Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I Never Meant to be a Colonialist Student, or Both Sides of the Pipil

My training is as a Mesoamericanist, and specifically a Mayanist. And yet, my dissertation work is on the Spanish domination of the Pipil, a Nahua people in southeastern Mesoamerica. This was quite a shift, and this had two implications for my studies.

The first was that I had a lot of catching up to do, and this delayed my full participation in the Ciudad Vieja project. I had to learn the basics of colonial/historical archaeology. One element of this self-training was to school myself in the artifacts, and especially the ceramics, of the early Spanish empire. Assuming I would be working on Classic Maya subroyal issues, I had never even considered learning about colonial artifacts, a bias common in my field. Likewise, I had to learn a lot more about the historical unfolding of the Spanish invasion of Central America, and what kinds of questions had been fruitfully addressed using archaeological remains from the colonial era.

I should mention that in the beginning, my reasons for undertaking this study were mixed. In part, I had been impressed by what I had seen of the site when the director came to Tulane in 1998 and gave a talk about it. The site preservation and the potential for good archaeology, as well as Dr. Fowler's enthusiasm, made it an attractive project. But the site would also further my agenda. Starting in my undergraduate years at the University of Pittsburgh, I became fascinated with Maya writing. Not in the sense that I wanted to study the writing system and its epigraphic or linguistic complexities. But rather, I took to reading the glyphs with some talent, and I saw so much potential in the one major literate society of the Precolumbian Americas. The relationship between this kind of history and archaeology dominated my thinking in early grad school. I wanted to study a subroyal Maya center, ruled by what the texts called a sahal or roughly a sublord or governor. I figured if a site could be identified with records of a sahal, the thing to do would be to study the archaeology, and see what exactly a sahal and their territory was all about. I was not able to pull together a project to do this, so when Ciudad Vieja came along, I saw an opportunity. Not just to get moving, though that was also in play, but to do a full dissertation study of early historical archaeology in Mesoamerica, so that when I returned to Maya studies and wanted to consider them historical archaeology, I'd know what I was talking about. And in 1998-1999, historical archaeology was something of a real anomaly in Mesoamerica (more on that below).

At the same time, I also found myself moving into studying the Pipil. As I have learned through analysis of the ceramics and the historical record, it is likely that a substantial number of the Mesoamericans who lived in early San Salvador were from Mexico or possibly Guatemala. But the town was clearly in and supported by the resident Pipil population. This meant learning what there was to know about Pipil archaeology. With the exception of the early possible Pipil site of Cihuatan, there wasn't much. In addition to studying what has been published, I consulted and worked with experts in Pipil archaeology (ok, there are about four) to learn what I could.

This task wasn't as foreign to me. In addition to the Pipil being Mesoamericans, I had already covered some of this ground in 1997-1998. I worked on another archaeological project, excavating a small public platform in the northern plaza of the major site of Campana San Andres. I won't get into the details here, but my research found a likelihood that the platform I uncovered, as well as an episode of architectural repair elsewhere on the site, was possibly after a temporary abandonment of San Andres, and possibly contemporary with Cihuatan. I undertook some research, and determined that this occupation was probably not Pipil. Now, having learned a lot more about the Pipil, I'm not so sure, though I don't have the data to really answer the question without additional investigation.

Excavations at Campana San Andres

This change in my opinion on San Andres shouldn't come as a surprise at this point. One of the constants of my work in the last few years is that as I take my data and really apply a lot of thought and research to it, many of my earlier notions fall by the wayside. Not all of them. And in some cases, my initial hypotheses about Ciudad Vieja were correct to a point, but the story ended up being much more complex and productive than I had expected.

So I came to the Ciudad Vieja project trained as Mayanist and more generally a Mesoamericanist. I had substantial field experience working on an architectural component that may have been contemporary with the earliest evidence for the Pipil in El Salvador. And now, I was going to study the other end of the Pipil story, the beginning of the colonial period starting with the Spanish invasion. So I figured that my Mesoamericanist training would be of some value, and add an interesting viewpoint to the work. But that I had better look to the archaeology of the Spanish empire to understand the issues of Ciudad Vieja and its ceramic artifacts.

Once again, my initial ideas didn't hold. As I will talk about down the road, historical and colonial archaeology in Mesoamerica is a very different proposition than in say the Caribbean or North America, where much of the methodology and theory has been created. The complexity, but especially the scale, of Mesoamerican societies, as well as the much more detailed archaeological and cultural literature and study of Mesoamerica, means that this region has some of its own rules. I'll talk about this in another post in the future, but I'm not the only one by any stretch of the imagination to treat Mesoamerica very differently when it comes to colonial studies, and the data support this emphasis.

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