paintings from the site of Xultun that includes numerical tables and a series of long numbers that appears to work in the same way as the astronomical tables found in the later codices.

Many bar-and-dot numbers are arranged in vertical columns. These contain no more than three numerals. On top of at least five columns there are “Moon” glyphs that are combined with the facial profiles of deities. Similar glyphs are used to record Moon ages in the Lunar Series. The authors argue that the numbers represent elapsed days as they were recorded in the Long Count (tun, winal and kin). The span between two columns is almost a lunar “semester” of 177 or 178 days (29,5 days x 6). These numbers are important in Maya archaeoastronomy since the eclipse tables in the Dresden Codex use the same intervals. They are not correlated to precise eclipse phenomena. It makes up a tally that spans a period of roughly 13 years (4784 days to be precise).

There is another array of four columns in red colors. Here each column begins with a tzolkin day station. Below them are five numbers but they are not Long Count dates but are believed to be Distance Numbers with a duration between 935 and 6703 years. The intervals of the columns do not link the different tzolkin day stations and this indicates that the each column is self-contained. These four intervals have one common divisor and that is 56,940 days which is a multiple of the Calendar Round (3 x 18980 days) and the canonic Mars period (73 x 780 days). The authors believe the wall paintings may have been copied from Late Classic codices. The significance of this discovery is that we now have the first evidence of Classic period astronomical tables similar to the ones in the 4-6 centuries later codices.

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, Anthony F. Aveni, and  Franco Rossi (2012). Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala. Science, Vol. 336, 714-717.

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 10, 2012

2012: Julia-Levy and the Mexican law

Readers of this blog may recall that I have written about an upcoming documentary that supposedly will show that the Maya were visited by aliens. The producer behind this documentary, the Mexican soap opera actor Raul Julia-Levy, is in the pseudo-news again. It now seems that the documentary may not be finished (unless this is part of Julia-Levy’s attempt to create a hype for his product…).

Anyway, The Wrap, says that the executive producer, Elisabeth Thieriot, has fled Mexico with two dozen hard drives and ten computer towers that contain footage for the documentary. She filmed without a valid permit on federal ground (such as at Calakmul and Jaina). Apparently three other people have also been accused of stealing footage and equipment. The Wrap article also mentions that Julia-Levy may actually be an imposter by the name of Salvador Fuentes… What a mess. On Twitter, Julia-Levy addressed Thieriot  two days ago with these words: “Serpent you can run, but you can’t hide from the law, I’m coming after you and the rest!”

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 9, 2012

The Maya world of communicating objects

Tonight I will begin to read Miguel Angel Astor-Aguilera’s book The Maya World of Communicating Objects: Quadripartite Crosses, Trees, and Stones (2011). Miguel is an anthropologist and he has worked in the ejido of X-Cabil in the Cochuah region, half-way between Saban and Tihosuco. This will hopefully be my final book to read for my cave and climate change project. It also appears to provide a nice transition to my water project. The book description has this to say about the product:

“Although anthropologists have been observing and analyzing the religious practices of Mayan people for about a hundred years, this perceptive study suggests that anthropological interpretation of those practices and of Maya cosmology has never escaped the epistemological influence of Christianity. Whereas sacred objects used in Christian rituals are treated with deifying awe, objects such as Mayan crosses can be recycled, bartered with, communicated with, manipulated, disregarded, or destroyed the apparent equivalent of extorting or defacing a holy image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Astor-Aguilera holds that we cannot fully understand these indigenous practices by fitting them to our European Cartesian mindset but must instead recognize and try to understand native Mayan epistemology. The binary based western concept of religion, he suggests, is not the best framework for understanding experiential Mayan cosmology or practice. Using ethnographic, archaeological, and glyphic evidence, he traces modern Mayan attitudes toward ritually charged objects and imagery back to the Classic Maya. No scholar of Mesoamerican religion, archaeology, or history can afford to overlook this long overdue approach to a widely misunderstood subject.”

One of the “case studies” in my water as an archaeological object project deals with artifacts either produced by the help of water or produced to deal with water in one way or another. Ceramic vessels are first modeled when the clay is wet but later in the process water needs to be removed by intense heat for the vessel to become a solid container for other liquids. At this stage the vessel enters other objects/assemblages of larger scales but shorter duration than the vessel itself. Liquid water was used in a short-term ritual event or feasting whereas an ancient ceramic vessel is still around. With a ceramic vessel water could be deterritorialized from larger bodies of water or be captured from rain and be reterritorialized at another location and with another object, such as young Maya men as discussed by Stephen Houston in a recent post.

In this post Steve refers to a three year old article where he suggested that  “pots with such labels could have been bestowed in the setting of age-grade rituals or promotions, a recognition of feasting and expensive drinks as markers of adult status, even trophies and material honours while in page service, ballplay or war” (Houston 2009:166). A vessel from Uaxactun contains a glyphic passage that names the drinking vessel (yuk’ib), the expression ti yax ch’ahb, “for the first fast/penance(?).” This is followed by the name of the owner, which is a ch’ok or “youth.” The vessel was apparently intended for an age-grade ritual. Steve is assured that “most such vessels marked and materialized shifts of status: a liquid passage from boyhood to the obligations of elite men.”

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 4, 2012

Brief update

In case you wonder why there are so few blog posts these days it has to do with the fact that I have only 1,5 month left of work before my vacation. I have to finish a multitude of articles (nine or ten I think it is!) and work on two books. So my work primarily consists of editing, editing, editing… Not much new input from reading that might be of interest to readers of this blog. I expect there will be around one blog post a week until my vacation.

Posted by: Johan Normark | April 29, 2012

Walpurgis night

Tomorrow it is Walpurgis night here in Sweden (Valborgsmässoafton or simply Valborg). The weather forescast predicts good weather so my prediction is that we will have plenty of drunk people welcoming the spring around bonfires. This is also the time when the students’ choirs sing “Längtan till landet” (better known as “Vintern rasat ut”). Valborg is not complete without hearing this song. And I have very little to blog about right now…

Posted by: Johan Normark | April 25, 2012

Rivers run deep, high, and wild

Last week I read Matt Edgeworth’s book on the archaeology of rivers. It is a short book but it contains plenty of interesting examples for my own study on water as an archaeological object. I will describe three of these examples. For Edgeworth “most rivers are neither natural nor cultural, but rather entanglements of both” (p 15). He calls rivers “wild artefacts” since their form cannot be controlled. Water management implies a manipulation of the water source.  

The first example I choose to describe from Edgeworth’s book is a classic study by Leopold and Wolman. They studied small rivers in Maryland and Pennsylvania and this resulted in the creation of a standard type of natural watercourse, supposedly unaffected by human modification. It later turned out that the channels had been modified by colonial period mill dams. Sediment accumulated behind the mill dams and below these sediments Walter and Merritts found evidence of another kind of river with multiple branching channels. The new study showed that the modern, incised, meandering form was the result of human utilization of streams for power.

Another of Edgeworth’s examples deals with the levees of the Yellow River in China. Levees are parallel to the direction of the current and they channel water. When the Yellow River floods it deposits sediments that build it upwards. When the river rises above the surrounding floodplain people needs to raise the levees, etc. At some places the river runs up to ten m above the surrounding terrain. In 1861 the river escaped the channel and six years later it flowed into the sea, 500 miles north of the old mouth. 26 major changes in the course of the river are known from the past 3000 years. The river has also been used in warfare. In 1938 the Chinese forces cut a gap in a levee so that the river swept away advancing Japanese forces. This had long-term negative effects as hundreds of thousands of local people drowned. Not until 1946 could the river be returned to its former course.

The third example concerns the infamous “Vildhussen” (Magnus Huss) in Sweden. In 1794 Huss began to excavate a canal through a dam of glacial material located in the eastern end of Lake Ragunda. This was done in order to bypass the Storforsen rapids in River Indal (Indalsälven) which was disastrous for transporting logs. This new canal would make it easier to move logs. However, in 1796, the spring floods breached the dam. Storforsen was transformed into Döda fallet (The dead waterfall). Upstream the drained Lake Ragunda was transformed into a fertile plain. Downstream huge amounts of sediment re-deposited on the Indal delta and formed the island where Midlanda airport is located. When I was still in the military service I was supposed to be stationed at Midlanda airport in case of war (I was part of an air defense unit). At that time I had no idea that Midlanda island was the result of Vildhussen’s hyss (mischief).

Edgeworth, Matt (2011). Fluid Pasts: Archaeology of Flow. Bristol Classical Press.

Posted by: Johan Normark | April 19, 2012

Giant dinosaur eggs…?

I read in the news that geologists in Chechnya believe they have found more than 40 giant dinosaur eggs. The largest is said to be one m long but there are examples that are 25 cm long as well (which is roughly the size of the largest known dinosaur eggs). I doubt that these are dinosaur eggs for several reasons. First of all the eggs would have been very thick in order not to collapse from their own weight. Second of all, if they were eggs from the same species, the eggs would be of fairly similar size, not vary this much. Third of all, from what I can see in the video below the eggs are also found vertically in the stratigraphy whereas a dinosaur nest would have been horizontal (unless there has been som folding going on, which I doubt). Finally, the best evidence that these are not eggs is found 20 seconds into the clip. There you see three “eggs” being stuck to each others like siamese triplets… The “geologists” seem to have some security problems (just look how close that falling piece of rock is to the man 14 seconds into the clip). In any case, the “eggs” seems to be some sort of concretions.

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