INSTRUMENTAL APPROACHES TO UNDERSTANDING MESOAMERICAN ECONOMY: ELUSIVE PROMISESby Ronald L. Bishop

Ancient Mesoamerica

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Year
2014
DOI
10.1017/S0956536114000157
Subject
Geography, Planning and Development / Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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INSTRUMENTAL APPROACHES TO UNDERSTANDING MESOAMERICAN

ECONOMY: ELUSIVE PROMISES

Ronald L. Bishop

Ancient Mesoamerica / Volume 25 / Issue 01 / March 2014, pp 251 - 269

DOI: 10.1017/S0956536114000157, Published online: 07 August 2014

Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0956536114000157

How to cite this article:

Ronald L. Bishop (2014). INSTRUMENTAL APPROACHES TO UNDERSTANDING MESOAMERICAN ECONOMY: ELUSIVE

PROMISES. Ancient Mesoamerica, 25, pp 251-269 doi:10.1017/S0956536114000157

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INSTRUMENTAL APPROACHES TO

UNDERSTANDING MESOAMERICAN ECONOMY:

ELUSIVE PROMISES

Ronald L. Bishop

Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, MRC 112 P.O. Box 37012, Washington,

DC 20013-7012

Abstract

More than four decades ago, instrumental developments, such as those involving neutron activation and X-ray florescence, began to generate relatively large quantities of data from the analysis of archaeological materials. These data served as the basis for many models of long-distance exchange as a means of explaining the development of cultural complexity. I review aspects of this early history and the how use of compositional data is now more directed toward localized investigations of economic activity. Even with this refocus of research interest, studies involving material characterization appear to be declining. Using traditional citation, personal experience, and highly selective examples, I discuss the use of analytical techniques for studies of long-distance trade, as it developed and now confronts interpretive difficulties that are inherent in the data and rendered more so by use of abstract constructs and resource limitations.

Mesoamerican archaeologists, as their colleagues in the American southwest and lower Central America, generally pursue past economic activity as behavior that is embedded within social, political, and historical contexts. Some four decades ago, economic models attempting to explain aspects of the growth of social complexity benefitted from new, expanding data sources originating within the analytical sciences. Understanding how and why these data are being used requires an understanding of the historical development of these analytical approaches, their methods and techniques, resource availability, and interpretive potentials. Subsequently, an examination of the application of these data to aspects of trade and exchange needs to be undertaken to assess how well they help to interpret the complexities of social interactions.

In what follows, I concentrate on analytical approaches for monitoring the directional movement of inorganic artifacts, those that permitted the rise of trade investigations, and which are becoming less accessible for use in more recent investigations. It can be argued that decreased attention to long-distance trade and exchange as a focus of regional investigation is the result of several factors, such as the political context of scientific activity, the scarcity of appropriate analytical facilities and the heightened awareness of the interpretive complexity. As will soon become clear, there is a bias toward obsidian or ceramic-focused investigations, with the analysis of other Mesoamerican artifacts receiving more occasional study. Accordingly, it is within the context of these data that the analytical approaches are discussed.

Today, while there may be diminished attention to “big picture” economic models, increased emphasis is being placed on more localized aspects of the economy, especially as seen in studies of craft production, exchange, and consumption. Long- and short-distance trade remains a consideration to the extent that such movement can be monitored. Relying on personal experience and highly selective examples, I discuss the use of analytical approaches to generate objective data for the investigation of long- or short-distance trade.

My choice of techniques, analytical findings, or accompanying references is to make a point, highlight a study, or provide a caution about the interpretive difficulties that are inherent in the data and rendered more so by use of abstract constructs, resource limitations, and insufficient awareness of the part of the archaeological consumers of the complexities involved. Comments concerning methodological weaknesses are kept mostly at a generic level without finger pointing.

Alfred Kidder admonished Anna Shepard to “step” on cases of “bad” research quickly lest some reader be misled (see Bishop [1991:84] citing Kidder letter to Shepard, November 22, 1935).

While this admittedly is an efficient strategy, it is not the most collegial. It is easy to critique but considerably harder to contribute.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

The Soviet Union’s Sputnik spacecraft was launched in 1957, and the decades that followed bore witness to a burst of popular support for US science and a tendency to overlook its political side (Wang 2008). Computers with vacuum tubes were replaced with those having transistors; minicomputers such as the DEC’s

PDP-11 became highly popular (the PDP-11/70 had 4 mb of

RAM!) and replaced many large mainframes. Archaeologist

Lewis Binford told his colleagues to become more scientific, and some did. The National Science Foundation increased funding for archaeological laboratory analysis and field technology (Yellen and Greene 1985:334–335), and a surge of publications pertaining to economic issues in archaeology, especially those dealing with trade and exchange, ensued. At the forefront of this surge was a collection of papers brought together by Timothy Earle and Jonathon 251

E-mail correspondence to: BishopR@si.edu