Jeff Karl Kowalski
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November 7, 2007
DeKalb — Jeff Karl Kowalski fancies himself a detective of sorts as he prowls the historical riddles of Mayan civilization through its ancient art and architecture.
A similar glow appears in the Northern Illinois University art history professor’s eyes and even his smile when he traces his own heritage from childhood in Tulsa, Okla., through college days at Grinnell College in Iowa (where he met his wife) and two of the nation’s most prestigious universities and onto his first trip to the monuments in Uxmal.
“Even as a child I had an interest in ancient history and archaeology. I loved reading Greek mythology,” says Kowalski, co-editor of, and contributor to, a new book on the cities of Chichén Itzá and Tula. “My mother knew a person who helped put together collections for (Tulsa’s) Gilcrease Museum. He had done work in Mexico, visiting the sites, and brought back motion pictures of himself at these sites. It planted a seed.”
Kowalski, inspired by the teaching and insights of his mentors, including Columbia University’s Esther Pasztory, Yale University’s George Kubler and noted archaeologist Michael D. Coe, has nurtured that seed ever since.
“Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World,” which Kowalski edited with the Atlanta School of Art’s Cynthia Kristan-Graham, is only his latest exploration into the mysteries of ancient Maya.
Its title acknowledges conquest-period peoples of Mesoamerica, who considered Tollan to be a semi-mythical fount of civilization representing, and associated with, the golden age that also reflects the pinnacle of the arts. The Aztecs considered Tula to be one such Tollan, but other capital cities in Mesoamerica also bore this title; the book asserts that both Tula and Chichén Itzá were Tollans, rising to power simultaneously and exerting military and economic dominance over the regions they governed.
The 640-page book published this fall by Dumbarton Oaks, a major research center affiliated with Harvard University, challenges conventional wisdom as it seeks to clarify what factors contributed to a striking similarity in art and architecture between the two cities.
Was it a population migration or a military conquest of one city by the other, as was asserted by an earlier generation of scholars? Or, as many of the new book’s contributors agree, was it more likely the result of an exchange of goods, ideas, religious belief systems, cult practices, and ideological symbols between the sites’ political elites?
Work began after many of the scholars attended a two-day colloquium sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks in 2000. The impetus for the gathering came two years earlier during an earlier archaeological conference in Mexico.
“ ‘Twin Tollans’ brings together and synthesizes what has been an emerging and increasingly recognized view that the relationship between these two cities cannot be described just by the possible migration or a military conquest of one city against the other,” Kowalski says.
“A number of the papers in this volume have shed new light on the political organization in Chichén Itzá in particular,” he adds. “The book puts forth evidence that Chichén Itzá had a centralized form of political leadership – one, or a pair of senior and junior, divine kings.”
Yet he says there also is evidence of “many more members of the local elite – high-ranking polity leaders – to suggest that this system of kingship differed from that of the classic Maya cities that preceded Chichén Itzá.” Several leading scholars claimed in the 1990s that Chichén Itzá had a council form of government with shared powers.
The time period in question – the Epiclassic and Early Postclassic, circa 700 to 1150 A.D. – saw the disintegration of Teotihuacan and classic Mayan civilization and its aftermath. Tula and Chichén Itzá both rose to power during this time.
Earlier interpretations of their relationship relied heavily on later ethnohistorical sources regarding the importance of the Toltecs of Tula as the major power in central Mexico and as probable invaders and conquerors of the Maya of Yucatan. Some of the chapter writers argue, however, that Aztec nobility asserted that they had Toltec ancestry and magnified the accounts of earlier Toltec achievements to legitimate their own rise to imperial power.
The debate invigorates scholars such as Kowalski, who loves the aesthetic sophistication of Maya art, but enjoys even more the hunt for answers about its meaning.
“I went to Uxmal with my wife in 1974 as a young grad student entering the Ph.D. program at Yale. It was my first time to see one of these structures, and I was amazed by the scale, the monumental presence and by the aesthetic quality of the buildings and the sculptures at these sites,” he says.
“But by the same token, what really made me interested in this was not simply looking at these purely as aesthetic arrangements of form but trying to figure out what they meant. They had spent so much time and labor on them. I wanted to know what message were they trying to convey to themselves but, beyond that, I wanted to find it myself.”
Kowalski, who joined the NIU School of Art in 1982 and served as head of the art history division from 1996 to 2004, is also the author of 1987’s “The House of the Governor, A Maya Palace at Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico.”
Studies under Floyd Lounsbury, a noted linguist, anthropologist and Mayan scholar and epigrapher, helped Kowalski to decipher hieroglyphic inscriptions at Uxmal and to identify the name of an influential and powerful divine king who ruled from a major palace, today known as the “House of the Governor,” around 900 A.D.
In 1988 and ’89, Kowalski was awarded a J. Paul Getty Foundation grant to conduct research at Uxmal. He researched and interpreted architectural sculptures at the Nunnery Quadrangle there.
In 1992, the National Geographic Society funded Kowalski’s collaboration with Alfredo Barrera Rubio, director of the Centro Regional de Yucatan, to excavate a round temple structure in Mexico.
Kowalski later edited and contributed to “Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol,” published by the Oxford Press in 1999. Among his 50 different scholarly contributions are 35 peer-reviewed journal articles or book chapters as well as a number of dictionary entries and other notes and book reviews.
“This latest book took a great deal of time, a great deal of energy and a commitment to keep in contact with colleagues to see the project through to the finish,” Kowalski says. “I felt great to finally see this. Just to hold it in my hands to feel the physical heft and to see the physical elegance of the design was a great day. I hope other Mesoamericanists agree that the intellectual heft and the elegance of our arguments match the weight of the book itself.”
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