Is History Objective? by Linda Schele (1942-1998)



[00:00:00] The whole idea that there’s such a thing as objective history, to me is a misnomer. If history were objective, we would never have to rewrite it. But history, even among the greatest university historians, is a continual process of redrawing, reevaluating and reconfiguring our understanding of the past to match our expectations for the future, with the tools of the present.

All history of all time is a kind of propaganda. That doesn’t mean it’s invalid. The question is: Is that history a great historical conspiracy? To me the whole concept that polities of thirty to fifty thousand people, where the great majority of members were actual witnesses to the history that’s written in the stones, to talk about it being the kind of media conspiracies that we know in the twentieth century, beggars the imagination. That would mean that people over a thousand years conspired to create lies, willfully.

So what is the function of history and of public documents? They give history and, by talking about what people did in the past, they teach people in the present what’s expected of them; what good morality is and what brave people are. That’s what Shakespeare is, that’s what the Greek plays are.

The Mixtec codices explain why the people in that generation have the right to hold the lands that they hold, but the media they give to explain that is the story of 8 Deer Tiger Claw, who is a great ancestor. You can approach it from the Marxist point of view that these are instruments that the elites use to manipulate the common people. Or you can look at it that these shared images create the kind of symbolic understanding of existence that allow a state to exist in the first place.

One of the ways that we create societies, one of the ways that we create authority, is the manipulation of this environment of symbols that we live in. That’s what the myth of the United States is. The whole idea of Democracy. The stories of George Washington. All of that is a part of the mythology that gets from the great public voluntary compliance. Well, I believe that the Maya rulers, when they were creating their core of mythology, their origin of authority, were doing exactly the same thing for their people.

Evidence: Maya and Mixtec Record

[02:24:00] We have to understand the nature of the record that we have. When you work with the Mixtecs on one hand, and you work with the Maya on the other hand, you’ve got opposite extremes. Mixtec history is recorded in a series of codices, meant for the usage and the ownership of particular lineages or houses that talk about the great, pivotal events in the past that lead to the political exigencies of the present—essentially, 8 Deer Tiger Claw. What you have in the codices is detailed genealogies and detailed recountings of both the historical and the mythological levels of these events. And the two are important together, because the one tells what happened, and the other one tells why it happened. What we don’t have from the Mixteca is a lot of cities that have been excavated to see how they would have put this into public space for public consumption, through great public rituals and feastings.

With the Maya we have exactly the opposite. What we’ve lost are these detailed genealogies, these detailed recountings of the history. The codices didn’t survive. But what we have is the public record. We have that portion that rulers found useful to put into the public domain. Now the problem is, how did you define useful? And some people who analyze this prefer to deal with it only as a personal basis: that the rulers of the Maya did not consider the kingdom before their own personal good. My take on it is that Maya rulers were not unlike our own rulers; they felt a responsibility for the running of the kingdom. What they chose to put in the public monument was both to serve the kingdom and to serve their own authority, which means that at any one site we only have the information that (1) historically survived, (2) has been found by the archaeologists, and (3) the elite chose to put into the public record.

History for Whom?

[04:28:00] The monuments are not set up so that one is required to be literate to understand what’s going on in them. The critical information is carried through visual information. They’re portraits of rulers. I’ve believed for many years that the Maya chose to put the verbs in the scene into the progressive aspect, rather than into the completive aspect. What the Maya understood is that this is not an action in the past, it’s an action in the progressive that is ongoing. As long as the monument exists, the action exists. People were seeing leaders who had become ancestors in the actions that are [documented].

It’s clear from the sixteenth-century documents that were recorded within twenty to forty years after the Conquest that both the Maya and the Mexica had great public rituals in which these histories were reenacted and in which the great founding myths, like the Popol Vuh, were enacted in a public way. People knew who all the players were. And they would have known, just from being members of that particular state, the general history surrounding it—just the way most Americans are able to identify the iconography of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima that’s in a monument in Washington D.C.

In the end, the primary audience is the elites themselves, but the elites were not a monolithic group. There were people that were allied with the king. There were people that were against the kings. There were rivalries within the elite. There were many, many different levels of the elites. Each one of those elite groups had their own constituency. The kings had to negotiate power with these lower constituencies.

Powerful Filters

[06:10:00] History itself is a political instrument. I know that now because I’m working directly with the [living] Maya, teaching them how to read the glyphs, and one of the things that I have discovered is that sometimes just your choice of words can make a huge difference in the way people receive things. It actually wasn’t a Maya that brought this to my attention. It was Judy Maxwell. Whenever we talk about what the Olmecs, or what the Mayas, or what any other Mesoamerican people did to the skulls of their babies, we call it “head deformation.” Right? Well, that’s a derogatory term. That classifies what they [the Maya] did as something that deforms and mis-creates a part of the human being. And Judy argued and argued with me. She said, “Well, when an actor goes in and has his face lifted, do we call that ‘face deformation’? When a person has [his or her] nose reshaped, do we call that ‘nose deformation’? We don’t. We use other words to describe it. We call it a ‘face-lift.’ Or we call it ‘plastic surgery.’”

The people who create the history create filters by which the past is understood by the living. And you can create those filters in such a way that they enhance your own position and they deflate the other position, and that’s been happening to Native Americans for five hundred years.

Epigraphy and Archaeology

[07:36:00] Archaeology is wonderful for finding out what’s going on in the ground, but no archaeologist sees much more than twenty or twenty-five percent of the entire record. I’ve seen this in the tunnels of Copan. We create wonderful explanations for what we’ve seen, come back the next season, we go one meter further on in the tunnel and discover something new that completely changes everything. Any interpretation of any archaeological record, is never more than a best guess for the pattern of data that any archaeologist has at that particular moment. The same thing is true of epigraphy.

What epigraphy does is it deals with history. It deals with persons. It deals with time. It deals with strategies of social adaptation. It deals with strategies of political concerns. It deals with strategies of using religious and cosmological frameworks in order to justify history. Epigraphy, along with iconography and with the work of our historians and architects and so forth, deals with the symbolic environment, but it can’t find out about pollen. It can’t find out about the kinds of food that were being grown. It can’t find out about the daily life of a people who lived in a hut on the side of a mountain because that’s not the stuff of history.

Archaeology can look at dating. It can look at distribution of all sorts of artifacts. It can look at genetics. It can look at trade goods. It can look at all sorts of things. But, archaeology, by itself, will never detect a name. Archaeology couldn’t find battle sites. Archaeology cannot generate history.

A Copan Example: A Woman King

[09:15:00] Let’s take Copan, where by the mid-1980s the epigraphers had outlined a dynastic history and identified the year in which the founder arrived. In the early years of this, some archaeologists, based upon the surface record in the valley, were calling this “putative” kings and doubting their existence, asserting that they had been “made-up” by the late Classic kings in order to create a history for the lineage. Last year, they opened the tomb of the founder. Not only is he real, and not only can they now prove that the most massive building went on during the hundred years immediately after his appearance in the archaeological record, but we actually have him. We probably have his wife. And we certainly have two or three of his descendants, which the new genetic testing will begin to tell us something about.

Now, in Copan, we have the opposite kind of record, too. And one of these great kings, to our stunned surprise, is a woman, a woman who has done as much or more honor than the founder himself. But this woman is never mentioned in the inscriptions. Here we have the disjunction between the fact this person is never mentioned in the inscriptions, and the clear treatment of a person based upon material remnants. There is a disjunction between the public perception that the Maya themselves presented to their own people and the actuality of what they did. And now, maybe one of the [most fun] things that we will do in the next ten years is try to figure out: Why?