Donald Slater Discusses Relevance and Importance of Weapons in Mesoamerican Societies at the Peabody Museum

The dart-throwers of Mesoamerica served a greater purpose than mere weapon-wielders, according to Donald Slater, Assistant Collection Manager and Educator at the Peabody Museum. In his presentation, titled “Power Materialized: The Dart-Thrower as a Pan-Mesoamerican Status Symbol,” Slater spoke of the role of such weapons in Central American societies. Dart-throwers, or atlatls, he said, were not only used to deliver quick, silent blows, but they were also a representation of status and prosperity. “Dart-throwers have been highlighted in a number of publications over the years, but since the early 20th century have generally been merely a component of scholars’ research and never a focal point,” said Slater. He said that these articles generally considered the dart-thrower as a material object, but he wanted to examine the symbolic role of the weapon in Mesoamerica. Throughout his presentation, Slater cited numerous examples of the iconic function of the dart-thrower. He explained how the use of the weapon was often based upon class and gender discrimination and connected its role to that of a bishop’s mace. Slater later provided an example considering the Spanish conquest of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, current-day Mexico City. When Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez entered the Aztec empire, Aztec leader Moctezuma gave him eight dart-throwers. Moctezuma believed Cortez to be an exalted deity, and so the dart-throwers must have been regarded as a prestigious gift, said Slater. He said, “The genesis of my presentation came about seven years ago when I first started working at the Peabody Museum. I found a dart-thrower lying in a dusty corner of the museum and brought it out back behind the museum to give it a test drive and was instantly fascinated by it.” From this point, Slater said, he has taught Andover students how to use the atlatl in classes and demonstrations. “In terms of academic research, I have been studying ancient Mesoamerican cultures since I was an undergraduate. It made perfect sense for me to combine these two passions to study the role of the atlatl in ancient Mesoamerica. I began conducting extensive research on the topic last spring as part of my doctoral studies at Brandeis University,” continued Slater. During his presentation, he showed several images from excavations of ancient cities and tombs in Mesoamerica. Surprisingly, almost every image illustrated a dart-thrower in the hand of a captor or ruling figure. The “Manikin Sector,” for example, showed a powerful idol with a serpent as a leg. Interestingly, a serpent’s head was a popular structure for the handgrips of ancient dart-throwers. Slater said that he could not identify the single most interesting fact that he has discovered in his research. He said, “Really, developing an understanding of the macro view of the complex, multifaceted and sometimes unexpected role that the dart-thrower played in Mesoamerican culture has been more interesting to me than any singular fact that I learned.” Slater’s presentation captured the interest of many students who attended. Thomas Armstrong ’11 said, “I was amazed at the level of research that [Slater] shared from his thesis paper, as well as his ability to answer a wide range of questions about his topic due to his breadth of knowledge on the subject.” “I enjoyed the fact that he used his experience as a dart thrower himself in his research of the impact and effectiveness of Mesoamerican dart throwers,” continued Armstrong. Theresa Faller ’11 also found the presentation captivating. “Slater’s points about the sense of power associated with the dart-thrower, along with real samples of the use of and structure of the object itself, made the speech very interesting,” she said. “I also really liked his statistics about the ‘double’ dart-thrower and his conclusion about its efficiency.”