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VIRTUAL - Light in Darkness: Illuminating the Classic Maya World

March 18, 2021 @ 7:30 pm EDT Central Time

This is an online event.

Lecturer: Nancy Gonlin

Long before the advent of electricity, ancient peoples dating back to the Paleolithic Era created devices to illuminate the darkness, but how they did so and what the meanings of light and darkness were vary from culture to culture. The anthropology of luminosity, as put forth by Mikkel Bille and Tim Flor Sørensen (2007), regards light as something to be manipulated, a matter that is used in cultural practices. In this lecture, the productivity of considering the role of light and darkness, day and night, among the Late Classic (600-900 CE) Maya of the American tropics is considered. In what ways did the ancient Maya light up the night and illuminate dark places? The answer to these questions lie in numerous sources:  the abundant archaeological record, from the remains of palaces to humble houses; the hieroglyphs in which the ancient Maya wrote about their world, including night and darkness; the rich iconography that has persisted on pottery, stone carvings, and other media that depict dark doings; ethnohistoric observations of chroniclers and priests from more historic times; comparative materials from ethnographically-studied contemporary Maya groups; and from modern-day Maya peoples themselves. Some of the major topics that can be addressed are whether ancient cities were lit at night, variation in lighting from city to countryside, status differences in illumination, and the role of bioluminescent insects in adding glow to the dark. The murkiness of the night was cut through by only those who could afford it, as lychnological studies reveal – the distribution of artifacts and features particular to lighting was not equitable from house to house. Numerous material remains are considered anew from a nocturnal viewpoint: e.g., mundane ceramic vessels, glowing bugs, and the sacbe at Joya de Cerén, El Salvador. Is the modern desire for abundant nocturnal lighting a cultural universal? Humans accomplish much without the brightness of day as other senses come to dominate the nightscape. In many circumstances, however, lower lighting is preferable for the performance of a variety of activities that were best conducted under the cover of darkness. Apart from the material evidence for lighting, the metaphorical place of light and dark in the Classic Maya worldview is examined. It is only through light that darkness is visible.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:


Gonlin, Nancy, “Archaeology of the Night.” The University Press of Colorado Blog, February 2, 2016.

Gonlin, Nancy, Invited blog.

TEDx Talk

Gonlin, Nancy, “Life After Dark in the Ancient World.”, Bellevue College. April 4, 2017.

Online Article

Gonlin, Nancy and April Nowell,  “What the Archaeology of Night Reveals”, SAPIENS, 2018:


Gonlin, Nancy and April Nowell, “Episode 35: Archaeology of the Night.” Archaeology Podcast Network, Arizona State University, 2018:


Bogard, Paul, ed. 2008. Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Bogard, Paul. 2013. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Bowers, Brian. 1998. Lengthening the Day: A History of Lighting Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brox, Jane. 2010. Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Burton, Frances D. 2009. Fire: The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Dewdney, Christopher. 2004. Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Dowd, Marion, and Robert Hensey, eds. 2016. Darkness: Archaeological, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Ekirch, A. Roger. 2005. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. New York: W.W. Norton.

Jonnes, Jill. 2004. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House.

Koslofsky, Craig. 2011. Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moyes, Holley, ed. 2012. Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Naiman, Rubin R. 2014. Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming, and Awakening. 2nd ed. Tucson, AZ: NewMoon Media.

O’Dea, William T. 1958. The Social History of Lighting. London: Routledge & Kegal Paul.

Palmer, Bryan D. 2000. Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression (from Medieval to Modern). New York: Monthly Review Press.

Tedlock, Barbara, ed. 1992. Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series.

Wrangham, Richard. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Wright, Lawrence. 1962. Warm and Snug: The History of the Bed. London: Routledge.

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March 18, 2021
7:30 pm EDT
Event Category:


Prof. Lillian B. Joyce


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