PSC 6900 003

Blood and Visions:
Precolumbian Mesoamerican Politics and Culture

CRN: 31391
Latin American Studies; Diversity 3; writing intensive Lowell S. Gustafson Bartley Hall 028


W 2:00 pm - 3:50 pm

(My monitor is a 15" set at 1024 x 768 to view this syllabus and links.)

Course Web Site for posting of papers

1/14-21     1/28 - 2/25     3/10 - 4/21     4/28


Latin America saw people practice politics for at least 12,000 years before Columbus and Cortes, European colonization and national independence, caudillos and constitutions.  Latin American political history did not begin at San Salvador (where Columbus said he first landed) or Virginia's Jamestown colony.  It was well established by the time the Olmec built La Venta 3,200 years ago.  Recorded American history does not begin with Columbus' diaries, but at least with a date of September 3, 32 B.C. (in our calendar) at Tres Zapotes.


For over a thousand years before the Spanish and English arrived in the Americas, the Maya built great temples, plazas, and palaces in cities in which tens of thousands of farmers, weavers, merchants, warriors, sculptors, scribes, and others lived. They engaged in war, trade, and diplomacy. They developed a mathematical system with the concept of zero, which meant completion rather than nothingness. They reflected on highly developed religious thought and art, established sophisticated architectural styles, molded subtly personal ceramics, calculated astronomical events, carefully kept track of the passing of time, and organized governments. In rituals from which they drew the life force of K'ul in blood, they experienced visions that infused their activities with spiritual meaning. They crafted an artistic style of writing with which they recorded their past, politics, and religious thought. As these writings on paper, stone, and woven fabric have increasingly been deciphered in recent years, the ancient Maya whispers have seemed just a little more clear to us. 
Even though much of their world remains shrouded by the jungle, erosion, and uncertainty, a century and a half of research has brought much of it to light. In this class, we will study the words, ruins, and images left by the ancient Maya, as we try to understand their thought, politics, and society. We will consider how they transformed themselves from villagers into a great civilization, how they compare to other ancient civilizations - why they stopped building their cities and why their  population suddenly and precipitously declined - and how they have persisted throughout the colonial and national periods.  We will conclude by reviewing the famous Aztec civilization.

Required Books (at Kennedy Hall Bookstore)

  • Inga Clendinnen,  Aztecs
  • Lowell Gustafson and Amelia Trevelyan, Ancient Maya Gender Identity and Relations (on reserve at Falvey Library.  Info at
  • John Montgomery, How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs
  • Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya, fifth edition
  • Popol Vuh : The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life -- translated by Dennis Tedlock
  • Resources  (These are on-line.  You'll need to install the free Adobe Acrobat if you don't already have it)


All members of the seminar will have read the required readings for each class and be prepared to discuss them.

Each student will make a presentation to the class during the semester.  (The current schedule is at the end of this syllabus.)  Either one or two people will sign up for each class period.

Each presentation will consist of two parts: 1) raising questions from the assigned reading(s) for class dicussion and 2) developing a theme of your own interest drawn from the suggested readings for that class period.  Some of the many available websites on the Maya may also be of use.  When you make your presentation, the rest of the seminar's members will respond to your questions,  make comments, ask questions,  and make suggestions that can be used for the revision of a 20 (double spaced, inch margin, 12 point font) page paper that will be due on April 28.  All papers must be posted on the course web site.  These papers will be among the materials covered on the final exam.

To post your paper, click on the course web site link here, and then use your Villanova email user id and password.  Then click on "Discussions" and then on your topic.  Then click on "compose message" type in a subject and something in the body of the message; and then go to "browse."   Find where you have saved your paper on your own computer and then click "open."  Then remember to "attach file" to your message.  Then click "Post."  I know; this is very clunky.  If this makes no sense, email it to me and I will post it.

But do get into the discussion page in order to read each other's papers; they are part of the required reading for the final exam.  By the Sunday after your presentation, each student in the seminar will post a response to it in which the following points are covered:

  1. How clearly you have identified a theme.  (What is your paper about?  Does it have a main point?  Is there a thesis?)

  2. How clearly you have developed that theme.  (Does the draft hang together?  Does one paragraph flow to the next?  Is is logically developed?  Is there an argument?)

  3. How well you have substantiated it.  (Is this a rich discussion of the topic, or a rather thin essay?  Are the specific, detailed examples that help us understand your main points?)

  4. How well you have used additional sources.  (We have all read the assigned text.  We need you to advance our understanding of the assigned text.)

  5. At least one constructive idea on what could be done to improve the draft.

Paper (revised version due April 28) 40%
Draft Responses 15%
Class Participation and Presentations 20%
Final Exam 25%
Please plan on following the syllabus: I will be as understanding of requests for extra time, postponements, and absences as your boss, client, or customer will be a year or two from now.  Please call me at 610-519-4737 any time, or email me, about any topic - and if you'd like to stop by SAC 256 for an appointment.

Top of Syllabus


Course Outline

(required readings are listed below;  suggested readings are heresome web sites are here.)

I:  Introduction, Predecessors, External Influences  

January 14


Introduction, Geography (Sharer, chapter 1)  To view this and other web presentations, you will need to install the free Shockwave 

  Origins of Mesoamericans, Archaic Period (Sharer, chapter 2)

January 21 The Olmec, Zapotec, & Teotihuacan


II: Periods and Cities

PreClassic, (Sharer, chapter 3)
January 28 Early Classic  (Sharer, chapter 4)
  The Rise of Tikal and Calakmul
February 4 Late Classic: Caracol, Petexbatun, Dos Pilas, Naranjo (Sharer, chapter 5, pp 211 - 236), Restored Tikal (Sharer 264 - 271)
  Yaxchilan (Sharer, 236 - 252), 
February 11 Piedras Negras (Sharer, 262 - 264), Bonampak (Sharer, 252 - 261)
  Palenque (Sharer, 275 - 296)
February 18 Copan and Quirigua (Sharer, 297 - 337)
  Terminal Classic (Sharer, 338 - 367)
February 25 Uxmal and the Puuc (Sharer, 369 - 383)
  Postclassic and Chichen Itza (Sharer, Chapter 7)
Spring Break March 1 - 7


III:  Culture and Society

March 10 The Popol Vuh
March 17 TBA
March 24 Ideology and Cosmology. (Sharer, Chapter 11)
  Arithmetic, Calendrics, and Astronomy.  (Sharer, Chapter 12)
March 31 Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting.  (Sharer, Chapter 14)
  Artifacts, burial goods, caches, refuse,  (Sharer, Chapter 15)  (and Ancient Maya Women, Men, Soldiers)
April 7


Society and Economy.  (Sharer, Chapters 8 - 10)
Language and Writing (Sharer, Chapter 13)
Translation ProjectResources

(You'll need to install the free Adobe Acrobat if you don't already have it)

April 14 Gender (Gustafson)

Translation Project continued

April 21 Aztecs: Clendinnen


IV:  The Enduring Maya

April 28 The Colonial Period (suggested: Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests)
The National Period
Contemporary Period
January 21 on Olmecs, Zapotec, Teotihuacan
January 21 on Preclassic
January 28 Early Classic 
January 28 on Tikal / Calakmul
February 4 on Late Classic Caracol / Dos Pilas / Naranjo
February 4 on Yaxchilan:  
February 11 on Piedras Negras / Bonampak Kali Armstrong
February 11 on Palenque  Joseph Gallo
February 18 on Copan / Quirigua Dom Belfiglio, Carolyn Gilroy
February 18 on Terminal ClassicScott MacMullan
February 25 on Uxmal and the PuucPete Casciano
February 25 on Postclassic and Chichen ItzaKevin Murphy

The available dates / topics for the second half of the semester are:

March 10 on The Popol Vuh:  Lou Charest
March 17 TBA
March 24 on Ideology, Religion, and Cosmology Mary DiRugeris
March 24 on Arithmetic, Calendrics, and Astronomy Oscar Pelaez
March 31 on Architecture, Sculpture, and PaintingMatt Benito, Nicole Grzeskowiak
March 31 on Artifacts Juliette Lewis
April 7 on Society and Economy Joao Magalhaes, Christopher Everett
April 14 on Gender Cristina Carlos
April 21 Aztecs:  Justin Dzakonski
April 21 on Colonial Period Emily Glod
April 21 on The National Period Maria Costello
Our final exam will be on Tuesday, May 4 at 4:15 p.m

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