FW: Book Review - The Aztecs
FW: Book Review - The Aztecs
From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@...]
Sent: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 8:11 AM
Subject: Book Review - The Aztecs
An HTML version of this book review can be found at
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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.
%O paperback, halftones, notes, references, index
%G ISBN 0-631-20958-1
%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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