Maya Potters' Indigenous Knowledge: Cognition, Engagement, and Practice

Maya Potters' Indigenous Knowledge: Cognition, Engagement, and Practice

by Dean E. Arnold

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Based on fieldwork and reflection over a period of almost fifty years, Maya Potters’ Indigenous Knowledge utilizes engagement theory to describe the indigenous knowledge of traditional Maya potters in Ticul, Yucatán, Mexico. In this heavily illustrated narrative account, Dean E. Arnold examines craftspeople’s knowledge and skills, their engagement with their natural and social environments, the raw materials they use for their craft, and their process for making pottery.

Following Lambros Malafouris, Tim Ingold, and Colin Renfrew, Arnold argues that potters’ indigenous knowledge is not just in their minds but extends to their engagement with the environment, raw materials, and the pottery-making process itself and is recursively affected by visual and tactile feedback. Pottery is not just an expression of a mental template but also involves the interaction of cognitive categories, embodied muscular patterns, and the engagement of those categories and skills with the production process. Indigenous knowledge is thus a product of the interaction of mind and material, of mental categories and action, and of cognition and sensory engagement—the interaction of both human and material agency.

Engagement theory has become an important theoretical approach and “indigenous knowledge” (as cultural heritage) is the focus of much current research in anthropology, archaeology, and cultural resource management. While Dean Arnold’s previous work has been significant in ceramic ethnoarchaeology, Maya Potters' Indigenous Knowledge goes further, providing new evidence and opening up different concepts and approaches to understanding practical processes. It will be of interest to a wide variety of researchers in Maya studies, material culture, material sciences, ceramic ecology, and ethnoarchaeology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607326564
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 02/07/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 294
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

Dean E. Arnold is adjunct curator of anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and professor emeritus of anthropology at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has taught anthropology for forty-three years; done field work in Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, and the Southwest; and published four books, including the seminal Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process, and more than sixty articles about potters, pottery, and pottery production and related subjects (such as Maya Blue). Arnold was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico and Peru, a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall at University of Cambridge in 1985, and a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Archaeology there in 1985, 1992, and 2000. He received the Society for American Archaeology’s Award for Excellence in Ceramic Studies in 1996. In 2003, he received the Charles R. Jenkins Award for Distinguished Achievement from the National Executive Council of Lambda Alpha (the National Collegiate Honor Society for Anthropology). He received the Wheaton College Senior Faculty Scholarship Achievement Award in 2001 and the Wheaton College Alumni Association Award for Distinguished Service to Alma Mater in 2008.

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Academic interest in indigenous (or "local") knowledge has grown in recent years, particularly for those interested in grassroots development and natural resource and wilderness management (Menzies 2006; Menzies and Butler 2006; Mistry and Berardi 2016; Ratner and Holen 2007). Based upon work by Harold Conklin (1961), Charles Frake (1962), William Sturtevant (1964), and Brent Berlin (Berlin 1973, 1992; Berlin et al. 1966, 1968; Berlin and Kay 1969), anthropologists have looked to indigenous knowledge, not just as a way of affirming the deep experience that indigenous peoples develop in their own environmental context, but also as a way to explore ways to identify and encourage sustainability in an environment with pressures of population, acculturation, and dwindling resources (e.g., Brondizio and Le Tourneau 2016; Lauer and Aswani 2009; Ratner and Holen 2007; Sillitoe 1998). Most of these studies have focused on subsistence and agriculture (e.g., Benz et al. 2007; Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven 1974; Faust 1998; Ford 2008; Ford and Nigh 2009; Johnson 1974; Lauer and Aswani 2009), crops such as potatoes (Brush 1980; La Barre 1947), maize (Benz et al. 2007; Butler and Arnold 1977), manioc (Kensinger et al. 1975, 43–51), plants (Berlin et al. 1974), ethnomedicine (Ortiz de Montellano 1975), medicinal plants (Caamal-Fuentes et al. 2011; Hirschhorn 1981, 1982), nutritious wild plants (Felger and Moser 1973), fish (Begossi et al. 2008; Chimello de Oliveira et al. 2012), and insects (Oltrogge 1977). Indigenous knowledge also provides a close-up of intimate knowledge of subsistence practices in hostile climates such as the Arctic and perceptions of climate change (Couzin 2007). To my knowledge, however, little attention, if any, has been devoted to the study of the indigenous knowledge of crafts and the way in which potters, in particular, perceive and engage their material world in the process of making pottery. Even though my own foray into this world (ethnomineralogy) was published more than four decades ago (Arnold 1971), no book-length study of the indigenous knowledge of crafts, and that of potters, in particular, exists.

Anthropologists and development specialists, however, are concerned with craft production in cultural, environmental, and economic contexts in which agriculture is not possible or is insufficient for survival (e.g., Goff 1990). Indeed, government intervention for developing pottery production in Ticul, Yucatán, in the past tended to ignore local knowledge (both overt and covert) that resulted in repeated failures after investing thousands, if not millions, of pesos (Arnold 2008, 238–39, 245–46; 2015a, 201–12). Such failures are not uncommon in the Third World, and the tendency is to believe that scientific knowledge is superior to local knowledge (described in López Varela 2014) and that natives are ignorant, incapable of learning, or resistant to change. Such prejudicial attributions are, of course, not true because indigenous populations are not ignorant, nor do they resist learning new practices. Native peoples have sustained themselves for hundreds and hundreds of years using their traditional knowledge, and they have adapted to changing circumstances throughout the past (see Killion 1999). This traditional knowledge, however, may be incompatible with top-down development projects that fail to take it into account, fail to respect the local people, and do not understand or appreciate the indigenous perspective (e.g., López Varela 2014; Sillitoe 1998).

Indigenous knowledge is also critical to the study of the historic and prehistoric past. A recent review of an exhibition at the British Library in London documenting the search for the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century noted that Inuit indigenous knowledge led to the discovery of one of the ships of Sir John Franklin, who set out to find an Arctic route around North America in 1845. Both Franklin's ships and all of his men were lost, and though Inuit accounts of the tragedy at the time were widely disbelieved and denounced, they ultimately proved to be correct and led to the discovery of one of Franklin's ships in September 2014 (Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink 2015). Similarly, Jean Polfus used traditional ecological knowledge of the Dene First Nation to study the morphological, genetic, and ecological variability of three species of Caribou in the Canadian Northwest Territories (Merkle 2016).

Indigenous knowledge also has relevance to archaeology. The Society for American Archaeology's the SAA Archaeological Record devoted an entire issue to indigenous knowledge and its role in archaeological practice (Whitley 2007). Ethnoecological studies of plant use and forest use in Belize have shown that the Maya subsistence practices reveal their long-term management of the tropical forest (Ford 2008). Indigenous knowledge has also been used to identify archaeological sites in dense tropical forest and to enhance local history for local indigenous populations (Duin et al. 2015). Kelli Carmean et al. (2011) have suggested that local indigenous knowledge, based upon the different types of stone gleaned from the Maya Cordemex Dictionary, indicate that different Maya classifications of stone were differentially distributed within and around Sayil and that high-quality construction stone may have been a natural resource that was controlled and distributed in a manner similar to water and land. Besides providing a description of ancient Maya perceptions of soil, land and earth, Christian Wells and Lorena Mihok (Wells and Mihok 2009) summarized contemporary and ethnohistoric classifications of these phenomena, providing a substantial contribution to those interested in Maya agricultural development.

The use of Maya dictionaries is an important and innovative way to understand the perceptions of the environment of the ancient Maya, but it is only a first step and can miss semantic variability. Dictionaries are no better than the specialized knowledge (or lack thereof) of the informants used to produce them. When meanings are specific to specialists such as potters, masons, and swidden agriculturalists in local communities of practice, however, understanding Maya traditional ecological knowledge must be understood with reference to specific local communities, their unique landscapes, and the variability of the raw materials found within them. Any description of Maya perceptions of their environment and raw materials is, of course, important for understanding ancient Maya culture and modern agricultural development, but classifications vary from place to place, from ethnic group to ethnic group, and from the present to the past. As this work shows, classifications of the landscape and the raw materials from it are specific to distinct communities of practice. There are, of course, commonalities between such communities in the present and those in the past as the works cited above have shown, but classifications appear to be specific to communities of practice that are bounded by local landscapes and internal interaction. Moreover, such classifications are unique to specialists in a community that use those resources. A close examination of Raymond Thompson's classic work (Thompson 1958) on Yucatek Maya pottery making, for example, reveals that though he tries to lump local classifications into larger behavioral units such as clay, temper, and paint, his detailed descriptions of the local variations indicate that each pottery-making community in Yucatán recognizes different Maya classifications of raw materials, defines them differently, and uses them in unique ways. This observation indicates that though variability exists within communities of practice, there is less variability within a community in the labeling and the selection of raw materials than there is between communities.

The study of craft production of a specific community of practice is, of course, critical for archaeologists because inferences of ancient pottery production are loaded with assumptions about the distribution of craft resources, or lack of them, how pottery is made, how production is organized, how technology (and its products) are transmitted from culture to culture, and how pottery relates to the populations that made and used it. Further, the study of craft production and the indigenous knowledge about it can reveal great insights into the past, not just about ceramic production, but for all crafts as well. Unfortunately, many archaeological descriptions of ancient craft production seem to exist in a parallel universe that is largely unrecognizable from the perspective of the actual knowledge and practice of crafts such as pottery making.

Critical to the study of crafts is how potters engage their landscape in order to produce pottery. What kind of knowledge do they embody about the natural world around them, about the materials that they use, and about the process by which they turn these materials into finished vessels? How do they engage their world using this knowledge?

These questions may seem to be simple and obvious to an archaeologist with equally simple and obvious answers. Although the ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological literature is filled with descriptions of what potters do and what they make, there is little emphasis about how they think, how they perceive and classify the world around them, and what they know. Many of the descriptions include the native words for raw materials and vessels, as well they should, but such references represent only the tip of the iceberg of what the potter knows, both consciously and unconsciously.

Knowledge, however, is not behavior, and anthropologists for generations have recognized that what humans say they do, and what they actually do, are not necessarily the same. Rather, actual behavior may vary from stated practice (Lauer and Aswani 2009), and actual outcomes may vary from the rules of behavior (Johnson 1974). This is no less true for pottery production than it is for ethnoecology and the study of kinship (Gillespie 2000a, 2000b, 2000c). My own description of patterns of kinship, inheritance, and residence among Ticul potters, for example, does not reflect elicited rules or verbal responses, but rather resulted from my deep experience of more than four decades of personal knowledge of individuals, their relatives, the composition of their households, and the changes, or lack thereof, of the locations of these households (Arnold 1989; 1991; 2008, 31–91; 2012; 2015a). These patterns were verified by records of birth, marriage, and death from municipal and church records as well as by the actual composition of the households over the years. In brief, they represented the behavior of actual household composition and house lot inheritance, not just the ideal rules of such composition and inheritance.

The focus on practice and behavior rather than knowledge has recently become popular and characterized as practice theory (Bourdieu 1978, 1980), but the concern about studying actual behavior is not new (except perhaps in Europe), and has been the concern of anthropologists in America for decades. In reality, both the knowledge and the practice of crafts need to be the focus of study in order to understand them holistically and to apply them to the remote past.


Like anthropology itself, the study of ceramics has been fraught with changing theories and paradigms that lurch from one perspective to another. Paradigms are constantly replaced by other, newer, more fashionable ones. Cognitive anthropology (D'Andrade 1995), cultural materialism (Harris 1968, 1979), cultural ecology (Steward 1955), ceramic ecology (Arnold 1985; Kolb 1976, 1988, 1989; Matson 1965a, 1965b), technological choice (Lemonnier 1986,1992, 1993; Sillar and Tite 2000; Van der Leeuw 1993), habitus (Bourdieu 1978; Mauss 1976), behavioral chain analysis (Schiffer 1975, 2005; the chaîne opératoire), practice theory (Bourdieu 1978, 1980), and engagement theory (Malafouris 2004, 2013; Renfrew 2004) have all been advanced as presumably novel and exciting ways to describe what people know, what they do, and why.

No theory and paradigm, however, have an exclusive corner on explanatory validity. Most are limited, focus on one aspect or another of human behavior, and usually cannot incorporate opposing views. Nevertheless, they are not, as some would have us believe, in competition with one another and are best understood as additive. Rather, like the proverbial apples and oranges, they are incommensurable and complement and explain different aspects of the phenomenon being studied like the metaphor of the blind man and the elephant. Any craft such as pottery making, like the remainder of human culture, needs to be embraced and studied holistically. Technological choice, for example, is not incompatible with an ecological approach in which potters receive information from the environment, their raw materials, and the pottery-making process in order to make their pottery (Arnold 1985) as some have claimed (Gosselain 1998, 79–82; Loney 2000; Van der Leeuw 1993). All can contribute significantly to a holistic understanding and explanation of ceramic production and distribution and its variability. Different paradigms and theories of ceramic production all have truth value and need to be integrated together into a unified whole.

All of these approaches to the past have value, but the study of material culture should not be simply subject to the theoretical fads and then discarded when paradigmatic fashion changes. Emphasizing each new paradigm in order to appear "trendy" or "in style" (seeArnold 1991), and ignoring the value of previous ones, suggests that there is no objective, verifiable truth, that truth about the past is merely relative to the observer's position and has no transcendent value beyond the theoretical fad at the moment. For those archeologists who believe that the past has an objective reality that exists beyond our ability to adequately know and describe it, focusing exclusively on such a relativistic stance challenges the notion that there is such a thing as a real knowable past — albeit one that can never be described fully nor completely.

Some archaeologists spend time affirming the obvious that objects have meaning, that they affect behavior, that humans have agency, that ideas are reflected in material culture, and that the technology is embedded within a social and political structure. These notions are elementary and obvious to anyone with anthropological training and ethnographic experience, and probably to any thoughtful person. It is obvious that humans materialize ideas and semantic structures in material objects and that cognition is reflected in material culture because of human agency and that technology is socially embedded. What is significant about these truisms is not that they exist or are new, but rather that anthropologists need to figure out how they are manifested and applied in a particular time, place, and circumstance.

Some modern paradigms merely dress up traditional ideas in new terminological clothing. Some of this new terminology provides a vocabulary to talk about these ideas, but one should not be mesmerized with their seeming novelty and newness. That being said, engagement theory is an encompassing explanation that can incorporate a number of paradigms that tie human agents formally to material culture in new and thoughtful ways by recognizing both the action that humans have on the material world, the resulting artifacts, and the reflexiveness of that world, the artifacts, and their context, on human knowledge and action.


This book presents indigenous knowledge of Maya potters of Ticul, Yucatán, from the perspective of engagement theory. Still in its nascent stages, engagement theory has the potential to be a truly unifying theory for the study of material culture and ceramic production by incorporating many different perspectives. As described by Colin Renfrew (2004) and Lambros Malafouris (2004, 2013), engagement theory concerns itself with the relationships between humans and the material world that stress the knowledge-based nature of human action, and the reflexiveness that the material world exerts on the mind.

Engagement theory, like cultural ecology (which also deals with relationships) is also holistic and unifying, but rather than focusing on how cultures choose to adjust to environmental, social, and political conditions, engagement theory provides a different emphasis. Rather, both Colin Renfrew (2004) and Malafouris (2004, 2013) are concerned about the effect that artifacts ("things") have on humans and upon their minds, recognizing that the human mind extends beyond the brain.


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Table of Contents

Contents List of Figures List of Tables Preface 1. Introduction Pottery Production and Paradigms Engagement Theory Components of the Theory The Structure of This Book 2. How Was the Data Collected? The Methodology and Its History Ethnoecology Geological Context Sources of Raw Materials Ethnomineralogy K’at (Clay) Sak Lu’um (White Earth) Sah Kab (White Powder) Hi’ (Crystal) Specialized Knowledge A Community of Practice 5. The Potters’ Engagement with Paste Preparation Preparing Raw Materials Paste Preparation Behavior as Material Engagement 6. The Potters’ Engagement with Vessel Forming The Forming Technology Four Traditional Vessels 7. The Potters’ Engagement with Drying and Firing Gender and Firing Firing Cooking Pottery Building a Kiln Preparing for Firing Firing Variations in the Firing Process Firing Accidents 8. Ticul Pottery as a “Distilled Landscape ” / “Taskscape” The Religious Dimensions of Raw Materials and Their Sources Ritual Pottery as Symbols of a Distilled Landscape: The Day of the Dead Rituals Ancient Pottery from Ticul: A Distilled Community of Practice What Is Indigenous Knowledge? Summary Indigenous Knowledge and Learning Ethnoarchaeology as Cultural Heritage Implications for Methodology What Drives Changes in Indigenous Knowledge? Final Reflections References Index

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