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FW: Book Review - The Aztecs

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    ... From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@ANATOMY.USYD.EDU.AU] Sent: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 8:11 AM To: ANTHRO-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU Subject: Book Review - The
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      FW: Book Review - The Aztecs

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@...]
      Sent: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 8:11 AM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      Subject: Book Review - The Aztecs


      An HTML version of this book review can be found at
       http://dannyreviews.com/h/Aztecs.html
      along with more than five hundred other reviews.

       TITLE: The Aztecs
       AUTHOR: Michael E. Smith
       PUBLISHER: Blackwell 1996
       OTHER: 361 pages, halftones, references, index

      It is framed by narrative political history, but the core of _The Aztecs_
      is social history, a description of life in the Valley of Mexico and
      its surrounds in the fifteenth century.  For this Smith draws on a broad
      range of sources -- native codices, accounts by the Spanish conquerors
      and later chroniclers, and archaeology -- but particularly on recent
      findings from archaeological excavations (including some of his own)
      designed to answer particular questions.  The result is quite lively,
      going into just enough detail about particular sites and documents to give
      some depth, and I found it an engaging read.  I recommend it to anyone
      interested in the Aztecs, both general readers like myself (approaching
      the subject for the first time) and those with some background in the
      area seeking an overview.

      Smith begins with a historiographical introduction surveying the
      environmental context, the history of Aztec studies, and the sources.
      This is followed by an outline of Aztec history: predecessors in
      Teotihuacan and the Toltecs, the Aztlan migrations, the rise of Aztec
      city states, and the Empire of the Triple Alliance.  And the closing
      chapters describe the Spanish conquest, subsequent Nahua history, and
      the Aztec legacy today.

      In the middle of this there are eight chapters on different aspects
      of Aztec life.  Smith begins with demographics and the related topics
      of agriculture and settlement patterns: in Late Aztec times there may
      have been around a million people in the Valley of Mexico, supported by
      intensifying agriculture centred on the standard Mesoamerican maize/bean
      complex.  He goes on to look at Aztec artisans and the variety of
      everyday and luxury goods they produced: pottery, copper and bronze
      tools, textiles, obsidian, feather mosaics, and more.  These goods were
      exchanged within a complex economy featuring a hierarchy of markets,
      thriving trade, and a significant merchant class.

      Smith outlines what is known about Aztec family life (birth,
      education, marriage, and death) and social distinctions -- there
      were slight differences between rural and urban dwellers, but fairly
      rigid distinctions between commoners and nobles.  The basic unit of
      Aztec politics was the city-state (though the appropriateness of that
      particular term is debated), with the Triple Alliance maintaining a
      "hegemonic empire" based on a combination of tribute extraction and
      strategic control of key border areas.  Aztec cities had a "public plaza"
      at their centre, with temple, palace, and ballcourt, but were otherwise
      not that clearly distinguished from rural areas.  Tenochtitlan was a
      unique case: with perhaps 200000 inhabitants, it was one of the biggest
      cities in the world at the time.

      In the popular imagination the Aztecs are inextricably linked with human
      sacrifice.  Smith does look at this (and human blood offerings more
      generally) and some of the proposed explanations for it, but he also
      gives a broader outline of Aztec religion, covering creation myths and
      deities and the role of monumental architecture and public ceremonies.
      Turning to science and art, he glances at writing, astronomy and the
      calendar, medicine, art, poetry, and dance.

      _The Aztecs_ is illustrated with a good selection of black and white
      halftones, well-integrated with the text.

      --

      %T      The Aztecs
      %A      Smith, Michael E.
      %I      Blackwell
      %C      Oxford
      %D      1996
      %O      paperback, halftones, notes, references, index
      %G      ISBN 0-631-20958-1
      %P      361pp
      %W      http://www.albany.edu/~mesmith/mestaz.html
      %K      archaeology, social history, Central America

      12 July 2000

              ------------------------------------------------------
              Copyright (c) 2000 Danny Yee <editor@...>
              Danny Yee's Book Reviews      http://dannyreviews.com/
              ------------------------------------------------------

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