Torches, Fireflies, and Moonlight: The Brilliance of Classic Maya Lightscapes
February 27, 2022 Pacific Time
Santa Rosa, CA United States
Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
AIA Society: North Coast
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: https://upcolorado.com/about-us/news-features/item/2951-archaeology-of-the-night. Invited blog.
TEDx Talks: Gonlin, Nancy, Bellevue College. April 4, 2017, “Life After Dark in the Ancient World.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpawWr7ZmhM.
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. https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/night-archaeology/
Podcast: Gonlin, Nancy and April Nowell, 2018 “Episode 35: Archaeology of the Night.” Archaeology Podcast Network, Arizona StateUniversity. https://www.archaeologypodcastnetwork.com/archaeology/35?rq=night.
A FEW RESOURCES ON THE NIGHT & LYCHNOLOGY
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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.
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