Landscape, Ruins, and Governance [chapter]

2020 The Science of Useful Nature in Central America  
Between 1784 and 1788, officials of the Spanish government in Guatemala City faced a conundrum: how to record, categorise, and study a group of stone buildings, apparently of great antiquity, that had been discovered in the Chiapas rainforest near the hamlet of Palenque? Rather than an abstract academic activity, this question went to the heart of how officials of the colonial bureaucracy related to Central American landscapes, and how local intellectuals and (often indigenous) residents of
more » ... l villages interacted with them. Archaeological sites were a novel topic to most of the officials who encountered them, but they did not seek to establish radically new forms of knowledge, and indeed often ignored or misunderstood indigenous or other local historical knowledge. Instead of trying to be historical scholars, they relied on Spanish bureaucratic traditions that provided established empirical methods for recording and interpreting landscapes, but were also undergoing changes in the eighteenth century to increasingly incorporate the Bourbon state's concern with landscapes as a source for natural wealth. Responding to the challenge of explaining the hitherto unknown, the bureaucracy's explorations of the Maya city of Palenque drew on the knowledge of an architect, military engineers, and other colonial officials who were considered suited to archaeological exploration. Archaeological exploration therefore became a showcase of geographical and technical knowledge as well as bureaucratic epistemology. The explorations provide a framework for understanding the role of geography and natural risk in the day-to-day governance of Spanish America. Engineers and bureaucrats used the language of prospecting for natural resources to establish links between landscape, ruins, and economic prosperity. Their attempts to glean meaning not just from the ruins, but the nature and topography surrounding them, reflected the Bourbon reform era's concern with the land and its productions which permeated questions of governance throughout the late eighteenth century. They cited the landscapes in and around Palenque as potential witnesses to the city's demise, but were also interested in the commercial possibilities for the future that these landscapes might embody. Their approaches are also a window onto Enlightenment-era notions about the potential for improvement based on the landscape, and even a certain geographical determinism. Most likely influenced 29
doi:10.1017/9781108367615.002 fatcat:hrevy7takngbfafen3cgfr2npi