Ross Hassig

National Endowment for the Humanities and Weatherhead Resident Scholar

1997–1998

Power and Ideology in Aztec Society

Ross Hassig became interested in anthropology through a course called "Anthropology and Law" while an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University. His fascination with non-Western legal systems focused first on the northern Plains Indian tribes and later on Acoma Pueblo, the topic of his thesis while working toward a master's degree in law and anthropology at Vanderbilt.

When Hassig went to Stanford University to work on his Ph.D. in anthropology, his focus shifted to Mesoamerica, and he trained in regional analysis with an emphasis on the study of economic and political institutions. This led to a study of the Tarascans of Mexico, who appeared to be anomalous because they were a class society without a major city. On closer examination, Hassig realized that the Tarascans had achieved the equivalent of an urban system through the use of an extremely efficient system of canoe transportation.

With the Tarascan model in mind, Hassig shifted his attention to the lake system of the Aztecs. His first book, Trade, Tribute, and Transportation: The Sixteenth-Century Political Economy of the Valley of Mexico, dealt with the effects of the Spanish Conquest. Focusing on continuity rather than change, Hassig concluded that the arrival of the Spaniards was not the social watershed it had been thought. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control, his next book, went on to explore the implications of his earlier work by dealing with one aspect of Aztec society. It was followed by War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, which emphasized politics and warfare over more traditional ideological interpretations. Hassig dismissed the idea that imperial expansion "created" Mesoamerica and called instead for an analysis of specific traits and their associated mechanisms of transmission. "Who expanded where defines today's cultural boundaries across all of Mesoamerica," Hassig observed.

In his most recent book, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, Hassig noted that the problem with studying the Conquest is that almost all of the sources are Spanish, and most have been taken at face value by scholars. His contribution was to work with all available sources from a nonideological point of view.

Collectively, his works to date provided him with a platform from which to launch his new study of time and history before and after the Conquest. Some ideologically driven notions of other scholars have been under intense scrutiny as Hassig has worked to show the political basis for observed changes in the archaeological and ethnohistorical record. One of the principal components of Hassig's study during his resident year has been the Aztec calendar. It is one of the most complicated known, causing him to ask why and to track what happened to it with the introduction of the Christian calendar at the time of Conquest.

His current book is a reassessment of his own work against the backdrop of a vast and fascinating literature of Aztec culture and history in pre- and post-Conquest times. At the conclusion of his tenure at the School, Hassig said, "I hope that my rethinking of the significance of the Aztec calendar will find favor with my contemporaries, and that the next generation of scholars will be able to use the model to reinterpret Mesoamerican culture and history in pre-Aztec times."

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma


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