The buried mirror

The Body in Parts - Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings - The Olmec World - Human Mummies - The Spirit of Ancient Peru - The Essential Codex Mendoza - The Art of the Maya Scribe
December 5, 1997

Conceiving humanity is a cultural act, made concrete by presentations and re-presentations of the world in the symbols, metaphors and styles of artistic traditions. A culture's view of itself and of its place in the natural order is revealed in art and myth and in its attitudes towards the individual and society. Within the ideologies of representation are encoded the scaffolding of culture and the sinews of spiritual belief and social being. The diversity of ways in which humans perceive themselves and others illustrates the sophistication and sensitivity required of archaeology if more than surface description is to be achieved.

As the millennium nears, archaeology is emerging transformed by the social, political and economic developments and the technological innovations of the 20th century. What was once little more than excavation has become an extraordinary interdisciplinary activity, confident in its ability to address issues not even recognised a generation ago.

One of the most fruitful consequences of archaeology's maturity is its approach to investigating representations of the world embodied in material culture. In this, the combination of archaeology, anthropology, and art history, as displayed in interpreting the art of pre-Columbian America, is a mark of progress. If art is world view made visible, then The Spirit of Ancient Peru, edited by Kathleen Berrin, opens the door to the strange and exotic world of the Moche people who inhabited the north coast of Peru between ad 50 and 800.

Although this colourful book catalogues the collection of one man - the dedicated and visionary Rafael Larco Hoyle -it is the startling array of brilliant ceramic figurines of anthropomorphised deer, crab, fish and felines that catches the eye and challenges our ability to interpret. Alongside ceramic corn cobs with fanged human faces and animated lima beans are portrait heads, painted and polished, showing individual faces wrapped in textiles, sometimes smiling, at times afflicted by terrible disease.

The breathtaking skills of Moche potters infused their work with a plastic interplay between reality and imagination -yet were but part of a wider pre-Columbian tradition. An anthropomorphic killer-whale effigy vessel of the Nazca culture stands shoulder to shoulder with intricate jewellery of turquoise, gold, and shell -each material possessing a symbolism of its own. The unexpected shapes and combinations question our (modern) notions of the boundaries between nature and supernature. It is only when the evidence of ethnography is considered that we realise that this confusion of images makes perfect sense in the shamanic, transformative world that still exists in surviving Amerindian societies.

The realisation that current world views and those of the colonial period could inform our assessments of pre-Columbian societies brought about a paradigm shift in interpretation. Far from compartmentalised modern views, the shamanic perception sees people, animals, natural phenomena and "inanimate" objects all partaking of a spiritual essence that infuses and vitalises the universe. Perhaps nowhere is this seen more dramatically than in the art of the Olmec culture, which flourished on Mexico's swampy Gulf Coast between c. 1250 and 400bc.

As The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership illustrates in lavish colour and scholarly interpretive essays, this is an art style that can be understood only on its own terms, not through the lens of western realism. Huge stone carvings of monumental heads, human figures and anthropomorphic felines were carved from the basalt of a sacred mountain, and set in the symbolic space of ceremonial centres such as San Lorenzo and La Venta. Olmec craftsmen also worked with jade, produced beautiful kaolin pottery and painted mythical scenes deep in the heart of caves.

The meaning of Olmec art is shaped by the rituals of divine rulership, which suggest that their leaders occupied the thresholds between life and death, wielding spirit power in everyday life. For those interested in the distinctively shamanic nature of ancient American politics and art, this is the place to begin.

Our understanding of the Classic Maya also has been revolutionised in recent years. Significantly, seeing the Maya as they were, rather than as previous generations of scholars imagined them to be, depended to a considerable extent on understanding their hieroglyphic script. The power of the mute image to conjure comfortable but erroneous views in the eye of the beholder dissolved as deciphering gathered pace. In Michael Coe's masterful The Art of the Maya Scribe, we see more accurately than ever the systemic links between iconography, epigraphy and calligraphy.

Maya artist-calligraphers were members of the ruling elite, living and working in their own palaces, their sacred talents bestowed by patron deities whom they worshipped. As such, they knew how and what to represent -image and text were spiritual as well as material acts of creation. Working on screen-fold paper books, stone, bone, stucco and shell, their images (and accompanying texts) extolled the values, virtues and histories of the Maya elite. In profusely illustrated and elegant style, Coe shows how Maya noble-scribes were the only new-world artists to sign their work. Their elaborate costumes were not merely excessive decoration: a sarong, short hair wrapped in a headcloth and a "stick bundle" of quill pens attached to the forehead were uniforms defining their status. Maya dynasts kept royal libraries, each supervised by an ah k'u hun or "keeper of the royal books". Yet those who painted the Maya universe led a dangerous life: their skills and status made them prime targets for hostage taking in war.

The climactic end of the pre-Columbian tradition in Mexico came with the arrival of Cortes in 1519. To the Spanish, the Aztec world seemed an alien place of savage beauty and impenetrable sophistication. Aztec ways of seeing and modes of representation appeared to have little in common with medieval European practices. Of the handful of painted books, or codices, that have survived, one of the most informative is painstakingly analysed in The Essential Codex Mendoza by Frances Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt.

This colourful document was produced in the immediate post-conquest years by Aztec scribes and interpreters under the supervision of Spanish friars. Its 72 annotated pictorial leaves and 63 pages of related Spanish commentary make it a virtual Rosetta stone of Mesoamerican studies. The dual Aztec (Nahuatl)/Spanish text provides startling details of Aztec history, socio-economic and political organisation, art and symbolism in the form of a tribute list of goods and services that the Aztec state had expected from its imperial dominions. Locked away in the details of translation and analysis are invaluable insights into the Mexican mind on the eve of the conquest.

Differences between the religious, symbolic and representational worlds of Europeans and Amerindians -Jso often taken for granted -have, on occasion, been more apparent than real. In Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity, edited by Dominic Montserrat, cross-disciplinary approaches are employed to interpret shifting views of the human body in European antiquity. They uncover a diversity of attitudes -treatments of the body conveying ideologies of status, gender, ethnicity, nature and culture,in Greece, Egypt and Rome just as in the Americas.

Recalling the sacred communicative roles of Maya scribes and Aztec rulers, the bodies of early Christian martyrs were conduits for heaven's descent to earth. Through mutilation and blood-letting, saintly bodies were imbued with spiritual power communicable through their holy relics - reminiscent of elite blood sacrifice and the ascription of spiritual qualities to body parts in pre-Hispanic Mexico.

In Egypt, especially, the treatment of human bodies is a reminder of both the closeness and the distance between ourselves and our ancestors. Death, rebirth and sexuality were intertwined in Egyptian thought in a configuration of meaning easily misinterpreted in more recent times. The elaboration of a mummy's sexual parts -the gilding of nipples and penises -highlighted sexuality in order to produce optimal conditions for rebirth as "perfection" personified. Such imagery -indeed the practice of mummification itself, and the proximity of the living with the dead -astounded Herodotus, and it has produced a modern fascination with the image of Cleopatra as the "ultimate" erotic embodiment of womanhood.

The tendency for Coptic texts to represent the human body as parts of a whole highlights a recent trend in modern scholarship to study the symbolic dimensions (as well as the physical realities) of the deconstructed body. The tensile connections between part and whole, individual and society have long been acknowledged, and in The Body in Parts, David Hillman and Carla Mazzio have edited a fascinating collection of papers that explores this theme using evidence from early medieval Europe.

Foreshadowing 20th-century postmodernist trends to fragment the body (and everything else), we see throughout this volume a fundamental break with philosophical and religious ideas of the wholeness of the cosmos and of "being" so evident in traditional and past societies. This reflects the increasing compartmentalisation of scientific rigour that is so central to the modern western tradition, and which, until recently, made archaeological interpretation so difficult. Medical dissection, zodiacal connections to individual body parts, and the relics of saints -all partake of this disintegrative, dissipative paradigm. Meaning and being, like light, once appeared whole, but now are split by the prism of science.

It is hardly surprising to learn that during the 16th and 17th centuries, medical and anatomical descriptions and religious iconography converged to give the human body and its constituent parts more semiotic complexity than ever before. The heart, now recognised as a pump, forced a relocation of the "self" to the head, where the unknown brain was the centre of mental and emotional activity.

Yet, if science has fragmented the world the better to understand it, archaeology has redefined itself partly by co-opting the consequent specialisations. The results of this are evident in Human Mummies, edited by Konrad Spindler et al. Attitudes to the dead encompass spiritual and ideological imperatives, but only now, with modern technologies, are archaeologists able to recognise the complexities of their material remains.

South America figures large in this story. The earliest evidence for artificial mummification occurs about 8,000 years ago in the Chinchorro culture of northern Chile. Intimate details of individual life can now be gleaned. Disease, age, ways of life can all be identified and placed in context with what we know from history and anthropology. Particularly informative are later Inca mummies of human sacrifices on top of sacred Andean peaks. Of these, the most famous is the "Prince of El Plomo", an eight-year-old boy inebriated with chicha (maize) beer and possibly also coca leaf. Buried alive at 5,400 metres, the mummy's excellent preservation has led to its being designated a world treasure by the United Nations.

Mummies are, of course, a way for a society to represent its dead through preservation. The analysis of mummies reveals more than techniques: it opens the door to a host of social, economic and religious ideas and practices. The value of this book lies not just in its state-of-the-art accounts of modern forensic technology and analysis, but also in its wide-ranging geographical and historical examples. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, mummies were made from the remains of the well-to-do from Basle to Strasburg (the latter a centre for late medieval mummification). The Baron of Hohensax and Queen Ana of Habsburg were mummified, as was an unidentified woman who apparently died from an overdose of mercury paste -Ja common treatment for syphilis.

Italy, too, has its mummies,some naturally desiccated, others deliberately preserved. Of special note are Saints Mummies,a category that intersects with attitudes towards the body parts and spirituality in the modern "cult of the saints". Equally graphic and insightful are chapters on mummies from the Arctic, Tenerife, Japan and a whole section on the Tyrolean ice man.

The treatment and representation of the human body, dead or alive, is part of how a society sees itself in the natural and social worlds it inhabits. As science fragments the physical world, so ideas such as postmodernism fragment the worlds of experience and meaning. It may seem ironic, but nevertheless heartening, that from all this deconstruction archaeology has emerged as a stronger and more relevant discipline, able to reassemble ever more fragments of the past.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in anthropology, University College London, and visiting fellow in archaeology, University of Southampton.

The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe

Editor - David Hillman and Carla Mazzio
ISBN - 0 415 91694 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £14.99
Pages - 344

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