Anthropology PhD student learns Mixtec to connect past and present

Cheri Price is determined to put the “human” back into the study of archaeology.

Price earned her Master’s in anthropology at UWM in 2016 and is now working toward her PhD. She’s taking an interesting approach to her research in ethnoarchaeology—the study of people and cultures through their material artifacts. To understand how ancient indigenous cultures in Mexico crafted their tools, pots, and other implements, she wants to talk to their modern-day descendants to see what traditions have survived through the years.

Originally appeared in the February 2021 L&S In Focus.

To do that, Price is determined to learn Mixtec, the language of many of Mexico’s indigenous people. With support from a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship granted by UWM’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, she’s trying to connect the past and the present with a human touch.

She recently sat down to talk about her research.

What drew you to archaeology?

UWM anthropology PhD student Cheri Price (middle) stands with her Mixtec teacher and her classmate Alex Villegas, a graduate student from the University of New Mexico. The trio visited city hall/community museum complex in the village of Tilantongo in Oaxaca, Mexico. The background shows what are called codices, the written history of the Mixtec people. Photo courtesy of Cheri Price.

When I was little, my Papa showed me this book by Reader’s Digest—something like, “World’s Greatest Mysteries.” On the front of it was the Aztec calendar. I was flipping through and thinking it was so neat, all of these really old things. (Papa) explained some people do this thing called ‘archaeology’ and they are, in a way, a keeper of history and the past, bringing things to the front that people have forgotten about or haven’t seen.

The dirty, quick definition of anthropology is ‘the study of man’ or the ‘study of people.’ There are so many facets and complexities, and it’s great to pull all of those into my studies.

How did you become interested in ethnoarchaeology?

It was a little out of necessity. It is extremely difficult to get permissions to do excavations in Mexico. Since I am interested in the traditional crafts down in Mexico, ethnoarchaeology is a way for me to still be able to conduct some type of field work by looking at collections perhaps in museums.

Ethnoarchaeology is a way for me to still do the field work and answer some of those archaeological questions by speaking with current artisans who are doing, for example, ceramics, and asking them questions like, why do you do that, where do you get your clay, and what do you have to do to your clay?

You’ve traveled to Mexico several times to talk to artisans, in fact.

As a master’s student at UWM, my thesis dealt with some ceramics that my professor did have from the Valley of Oaxaca. The big thought, and it hadn’t been 100 percent proven, was that the clay in Oaxaca doesn’t require something called ‘temper.’ A lot of cultures had to add something like sand or a different type of clay, some kind of binder or temper, that will help you work with it. In Oaxaca, it’s the opposite; you have to take things out to be able to work the clay.

When I had the opportunity to learn the Mixtec language, the family I was staying with in Mexico mentioned that one of their coworkers lived in a town that was known for pottery. One of the woman’s (relatives) was still doing the ceramics by hand. I got to go and just talk to her, and she answered my questions. She said they did have to take stuff out (of the clay). It was my thesis proved!

During her stay in Oaxaca, Cheri Price interviewed this potter to connect today’s crafting methods with historical artifacts. The potter lives in San Bartolo Coyotepec, which is known for black pottery. Photo courtesy of Cheri Price.

You’ve tried very hard to include actual people in the course of your research. What draws you to this method?

There’s something called archaeological ceramic petrography. When we find a little sherd (of ceramic), there is a way to shave a really thin section and put it under a microscope. I did work with that for my Master’s thesis, and I was so literally microscopic that I couldn’t even visualize the whole pot. I really like what I did, don’t get me wrong, but after that experience, I took a step back and wanted to zoom out to put the person back into the process.

That’s where ethnoarchaeology comes in. I can still get those little hints and tips and thoughts from modern artisans who are creating these (pots) in traditional ways. I can step back and say, here’s this type of figurine artifact, and here are people today making figurines. Let’s do a comparison and we can see, maybe they’re using the same techniques or using the same types of tools, and that can answer my questions.

And you learned an entirely new language just to ask those questions!

Indigenous languages are not easy to learn. You have to lose a little bit of the way you’re thinking and see it through a different set of eyes. Sometimes, it takes a while to grasp.

I’m not fluent by any means. But I’ve found, just by attempting, just by trying, the majority of people were so much more open to just having a chat and talking about things. Sometimes, they couldn’t believe that someone from another place would want to come and learn their language.

People filter through a pottery expo in San Marcos Tlapazola, Tlacolula, Oaxaca. The area is known for red pottery.

Even though I am doing archaeology, it is important to have those connections to understand why communities named places a certain name, for example. You can still find, for example, areas in Oaxaca where the communities still go by their original names.

It sounds like you’ve found many ways to connect the past to the present when you’ve visited Mexico.

Oaxaca is amazing for that. A lot of people will talk about the Aztec and how they’re not around anymore, and they’ll talk about the Maya. But Oaxaca has maybe 80 different types of indigenous people who are still alive, still thriving, and still doing their traditions. In the area I was in, the Mixtec are still alive and they’re still carrying on their culture. Yes, the language is sadly dwindling with the native speakers, but there are still speakers who very much care about preserving that part of their culture and traditions.

Mexico has something like 68 official languages that are indigenous besides Spanish, and you can go to communities where Spanish is not peoples’ first language.

How did the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship help you on your way?

I have received the FLAS three times, and I’m so grateful for it. It’s easily the highlight of my PhD career and postacademia. When you go to another country to learn another language, typically you’re surrounded by that language, and the acquisition of that language becomes a little bit easier. Not so much with Mixtec, and with some of the indigenous languages. You do need to have more than one shot at it. There are so many regional variants to Mixtec that it’s hard to become immersed.

Why Mexico? What drove you to study artifacts south of the border?

That’s a personal question in the sense that my grandma was from Mexico. I did not grow up speaking Spanish. My grandmother only spoke it with her sisters. They were the impetus for me to learn Spanish, because I would hear my name and then I would hear them laughing. I was like, I need to figure out what’s going on here!

Later on, I went to college and learned Spanish in Mexico. I figured the best way to learn it would be to be thrown in and completely immersed. It kicked off my love affair with Mexico and wanting to learn more about and talk to as many people as I can. I am fascinated by pre-Hispanic cultures and the material objects they left behind.

And, this has been an amazing way to learn about my own family and culture.