Sunday, November 20, 2016

Am I the most literary archaeologist of all time?

How many archaeologists can say that they have participated in a joint project with the likes of Gore Vidal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barbara Kingsolver, and Charles Frazier? The list also includes Annie Dillard, Larrie McMurtry, and Jane Smiley. Well, I have published an essay in a volume together with these and other literary (and historical) luminaries. I guess that makes me a very literary archaeologist! What was I doing together with all these famous novelists? Unfortunately, it was not hobnobbing with them  at a literary cocktail party in Manhattan (nor at a Gatsby party on Long Island, for that matter).

I was invited to contribute an essay to a book edited by historian Mark C. Carnes called Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront Amerca's Past (and Each Other). Carnes had a bunch of historians write essays about specific historical novels, and then had the novelists write replies. The idea was to stimulate thought and discussion about history, fiction, and the past, but without slipping into nit-picky historical details. My contribution was the exotic case in the volume: Gary Jennings sprawling novel of Aztec adventure, sex, and violence, titled simply Aztec.

When Carnes first asked me to do this, I told him I needed to read the book first! I had started the novel as a graduate student, but had to put it down to avoid confusion. Jennings had immersed himself in the primary sources on Aztec society and history, and he really knew the details. Then, as a novelist, he elaborated where necessary. I found myself getting confused. Where did I read about people avoiding priests because they were worried they might be picked to be sacrificed? Was that in Sahagun, or was it an invention of Gary Jennings? So I dropped the novel, until Mark Carnes's request led me to pick it up again.

I loved the book. It was mostly accurate and full of adventure. The main character was a merchant who could travel in both elite and commoner social contexts. Jennings created practices that were contrary to fact only in key situations necessary for the novel. Thus he portrayed the Aztec writing system as more complete than it actually was, so that he could have people writing messages to one another, a practice that advanced the story in key places. Of course Jennings got a number of picky minor things wrong. But on the other hand, he actually predicted a finding that archaeologists had not yet dared to formulate until well after the novel was published!

Jennings has a merchant carrying obsidian and other goods back and forth across the fortified boundary that separated the Aztec and Tarascan empires. The written sources on the Aztecs, however, claim that this was an impenetrable border that nothing crossed. Aztec archaeologists, being traditionally under the spell of the written record (don't get me started....), had not even considered the possibility of Aztec-Tarascan trade. But if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds, it it clear that one trait EVERY fortified and defended border has in common, is that people and goods move back and forth illegally (I could make a crack here about a proposed wall along the US-Mexican border...). So it was not hard for Jennings to have his characters involved in contraband and smuggling. But only after the novel was published did we get incontrovertible evidence of an active trade across the Aztec-Tarascan border. Obsidian sourcing studies now show a two-way exchange of obsidian across the border, and lead isotope studies of bronze artifacts I excavated, by Dorothy Hosler, show a west-to-east trade).

It was fun writing my essay, and I was looking forward to seeing Gary Jennings's reply. My main beef with him was that he did not include the typical section where he lists his main sources and perhaps thanks some experts. But this is a minor point. Unfortunately, Jennings died before he could reply to my essay. I was really bummed out! So Carnes published, instead, the reply he got to his initial invitation to Jennings to participate in the volume. It is sort of cranky, railing against academics in general who get picky about historical novels. "It may sound to you, Mark, as if I'm already compiling my indignant response to whatever historian may eventually do the critical review of Aztec." He counseled the editor to find "non-ivory-tower historians" for the books in the volume.

I would like to think I would be considered a non-ivory-tower historian (or archaeologist). This was one of my most enjoyable essays. And by keeping company (of sorts) with Gore Vidal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the rest, I think I can be considered one of the most literary archaeologists of all time!

Carnes, Mark C. (editor)
2001    Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America'sPast (and Each Other). Simon and Schuster, New York.

Jennings, Gary
1980    Aztec. Avon Books, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2001    The Aztec World of Gary Jennings. In Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other), edited by Mark C. Carnes, pp. 95-105. Simon and Schuster, New York.

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