In the Ancient Americas book I read the Introduction by Richard Townsend, the chapter “Pre-Colombian Images of Time” by Anthony F. Aveni, “Interpreting the Nazca Lines” by Johan Reinhard and “Inca Architecture and the Sacred Landscapes“ by Susan A. Niles. I picked chapters based on my interests from the Introduction on physical depictions of time, having just learned about the sun tunnels of Nancy Holt, the Nazca lines, which have always fascinated me, and Incan sacred geography. I also read the analysis of modern Catholic rituals in Mesoamerica that continue through page 67, since it caught my eye. Townsend presents an idea in the introduction of “sacred geography,” or a path of inquiry for Westerners to understand the topographical/spiritual relationship that so dominates the ancient American landscape and culture. European inquiries into the true meaning of ancient American culture were harbored for centuries by prejudice, the destructive nature of colonialism, and inconsistent archeological approaches. However, “sacred geography” is the most complete method for interpreting ancient American manipulation of land forms.
The most interesting part of “Pre-Colombian Images of Time” was discussion of the tonalpolhualli, or the twenty day calendar. This was the first time I had ever heard that the 260 day moon cycle is the same length as human gestation, and corresponds to the harvest cycle, or the ways in which the twenty day month can be reinterpreted to function as our 365 day calendar. Similar to the Catholic calender I grew up with, multiple calendars function at once: one earthly, one ritual. The ancient Americans had an additional level of a year that cycled only for the gods. When these days corresponded, earthly and spiritual words could mix through the binding of days. Professor Guiterrez described the Spanish-native American contact on one of these days as the single most bizarre event in human history. These were two cultures who understood themselves to have established all knowledge of heaven and earth, and their discovery of the existence of each other upended their entire lives.
The idea of “sacred geography” is seen in the unusual arrangements of the highly predesigned form of the Roman Catholic church. The book describes a church in Mexico whose geography does not correspond to a compass rose, even one that starts with East, as native Americans sometimes use, but is planned on a grid system at a 115 degree angle. In this portion are absolutely fascinating photographs of Mexicans worshipping Roman Catholic saints, and the adornments of those saints with gold necklaces, pesos, shawls and European dress. The church seems to mimic a ch’en, or cave, one of two special kinds of sites that ancient Mesoamericans ascribed spiritual power, by creating an enclosed space entered by a central point. Aspects of the simple churches built in Mexico, such as the steeple, are also considered mountain-like ch’en.
The Nazca lines reading was really interesting. I am glad that immediately the author chose to discount some of history’s-mysteries type hype around the lines. The mathematics that the Nazca almost certainly used to magnify smaller drawings is impressive, but it certainly isn’t extraterrestrial. Any culture with rope has the technology to create super straight lines over great distances (one thing we’ve never discussed in class but that I have always found fascinating is that though Mesoamericans developed the wheel and axle, since is survives in toys made for children, they never used the wheel on larger, adult sized vehicles, for reasons unknown). The why, though, is the most fascinating part. I had never heard of the hypothesis of an active water cult as an explanation for the geoglyphs, though I think the argument is compelling, particularly considering the prevalence of seashells at the site of the Nazca lines at the centers of ray bursts. Dozens of animals are depicted at the Nazca line sites, including, incredibly, a killer whale (these are desert people!). I love the Nazca lines.
It is interesting to read about an imperial civilization in Ancient America. Imperial Incan civilization reminds me most strongly of Western civilization land/politics relationships, since Incan architecture and works were based on pervading beliefs about social order, military conquest and separation of state-controlled spaces. Their architecture is beautiful, and incredibly made. Mortarless stone structures are what account for the survival of such spaces as Machu Picchu, but must have been much more difficult to construct at the time.
Townsend and other authors in this book talk about the continuation of ancient, pre-Colombian culture into contemporary Central and South America. On one hand, this belief must be clung to by Western art historians and archaeologists, or else accept that their own culture has destroyed what it now attempts to study. To a certain extent, every time I read this argument I was a little underwhelmed. Can we really see evidence of sacred mountain worship in the steeples of Catholic churches? But the fact remains that I do believe it is there. I read for a Latin American Religions class a part of the Popol Vuh, the sacred text that describes the Mayan genesis myth. During one of the most infamous parts, the gods decide to destroy a failed, earlier version of the human race by having the cooking instruments animate and attack the human beings. At one point, the tortilla griddle gets a monologue about its abuse on the hot stove, heating up tortillas all day long, and burns the humans. I was really delighted at this part, not because I thought the myth was funny, but because I finally knew the right word for the round iron thing we kept on our stove and heated tortillas on for almost every meal. The Popol Vuh is an ancient myth, first written down in Spanish about five hundred years ago, and so I have to concede that some things endure, whether we understand them later or not.