“The social life of pre-sunrise
things: Indigenous Mesoamerican
(Hamann, B. 2002)
Current Anthropology 43(3):351-382
Matthew Batchelor
Mesoamerica (Context)
→ As a cultural region, Mesoamerica is primarily defined by a
collection of traditions developed and shared by numerous
indigenous cultures.
→ Proceeding from the early domestication of staple products such
as maize, cultural traits such as complex mythological and
religious traditions, advanced agricultural systems, numeric and
calender systems and distinct architectural styles, spread
throughout the area and began defining cultures.
→ Communities developed into their own organised socially
stratified hierarchies and consequently, into chiefdoms with the
evolution of large ceremonial and administrative centres.
Article Overview
→ Hamann's study draws on archaeological, ethnographic, and
historical sources to explore the traditions within indigenous
Mesoamerican archaeology.
→ It is common, when looking into this time period and region, to
resort to using the culture-area concept of Mesoamerica. An
interpretive structure, outlines this lengthy period and provides a
→ Hamann uses three paired locations in his article: The Classic
(200–1000 CE) site of Teotihuacan and the 16th-century Mexica
Aztec capital of Tenochtitla. The Classic site of Yucun˜ udahui
and the 16th-century Mixtec community of Chachoapan; and the
Postclassic (1000–1521 CE) site of Chichen Itza and The 20thcentury Yucatec Maya community of Chan Kom.
Teotihuacan & Tenochtitla
Chichen Itza
Figure 1:
Map of Mesoamerica. (With visual examples of some major sites)
Theoretical Approaches
→ Hamann has two primary theoretical approaches in his article:
1) He attempts to trace continuations in indigenous beliefs that can provide
a link between artifacts from previous culture periods to present social
2) Based on CF. Trouillot's publication in 2004, Global Transformations:
Anthropology & The Modern World: “Spatial-temporal generalizations
like Mesoamerica do not gain their interpretative strength from lists of
recurrent cultural traits. Rather they become useful when they focus on
enduring structures of social meanings”. Within this temporal-spatial
construct, Hamann traces continuities in indigenous beliefs that link
artifacts from “the past” to social life in “the present”.
Wider Theoretical Approaches
→ The very concept of “social life” is that the material thing(s) may
have the potential to act in our world in the same way humans
→ Kopytoff (1986) - Objects are used and reused, their forms and
meanings are transformed alongside. Entire classes of objects
may be reused and reinterpreted. Hamann's discussion of the
social life of archaeological remains focused on the
interpretation as survivals from a previous age of creation. And
this “survival” needs to be considered beyond merely material
→ Abu El-Haj (1998) - “Distinguishing archaeologies that produce
“new material culture” and thus transform the physical and social
spaces of their present.”
Methodological Approaches
→ Examining the ethnographic histories of the cultures in the
→ Comparing the current use of important cultural sites with how
the same groups thought it used to be used.
→ Examining Historical records, both from the contemporary
languages and tribes still existing today who claim roots back to
these early pre-sunrise civilisations.
→ What is it?
The emergence of the present from the past involved the creation of
debts with the supernatural, debts that humans had continually to
→ Where is it?
This concept is found throughout Mesoamerica. Its the repayment of
the gods through sacrifice. A basic “existential proposition” of
human existence.
Social memories about the past were mortared to social hierarchies
in the present by embedding original-debt in the materials of dayto-day life.
Michael, E, Smith: Reply to
Hamann's Article
→ Smith states that Hamann’s model does not sufficiently account for the role
of social class in structuring attitudes and behaviour concerning the past. It is
smith's primary belief that ruling and elite classes were far more deeply
involved with “pre- Sunrise things” in ancient Mesoamerican societies than
commoners were.
→ “Hamann is correct that appreciation for ancient objects was a widespread
phenomenon and an important cultural trait in Mesoamerica.”
Yannis Hamilakis's Reply to
Hamann's Article
→ Yannis states “Hamann’s paper is an important addition to the
discussion on the diverse cultural biographies of material
culture.” He takes the main idea to be that the monumental
landscape created by the presence of material of the past has
inspired many social groups to develop their own distinctive
forms of historical narratives; their own “indigenous
→ Yannis's concluding note is “But while we should recognize the
capacity of all social groups to produce historical narratives, we
should also be sensitive to the complexities of this process of
production, in which self and other are often mutually
→ Location-based socialisation can be noted as a major influence on
present groups in actively shaping the next generations identity
and social existence.
→ In Mesoamerican social theory the social lives of objects and
locations, the supernatural forces they house, and the social
identity of communities are all closely linked.
→ Hamann’s views regarding the topic of long-term structures
keenly seeks to move away from the popular idea that cultural
meanings are simply constructed to serve social and economic
→ There has been a number of replies to the article stating misinterpretation of evidence (Michael Smith, 2002) or forcing
parallels between European ideologies (Ian Hodder, 2002).
→ Abu El-Haj, N. (1998). "Translating truths: Nationalism, archaeological
practice, and the remaking of past and present in contemporary Jerusalem."
American Ethnologist 25(2): 1-23.
→ Hamann, B. (2002). "The Social Life of Pre‐Sunrise Things: Indigenous
Mesoamerican Archaeology." Current Anthropology 43(3): 351-382.
→ Hodder, I. (2002). "The Social Life of Pre‐Sunrise Things: Indigenous
Mesoamerican Archaeology." Current Anthropology 43(3): 373.
→ Hamilakis, Y. (2002). "The Social Life of Pre‐Sunrise Things: Indigenous
Mesoamerican Archaeology." Current Anthropology 43(3): 372.
→ Kopytoff, I. (1986). The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization
as Process. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
→ Smith, M. E. (2003). "What Did Mesoamerican Commoners Think about
“Pre-Sunrise Things”?" Current Anthropology 44(2): 271-273.
→ Trouillot, C. F. (2004). Global Transformations: Anthropology & The
Modern World, Palgrave Macmillan.
→ Figure 1: Splendours (N/A). Map of Mesoamerica.
http://www.lib.uci.edu/about/publications/exhibits/meso/mesolandscape2.html. U.
O. C. Irvine

Social Life of pre-sunrise (presentation)