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The reshaping of the material world was an essential part of the process of urbanization in Late Formative Mesoamerica, as it was in other parts of the ancient world. These material reconfigurations took many forms, each inextricably entwined with the others in the matrix of urbanism. Monumental art was one of the most prominent and visually accessible vehicles through which Mesoamerican elites configured new urban identities. In fact, recognition of the vital role that monumental imagery plays in establishing visual codes is, according to Robert Maxwell (2007), art history’s major contribution to the study of urbanism. But this fundamental premise – that monumental art is an integral aspect of urbanism’s “three-dimensional features” and central to its “expanded visual discourse” – hinges on the understanding that art was more than an epiphenomenal accessory of urbanism or a decorative afterthought inspired by city living. We take as a given, in this chapter, that images did more than occupy physical space: we view image making as a recursive act that both reflected and actively created the urban landscape. To borrow Maxwell’s words, art generated meaning and established the visual codes that were fundamental to the expression of new urban identities. Among the first modern scholars to recognize the role of art in the “urban revolution,” or the complex processes of economic and social change that culminated in the development of the first cities, was V. Gordon Childe (1950). While of enduring value, Childe’s observations concerning art and urbanism benefit from new and sustained scrutiny of the complex interface between artistic programs, the built environment, and the goals and ideological agendas of the ruling elites who commissioned monuments in Late Formative Mesoamerica.
Urbanization is a phenomenon that brings into focus a range of topics of broad interest to scholars. It is one of the central, enduring interests of anthropological archaeology. Because urbanization is a transformational process, it changes the relationships between social and cultural variables such as demography, economy, politics, and ideology. As one of a handful of cases in the ancient world where cities developed independently, Mesoamerica should play a major role in the global, comparative analysis of first-generation cities and urbanism in general. Yet most research focuses on later manifestations of urbanism in Mesoamerica, thereby perpetuating the fallacy that Mesoamerican cities developed relatively late in comparison to urban centers in the rest of the world. This volume presents new data, case studies, and models for approaching the subject of early Mesoamerican cities. It demonstrates how the study of urbanism in Mesoamerica, and all ancient civilizations, is entering a new and dynamic phase of scholarship.
Chapter 7 focuses on the Late Preclassic figured world, which was dominated by the monumental stone representations of rulers and their gods, and the social, political, and fundamentally aesthetic systems that sustained it. It utilizes theories of “high culture” in its consideration of these dynamics, noting both the strengths and the weaknesses of such models. It summarizes the themes and distributions of Late Preclassic monuments from the south coast while also considering the role of hieroglyphic texts, narrativity, human figuration, assertions of moral supremacy, and ritual efficacy in sustaining assertions of elite privilege. It also applies the concept of the “evolution of social simplicity” to explain the Late Preclassic social dynamics through which the field of aesthetic possibilities for human representation were drastically narrowed.
Chapter 1 explores the epistemological premises and problems in thinking about representation, figuration, sculpture, art, ceramic figurines, and stone sculpture in Preclassic Mesoamerica. It also discusses the taxonomic boundaries that have traditionally isolated ceramic figurines from stone sculpture in most archaeological and art historical analyses, and argues that consideration of all durable representations is critical for understanding the significance of human representation in Preclassic Mesoamerica.
Chapter 5 is a theoretical exploration of Preclassic ceramic figurines that takes, as its point of departure, their consistent and pervasive fragmentation, which I argue was deliberate and central to their social significance. It considers both theories of embodiment and acts in which representations were fragmented, arguing that bodily fragmentation was a key part of the process through which social identities were constructed and maintained. It surveys the archaeological data concerning fragmentation and the rich ethnohistorical and ethnographic records in Mesoamerica, and makes comparisons to other parts of the world in which figurines were also, systematically, broken and dismembered. It utilizes a variety of theoretical frameworks, including synecdoche, materiality, enchainment, and the osteological record, to make the case that figurines – and their partibility – were key to visualizing and constituting the relationship between individuals and the larger community.
Chapter 3 shifts its focus to figuration in clay, exploring the small, hand-modeled ceramic figurines that are far more abundant in the archaeological record and equally engaged with human representation. It considers issues of scale, function, context, and sensory expression across the geographic breadth of Preclassic Mesoamerica. It argues that figurines were a key part of a Preclassic “figured world,” or a social world that was both produced and reproduced through the practices of people from all walks of life who crafted and utilized figurines.
Chapter 4 surveys ceramic figurines from the Middle Preclassic site of La Blanca, Guatemala, considering questions of gender, identity, absence, costume and adornment, sensory capacity, and the animal–human relationship. It also addresses recurring figurine types and issues of replication, arguing that the “sameness” of certain figurine types is directly related to concepts of personhood. It also suggests that the distinct emphasis on facial features seen in Preclassic figurines demonstrates the earliest evidence for notions of destiny, which, in later Mesoamerican belief systems, were often articulated through the face.
Chapter 6 shifts its focus to the Late Preclassic period and explores the implications of the dramatic figurine cessation that characterized the south coast of Mesoamerica, which was paralleled by an upsurge in the production of stone monuments featuring the bodies of ruling elites. It explores the relationship between these processes and state formation, or the increase of centralized political authority, arguing that understandings of the social utility of human figuration was at the heart of these dynamics. Its emphasis is on both the power – and threat – of human figuration as well as its corollary, bodily fragmentation, which exponentially increased the potency of any single object through its fragmentation into constituent pieces. It summons a great deal of mythic evidence from Mesoamerica to supports its points, but also discusses a much broader cross section of global literature concerning the ritual efficacy of human representation and its potential, if unregulated, to result in social and political chaos.