Posted by: Johan Normark | August 3, 2012

Brief update

I am just back from a 6,5 weeks long vacation in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. That is the only reason why I have not posted anything during this period. I have only moderated the comments on the blog but I have not found time and energy to respond to them. On one occasion I did not have proper internet access for two weeks (in case you are one of the commentators). Next two weeks are busy as well so there will probably not be much activity on this blog until the end of August.

Posted by: Johan Normark | June 18, 2012

2012: The cosmological trap

If there is some connection between academic Mayanist research and the New Age/pseudoscientific field that Hoopes calls “Mayanism” it is within the “cosmological field”. An academic would claim that Maya cosmology is a cultural or social construct, etc. A New Ager, like Jenkins, sees Maya cosmology as revealing some sort of truth, ancient wisdom, and file it under “perennial philosophy”, etc. I usually do not agree with any of these positions as they simply are mirror images of each other. New Agers undermine objects. Graham Harman describes undermining as a form of reductionism. It destroys objects in favor of something more fundamental, something spiritual that is more “true” or “real” than simple objects. Academic Mayanists more often overmines the object where it becomes a nickname for social or cultural relations. Neither approach really care about the objects themselves which actually interests me (and please do not make the mistake of labeling me “materialist” because of this since even an idea is an object). If we skip the object-oriented ontologies discussing these issues, how are objects treated among the Yucatec Maya today? Can we learn something from them (the ethnographic analogy problem set a side for this post)?

The part of Mayanist academia that focuses on cosmological issues has unfortunately been influenced by Eliade’s ideas, ideas that straddle the border to ideas prevalent in New Age literature. A good example here is “Maya Cosmos” from 1993, a book that has influenced Jenkins. In Mayanist and New Age literature alike Maya artefacts, buildings, places and calendars are described as divine, holy and sacred (from different perspectives I must add). Eliade set up a binary distinction between sacred and profane. However, the contemporary Maya make no such binary distinction. Their emphasis on location has to do with ritually quadripartioning everything. Yucatec words like kich, k’ul and k’uyen are glossed as sacred but actually mean “something good, of good character, pleasant, and well-behaved in humility and personality” (p 21). K’uyen refers to humans, objects and processions and is associated with the movement of the sun after passing zenith.

Eliade upheld an “incredible fixation on what he called sacred space, sacred time, sacred symbols, sacred myths, sacred this and sacred that, whereupon, according to him, all human actions concentrate on seeking divine hierophantic manifestations” (p 7). The baggage of Eliade’s armchair research and connection to fascist ideology is something one also should confront. Eliade’s “shamanism” is therefore seriously flawed. The Maya did not have any supernatural portals that corresponds to Eliade’s axial “doors of the gods”. In his model, shamans in an altered state of ecstasy master and control spirits through the cosmic portal that Eliade calls axis mundi. This view has been filtered through into Jenkins’s “galactic alignment” theory where Eliadean ideas remain strong. Given Jenkins’s aggressive attitude towards people disagreeing with him and demands that other people should be censored, we can sense how this particular form of Deleuzean microfascism works. Jenkins wants to be the only dictator in his own narrow territory. This may be the reason why Jenkins has misunderstood most of what “Maya cosmology” is about.

Contemporary ritual specialists communicate with non-corporeal persons by tethering them to objects. Astor-Aguilera describes a contemporary ritual in the Cochuah region in which pigs are sacrificed. The heads of the pigs are indexes of the sun, moon and Venus. During this ritual the sun person is brought down to earth whereas its physical part remains overhead.

The smashing of pottery or termination of buildings in the past were most likely the untethering of incorporeal persons. Some nonhumans are stronger and have better skills than others so for this reason it is no problem in discarding or breaking communicating objects that one seeks to disassociate oneself from. Thus, buildings, caves and perhaps even sites and timeperiods were “untethered” this way.

When Jenkins claims that December 21, 2012 involves transition to a new era, transformation and renewal, this is nothing new at all. Contemporary Maya do this all the time. Objects are transformed and are being renewed through the tethering of incorporeal persons. Transitions to new eras/periods occurred and still occur. When Jenkins claims that the transition demanded a sacrifice of a “deity”, what the Maya probably meant was the untethering of a incorporeal person (Bolon Yookte’ K’uh). Remember that the “deity” is said to descend. I suspect the people of Tortuguero expected Bolon Yookte’ K’uh to become tethered to an object (statue or human impersonator?) and perhaps sacrificed/untethered at some later point, perhaps during the same ritual. There is nothing particularly sacred or important with this event that make it different from the baktun ending in AD 830 (apart from the additional effects from centuries of Colonialism, capitalism, etc). Same, same but different. Jenkins is trapped in cosmology and cannot escape. He will not even chew his leg off.

Astor-Aguilera, Miguel Angel (2010). The Maya World of Communicating Objects: Quadripartite Crosses, Trees, and Stones. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque.

Posted by: Johan Normark | June 12, 2012

2012: It began with Columbus

2012 expert John Hoopes talks about the origins of the 2012-phenomenon and Mayanism in general. Misconceptions regarding the Maya and other Amerindian people goes back to none other than Columbus himself. Hoopes has written an article about this as well and I will cover it during the fall.

Posted by: Johan Normark | June 11, 2012

The 819-day count at Xultun

Barbara MacLeod and Hutch Kinsman have made an analysis of the tables found at Xultun and they have discovered that it is evenly divisable by 819 (7x9x13). Check it out here.

Posted by: Johan Normark | June 4, 2012

2012: Calleman on the transit of Venus

Since the end of the Callemanian calendar and the supposed transformation of consciousness that occurred on October 28 last year, Calleman continues to explain away his failed prophecy by claiming that extraordinary things happened anyway. He says that “the Ninth wave, and the energy opening that was created when all nine waves were in the day mode last year, has made an indelible impression on humanity, and after some time of reflection new avenues to move forward will be sought by people more broadly. Thus, the 9th Wave continues to grind unity consciousness into existence…” Indelible impression on humanity? Really?

In hindsight, he claims that “we have no reason to expect that any shift in consciousness will take place automatically on a global scale just because there is a special date”. One wonders how that even remotely fits his own ideas of quantum leaps that occur at an instant moment? It does not work at all and instead of admitting  that he has been wrong the whole time he accuses the ”December 21 2012ers” for making statements “without any foundation whatsoever except for the dreams of those pronouncing them. Thus, by themselves both the Venus Transit and the Winter Solstice are like Y2K dates without any inherent energetic meaning and I think it is just as superstitious to associate them with some automatic birth of a new world as the end of the world, which is the big media favorite.” Yes, Calleman is probably unhappy that his made up end date did not become a great media hype. He should have set his end date two tzolkins later and he could have continued the “transformation of consciousness” circus a little bit longer than the galactic alignment people.

Still Calleman believes that the transit of Venus on June 6 and this year’s winter solstice are of importance because both involve the sun as a common denominator.  He asks “if this is more than a coincidence that the Mesoamerican traditions have been talking about the arrival of a new Sun. Maybe then, even if nothing will happen automatically, we may be able to intentionally bring about a shift in consciousness with one event leading up to the other. This raises the question what kind of shift would really generate an opening to a future that we would like to have.” Since the winter solstice occurs every year (along with the summer solstice and the equinoxes), only the Venus transit is unusual this Gregorian year. So, apparently “one more” sun related event is enough to see a connection to the “arrival of a new Sun”. Someone is grasping at straws here. However, Calleman once argued that because the transit occurs on June 6, on the National day of Sweden, Sweden has an important role to play in the transformation of consciousness.

Calleman claims that people have been led to believe that the shift in consciousness will happen automatically. By whom I wonder? Calleman has himself led people to believe this with his quantum leaps and waves. Is he talking about himself? Anyway, now Calleman proposes that “the shift in consciousness on the Venus Transit and the Winter Solstice of 2012 we should bring is to shift the center of our world from being the nation to being the sun. This can be done by establishing a connection of our third eye, which is our own center, with the sun and would truly be a shift in consciousness.” Oh, it was that easy? Why did we not think of that before?

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 31, 2012

The divine inexistence vs living with the ancestors

I have been struggling with how to combine realist ontologies from the continental philosophical tradition with that of the Maya. That is not an easy task as the ontology/ontologies of the Maya (ancient and contemporary) tend to be seen as “social constructions” of some non-specified reality “out there”. However, the problem is even greater than that. The continental philosophical tradition is “Eurocentric” as well and one can easily find problems and issues that these ontologies focuses on that is of little to no relevance outside this “cultural sphere”. What anthropologists often uncover in “non-Western” collectives are different ontologies that of course can be described as various sensual profiles of real objects but I believe the problem is deeper than that.

On occasion I have made use of the anthropologist Göran Aijmer’s “ontology of ontologies” where he outlines at least three different coexisting ontological orders (realist, discursive and iconic). Aijmer created these different orders to describe different modes of existence. For example, someone carves a temple mask (an activity that can be described by metric information if needed). What the carver believe is being carved (the discursive order) is different from the reproduction of non-linguistic “messages” manifested in the mask (the iconic order). However, Aijmer has created this ontology of ontologies from readings of Wittgenstein and his language games. The attempt to describe different modes of existence has also been proposed by Etienne Souriau which is outlined by Latour in The Speculative Turn. I will discuss that alternative approach in another post. In this post I want to emphasize how a “Eurocentric” ontology may be problematic to combine with a Maya ontology, if we want to maintain a flat ontology.

Today I was reading Graham Harman’s summary of Quentin Meillassoux’s English articles in his book about this philosopher. The article Spectral Dilemma is sort of an appetizer for Meillassoux’s unpublished book The Divine Inexistence (which also is summarized in Harman’s book). A specter/phantasm is someone who has died unjustifiably and therefore has not been properly mourned. There are paths of despair for both the theist and the atheist that create these specters. The spectral dilemma is that if there is a God, why did he/she let it happen and if there is no God there is no redemption for the victim of injustice. In order to solve this dilemma, the thesis of the divine inexistence is needed. What Meillassoux shows is that both theism and atheism claims to exhaust the field of possibilities. This is wrong because both believe that their position is true, they also commit themselves to the idea that this truth is a necessity. For an atheist it not only a necessity for God not to exist but also that he cannot exist. To the theist God’s existence is of course a necessity. Instead of this dilemma Meillassoux launches the idea of a virtual God, currently inexistent, contingent and unmasterable. God may exist in the future (this conclusion follows several lines of thought which I do not have time to cover here, but I will). Let’s just hope someone does not believe this God emerges on December 21, 2012 in the form of Bolon Yokte K’uh.

Even though I find Meillassoux’s ideas intriguing I see this spectral dilemma as something of relevance in a “Western” theistic/atheistic tradition. It is completely irrelevant to contemporary Yucatec Maya (and perhaps to other contemporary and ancient Maya as well). Despite centuries of Christian influence, the Maya have “stubbornly” maintained a very different ontology. To use Aijmer’s terms, the iconic order has remained fairly intact as non-human objects are crucial ingredients in this order. The discursive order has changed.

To the Maya a person never dies (and I wonder if they ever are born?). As Astor-Aguilera writes, the body (human body, pot or building) is simply a container for non-corporeal persons that are tethered to this container for as long as the container is usable. It can be discarded through what we call biological death, smashing of pottery or a termination ritual. To the Maya there are no gods, divinities, etc., these are Christian overcodings. Only non-corporeal persons/ancestors exist and they are tethered into various objects and phenomena but these ancestors do not live in a separate realm. They are within earth, on earth and in the sky and the trees link these non-discrete realms. They are still communicating after the “death” of the object. The Maya both undermine and overmine objects, which exactly is what materialism does according to Harman. In any case, the theistic/atheistic spectral dilemma is no dilemma for the Maya. The Maya are simply living with their ancestors.

Astor-Aguilera, Miguel Angel (2010). The Maya World of Communicating Objects: Quadripartite Crosses, Trees, and Stones. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque

Harman, Graham (2011). Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.

For a long time I have planned to post something about the results from Rathje’s Garbage Project and since he passed away last week I decided to write a blog post now.

The Garbage Project distinguished between different types of waste. Trash refers to dry things like paper and cans. Garbage is wet waste like leftovers. Refuse is both wet and dry. Rubbish is a collective term for all refuse and construction debris. The distinction between wet and dry dates back to the days when wet waste was given to pigs, but today the difference lacks importance.

The project focused on contemporary landfills and fresh garbage that came directly from households. There were two reasons behind the landfill excavations: to see if the fresh garbage taken out of garbage trucks could also be evaluated from landfills, and to see what happens with the garbage formation.

The excavations showed that the items people think are the baddies in the mountains of waste, such as plastic bottles, diapers and fast food packaging, really are not there. Although the number of plastic items has increased in the garbage, the total volume or weight has not increased since plastic bottles have become lighter. Paper products had become a major problem since phone books were important components of the landfills (at least in the late 1980s, probably not anymore). At that point in time computerization had not led to reduced use of paper, on the contrary. Anyone could print out loads of paper. I guess the situation is similar today although phone books have reduced in quantity.

Contrary to what we may think the organic material does not deteriorate inside the landfills, it is mummified. Even inside two thousand year old landfills in Rome the trash has not been completely deteriorated.

Rathje, W. L. & Murphy, C. 1992. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. New York.

Posted by: Johan Normark | May 29, 2012

RIP William Rathje

One of the most influential archaeologists and Mayanists has passed away. William Rathje (1945-2012) began as a Mayanist and later in his life he initiated what has been known as garbology, the archaeological study of contemporary garbage. If you can get hold on Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (1992), read it and your view of garbage will never be the same again. I have discussed some of Rathje’s later ideas regarding the Maya in one of my earlier blog posts. Rathje was also an early proponent for trade being an important factor in the history of the Maya region, ideas that still are valid as seen in a recent article on the Maya collapse. I met him when he visited the University of Gothenburg 6-7 years ago and he even attended the now dormant Microarchaeological seminars where I gave a talk about my “brand” of archaeology.

Update. Michael Shanks writes about Rathje on one of his blogs.

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:

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