Sunday, February 20, 2011

Blood, sacrifice, and academic imperialism on PBS: Review of “Secrets of the Dead: The Aztec Massacre”


This PBS documentary is about a fascinating archaeological find in Tlaxcala, Mexico: the sacrificed remains of a group of Spaniards from the conquest of the Aztecs. It is flawed by an overemphasis on blood and gore and by an academic imperialist perspective in which foreign experts seem to take credit for the research findings of Mexicans. The producers had about five minutes of data (the actual finds), which they had to stretch to fill an hour of TV. To do this, they spent a lot of time talking about, and re-enacting, sacrifice and cannibalism. They really played up the violent and grisly aspect of the Aztecs. The show also passed some time at Teotihuacan, which has absolutely nothing to do with the story. I’m sure the producers wanted to film at someplace photogenic, and evidently could get filming permits for Teotihuacan but not for the (very relevant) Templo Mayor (called the “Templo Mejor” by the narrator!).

One thing I find disturbing about this video is that art historian Elizabeth Baquedano (consistently referred to as an “archaeologist”) is portrayed as the person who figured out the mystery of the Zultepec finds. She set off for Mexico to solve a mystery. She went to the right places and talked to the relevant Mexican scholars (Enrique Martínez, the excavator, and Magali Civera, osteologist). Finally, after codex scholar Carmen Aguilera showed Baquedano an illustration in Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, the pieces fell into place and she figured out the meaning of the Zultepec finds. Apart from the fact Baquedano was certainly familiar with the Sahagún illustration long before this event (a well-published figure showing Spaniards and horses on a skull rack, very familiar to Aztec scholars and students), her actions had nothing to do with finding, presenting, or interpreting the Zultepec remains. Enrique Martínez first published these sacrificial finds in 1993, and he published the identification of Spaniards in 2003. It didn’t take Elizabeth Baquedano or a PBS crew to figure this out; it’s all for show.

But just what big mystery was solved by these finds? You’d better hold your breath, this is quite exciting: The Aztecs fought back, and didn’t just accept the Spanish conquest lying down. Wowie-zowie, no wonder they wanted to make a TV documentary! Who would have thought? “The Aztec resistance was forgotten” we are told. Hmmm, I’ve been teaching students about Aztec resistance to the Spaniards for more than 2 decades. Just who is supposed to have forgotten about Aztec resistance? PBS producers? Nearly all of the objectionable lines in the show are delivered by the narrator, not by Baquedano, and it is hard to judge the extent of her agreement with the views expressed in the show. Most of what she says is reasonable and correct (although she does speak with confidence and authority about some technical topics on which she is not an expert).

I found it embarrassing to watch a show that has foreign scholars come and tell Mexican researchers how to interpret their data, particularly when the foreigners are not particularly expert in the subject, and when the Mexicans have figured out their data long before. It is especially bad when one of the “experts” (Adrian Locke, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London) repeats the long-discredited story that Motecuhzoma believed Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl.

Many of us have tried hard to get beyond old stereotypes of academic imperialism (foreign scholars acting superior to local scholars; breezing in and out of the country with minimal interaction with locals; publishing in English and not the local language; etc.). Shows like this paint the wrong image and are regressive in this effort. I’d much rather hear what Enrique Martínez, Magali Civera, Carmen Aguilera, and other Mexican experts have to say about their research and its implications. Instead we see foreigners solving made-up mysteries while actors portray phony sacrificial ceremonies.

9 comments:

haecceities said...

Why am I not surprised? I have yet to see any documentary about ancient Mesoamerica that does not include human sacrifice. In the 1980s and 1990s the Mayanists promoted this blood dripping image themselves and then they got so upset when Mel Gibson just twisted their own views a little bit for his Hollywood spectacle. I believe we are stuck with this stereotype. It will never go away.

Cacalotl said...

We are stuck with it. But during decades, it was thought that Teotihuacanos or Mayas were wise people who didn't practice this kind of rites...
My question is : why Dr Baquedano did involucrate in such a show ?!?

Michael E. Smith said...

The academic imperialism aspect bothers me more than the sacrifice hyping. I guess I've become resigned to public infatuation with the bloody Aztecs. But when PBS collaborates in academic imperialism, I find this very alarming.

Anonymous said...

@haecceities - forgive my ignorance, but where in the 1980s and 1990s did Mayanists promote this blood dripping image themselves?

Michael E. Smith said...

Haecceities is probably referring to the Blood of Kings exhibit and book:

Schele, Linda and Mary E. Miller
1986 The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth.

In my mind, the blood image was closely related to the king-as-shaman model, critiqued effectively by Klein et al:

Klein, Cecelia F., Eulogio Guzmán, Elisa C. Mandell, and Maya Stanfield-Mazzi
2002 The Role of Shamanism in Mesoamerican Art: A Reassessment. Current Anthropology 43:383-420.

haecceities said...

I am referring to what David Webster calls "the killer king complex". It includes Schele and Miller's work, but also Freidel and Demarest (and plenty of others). I do recall several documentaries where some of these scholars explains the gory details of human sacrifice and autosacrifice. This was indeed a very different perspective than the peaceful and time worshipping Maya. I would say that the perspectives are more nuanced nowadays when more pragmatic reasons for warfare have been in focus (rather than cosmology, symbolism, etc.).

Michael E. Smith said...

In response to a version of this post that I sent around on the Aztlan listserv, a number of colleagues related horror stories of cooperating with TV documentaries. The scholars ended up appearing to support screwey ideas that they disagreed with.

Edward T. Maley said...

I objected to program's description of the Spanish company as mere merchants and said they were not soldiers. The implication was just some good equipment and a few horses and they lucked into victory lane. My understanding is that Cortez and most of his men were experienced soldiers that knew their way around a battlefield. The Spanish had honed these skills in the Reconquista. Their Western military skills (equipment and tactics) plus their diplomatic skills (the Aztecs were not liked)paved the way to victory. Let me know if I am wrong.

Michael E. Smith said...

The Spaniards were more like soldiers of fortune than a trained and organized army. Each one financed his own equipment and trip. So this was not the imperial Spanish army marching into Mexico, but a band of mercenaries. But perhaps this was too complex and nuanced for the PBS producers, who may have thought only in terms of imperial armies vs. individuals (who must have been merchants, etc.).