Monday, May 26, 2014

"Neighborhood has always mattered"

This is the title of a column in today's Boston Globe by Carlo Rotella. The column talks about how and why neighborhoods are important in today's cities, based partly on the author's experience and partly on Robert Sampson's book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. He also makes the point that neighborhoods are an urban universal, citing my work.

Neighborhoods clearly do matter, for many reasons. Whether you live in an idyllic tree-lined middle-class neighborhood in a U.S. city, or in a dirty and crowded shantytown slum in an African city, your neighborhood helps shape your experiences. It also contributes greatly to the nature and quality of your city.

Check out our current article,

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov and Bridgette Gilliland  (2014)  Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 7 (published online).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Monumental archaeology and social archaeology in ancient cities

House excavations at Izapa, University at Albany (from Wade 2014)
The journal Science just published a nice "Newsfocus" article about how archaeologists working on cities in Mesoamerica are focusing more on households these days and less on the big monuments. The article is:

House at Mayapan
Wade, Lizzie  (2014)  Beyond the Temples: Turning Their Backs on Spectacular Monuments, Archaeologists are Studying Ordinary Households to Uncover the Daily Rhythms of Long-Lost Cities. Science 344:684-686.

Wade talks about the ancient cities of Teotihuacan, Mayapan, and Izapa, quoting the leading archaeologists working at these sites about their research. I am quoted a couple of times, in reference to definitions and concepts of urbanism.

It is good to see non-monumental archaeology featured in such a prominent place. In some of my publications (e.g., Smith 2012) I've used the terms social archaeology and monumental archaeology for the  two major kinds of research on ancient cities and complex societies. Archaeologists following the monumental approach excavate pyramids, temples, palaces, and other elite-related contexts. Those of us who pursue social archaeology excavate houses, workshops, and agricultural fields, or we  map sites and make surface collections, all in order to reconstruct society from the bottom up. We want to learn about ancient households, their activities, their social conditions, and how these things changed through time.

Apartment compound at Teotihuacan
To really understand any ancient city, we need information from both the monumental and social archaeology approaches. But since the monumental approach has a history of several centuries, and social archaeology only goes back a few decades, the monumental side is far ahead of the social side. For this reason it is important for archaeologists to focus on households, neighborhoods, and social processes so that we can catch up with the results on temples, palaces, and tombs.

(( TECHNICAL INTERLUDE:  Although I like the phrase "social archaeology" to describe research on households and social processes (especially non-elite contexts), I tend to avoid using the term when talking to fellow archaeologists. Why? Because the phrase was hijacked by postmodern archaeologists who take a non-scientific approach to the past. They emphasize interpretation over explanation of the past; they focus on detailed studies of individual contexts with little comparison or generalization; and they would rather speculate about "meanings" in the past than test hypotheses about economic phenomena. This group founded a journal called "The Journal of Social Archaeology," and the term is now associated with an approach that I dislike greatly! ))

Here is one the many contrasts between monumental and social archaeology: the timing of the moment of archaeological discovery (this paragraph is taken from my new book, At Home with the Aztecs, currently in search of a publisher). In the monumental approach, the major finds come during fieldwork: things like the opening of a tomb or the discovery of a new hieroglyphic inscription. But when excavating the trash-heaps of ancient peasant farmers--as in the social approach--excitement rarely reveals itself in the field. The houses are similar and the middens all look pretty much the same. The important discoveries come later, in the laboratory stage of research, once we have washed, classified, analyzed, and quantified the artifacts.

Here is just one example, from my excavations of Aztec commoner houses. We identified a couple of whistles during excavation. One or two were whole, and the excavators cleaned out the dirt and started blowing the whistles. (Hear what one sounds like, on my Calixtlahuaca blog). But it wasn't until we had gone through thousands of big bags of potsherds that it became clear that just about every commoner household had one or more musical instruments: whistles, flutes, rattles, and small bells were the most common, with a few drums and trumpets here and there. It turns out that music was important in these homes, perhaps for domestic rituals, or perhaps for monthly public ceremonies. But if we hadn't screened all the dirt, and looked carefully at every single bag of sherds, we would have missed these musical instruments, mainly because most were broken fragments.
Flute pieces from commoner houses at an Aztec city (Yautepec)

The discovery of the prevalence of these objects in commoner houses was a real breakthrough that changed ideas about Aztec music, and about Aztec households. Music had been assumed to be an activity of priests and elites, and experts had initially scoffed at the idea that I had excavated lots of these things from commoner trash heaps. This discovery came not in the field, but in the lab, and only after several seasons of painstaking study of tiny fragmentary artifacts.

As someone who has dedicated my career to social archaeology (the scientific kind, not the postmodern kind!), it is great to see a nice write-up in the journal Science.

Aztec rock band (from Sahagun, Florentine Codex)
Note the two kinds of drum and two kinds of rattle in this Aztec band. The flute and trumpet players have evidently stepped out for a smoke.