Monday, October 3, 2016

What books influenced my latest book?

When my book At Home with the Aztecs was published last spring, I had an invitation from an organization called "Connect-A-Book" to contribute to their website. The idea was for authors to list several books that were influential in the writing of their book. It sounded interesting, so I prepared some text. Then the company evidently bombed, and the website is gone (but the Twitter account still exists...). It was fun to identify the influences in my thinking, so I decided to put them here. Most of these show the development of my ideas on households and communities, with less attention to the Mesoamerican archaeological context that of course influences most of what I write about in the book.

First, the book blurb:

The lives of the Aztec people lay buried for five centuries until my excavations in Mexico brought them to light. My wife and I uncovered a remarkable series of prosperous communities composed of families with a high quality of life. At Home with the Aztecs tells three stories: (1) How archaeological fieldwork is conducted in Mexico; (2) What it was like raising our daughters on our digs; and, (3) How I pieced together the information from artifact fragments in ancient trash heaps to create a picture of successful ancient communities that have lessons for us today. In the process, I redefine success, prosperity and resilience in ancient societies, making this book suitable not only for those interested in the Aztecs but in the examination of resilient households and communities across space and time.

My influences:

Berdan, Frances F. and Patricia R. Anawalt (editors)  (1992)  The Codex Mendoza. 4 vols. University of California Press, Berkeley.

My quest to uncover the lives of Aztec commoners began with dissatisfaction with the written sources on the Aztecs. The Codex Mendoza, painted by an Aztec scribe shortly after the Spanish conquest, is one of the very few sources that actually shows commoners. The wedding scene on the cover of my book is from this source. While I got lots of ideas from the Codex Mendoza over the years, it also shows the limitations of the historical record of the Aztecs.

Flannery, Kent V. (editor)  (1976)  The Early Mesoamerican Village. Academic Press, New York.

As one of the founding texts of the “household archaeology” approach, this book first showed me the methods and concepts for using archaeology to uncover the lives and conditions of the common people of the distant past. I got excited when I read this as a new graduate student. But then I had to wait until I finished a boring Ph.D. dissertation before I could put the new ideas into practice. This classic work is a stand-in here for the many other articles and books on household archaeology that soon followed.

Netting, Robert McC.  (1993)  Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Understanding past households and communities requires more than excavations, houses, and artifacts. Ecological anthropologist Netting supplies the main conceptual foundation for interpreting Aztec households. These were not serfs or slaves, toiling away on the plantations of nobles. Instead, the residents of the houses I excavated were smallholder farmers who engaged in intensive agricultural practices. Netting’s model of smallholders fit my Aztec villages exactly, and I got lots of insights from this book, especially for my chapter 4 on the quality of life of Aztec households.

Ostrom, Elinor  (1990)  Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Nobel economics laureate (and former ASU colleague) Lin Ostrom showed how local villages can manage resources and survive as successful, resilient communities. This generalizes Netting’s household model to the community level, and it helped me see the connections between ancient Aztec communities and those of the modern world. Papers by Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis also helped me make this connection. These ideas helped me write chapter 7, on resilient Aztec communities.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2012)  Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Sampson’s study of Chicago neighborhoods reinforced the insights of Netting and Ostrom. Whether or not inner-city neighborhoods were communities in a social sense, Sampson’s approach to analyzing neighborhoods as important social units cemented my views that past and present societies can be compared. Rigorous methods and concepts can move social-science research forward, whether in today’s cities or yesterday’s cities and villages. This book helped convince me that human settlements share key processes across history and the globe. Thus my archaeological study of Aztec communities ties in with research on neighborhoods, communities, and cities today.

Check out the book's website: 

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