Freshman Seminars


Clash of Titans, Seats of Empire: The Aztecs, Toltecs, and Race of Giants in Ancient Mexico

Professor:  William Fash
Course Information: Freshman Seminar 44j • 4 credits (Fall 2019 Term) • Enrollment:  Limited to 12
Time: Mondays, 12pm - 2:45pm
Location: Peabody Museum 12

The film "Clash of Titans" was a British extravaganza dedicated to exploring the ancient Greeks' concepts of the interactions between humans and their gods. In Ancient Mexico, the tale of Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, Toltec Prince of Tula, is the best-known example of the intervention of rival gods, in the affairs of kingdoms and empires, and serves as the point of departure for our seminar. Just as the Greeks countenanced sacrifices and political assassinations, in Ancient Mexico the three great empires practiced human sacrifice, regicide, and engaged heavily in warfare which was vital in their statecraft and economy. We will explore how these central components were explained and justified in their mythology, why reciprocity with the gods was so vital, and how and why each empire came to a violent end. We begin with the first-person description of the Aztec Empire and its violent conquest, penned by a foot solider in Hernán Cortés's army, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. In the following weeks we will explore the environmental basis, religious dimensions, and social and political development of civilization, cities, at the three seats of empire in ancient Mexico. We will make extensive use of Peabody Museum collections, archaeological studies, historical accounts, and recent films and other media to critically examine ancient practices and current perceptions of the Aztec empire (1428-1519 CE); its predecessor the legendary Toltec empire of Tula (850-1100 CE); and the foundational Teotihuacan empire (100-550 CE), known as “The City of the Gods” to people throughout the region. The Aztecs and Toltecs went to Teotihuacan on pilgrimage every 20 days, because the scale of that ancient city was so massive, the architecture so impressive, and the religious art and historical lore so compelling, that the Aztecs had a legend that it was built in an earlier creation, by a race of giants. Seminar participants will explore how the biases of the observer play a role in describing and explaining “the Other.” Students will analyze the ways in which religion and the quest for power fueled the genesis, expansion and demise of all three empires. First-years in this seminar will also explore the ways in which the living descendants of the Aztecs are reviving their traditional culture and how the Pre-Columbian civilizations are integral to the national identity of Mexico and Chicanos in this country, vs. the way they are portrayed in Hollywood and U.S. popular culture, through films and other media in the U.S. and Mexico.

Note: Course open to Freshman Students Only.


The Amazon: Ecology, Nature and Society in the World’s Largest Rain Forest

Professor: Gary Urton
Course Information: Freshman Seminar 71V • 4 credits (Fall 2019 Term) • Enrollment:  Limited to 12
Time: Tuesdays, 9:45am - 11:45am
Location: Peabody Museum 561

The Amazon rain forest of South America is the most diverse place on earth in terms of its rich and varied plant and animal life. Nonetheless, the Amazon is threatened today by climate change, illegal logging and mining, and a host of other forces that are diminishing the health and diversity of the forest and its people. This seminar will consider the Amazonian region from the past to the present, as well as its prospects for the future. We will explore such topics as how indigenous Amazonians have adapted to and made use of the resources of the rain forest from pre-European contact times, through colonial rule, and down to the present-day in Brazil and the other nations containing portions of the Amazon watershed. We will explore how Amazonian peoples have formed societies, made a living, understood the relationship between humans and animals, engaged in ritual and ceremonial practices for maintaining the forest and managing relations with neighboring peoples, and how the encroachment of outsiders is threatening the sustainability of the forest for its present-day peoples and the global environment as a whole. In addition to reading works about the Amazon River and its peoples, we will study the extraordinary collection of Amazonian archaeological and ethnological objects in Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Students will work with and research objects in the collections and write a series of short papers relating objects in the museum to the concepts, practices and beliefs encountered in the readings, seminar discussions, and films.

Note: Course open to Freshman Students Only.