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VIRTUAL - Torches, Fireflies, and Moonlight: The Brilliance of Classic Maya Lightscapes

October 28, 2021 @ 7:30 pm EDT Eastern Time

This is an online event.

AIA Society: Rochester

Lecturer: Nancy Gonlin

As far back as Paleolithic times, humans illuminated their world with an ever-increasing diversity and sophistication of lighting devices. We are now at the point in our history where day and night blend, and dark night skies are a rarity for much of humanity. Archaeological knowledge about how ancient nights were illuminated varies widely: while lighting technology is well studied for the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Middle Easterners through the field of lychnology, far less is known about how ancient Mesoamericans lit up dark spaces. Explicit attention to these devices has been minimal. To determine possible lighting technologies created by the Late Classic Mayas (600-900 CE) of the American tropics, my research utilizes the abundant archaeological record, from the remains of humble houses to palaces. Just as critical are the hieroglyphs in which the ancient Maya wrote about their world, the night, and darkness, including glyphs to describe certain objects used for lighting. Utilization of the rich iconography that has persisted on pottery, stone carvings, and other durable media that depict dark doings reveal much. Ethnohistoric observations of chroniclers and religious personnel from more recent times, comparative materials from ethnographically-studied Maya groups, and insights from modern-day Maya peoples themselves add greatly to our understanding of the night and lighting technologies. To integrate these databases, I employ the anthropology of luminosity (Bille and Sørensen 2007), a perspective that regards light as something to be manipulated, a matter that is used in cultural practices. The intentional manipulation of luminosity created varying lightscapes that portrayed power differences and identity, along with intentional ambience. Inequality manifests itself through illumination: the murkiness of the dark 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. From torches to fireflies to moonlight, the array of lighting informs us about material and non-material aspects of society, ranging from the politico-religious sphere to the socio-economic one. Archeologists can substantially add to their understandings and reconstructions of the past by considering illumination practices and how people used them to great effect in creating lightscapes that enlighten us about cultural practices.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

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

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

Gonlin, Nancy, “Life After Dark in the Ancient World.” TEDx talk selected for TEDx Shorts Podcast. April 1. 2021

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

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



Bille, Mikkel, and Tim Flor Sørensen. 2007. “An Anthropology of Luminosity: The Agency of Light.” Journal of Material Culture 12(3):263-384.

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.

Fagan, Brian, and Nadia Durrani. 2019.  What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Gallaga, Emiliano, and Marc G. Blainey, eds. 2016. Manufactured Light: Mirrors in the Mesoamerican Realm. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Gonlin, Nancy, and April Nowell. 2018. Archaeology of the Night: Life After Dark in the Ancient World. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Hough, Walter. 1926. Fire as an agent in human culture. Bulletin No. 139. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, Government Printing Office.

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.

Lewis, Sara. 2016. Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lopes, Luís. 2004. “Some Notes on Fireflies.”

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.

Micheli, Maria Elisa, and Anna Santucci, eds. 2015. Lumina: Convegno Internazionale di Studi Urbino 5-7 guigno2013. Pisa, Italy: Edizione ETS.

Moyes, Holly, and Costas Papadopoulos, eds. 2017. The Oxford Handbook of Light in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Strong, Meghan E. 2021. Sacred Flames: The Power of Artificial Light in Ancient Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

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

Tiesler, Vera, and Andrew K. Scherer, eds. 2018.  Smoke, Flames, and the Human Body in Mesoamerican Ritual Practice. Washington,  D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Library and Research Collection.

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.

Borowski Lecture

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October 28, 2021
7:30 pm EDT
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Leslie DesMarteau


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