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Antiquities as Animate Objects: The Meanings and Circulation of Artifacts among Maya Ritual Practitioners

Linda Brown, George Washington University, Fellow 2011/12

This fellowship provided me the time, resources, and scholarly engagement to advance the publication of my project on the collection and ceremonial use of antiquities by contemporary Tz’utujil Maya ritual practitioners. Over the past several years, I have interviewed numerous ritual practitioners on the meanings, uses, and circulation of collected sacra. My fellowship began by conducting analyses of these data, thus allowing me to create a cognitive “map” of how people classify these potent assemblages. All items collected by ritual practitioners are considered animate—embodied by powerful beings from a previous era. Completed analysis allowed me to identify and associate specific beings with particular material types. Subsequently, I delved into the library resources and grazed broadly across ethnographic, colonial, iconographic, archaeological, and epigraphic sources for references on the ritual uses and meanings of antiquities among the Maya and their neighbors. This comparative material was incorporated into several chapters I drafted in residence. Another major goal for my year was grappling with theoretical issues emerging from my research. In this regard, I explored literature on traditional indigenous knowledge concerning: (1) personhood and agency, (2) epistemology and ways to know the past, and (3) the role of dreams in cultural survival. I was surprised to find myself expanding into recent neurobiological research on REM sleep, which resonates with what ritual practitioners have told me about the workings of animate objects. As well as being integrated into an upcoming monograph, I will present ideas developed during my time at Dumbarton Oaks in the 2012 Pre-Columbian symposium.

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