Posted by: Johan Normark | November 5, 2010

Water and Earth

The fourth level of my five “plateaus” of water as archaeological material focuses on waters which from a terrestrial perspective divides land masses. There are vertical and horizontal divisions. The vertical deals with the land masses that separate surface water from groundwater and the aquifer. Cenotes (sinkholes) and caves became important dividers and transporters of water flows, as did the later Colonial wells. These features also facilitated communication with the deities in the watery Underworld. The Spaniards’ total program of reducción overcoded the assemblage formed between water, the cenotes/caves and the rain gods of the Underworld (Hanks 2010). Overcoding means that they imposed a new meaning on these features. They did this by constructing water sources (wells) other than the cenote. They Christianized water sources, gave wells the names of saints. Thus, the new wells were given Christian names and Christian identity (Forrest 1997). These acts opened up new vertical connections but closed other ones as the result of the Spanish Empire’s striations.

Horizontal divisions are, for example, the oceans. Within the socio-technological diagram that emerged during the Terminal Classic, we see a change from riverine and terrestrial transports towards maritime trade, particularly during the Postclassic (Guderjan and Garber 1995). The sea was no longer just the “Royal sea” where exotics such as stingray spines were collected and brought inland as part of royal symbolism and rituals (Maxwell 2000). The sea opened up with new networks and assemblages. The Postclassic Maya became more “international.” This change coincides in time with the “Maya collapse” and it is by some seen as one reason for why the Classic period States “collapsed” (McAnany and Yoffee 2010). However, the Maya seafarers did not venture too far offshore. Hence, the vast oceans had the capacity to isolate populations, such as the Prehispanic Americas. This had disastrous effects when the Spaniards arrived and roughly 90% of the Amerindian population died because they lacked immunity against Old World diseases. Water (the Atlantic Ocean) had the dual potential to be an untraversable void for the Maya but also the eventual mediator of disease and conquistadors emerging from another socio-technological diagram. 

Processes of horizontal and vertical “fissuring” between Earth and water have formed assemblages and their expressions in the Yucatecan landscape. Settlements within and outside the Chicxulub fracture zone, the remains of the meteorite impact that 65 million years ago contributed to the extinction of the Late Cretaceous fauna, differ. This horizontally spread fracture zone has given rise to many vertical cenotes that affected where people settled, particularly during the Colonial period when the Spanish boundary coincided with this fracture zone (Normark 2008, 2009).

Both vertical and horizontal divisions of land and water were affected by the Spanish conquest and the integration into a new socio-technological diagram that intensified the use of water and hence created assemblages that became more dependent on vertical water sources (Normark 2008, 2009). This process will be mapped through the changing relations between land and water from the Terminal Classic to the early Colonial period.

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