Department of Art and Art History Special Programs

Casa Herrera: Culture and History in Central America

Spring 2015 Semester

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Antigua, Guatemala street scene

Join students from around the world to learn about Mesoamerica, archaeology and Maya writing at Casa Herrera, The University of Texas at Austin’s center for learning and scholarship in the heart of Antigua, Guatemala.

The Culture & History Semester Abroad Program in Casa Herrera brings interrelated disciplines together to study Pre-Columbian art, archaeology, history and culture in a historically significant and picturesque setting. The facility, which dates to 1680, is one of the great, original houses of colonial Antigua. As part of this semester study abroad program, students take courses with UT faculty and experience culture through intensive language classes (Spanish or Kaqchikel Maya) at a local language school.

Spring 2015 Courses

The Casa Herrera program offers a full spring load of Art History classes!

The Archeology of Mesoamerica
ARH 374 / ANT 324L / LAS 327

Mesoamerica is one of the great cultural regions of the world. Its ancient history saw the rise and fall of several remarkable civilizations, all sharing many fundamental ways of life and ways of looking at the world, with cities, states, empires, and written histories. Today the living descendants of the ancient Maya, the Zapotec, and the Aztec (among others) continue to adapt their own identities to the modern world, only a few centuries after the harsh series of conquests in the sixteenth through seventeenth centuries.

In this class we will focus on ancient Mesoamerican cultures through an in-depth examination of their art and extensive archaeological remains. We begin the course by looking at what “Mesoamerica” means as a cultural label, as well as examining the ideas that led to the creation and sustainability of Precolumbian art, religion and political economy. One essential goal is to become familiar with the ideas, institutions and ethos of a very “alien” human culture that existed so near us geographically, and which still resonates strongly in the cultural expressions and identities of modern people in Mexico, Central America and even in the United States. Art, architecture, and archaeology are among the best avenues we have in reaching this goal, which says something about the extraordinary role and communicative power of visual expression in the pre-modern world.

Ancient Maya Writing and History
ANT 324L / ARH 370 / LAS 327

This course introduces students to Maya hieroglyphic writing, and how the decipherment of texts has led to new understandings of ancient Maya culture, society and history. The class aims to provide the student with a good working knowledge of the ancient Maya script, the language(s) in which it was written, the historical events narrated in the monuments of major Maya sites, and the history and methodology underlying the process of decipherment.

We will approach Maya writing through numerous case studies, drawn from texts found throughout the Maya area. Maya glyphs might well be considered the single most complex writing system ever devised. With its built-in capacity for exhibiting scribal artistry and idiosyncrasy, the Maya writing system’s inherent complexity has no equal among ancient or modern scripts. No previous knowledge of Maya glyphs is necessary; completion of the course will give students an appreciation of Maya history from the perspective of what the ancient Maya have written about themselves.

Colonial Encounter: Western and Indigenous Perspectives
ARH 374 / LAS 327

This course explores relationships between the indigenous people of Mesoamerica (especially Maya) and the Europeans and their descendants, beginning with the earliest contact in the 15th century, and culminating with a current view of the Maya and other ethnic groups that make up the contemporary population of Guatemala and Central America. To understand social implications of five centuries of historical development, this course explores writings about the Aztec and Maya cultures of Mesoamerica spanning the period between the arrival of Hernán Cortés in Mexico in 1519 and the rediscovery of these indigenous civilizations by 19th century travelers exploring the abandoned ruins in the tropical jungles. Alongside western accounts of the Spanish Contact we will focus on the Aztec and Maya versions of the same events as they were recorded in indigenous histories, poetry, song, and letters to the King of Spain. More recent events, including the civil war of Guatemala, will be analyzed through ethnographic work especially in the highland of Guatemala.

The course will examine parallel narratives of the arrival of the Spaniards, both in their own records of events, as well as in the indigenous writings of the people Of Mesoamerica. Analysis of the course materials will entail close readings, discussion of the relationship between style and content, and formal and informal writing assignments throughout the semester. This approach will generate a broader understanding of the myths that are often hidden behind conventional wisdom on the Conquest of the Americas, as well as give students the academic tools necessary to produce college-level prose.

Sacred Landscape in the Pre-Columbian World
ARH 370 / LAS 327 / GRG 356T

This course is an exploration of the concept of landscape and environment from the perspective of archaeology. Students will gather information on the cultural aspects of environments from short ethnographic fieldwork assignments, and reading of case studies. Readings will be drawn from environmental psychology, the anthropology of space, and landscape archaeology to examine a variety of topics including natural and constructed landscapes, private and public space, the built environment, memory and commemoration of events through space, practice and symbolism of food production, environments in cosmology, and archaeological reconstructions of ancient landscapes.

Case studies from Mesoamerica will highlight the social and cultural aspects of the study of ancient landscapes and provide students with a long-term horizon of the ways in which humans affect their environments, and how, in turn, environments shape cultural responses.