Researchers awarded NEH grant to explore ‘origins of the Mesoamerican city’

Art history Assistant Professor Michael D. Carrasco and anthropology Professor Emerita Mary D. Pohl.

Florida State University anthropology Professor Emerita Mary D. Pohl and art history Assistant Professor Michael D. Carrasco, along with Christopher von Nagy of the Urban Origins Project in Reno, Nev., have received a highly competitive three-year, $280,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant to study the first cities of Mesoamerica along the gulf coast of Mexico.

“Three years of funding will allow us to make important discoveries about the origins of urbanism in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica,” Pohl said.

Only 16 of these NEH grants were awarded this year, and the grant to Pohl and Carrasco was one of the largest.

The researchers will focus on the Middle Formative period, 900-400 B.C., a foundational moment in the history of Mesoamerican artand writing. The symbol systems that inform later traditions were developed at this time, largely among the Gulf Coast Olmec.

“Our project will shed light on the role that art and writing played in the development of Mesoamerican urbanism and could provide new ways of understanding the significance of visual culture in other early societies,” Carrasco said.

To conduct their field research, the researchers will travel to Mexico City and, from there, head south to the tropical forests of Tabasco on the gulf coast where the Olmec people built their civilization at La Venta. This ceremonial center provided the design for sacred urban living that was used as a model for all later Mesoamerican states, from the Maya to the Aztecs.

“From the 1940s through the end of the last century, archaeologists conducted excavations in the core ceremonial precinct of La Venta, which was constructed high up on a salt dome rising out of the river floodplain,” Pohl said. “Our research will explore ‘lower La Venta,’ the settlements down below along the levees that supported the elite center.

An example of Mesoamerican art.
An example of Mesoamerican art.

“To get an idea of the scope of our work, one can make an analogy with New Orleans,” Pohl said. “What would we think of New Orleans if we had only documented Bourbon Street? To understand New Orleans, we need to know about the Garden District, the Lower Ninth Ward, the Mississippi River and the port on the gulf.”

Pohl and Carrasco’s collaborative research will include members of the humanities faculty of the Autonomous National University of Mexico.

“We anticipate that this partnership will engage our students and forge bonds for the future,” Pohl said.

What’s more, the staff of the Florida State Department of Art History’s media laboratory will join in the collaboration by building an advanced website that will allow the research to be disseminated in an interactive format. This will also allow art history students to be involved in the dissemination of the research.

“This bilingual digital publication will provide a cross-cultural perspective on La Venta and the origins of Mesoamerican urbanism,” Pohl said. “The digital publication will bridge scholarly and lay communities, and strengthen international collaborative research and education.”

A digital format also offers the opportunity to visualize archaeological data in ways that bring the material to life through 3-D modeling, as well as the complex relationships between information, such as iconographic trends through time or over space.

“In addition to the exciting archaeological and art historical work to be done during the project, we are also enthusiastic about exploring issues in digital humanities and pushing the envelope on how people conceive of publication and how readers use this material,” Carrasco said.