Faculty Projects: Designing a Mesoamerica Course with Mr. Conolly

Commonwealth School teachers bring an infectious intellectual energy to their classrooms, fueled, in part, by their own innate curiosity. What happens when that curiosity is unleashed? The Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers aims to do just that. Named after the late John Hughes, who taught English at Commonwealth for nearly thirty years, and after recently retired Head of School Bill Wharton, who founded the original Hughes fund in 2011 and championed faculty scholarship throughout his tenure, the Hughes/Wharton Fund ensures faculty can pursue their academic passions, access fulfilling professional development opportunities, and have the latitude to create new courses and reinvigorate existing ones.  

Here, history and classics teacher teacher Don Conolly explains how he applied his Hughes/Wharton Grant to crafting one of the school's newest electives, Mesoamerica, a course that introduces students to the rich if often undervalued ancient history of Central America, from the warriors of the Teotihuacan metropolis to the beautifully blurry line between language and art in Maya culture. 

Two summers ago, while planning an online enrichment course called World Epic, I was looking for a non-Western work to complement the European and Near Eastern works I had already chosen. César Pérez (history and Spanish teacher) suggested Popol Vuh, the Maya creation epic, and I immediately fell in love with it and the culture that produced it, ultimately leading to the development of Mesoamerica, a separate course focused exclusively on indigenous peoples of this hemisphere, and a fitting complement to our existing history curriculum.

The course itself is really about the urban civilizations that developed in the region, beginning with the Olmecs, the oft-called "mother culture" of Mesoamerica, c. 1600 BCE. This regrettably ignores the very rich periods that precede urban civilization, and in some ways undermines the anti-elitist subtext of the course by privileging certain forms of society as more “refined” than others. But this period also has the virtue of putting indigenous peoples on the map and registering the names of some of their kings in the historical record. The beautiful architecture and artifacts that survive also provide an accessible entree to the material, helping young adults imagine themselves in this world. 

Inasmuch as all of Mesoamerica seems to emerge from Olmec civilization, we can speak of it as a coherent historical region. Even so, it can be neatly divided into two distinct sub-regions: the west, which includes various cultures of central and western Mexico, and the Maya area to the east, which radiates from the Peten rainforest of lowland Guatemala. I am more familiar with this latter half of it, namely the Maya, especially during the Classic period (250–900 C.E.), when they reached the height of sophistication. My course therefore tilts somewhat in this direction, but even if the class were entirely about the Maya, I couldn’t avoid talking about the most important central Mexican cultures, mostly emanating from the Valley, or Basin, of Mexico, which influenced and at times dominated the Maya. For instance, the development of dynasties in myriad Maya city-states in the early Classic period is associated with incursions of warriors from the gigantic metropolis of Teotihuacan, whose ruins lie about thirty miles northeast of Mexico City. Later, in the centuries after the collapse of Classic Maya civilization, c. 900 C.E., the Toltec culture seems to dominate the Maya cities of the Yucatan peninsula. And finally, in the 15th century, the Aztec empire infiltrates all of Mesoamerica. 

I soon discovered how intertwined Maya writing and Maya art are: because the writing system is so pictorial, there is a blurry line between narrative and pictorial representation. Indeed, the Maya had only one word for both scribe and painter, tz’ib: there was simply no distinction between these two art forms. This aspect of Maya culture is the one I am most eager to explore on my own and with my students."

Among the reasons I find the Classic Maya so compelling is their use of writing. We have many Mayan texts inscribed on stone stelae throughout the Maya area, painted on vases, and written in the four surviving Maya codices. Furthermore, the stelae, which record important events in the lives of the kings of their respective cities, are precisely dated, so that we can more or less pinpoint the very day, according to our calendar, when these events took place. When I first started this project, I told myself that there was no way I could ever learn to read the (beautiful but complicated) Maya glyphs. I soon realized, though, that their particular system of writing was so central to Maya culture that the course needed to cover it in some way. I would at least have to point out to my students the meaning of a few important glyphs. But as I tried to memorize even these few glyphs, I found that they just wouldn’t stick in my mind—not until I started to write them on my own. This became a bit of an obsession, and throughout the month of July, I tried to learn a few elements of the Maya syllabary each day. (Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, the writing system is a combination of syllabograms and logograms, which can be combined to form new words in the manner of a rebus puzzle.) The first thing I did each morning was write out all the glyphs I had already memorized, an exercise I would repeat before going to bed at night. In so doing, I began to get a feel for the typical elements of glyphs, as well as their overall aesthetic. I soon discovered how intertwined Maya writing and Maya art are: because the writing system is so pictorial, there is a blurry line between narrative and pictorial representation. Indeed, the Maya had only one word for both scribe and painter, tz’ib: there was simply no distinction between these two art forms. This aspect of Maya culture is the one I am most eager to explore on my own and with my students. I intend to continue my study of the writing system intensively next summer. 

In fact, I have decided to anchor the course itself around the analysis of images, in the manner of an art history class. We will begin with a reading of the Popol Vuh, then transition to the monuments of Olmec civilization, where we will see interesting resonances with the later Maya epic, encountering recognizable scenes as early as the late Preclassic Maya period (c. 100 B.C.E.–250 C.E.) and, of course, exploring many other important motifs. I am hoping that this approach will make the dense, archeological descriptions in our textbooks more digestible for the students. In any case, I have put together slide shows for each culture and period, and we will spend a good bit of class simply noticing details in the images in an attempt to use this fragmentary evidence to reconstruct the society and culture that produced the objects. The idea is to include virtually every artifact or site mentioned in the textbook readings and to supplement these with other important monuments. I think it is important for students at this age to see every object they read about. (I experimented with this method in my brief “Ancient Maya” unit in the Dive In program this summer, and it worked well.)

I hope to bring Mesoamerican civilization to life through a number of other activities, as well. I am especially eager to explore Mesoamerican foodways, starting with the famous Maya chocolate drink, spiced with chile pepper, that was so central to the expression of elite status. I also plan to arrange class visits to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Peabody Museum at Harvard. The MFA has a small, but important collection of vases, and while the Peabody has been closed to the public during the pandemic, I am champing at the bit to take a closer look at their spectacular Mesoamerican collection.

I’ve designed a number of elective courses over the years, most of them with the encouragement of Hughes/Wharton Grants. This one was both the most exciting and the most difficult. Mesoamerica is a vast subject, and I fear that I may not quite do it justice in my course. But I think I have enough rich material to keep my students engaged and, I hope, fascinated. 

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