Whenever some ancient, colossal structure is mentioned, I imagine it being built with slave labor.

In my mind's eye, I see a brutal taskmaster whipping the back of an overworked slave who has collapsed from sheer exhaustion.

The image of such a scene probably derives from some film I must have seen in the past. And typically, it involves an ancient Egyptian pyramid.

But I started questioning my preconceived notions after I read a story in The Asahi Shimbun about the discovery of an ancient Mayan monument in southern Mexico.

Measuring 1.4 kilometers long, the structure is the largest and oldest of its kind in existence. It is believed to have been built between 1000 and 800 B.C., which was before the ancient Mayans developed their hierarchical society.

That enabled them to erect this mammoth structure as a "community project," rather than as an undertaking ordered by some powerful authority, the Asahi report stressed.            

According to Takeshi Inomata, a professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona who led the research, the monument was likely intended for mass rituals, and the builders could well have come together voluntarily to work on it.

That means I don't have to visualize the pain-distorted faces of laborers.

In fact, the prevalent theory today is that even those pyramids of Egypt were probably not built by slave labor.

In "Piramiddo e no Michi" (The road to the pyramids), Egyptologist Michinori Oshiro claims that the laborers were extremely well treated, as evidenced by the discovered ruins of granaries and bakeries for people involved in the construction.

Oshiro further theorizes that pyramid building may have been a public works project of sorts.  

I wonder if it is because of our self-serving arrogance that we are quick to dismiss the long-ago past as a bad, miserable time, or go to the other extreme of overly romanticizing it.

But if I try to imagine the ancient Mayans building a big festival site or roads as part of their colossal public works project, they suddenly feel more familiar to me.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 9

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.