Last updateFri, 09 Sep 2016 3pm

Striving to understand West Mexico’s ancient cultures: Archaeologist uses present to interpret the past

The Austrian-born anthropologist and historian Eric Wolf once complained that for a long time the field of Mesoamerican archaeology was in the hands of “shardists” and “pyramidiots” whose archaeological horizons were limited to dating and classifying pieces of pottery or restoring pyramids for tourism.

During his lifetime, archaeologist Phil Weigand brought a more holistic focus to the archaeology of Western Mexico, stating that his professional goal was “to be an anthropologist – not an archaeologist, not an ethnologist and not an ethnohistorian, but all three of these at the same time.”

Phil Weigand laid down his trowel in 2011, but his spirit lives on in the work of his friend and colleague Dr. Eduardo Williams, researcher and professor at El Colegio de Michoacán, located in the town of Zamora. Williams has been putting the concept of ethnoarchaeology into practice for decades, using ingenious strategies.

For me, the term ethnoarchaeology is anything but self-explanatory and I hesitate to use it here for fear of turning people off – which would truly be a shame, because the word simply refers to a commonsense way of looking at ancient artifacts and buildings. Every visitor to an archaeological site inevitably asks the guide, “What did the people who lived here do with these things? What were they like? Likewise, every historical novel or period drama about ancient peoples attempts to portray their human side: their strategies for survival, conquest or simple well-being, their struggles, successes and failures. Ethnoarchaeology simply restores the humanity and culture of the maker to the stone axe or shaft tomb.

Williams was born in Guadalajara in 1954, son of the British Consul at that time. His interest in archaeology was first aroused by “a bunch of National Geographics” presented to him by Canadian friends of the family who knew he liked to read in English. “In these magazines I discovered forest-dwelling tribes and ancient civilizations and I was fascinated. Although I was only a high-school student, I began to think about a career in archaeology. Well, my parents almost had a heart attack. They and absolutely everybody we knew said, ‘How are you going to make a living?’”Undaunted, Williams studied archaeology at the Autonomous University in Guadalajara, got his B.A. and was then awarded a grant to study at the British Institute of Archaeology in London. Later, when it came time to write a dissertation for his doctorate, his professor told him, “Why don’t you write about the stone sculpture of West Mexico where you’re from?” Says Williams, “I looked at him and said, ´stone sculpture? There isn’t any! But, anyhow, I’ll investigate this when I get back home.’”

Upon his return to Mexico, Williams went to the museum in Guadalajara and discovered there were indeed stone sculptures in Jalisco. “And I found others in Colima, Michoacán and Nayarit, but inevitably they were all stored in the basements of the museums, not on display, because the curators considered them ugly and primitive.”

Williams’ dissertation project soon turned into a rescue operation for those stone statues and eventually resulted in his first book, Las Piedras Sagradas, The Sacred Stones, the first and only book on West Mexico’s sculpture tradition.

After spending some time in England and a stint as a Fulbright scholar at UCLA, Eduardo Williams earned his Ph.D. and in 1990 returned to Mexico where he got a job as an archaeologist at the Colegio de Michoacán.

Upon settling in, Williams put his mind to finding research projects within the financial limits available to him as a member of the Colegio. 

“I told myself I needed projects that were easy to do in terms of resources and expertise, that didn’t cost money, and that I could do on my own without help from anyone.” A solution to his problem came from a book called “In Pursuit of the Past” by Lewis Binford, a pioneer in anthropological archaeology who studied modern-day Nunamiut hunter-gatherers in Alaska, in order to better understand the behavior of their Paleolithic counterparts.

“I saw I could do something original, never before done in the history of West Mexican archaeology, and I could start doing it among friends of mine making pottery in a Tarascan village just half an hour from my home. While my colleagues had to find lots of money for their excavations, all I had to pay was the cost of a tank of gasoline.”

A few years before Williams’ arrival at the Colegio, Dr. Phil Weigand had joined the faculty.

“Weigand was a true Renaissance Man. He crossed the boundaries of the historical and anthropological understanding of western Mexico, and I felt an instant rapport with him. When I told him about my project with the Tarascan potters, he had an immediate reaction, because he had been working with potters in San Marcos, Jalisco. So I didn’t have to explain anything. He read my thoughts and told me what to do. So we had a very good start as colleagues, right from the beginning and soon became fast friends.”

Williams’ investigations of modern-day Tarascan potters led him to study the lives of salt-makers and fishers, as he calls them, many of whom, it turns out, still follow a lifestyle and traditions passed along from generation to generation, in many ways unchanged from pre-Hispanic times.

“At Lake Cuitzeo,” he says, “I found people using a stone hammer and anvil for basket-making. Now this technology goes back 10,000 years. These are the oldest kind of human-made instruments known in archaeology. Once the basket makers cut the reed, they have to split it lengthwise. Then they use the hammer to mash it, so it becomes flat – and then it can be used to weave a basket. Just imagine the experience for an archaeologist to see artifacts that you know are thousands of years old, being used today, right before your eyes!”

Williams says there are two dimensions to archaeological finds: the static and the dynamic. The static is the artifact itself and the dynamic dimension is the behavior associated with the object. “Archaeologists,” he says, “need to be able to see the dynamic aspect of culture and, as Binford put it, there is only one place you can see it, and that’s the here and now.”

In a future column, I hope to describe Eduardo Williams’ fascinating books “The Salt of the Earth: Ethnoarchaeology of Salt Production in Michoacan, Western Mexico” and “Water Folk: Reconstructing an Ancient Aquatic Lifeway in Michoacán, Western Mexico,” both in English and both downloadable from the internet.

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