Iterative Cosmologies…

“During the Zuni Molawia ceremonial of 1915, when the house-tops were crowded, the roof of one of the houses enlarged that season caved in. The accident occurred, people began to say, because turquoise had not been deposited under the floor of the new chamber.”

Elsie Clews Parsons

Pueblo Indian Religion Vol. 1, 1939, p.105

The quote above, read some time ago, was one of the first things I read that spoke to the deeper meaning of many of the “ritual deposits” found by archaeologists. Specifically, how these deposits were connected to built space. I have since encountered innumerable studies from Anthropology, Archaeology, Architecture, Religious Studies, etc., that show how built space and the associated material are microcosms of a larger worldview. These studies demonstrate how space becomes place within a certain cultural logic. For example, in Mesoamerica among the ancient Maya, the quadripartite division of the world organized the gods themselves, ritual calendar (indivisible from the agricultural calendar), the layout of cities, the organization of hierarchy (as seen in four founding lineages noted in the Chilam Balam), the agricultural fields themselves (squares fields with each corner having an altar), the everyday house, the altar within the house, and even individual caches placed in the ground. This is what I like to call an iterative cosmology. This kind of layering can be seen across the globe. The interesting aspect of this link between worldview and space comes at the local level. It demands interpretation that takes local cultural logic seriously. For example, the above quote suggests that the building fell because of improper offerings, not necessarily only from a lack of structural integrity, or put another way, improper offerings led to a lack of structural integrity and thus the building fell.

What on earth does any of this have to do with digital technologies in the humanities? Well, for me the answer came when I tried to ask similar questions about cosmology in a society without surviving myths or writing. All of the studies I have seen come either from areas that do have existing origin myths and writing, or from ethnographic accounts in which the people themselves can explain. The area of northern Mexico (far outside of what is considered Mesoamerica) in which I am interested does not have either extant myths or writing. Yet given the iterative or multi-level, and spatial aspects of many (if not all) Native American belief systems, I believe these systems will leave material patterns behind. That is where GIS comes in.

I turned to GIS as I floundered to come up with a methodology that would allow me to identify spatial patterns. I had an archaeological site in mind and access to enough data about this site that would allow me to answer my questions, but I had little idea about how to get at the spatial aspect of the patterns I had hoped to investigate. GIS technology allows me to take the data I have digitized and not only display it graphically, but conduct a spatial analysis in order to identify spatial structure. Hopefully that spatial structure will help me understand the over-arching cosmological principles that were active in northern Mexico during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Thus, I am in the process of georeferencing (recently finished) original excavation maps, and digitizing all of the structures within this site (it’s an intra-site analysis), I will then plot artifact frequencies across the site along with certain cosmologically important architectural features (hearths and posts). All of this data comes from eight published volumes as well as unpublished field notes. None of it was in digital form before I started. From this I can pull actual coordinates of these things and run spatial statistics to ask a series of questions: do certain kind of artifacts group in certain areas of the site? Do the artifact assemblages in rooms that have offerings under the posts look different than assemblages in rooms without these kinds of offerings? If so how are the assemblages different? Where are the elaborated hearths in relation to posts with offerings? Are there discrete boundaries between areas with these elaborated hearths? Do the elaborated hearths co-occur with certain kinds of artifacts? And so on.

So here I am currently wrangling with large amounts of data to be sure it is internally consistent and get it into ArcMap as the first step. In the back of my mind is how I will disseminate this information. I have heard various ideas, but am currently not sure about some of the best ways to disseminate GIS data….but more on that later!

Research Assistant in the UVa Department of Anthropology, former Scholars' Lab Fellow. Her research interests include the intersection of cosmology and social organization at the site of Paquimé, to assess the nature of hierarchy and social differentiation in non-state societies, and exploring new ways to understand meaning in the archaeological record through symbolic and spatial…


  1. Hi All,
    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my blog! I think I may have misplaced my emphasis on structural integrity. I am not measuring the actual architectural engineering of the structures. To me, the quote brings into focus the relationship between small caches or offerings found archaeologically and built space.
    To give an example, in the site I am working on many rooms have small holes dug in each corner of the room. Beads of various materials were placed in these holes. The holes were then sealed over and never re-opened in antiquity. Many archaeologists identify these as ritual offerings and say nothing more. To me, the quote I started my blog with brings those offering into their spatial context. Possibly putting them in a similar light to Mayan dedicatory caches. This is all tied up in a theoretical perspective that dictates cosmological ideas are mapped onto space and material, thus offerings of this type should be able to tell us more than the mere fact that they are ritual offerings. So I guess I’m speaking, in part, with a great deal of disciplinary background in my head (aren’t we all!).
    The notion of these ritual spaces being better engineered is very interesting, and something that I think would yield some interesting results.
    Thanks again for the comments, not sure I addressed them helpfully, but I’d love to continue the conversation.

  2. Roberto, very intereseting comment, you were thinking of what i believe I may have been thinking. I underatnd the need for your anbiguity here. But if you want to discuss what we both are perceiving you should email me at very interesting I thought too.
    hope to hear,

  3. abby, fascinating. i know next to nothing about gis, but i’m really intrigued by the intellectual exercise. you seem to say it’s possible that placing an offering could have led to better structural integrity, or at least that it may correlate with better structural integrity. am i reading that right? if so, why would that be? is it because in attending to the gods and providing “the proper offerings” the architects were also focusing their engineering efforts more coherently? is it because only the most important and, hence, best designed, projects got that kind of ritual attention? put another way, i’d be curious to hear more about the explanatory force behind how you interpret the data once it’s all mapped out. good luck!