Monday, August 15, 2011

Using an artistic touch to bring Calixtlahuaca to life

By Dr. Brad Andrews

How can art and archaeology work together? Art is one of the humanities and archaeology is a social science – as such, most people do not realize they have the potential to connect in very useful ways. Artists can bring something very important to the archaeological table: the life-like, recreation of ancient human behavior as inferred from the lifeless remains of the archaeological record. Working together then, the archaeologist can inform the artist about what the artifacts indicate about how people lived – subsequently, the artist can apply artistic license to recreate a snap shot of daily life. The compatibility of both disciplines in this regard is an extremely valuable and effective way for the archaeologist to communicate with the public. One problem professional archaeologists have is that they either find it difficult to talk about what they do to the lay-person, or they simply do not think it is necessary to do so (even though public interest and support keep us employed!). Through the artist, the archaeologist can take advantage of pictures that are literally worth a thousand words. The artist benefits by being able to apply their artistic skills to subject matter they rarely get a chance to engage in – prehistory!

Lucky for us we have been able to turn to artist Michael Stasinos of Pacific Lutheran University to help us bring some of Post-classic Calixtlahauca to life. This endeavor is a collaborative process that involves dialog about archaeological information (artifacts, houses, monuments, etc.), use and consultation of ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources of information, and artistic imagination. As most folks probably know lots of pictures of Mexico, both past and present can be found online. Such content can be consulted to fuel artistic imagination, which is important because the responsible artist must fill in lots of blanks with reasonable and realistic content.

I first began chatting with Michael Stasinos about doing a scene of daily life in a Calixtlahuaca household. As mentioned in my first blog, my research on stone tools has revealed that bifaces were actually flintknapped in the city. Hence, I wanted to be able to bring that interpretation to life. Michael and I began by discussing the typical

layout of a Calixtlahuaca household using plan view maps and photographs of the houses that were excavated in 2006 (see P2 & P3). We also discussed how the buildings might have been walled and roofed. The excavations indicated that walls were probably wattle & daub (walls made of interwoven posts or laths and twigs plastered over with mud or clay) and the roofs were probably thatch. Artistic inspiration for these features was sought looking over photographs of modern thatched dwellings (see P4). Michael chose to depict a seated flintknapper and another young man (perhaps a son) and a woman and child focused on grinding corn. Photographs of pottery and baskets were used as inspiration to populate the area with a number of these items. Care was taken to use the photographs of the site as a basis for integrating masonry detail for the retaining wall and plants such as corn and the famous agave (Maguey – from whence comes tequila!). Finally, Michael added a dog and some turkeys (barely visible on the left side of the house) to complete the scene: voila – a day in the life at Post-classic Calixtlahuaca! (see P5).

Michael is now working on a site-wide scene that will show the Calixtlahuaca cityscape populated with house compounds, complete with a market area in the foreground. All of us working on the project agreed that it would be nice to see what Calixtlahuaca might have looked like with people in it. The actual marketplace has not been identified, but itwas an important economic institution at Calixtlahuaca like it was elsewhere in ancient Mesoamerica.

This city scene started by selecting a photograph of Cerro Tenismo, where the site is located, that could be used as a base (see P6). The challenge with projects like this is to chose a photo that shows a “sense” of the whole, but enables the incorporation of some details in the foreground; the tradeoff is that you lose some of the whole the more foreground details you bring in - a happy balance must be achieved. Michael removed the color in Adobe Photoshop and produced a large base sheet (1 m in width) that he could use to populate the hillside with houses (see P7). The market scene is now in the works, inspired by other ancient Mesoamerican market scenes that have been recreated and photographs of modern Mexican markets. Michael first began populating the market foreground by drawing block figures on a mylar overlay placed on the base sheet (see P8). In this way he is easily able to evaluate issues of space and adjust the content as needed. Now he is in the process of adding the details of market-focused daily activities (see P9 & P10).

These types of illustrations are not easy to do. It requires more than talented artistic license to do good reconstructions. There are way too many egregiously inaccurate renditions out there that smack more of fantasy than fact. The responsible collaboration between artists and archaeologist is a must. We consider ourselves lucky that Michael has been so generous with his time and skills, and has done so with an eye to being accurate and realistic. We will be sure to post the final cityscape version when it is finished.

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