Posted by: Johan Normark | June 29, 2009

Mesoamericanist quote of the day: on knowledge before language

“We can to some degree participate in some of the non-verbal knowledge of this kind that was held by the ancient people we study. Indeed, precisely because such knowledge is acquired non-verbally, we may…be at lesser disadvantage than we are in trying to infer discursive knowledge in the absence of texts.” (Cowgill 2004:276-277)

I have recently been reading some of the chapters I decided not to read in DeMarrais, Renfrew and Gosden’s edited volume “Rethinking Materiality: The Engagement of Mind with the Material World”  from 2004. One of these is the final chapter by George L. Cowgill. I admit that my own prejudice against generalizing Mesoamericanists/Mayanists was the reason why I did not read this chapter before. However, it turned out to coincide with ideas not dissimilar to my own. It is always positive when one have to rethink one’s own prejudices.

The great strength of archaeology, compared to other social sciences, is that it mainly deals with a material record. Many archaeologists see this as problematic; how can we know what people thought? Most Mesoamericanists rely on ethnographic data to fill in the blanks and since the blanks are many we tend to get a quite flawed picture of the past. Of course, epigraphic and iconographic data has given us important information, but there were so much going on in the past that were not discursive. I do therefore have a more optimistic view of archaeology. The lack of texts and linguistic data is not at all bad. The Swedish/Gothenburg anthropologist Göran Aijmer argues that this is where archaeology can make its greatest contribution. We can say very little of what people thought “consciously” in the past, but we can say much more of their non-linguistic knowledge, what he calls the iconic order. Aijmer relies on Wittgensteinian ideas and talk about an ontology of ontologies, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, we could rather use a flat ontology that is not based in social constructionism. A neo-materialist and neo-realist ontology is therefore one way for archaeology. If you look for that in archaeology you have come to the right blog.

Cowgill, G. L. (2004). Thoughts about rethinking materiality. In DeMarrais, E., C. Gosden och C. Renfrew (red). 2004. Rethinking Materiality: The Engagement of Mind with the Material World. 273-280. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research: Oxford.



  1. Great blog !
    We add it on our list !
    I personnally like the way you criticize hoax and new age publications.

  2. Thanks, I will add your site to my blogroll. I think I can manage the French (I have studied it for a year but it was perhaps fifteen years ago).


%d bloggers like this: