Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Is Precolumbian America part of “The Ancient World” ?

Charles’s recent post on his new “The Ancient World Online” uses a definition of “the ancient world” that excludes the Precolumbian cultures of the New World (“from the Pillars of Hercules to the Pacific”). Those of us who work in the Americas are used to being excluded by historians and antiquarians focused on the Classical world. As something that periodically bugs me, though, here are some remarks on the topic. The benign interpretation of limiting consideration this way is logistical—departments, institutes, journals, blogs, and other professional entities must limit their focus for a variety of professional and intellectual reasons.

But all too often the exclusion of New World cultures is caused by intellectual chauvinism or tunnel vision. As an example, consider textbooks on the history of architecture, many or most of which ignore the New World entirely (e.g., Conway and Roenisch 2005; Roth 2007). This is changing now (e.g., Ching et al. 2007; Moffett et al. 2004), a good sign. If the goal is to understand the western architectural tradition, then omitting Mesoamerica or China makes some kind of sense. But if the goal is more general, to look at architecture as a human achievement across space and time, then the narrow focus should be questioned. In other words, if it is assumed that there is some unity to “ancient” cultures that allows their joint inclusion in a category such as “the ancient world,” then it is hard to identify an intellectual justification for excluding the New World.

Now the present blog (The Ancient World Bloggers Group) seems to take a relaxed attitude. Most of the content focused on the Old World, but New World interlopers such as myself are not excluded. As for Charles’s new project of looking at the “Ancient [Old] World Online”, I see nothing wrong with his focus, since it reflects his interests, his knowledge and his institutional affiliation. I am certainly not accusing any of the participants in these blogs of chauvinism or tunnel vision! I guess my peeve is that “The Ancient World” sounds like a broad and inclusive category, when in fact it is being used as a geographically limited category that excludes phenomena that many people would include in their conceptions of the term “ancient.”

PS – I think that this and other work in digital scholarship reported in these blogs is first-rate, and I am jealous that those of us working in the “ancient” part of the New World are far behind you guys!

Ching, Francis D.K., Mark M. Jarzombek, and Vikramaditya Prakash
2007 A Global History of Architecture. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Conway, Hazel and Rowan Roenisch
2005 Understanding Architecture: An Introduction to Architecture and Architectural History. Routledge, New York.

Moffett, Marian, Michael Fazio, and Lawrence Wodehouse
2004 A World History of Architecture. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Roth, Leland M.
2007 Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. 2nd ed. Westview, Cambridge, MA.


Chuck Jones said...

Your points are well taken, and your explanation is correct. If you feed me open source material on the precolumbian cultures of the Americas and the Pacific, I'll be happy to include them in AWOL.

Chris Weimer said...

I would normally think them as spheres of interaction. If I hear, "Precolumbian antiquity", I do not think of ancient Rome, although technically it satisfies both descriptors. With the explicit qualifiers "from the Pillars of Hercules to the Pacific" I would think then that it refers to the interactions and interconnectedness of all the civilizations within those two oceans that do not extend to the Americas (in any meaningful way, though I admit that my knowledge of eastern contact with the Americas via the Pacific is very, very limited). Perhaps it's nothing more than what is commonly brought to mind...

Although I do agree that it is a shame that pre-European Americas are indeed so often neglected in books encompassing all humans.

Geoff Carter said...
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Geoff Carter said...

As a prehistorian, I welcome your inclusion, even if the material is not ‘relevant’, the approach, methodology, and thinking of a fellow professionals is always instructive.

The large number of Religious scholars, whose studies centre on a relatively small area and time period, distorts any ‘normal’ geographical spread of scholarship, apart from the Mormons, you do not have an additional set of scholars studying pre-Columbian America.

The East has traditionally fared badly when it comes comprehension and inclusion of its culture in the ‘world’s civilisation’ category, generally the Americas, has come a poor third – luckily Africa has Egypt, otherwise it too would get little mention.

I can make cammon cause with you when it comes architecture, areas far to north of the ‘Pillars of Hercules’, are still treated with something of the same suspicion evident in the classical world. The central focus of my research is to relate prehistoric building in northern Europe to the broader narrative architectural history, a relationship obscured by archaeological primitivism and ‘classico-centric’ scholarship. I try to set this against the broadest geographical and cultural background, including China, which is very important in understanding early timber architecture.