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Indiana Jones, the Aztecs, Archaeology, & Reality

I look at differences between movie archaeology and the real thing. Inspired by a visit to the Indiana Jones exhibit of Aztec artifacts at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton, Alberta with my social class. We were asked to make a video about what we had learned for our grade eight social studies class. I did everything for this video except for the sound, which my dad helped with since I didn’t have a partner for this project like the rest of my classmates did (I keep getting paired with people who don’t do any work so I have given up on being partnered when the teacher gives us a choice). Here is my video assignment:


Hello, I’m Ashlyn McCormick, and I’m here to talk to you today about the former Aztec empire and archaeology’s role in helping us learn about it. Now, if you watch a lot of movies or play a lot of video games, you’ve most likely got an unrealistic view of both archaeology and the Aztec culture. This is because of the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raiders series of movies and video games. In the movies there are motorcycle chases…

…diabolical mechanical traps…
…gun fights…
…more gun fights…
…and really crazy special effects…

Real archaeology, which is the study of human activity in the past, is done through the recovery of artifacts (man-made objects), biofacts (organic material), and architecture (man-made structures). Archaeology is done under very careful and controlled circumstances. The people doing it are careful to get permission where they dig and there is all kinds of paperwork that has to be filled out with the governments of the countries where the work is being done.
Artifacts are man-made objects recovered during an archaeological survey. They can be tools, pottery, cooking vessels, clothing, armour, weapons, jewellery, statues, books, scrolls, tablets, etc. These items given an idea of how advanced a culture was or could be. For example, did they have a written language or could they work metal?

Biofacts are organic items. We usually think of these as the dead bodies of humans, and we are right! Archaeologists also recover the remains of animals, plants, and crops. A good example of biofacts were the food items preserved in ash in Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius – the food on sale in the stores was stuff that would have been in season in October, therefore allowing scientists to pinpoint the month the eruption happened in. Scientific advances have also made it possible to recover ancient DNA from biofacts (e.g. the teeth of corpses) to compare how the biofacts relate to DNA in present day people, animals, and plants.

Archaeologists are always on the looking for architectural remains as well. How a building is made, what it is built from, and the building techniques can tell you a lot about how advanced a former people was and what kind of environment they lived in. Many also tell you about the social conditions of the society as many projects would have only made sense when using slave labour!

So once you find something, how do you tell how old it is? If it’s a biofact, the answer to that is carbon dating! A device called a mass spectrometer is used to  measure the properties of radiocarbon (14 C), a radioactive isotope of carbon. You can tell the age of once living items very accurately by measuring how much the radiocarbons have decayed over time. While carbon dating only works on living matter, you can figure out the age of inorganic items by carbon dating the organic items they were buried with.

Archaeologists have some fairly common tools they use, and I have to say that bullwhips and autoloaders for semi-automatic weapons probably aren’t on the list.
Okay, now that we’ve got the males paying attention again, here’s a list of real tools you’ll find at pretty much every archaeological dig:

    • Spades
    • Hand trowels
    • Handbrooms/dustpans
    • Measuring tapes
    • Line levels
    • Plumb bobs
    • Toothbrushes
    • Toothpicks

…and, yes, there really is something called a plumb bob.

The most important concerns at a dig site are not to damage any artifacts or biofacts through careless excavation, and to examine every speck of dirt and grain of sand. The locations of all objects in a dig site are carefully catalogued as to location and depth as you can often tell from depth alone how old something is. The dirt that is recovered from each area is run through screens carefully to find any small items that were not easily seen.

Near my old home where I used to live we have the Bodo Archaeological Dig at Bodo, Alberta. This is an archaeology site that examines the history of our area’s own indigenous peoples, the Cree and the Blackfoot. There was a lot of excitement the summer I visited because some archaeology students found both Cree and Blackfoot pottery in the same cooking waste dump site. This meant that the two tribes — who fought each other A LOT — actually shared meals and camped together, something no one thought they would have done up until that point. Finding those broken cooking dishes changed our understanding of local history here in East Central Alberta!

Archaeology has helped us discover many important things about the Aztecs. They were a relatively advanced indigenous culture for their day since they were able to build large structures and complex cities. They also had advanced agriculture using irrigation. Finally, the Aztecs had both written languages and mathematical systems (their math was base 20 instead of our base 10). They even developed complicated calendars.

We know through recovered artifacts that the Aztecs were very skilled with working pottery, stone, and that they crafted useful tools out of obsidian. They were not able to work iron or bronze, but were experimenting with copper when the Conquistadors showed up.

The architecture of their buildings shows that they were awesome at engineering and had access to lots of cheap labour — slaves — to build temples and pyramids. You can tell how far their empire had spread by the number of places you could find Aztec architecture, tools, and writings. We can get an idea of their understanding of math and science by studying the calendars they created that were found by archaeologists.

Their culture and economy are recorded in their pictographic language so we know about how their religion worked, how the hierarchy in their society worked, and what their economy was like. The recovered artifacts (tools and weapons) and biofacts (bodies) that archaeologists recover are compared to this written record.

When they Conquistadors arrived, they started taking wives from the local population. Okay, well, some of them just got frisky with the locals. It’s a boy thing. AnyHOW, this resulted in a lot of babies being born that were part Aztec and part Spanish. Over time those bloodlines just got more mixed up. By going back to the biological  remains recovered by archaeologists and mapping the DNA recovered from Aztec teeth and bones, we can see how much the local genetics have drifted from what the Aztecs were like before being conquered by the Spanish!

The one thing archaeologists didn’t find when excavating and exploring Aztec ruins? Super complicated mechanical booby traps. Sorry folks, those are just in the movies.

Archaeology is a big deal. It can tell you where you’ve been, which is important because if you don’t know where you started, you definitely won’t know where you’re going. It definitely helped us learn a lot about the Aztecs and what they were like. While there may not be a lot of car chases and explosions in archaeology — or at least I hope not — I think it’s pretty exciting in its own way, and something that would make a great career choice! Now if only I can find a good price on a bull whip…

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