Posted by: Johan Normark | May 20, 2009

Mayanist quote(s) of the day: on the evaluation of the past and the present

Consider these two quotes found in Michael D. Coe’s fifth edition of The Maya (1993):

On the Postclassic architecture at Tulum: ”The principal temple, a miserable structure called the Castillo” (p. 159, my emphasis).

“The Lacandón appear to be pathetic survivors of a larger group” (p. 24-26, my emphasis).

Why does a prominent Mayanist give such evaluations? At least the older generation of contemporary Mayanists have a teleological view. Cultures are strung along discontinuous stages of orthogenic evolution where something evolve towards a better form that is defined in advance or degenerates from it. In these quotes, the Postclassic Maya and the contemporary Lacandon have degenerated from the Classic peak. The periodization utilized by Mayanists is therefore the most obvious manifestation of this teleological view. In the earlier phases of Maya research, “the ancient Maya culture” was seen as Mesoamerica’s classical Greek period and its “florescence” was labelled “Classic” after the pattern in classical Greek and Roman archaeology. This period was then used to label the preceding period “Preclassic” or “Formative” (which I prefer) and the succeeding period “Postclassic”. It is from the “Classic” period that everything else is measured. Art, architecture and achievements are valued and given less scientific and nineteenth-century-style criteria, such as “marvellous”, “greatest king” and “florescence”. Thus, there is less appreciation of the Postclassic, colonial or contemporary groups.

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