Saturday, August 11, 2007

Aztec Royal Tomb

Last fall, archaeologists working near the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City uncovered a huge carved stone monument with an image of Tlaltecuhtli, the earth god. Last week they scanned the area with ground-penetrating radar, which revealed several hollow chambers under the monolith. A date on the monument -- 10 rabbit -- corresponds to AD 1502, the date the emperor Ahuitzotl died. This could the tomb of Ahuitzotl, which would be a major find because no royal Aztec burials have been located previously.

You can listen to me talking about this on National Geographic News for August 10, 2007, on the NSG website (click on news for August 10; the interview starts about 7:30 into the show).

How is this relevant to Calixtlahuaca? Well, I was interviewed for an AP story about this by cell phone while supervising excavations high on the hill at Calixtlahuaca:

Also, it was Ahuitzotl's brother, the former emperor Axayacatl, who conquered Calixtlhahuaca for the Mexicca around 1475.

Now we have to wait for archaeologists to remove the huge (broken) monolith to see what is in the hollow chambers....

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The 2007 Season is Done

I have been too busy to post to the blog for a while. We finished fieldwork in early July. As typically happens, we found all sorts of interesting (and time-consuming) things the final weeks of fieldwork. We excavated three burials the final couple of weeks, two with ceramic vessels as offerings, one without. We found a buried burned house with a collapsed burned daub wall covering 20 cm of charcoal—burned seeds, wood, and other plant material. In that excavation (unit 323), a trench just clipped the edge of the feature in the final days of fieldwork, so we were only able to excavate part of it. In a trench designed to document the stratigraphy of an agricultural terrace we found a nice stone pavement, with a dense midden deposit underneath.

All this activity, plus other issues of closing down fieldwork, have given me little time for the blog (but then how I find time to start a new blog for professionals and grad students called “Publishing Archaeology”? I will quote Walt Whitman: “ Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”).

We have moved our entire lab to the Colegio Mexiquense in nearby Zinacantepec, where we will be analyzing artifacts for the next few summers. Just a few closing facts, things that came up in the final weeks of the season. Our total of burned daub is over 500 kilograms (half a metric ton). What are we going to do with all this? Stay tuned. I will keep this blog open to report various project results as they become available and as I have time to report. Also on the daub, we have found that many of the wood house supports were made of maguey stalks (the impressions on freshly-cut maguey stalks match rather precisely the impressions on the burned daub).

The last task given to our excellent crew of local lab workers was to catalog the sherd disks. They spent over a day at it, and had to stop when we came to move the tables and chairs to the new lab. The catalog now includes over 1,600 sherd disks, and they still have about 25% of the collection to catalog.

I won’t be giving a paper on the excavations at the SAA meetings next year, because I was talked into giving a presentation on “Ancient cites: Do they hold lessons for the modern world.” It seems less important to report new fieldwork at the archaeology meetings now, since things can be posted so easily on the internet. Between this blog and more formal project reports and data on the project web site, interested people can keep up with the project.

This has been an experiment for me. If you particularly like this blog, let me know. If you think it is stupid and pointless, then please keep your opinions to yourself! (I once got an email from a high school student telling me that “my so-called web site is a piece of sh—“. I think she needed information quickly for a report due the next day and my site didn’t have what she needed.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

The haciendas of Calixtlahuaca

The ruins of several old haciendas can be found in and around the modern town of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca. Local lore tells of the burning of Hacienda Nova early in the twentieth century; today this one adobe wall segment from a storage building is the only standing wall. The traces of wall foundations are visible on the ground, and vitrified bricks (from high-temperature burning) litter the area. These ruins lie just outside our reconstructed urban boundary for the Postclassic city, on the west side. Most of the adobe walls of Hacienda Palmillas are still standing (see photo; with Cerro Tenismo—Calixtlahuaca—in the background). The open courtyards that were once hacienda work areas are now planted with maize. This hacienda is located north of the modern town, well outside of the archaeological site.

These haciendas are important to out research at Calixtlahuaca because they hold clues to the modern modification of the hillslopes and terraces of the site. After the Spanish conquest, the Postclassic city was abandoned and remaining inhabitants were moved forcibly into Toluca as part of the Spanish “congregación policy (moving or congregating natives into town centers). Spaniards moved into the area and set up haciendas, and by the late nineteenth century the haciendas owned most of the land around Calixtlahuaca (including all of the fertile valley floor). As Mexican haciendas go, these were quite modest in size, in architectural elaboration, and in their landholdings. In 1893 Hacienda Nova owned 6.02 sq. kilometers and Palmillas owned 6.88 sq. km. By contrast, the Hacienda La Gavia some 20 miles to the west owned some 640 sq. km. of land.

In the 1890s, peasant farmers started moving to the Calixtlahuaca area in large numbers (we are not yet sure why this happened; the data are from state and federal census documents). The only places left to farm were the slopes of Cerro Tenismo, covered with eroding remnant Postclassic terraces. The Postclassic terraces were too narrow to plow with teams of animals, so farmers removed one or more terrace walls to form larger fields to plow. Although this resulted in the destruction of much of the Postclassic terracing and houses, many ancient structures were in fact preserved for the future by the modern terracing. In order to level off their new larger fields, these modern farmers built up the lower sides of the fields with fill, burying and preserving the Postclassic deposits. We have managed to locate and excavate several structures and features buried this way.

I have been looking into historical data on local haciendas and demography in order to better understand the modern reworking of terraces and deposits at Calixtlahuaca. Unfortunately there seem to be few documents on these haciendas, and historians have done little research on the small agricultural haciendas in the Toluca area. We have made some progress, but many questions about the modern re-invasion of the archaeological site remain unanswered. But these are interesting ruins in their own right, and perhaps some historical archaeology is called for. I made the accompanying sketch of of Palmillas by filling in details not visible on our site orthophoto.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Help! We are inundated with burned daub!

Little did I know when I posted the May 14 entry on burned daub that we would soon be inundated with this stuff! We normally bring artifacts back to the lab in plastic bags, and when an archaeologist has a lot of bags, he or she uses a "costal" (a large flour sack) to carry them. In two of our excavations (units 315 and 317), the archaeologists (Angela Huster and Tim Brown) have had to use costales—sometimes more than one—just to bring back the burned daub from single excavated levels. We are running out of space in the lab to store this material, and it takes a long time to wash. It takes even longer to dry, and students have to step over piles of drying daub on the way to the bathroom and kitchen. We had better be able to make sense of this stuff to make up for all the logistical hassles in collecting, washing, storing, and studying it!

Salsa, Stone, and Pottery

The basic implement used in traditional Mesoamerican cuisine for making salsa is the molcajete. The word comes from the Nahuatl term molcaxitl, a combination of the words molli (sauce) and caxitl (bowl). Archaeologists are interested in these vessels from 2 perspectives—production and use. Evidence for the manufacture of molcajetes (in the form of basalt flakes or objects broken in the process of production) helps us understand craft production and its organization in ancient times. Evidence for the use of molcajetes (whole or broken examples in domestic deposits) is important for reconstruction of diet and household activity patterns.

The basic kind of molcajete used in Mesoamerica, from ancient times through the present, is the stone tripod bowl. This weekend the crew visited the village of San Andrés Cuexcontitlan (not far from Calixtlahuaca) to see contemporary molcajete producers at work. Many of the inhabitants of this village still speak Otomi, and linguists have done research here to improve their knowledge of this ancient language. The production of manos, metates, and molcajetes from basalt is a traditional craft that has been handed down from father to son for many generations. There are about 25 artisans in the village, and they work in small sheds set up next to a large basalt quarry (see photo).

One interesting result of our fieldwork is that we have found almost no stone molcajetes at all. This is a great contrast to Postclassic sites in Morelos and other parts of central Mexico, where stone molcajetes are a common domestic item. How did the inhabitants of Calixtlahuaca make their salsa (and guacamole, and other foods that require the grinding of chiles, tomatos, etc)? The answer is that they used ceramic tripod bowls with incised patterns on the base (see photo). This is a very common ceramic form at Postclassic sites in the Toluca area. The vessel in the photo was excavated at Calixtlahuaca by José García Payón in the 1930s. We have found few whole vessels, but we have many molcajete sherds (see photo), most of which are painted tripod vessels.

In spite of the lack of basalt molcajetes at Calixtlahuaca, the work of the artisans at San Andrés Cuexcontitlan is relevant and helpful to us in several ways. First, it is possible that some of our other basalt tools were produced in or near Cuexcontitlan. Basalt manos are fairly common, and we have a few fragments of metates. If we decide to pursue the question of basalt trade routes, we will want to return to these quarries and take samples (as well as look for possible evidence that the quarries were used in Prehispanic times). Second, information on the organization and technology of craft production at Cuexcontitlan can help us reconstruct ancient craft industries, because most archaeological interpretation is based on analogies with modern and historic cases. I don’t know of any modern studies of these artisans, and perhaps this would be a good topic for an ethnoarchaeologist. Third, it is very possible that some or all of the inhabitants of Calixtlahuaca spoke Otomi, and knowledge of modern Otomi peoples may help us understand the ancient city and its population.

I want to thank Sergio de Jesús and the other representatives of the Unión de Pueblos de Toluca for arranging out trip, and we owe a big thanks for Miguel Garduño Martínez and the other basalt workers of San Andrés Cuexcontitlan for sharing their information and their craft with us.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wattle and Daub

We have been finding many chunks of burned clay in the three most recent house excavations (units 315, 316, and 317). These are burned daub, sometimes called “bajareque.” They are evidence of the use of wattle-and-daub construction in the houses at Calixtlahuaca. This is somewhat of a surprise, both in terms of the presence of this type of house in the Toluca Valley

and in the nature of the construction methods. Wattle and daub is a form of house construction that was used in virtually all parts of the world in ancient times, and in traditional ethnographic houses in tropical areas today. A frame is built of sticks or cane; this is the wattle. Then mud (daub) is applied over the frame. The mud dries and fills in the spaces between the wattle. When a wattle-and-daub house burns down, the daub (sun-dried clayey mud) is fired like any other ceramic material, and becomes hard and almost indestructible.

The photo shows some of the pieces of burned daub from unit 316. The first odd thing is that this kind of construction was used at all in the Toluca Valley. Most Aztec houses in central Mexico were built using methods and materials that are still found today in traditional peasant houses in the same region. The stone foundation walls and adobe brick construction of Aztec houses I’ve excavated in Morelos match precisely the foundations and walls of modern peasant housing in the area. We found small amounts of burned daub at these sites, and wattle-and-daub construction is still used today in Morelos for traditional kitchens and occasionally for houses. Aztec houses in the Valley of Mexico are also quite similar to modern peasant houses in the area.

Wattle-and-daub is rarely or never used in peasant houses today in the vicinity of Toluca and Calixtlahuaca; in fact I can not recall seeing this technique at all. Modern traditional houses are built of adobe bricks. I had figured that the climate was too cold and rainy around here. But the hundreds of pieces of burned daub shows that this conclusion was incorrect.

The second unusual thing about our burned daub is its form. The burned daub I have seen from Morelos and from other parts of highland Mexico (e.g., Oaxaca) shows the impressions of numerous closely-spaced thin sticks or canes. All pieces show one or more cane impressions. Although some of our daub looks like this, much of it is different. Some pieces show only a single stick impression (photo, upper right), and some show none at all. Many pieces have a very well-smoothed surface, and some pieces have several smoothed surfaces. At first we thought that the piece in the lower right of the photo was a fired brick (a technique not used prior to the Spanish conquest). But washing and close inspection showed that this is clearly burned daub, not brick. Overall, our daub more closely resembles construction methods in which the wattle provides a frame for the daub, but many pieces of daub were not in contact with the wood. The sketch shows a traditional wattle-and-daub house from Italy (modified after: Shaffer, Gary D., 1993, An Archaeomagnetic Study of a Wattle and Daub Building Collapse. Journal of Field Archaeology 20:59-75. This kind of construction was common in European Neolithic houses.

In reading about the archaeology and ethnoarchaeology of wattle-and-daub houses, I am struck by the fact that accidental fires are almost never sufficient to fully fire the daub. When archaeologists find extensive burned daub at a site, it is almost certain that the houses were deliberately burned down; additional fuel typically has to be added to the fire. Perhaps significantly, two or three of our excavations with abundant burned daub also have extensive areas of burned earth and charcoal. Who burned these houses and why? We are still looking for answers to these and other questions.

Friday, April 20, 2007

What is this thing?

We excavated this ceramic object in the fill of a terrace. Over a foot in length, it is shaped in low relief and was clearly broken off at the right edge. What is it? It looked vaguely familiar to me, but I could not identify it. We called it a “ceramic relief” at first, a catch-all category for carved or molded ceramic objects that were probably part of something larger. At our previous excavations in Yautepec, we could identify that larger object for only a few of the ceramic reliefs. For the present larger relief, I was only certain that I had never excavated such an object before.

I emailed this photo to a couple of colleagues to ask for help its identification. Leonardo López Luján responded right away with the correct identification – this is one of the vertical reliefs that stick out to the sides of large effigy censers. As soon as he said “brasero,” I knew exactly what he meant. These censers, often depicting the god Tlaloc, have been excavated at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan and at Tlatelolco, and several unprovenienced (looted) examples are in museum collections. The relief depicts the clouds or mist associated with the rain god Tlaloc. The whole censer in the photo is in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

For many years I have been worried that if I excavated a fragment of a large complex censer or ceramic sculpture, I would not be able to identify the piece. These objects break into numerous strange fragments that do not occur on normal ceramic vessels. When sorting a bag of potsherds, these fragments stand out as unusual, but it is hard to match them to specific large objects. Well, my worries proved correct this time.

The censer that this relief was part of must have stood over a meter in height. It would not be unusual if such a censer was used at one of the large temples at Calixtlahuaca. But what was a large piece of one doing within the fill of a terrace? Where are the rest of the pieces? The terrace was in a residential-agricultural area of the site, and one of the houses we excavated (unit 311) was built on the terrace (close to, but not directly over, the relief fragment). We can’t answer these questions yet. Leonardo López told me that Tlaloc censers like this were associated with Stage IVB of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, relatively late in its history. This might suggest that the terrace fill, and thus the house built on the terrace, were also late within the Late Postclassic period; only time (and dating work) will tell.

I want to make a larger point here. One reason I was unable to identify this piece at first is the poor level of publication of the large and fancy ceramic objects produced and used by the Aztecs. Although examples of these large censers are published in museum catalogs and other places, there is no published analytical study of them. Someone should pull together and publish the known examples with illustrations and descriptions. These should include detailed illustrations of their many odd pieces that will help field archaeologists like me identify them when we find them. There are enough examples in museums (in Mexico, the U.S. and Europe) to do this, but many museums don’t even know what they have in their back rooms.

I am not trying to justify my ignorance (well, perhaps only a bit). Some of these pieces HAVE been published and I should have identified our relief (a big thank-you to Leonardo López Luján). But the lack of publication of large fancy Aztec ceramic items is a real obstacle to scholarship, part of a larger problem with the inaccessibility and lack of publication of museum collections of Aztec art and artifacts (I have published a comment on this in the Nahua Newsletter:

This is the first piece of a large complex Aztec censer we have identified from our excavations at Aztec provincial sites. But how many more have we excavated but not recognized in the past? At Calixtlahuaca we are making a greater effort to separate large strange ceramic pieces than on past projects (we have a large collection of Type 80, unidentified ceramic fragment), and we are taking a closer look at such items. What were they doing in residential and agricultural contexts at Calixtlahuaca? ¿Quien sabe?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Calixtlahuaca Pyramids: Aztec Imposition or Local Expression?

Calixtlahuaca is best known for structure 3, the circular temple dedicated to the god of wind, Ehecatl (see image in the left panel). This structure is quite similar in form to circular temples at other Aztec sites such as Huexotla, Ixtapaluca/Acozac, and Tenochtitlan (see the illustration). Does this suggest that its form and style were imposed by the Mexica Empire when Calixtlahuaca was conquered in the 1470s? Or did construction of the temple pre-date the Mexica conquest, in which case its architectural similarities with cities in the Valley of Mexico must be explained in some other fashion? A similar situation exists with respect to the other public architecture at the site. Structure 4, the Tlaloc temple (see left panel), is a typical Aztec-style single-stairway temple, and structure 17 conforms to the standardized plan of Aztec royal palaces (this structure is known locally as the “calmecac”—a type of Aztec school—but it was almost certainly the royal palace).

Unfortunately the poorly-published excavations of José García Payón (in the 1930s) do not permit the accurate dating of these and other public buildings at the site. Nevertheless several kinds of indirect evidence suggest that most or all of the large buildings at Calixtlahuaca were initially built long before the city was conquered by the Mexica king Axayacatl in the 1470s. For example, structure 3 has four substantial construction stages, and it is unlikely that there was time to build all four stages in the interval between the Mexica and Spanish conquests. The famous Ehecatl sculpture—one of the best example of imperial Tenochtitlan style sculpture from the final decades of the Aztec period—was placed as an offering in the stage 4 expansion of the temple, showing that the final stage at least post-dated Axayacatl’s conquest. Also, much of the public architecture at other Aztec cities throughout central Mexico was built prior to the expansion of the Mexica Empire, and there is little evidence that temples and palaces were built by the Empire in provincial areas (I discuss these issues in my next book, Aztec City-State Capitals; University Press of Florida, scheduled for publication in 2008; see also articles on Aztec imperialism posted on my web site).

My view is that the architectural similarities among Late Postclassic cities in central Mexico derive from the common cultural origins of the Aztec peoples and processes of interaction among regional elites. These processes long pre-dated the formation and expansion of the Mexica Empire, which was constructed on an existing foundation of a widely distributed elite culture.

Nevertheless, we still need quite a bit of detailed research on Aztec-style buildings and architecture. I am amazed that this topic has received so little attention by archaeologists and art historians. The architectural analyses in my new book are only a start; we are also documenting the public architecture of Calixtlahuaca in detail to contribute toward this effort. This work is being done by Maëlle Serghereaert of the Université de Paris (see illustration) as part of her dissertation research project.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Gambling, tortillas, and Spaniards in hats

Most of the ceramic sherds we are excavating at Calixtlahuaca are fairly standard forms and types for Aztec-period central Mexican sites. As in each region of central Mexico, most of the decorated wares are distinctive local styles, with some imported trade types (most are from the Valley of Mexico, with some sherds from Morelos and Guerrero). The suite of vessel forms is very similar to the ceramics we excavated in Morelos. But several ceramic categories stand out as strange compared to other Aztec-period ceramic assemblages—sherd disks, comals, and Spaniards with hats.

Sherd disks are small circular objects made by rounding off broken pieces of pottery (see the illustration). These are a rare but consistent type at Aztec-period sites in central Mexico. Calixtlahuaca, however, has higher numbers of sherd disks than any other site in Mesoamerica (this is my impression). Nobody knows what these things were used for. One possibility is that they were gaming pieces for patolli. The Spanish friars complained that the Aztecs gambled too much; perhaps Calixtlahuaca was the Las Vegas resort for the Aztecs (with weekend package tours from Tenochtitlan and Texcoco, including dancers in feathers). Or maybe they were just something people made just to pass the time (like whittling; thanks to Tim Brown for this suggestion).

Comals were griddles for tortillas. Unlike sherd disks, they are not strange or enigmatic at all. What is odd at Calixtlahuaca, however, is the lack of comals. At the sites we excavated in Morelos, comals consistently made up 7-10% of all sherds, and they are also common at Aztec sites in the Valley of Mexico. But they are extremely rare at Calixtlahuaca. We do have a few comal sherds, and they are so similar to those found in Morelos and the Valley of Mexico that they may be imports. The lack of comals must signal a major difference in diet or food-preparation between Calixtlahuaca and other Aztec-period sites. Perhaps people ate tamales most of the time, with tortillas a rare treat. Or maybe they toasted tortillas over the fire on a stick (sorry, it’s late at night and I’m getting silly).

Like comals, ceramic figurines in the form of Spaniards with hats are not particularly rare or strange at Aztec sites. Many sites continued to be occupied after the Spanish conquest, and figurines with Spanish themes are not uncommon (e.g., men and women in Spanish clothing, or horses). We have a number of these figurines from the house in unit 307. What seems strange, however, is that this is just about the only Spanish trait adopted by these people. At an early colonial house we excavated in Yautepec, in contrast, we found a variety of Spanish ceramic types, iron tools, and bones from cows and horses. Why did the people in house 307 not adopt other Spanish goods or styles?

Coming soon: information on our third excavated house, unit 311.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

34 bags of sherds

34 bags of potsherds. 87.2 kilos, 10,373 individual sherds. These ceramics came out of a single excavated level behind the house in unit 307. Although we haven’t calculated the density yet, this batch surely sets a new record for my fieldwork in Mexico for the amount and density of artifacts from a single deposit. This was an especially rich midden contained in a pit excavated into the sterile clay that underlay the house and the terrace it sat on. Unit 307 was excavated by Jeff Sahagun (ASU) and Marieke Joel of Berlin. In the photo Marieke shows 31 of the 34 ceramic bags.

This deposit is one of the most important we have excavated so far, not only because of its artifact density. The pit contains a stratified deposit with an apparent Middle Postclassic layer at the base, then a Late Postclassic layer (the 34 bags plus a couple of other levels), and finally a layer with Spanish colonial artifacts at the top. The development of a Postclassic chronology is one of the major goals of the excavation, and this deposit has our best stratigraphic sequence to date. We have many deposits with Late Postclassic ceramics, but very few with clear Middle Postclassic materials. The colonial levels at the top are interesting—they contain almost exclusively Late Postclassic ceramics (plus only a couple of sherds of glazed earthenware), with several ceramic figurines that depict Spaniards. This house was apparently occupied from Postclassic times into the Spanish colonial period, but the occupants only added a few colonial objects.

The remains of this house, like the structure excavated as unit 309, were very close to the ground surface, and recent plowing of the field had disturbed the walls and floors. But we were able to map a number of the walls and we recovered nice domestic artifacts around the structure. Although from a scientific perspective it’s great to have such heavy artifact deposits, from a logistical perspective it’s a pain in the neck right now. We have just about outgrown our field lab capacity, and we will soon have to start carting sherd bags off to our permanent lab at the Colegio Mexiquense. We are heavily backed up in sherd washing (we recently hired more washers) and we are way behind in artifact processing. At Yautepec in the 1990s we excavated more than one million sherds in a 6-month season, and we seem to be on a similar track here at Calixtlahuaca.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

An ancient house: excavation 309

This structure, and that uncovered in excavation 307 (stay tuned), are the first Postclassic houses to be excavated in the Toluca Valley. We didn’t know whether to expect the small, one-room houses we had excavated in Morelos, or the larger, multi-roomed structures found at Aztec sites in the Valley of Mexico. In size and complexity, the house in unit 307 turned out to be closer to the latter pattern. Unfortunately, the structure was not buried very deeply and it had been damaged by plowing in recent decades. This was a fairly rapid excavation due to a deadline imposed by the landowner. It was supervised very ably by ASU graduate student Angela Huster.

The photo shows us uncovering the central part of the structure. Stone rubble covers a central earth floor. On the north and east sides of the structure (farthest away in the photo) are stone pavements made of large, rectangular slabs. For a number of reasons, we think that these were exterior patio areas rather than interior rooms. There were three distinct stages of superimposed stone pavements, of which only the final stage used the large well-made slabs. We are hoping that the ceramics found below and between the floor will help us work out a chronology for the site.

After this picture was taken, we found a separate room that opened out to the west (right side of the photo). The stone rubble that covers the central floor in the photo consisted mainly of building stones—both cut and unfinished stone—from the house walls. But the rubble also included a large number of architectural ornamental stones. The photo shows column bases and cones (called “clavos” in Spanish) that were used for decoration in Aztec elite residences and temples. Was this the house of an elite family? Only continuing analysis of the architecture and artifacts will tell.

Friday, March 9, 2007

We finally found some houses to excavate

Since the main goal of this project is to excavate houses at Calixtlahuaca, it was frustrating when we did not locate any houses in the first few weeks of fieldwork. But all of a sudden, we are working on two large and complex structures. The landowner will soon plant the field containing the houses, and in order to get his permission to dig I had to promise to be done and backfilled by March 20. This does not give us much time, and the architectural remains just keep going (typically under the back dirt pile. This is one clause of Murphy’s Law of excavation; another deals with important finds made at the end of the field season).

The field is on a gentle slope below the site museum at the base of Cerro Tenismo. In the 2006 survey we noticed a heavy concentration of artifacts in the field. There are several areas that look like they may have been artificially leveled off. We placed a trench in the middle of two of these and immediately hit architectural remains. The lower area (unit 309) has a large pavement of nicely cut stones (see the photo), with several rooms or features on the upslope side. One room (being cleared on the left side of the photo) has a nice floor of rectangular stones and walls of thin cut stones. To the right of this is a rectangular area covered with rough stone rubble. This may be the remains of walls; we haven’t removed the stones yet to look for a floor or other features. The pavement and some walls continue to the right under the backdirt pile.

The upper area (unit 307) also has a rectangular area of stone rubble, with a nice double-row foundation wall on the left and some large paving stones (probably an exterior patio) on the right (see photo). This afternoon we uncovered some rough walls near the top of the photo, lower in elevation that the pavement; perhaps these are the remains of an earlier structure.

It is still too early to plot the full extents of these structures. We hope we can uncover their entire areas, draw and photograph everything, and also locate and excavate some household trash deposits associated with each one—all before we have to stop on March 20. We have another reason to complete excavation by that date. On March 21 (the spring equinox) there will be festival at Calixtlahuaca that combines new age mysticism with a celebration of indigenous peoples of the State of Mexico (this seems an unlikely pairing to me). Thousands of visitors are expected, and we don’t want to have open excavations near the center of the site.

Friday, February 23, 2007

What was the Ancient Name of the City?

The site we are working on is usually called “Calixtlahuaca” today, after the modern town whose land it occupies (San Francisco Calixtlahuaca). Although this name is found in a few documents (such as the Codex Mendoza), the city was known throughout central Mexico as Matlatzinco in ancient times. We have now located a number of examples of an image of a bird that was some kind of emblem at the ancient city, perhaps signaling a different indigenous name.

The glyph for the toponym (place name) Calixtlahuaca from the Codex Mendoza is a house. The name means something like “plain full of houses.” There are problems with this toponym as a name for the ancient city, however. First, nearly all of the houses and occupation were on the hill, not on the plain. Second, this name is only found in documents describing the final pre-Spanish period. Third, it is a Nahuatl term, yet it is very likely that the people of the city spoke one or more non-Nahuatl languages in ancient times (the most likely candidates are the Otomi, Mazahua, and Matlatzinca languages).

The term Matlatzinco (which means something like place of nets in Nahuatl) was used extensively in the central Mexican native historical sources. Its two primary usages were: (1) the Valley of Toluca; and (2) the Postclassic capital city of the Valley (which we are now excavating). Witnesses interviewed in a colonial-period lawsuit made it clear that Matlatzinco was the capital of the area, and that its ruins were located in the town of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca.

Much confusion was introduced when colonial friars named one of the indigenous languages of the Toluca Valley “Matlatzinca.” This language belongs to the Oto-Pamean language group, which also includes the local languages Otomi and Mazahua. Following Nahuatl language rules, “Matlatzinca” means “the people of Matlatzinco.” So when indigenous sources talk of the Matlatzinca people, they were probably referring to speakers of any or all of the four main languages of the Toluca Valley (Matlatzinca, Otomi, Mazahua, and Nahuatl). As a name for the ancient city, Matlatzinco has the advantage of its widespread use in indigenous historical sources. But like “Calixtlahuaca,” Matlatzinco is a Nahuatl term.

While studying stone reliefs from the site in 2006, Emily Umberger and Maelle Sergheraert identified several examples of an image of a bird. This occurs as the sole image on at least one relief, and as an element on shields held by warriors on other carvings. This bird most closely resembles a flying turkey (thanks to my father-in-law, biologist James Heath, for this observation). Could this be a toponym for the ancient city? Or perhaps it was the symbol of the ruling dynasty. I have tried to find the words that would mean turkey place, or flying-turkey place in the four relevant languages. In Nahuatl, “Totoltepec” means place of the turkey. It turns out that several towns just north of Calixtlahuaca are called Totoltepec. Could this be a connection? Perhaps additional linguistic and iconographic research, and some fortunate finds in the ground, will help us figure out what the ancient inhabitants (whose garbage we are excavating) called their city.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Lab is up and running

The project lab in the town of Calixtlahuaca is up and running! All of the project members have been an immense help in the lab--assembling shelves, setting up work stations, organizing excavation kits, etc. Two local women are assisting by washing artifacts as well as performing other miscellaneous duties. Last summer's students (Angela and Melissa), our ASU undergrad. Caitlin, and myself have been classifying the ceramics brought in as the survey work from 2006 continued in the first couple of weeks of this season. Now we have some interesting excavated deposits to work on.

Recent finds include a couple of whole spindle whorls used to spin a heavy thread from maguey (agave) fibers. These whorls are much larger than the whorls used for cotton spinning that were common finds in our projects in the state of Morelos.

So far all project members have arrived safely and remain in good health, although working at an altitude of about 8800 feet takes some adjustment!

The excavations are started

We started digging a week ago. Our first task is to explore the area close to the royal palace (known locally as the "calmecac"). We are starting here becuase farmers will begin to prepare these fields for planting in March, and we want to be done before then. The photo shows some of the rooms in the palace.

This work has several goals: (1) to see if we can find any houses (elite or other) or other features in this area. In our 2006 survey and surface collections, we found very little evidence of occupation on the plain (where the palace is located); nearly all occupational debris was found on the slopes of Cerro Tenismo. Was the plain really empty or settlement (beyond the palace), or were there Postclassic occupations that are now deeply buried? (2) We are looking for possible refuse deposits from the palace. No one has excavated refuse from an Aztec royal palace. What did the royals eat for dinner? Did artists (sculptors, featherworkers, etc.) work at the palace? We know little about the lifestyles of the Aztec rich and famous, apart from what their descendents told the Spaniards after the Spanish conquest. Most archaeologists want more direct information on such topics, and data from the palace garbage heap will have less bias than the biased claims of colonial Aztec nobles. Finally, (3) We need to investigate the stratigraphy of the area. We located what appear to be intact Postclassic refuse deposits buried under a meter and more of dense clay. To someone used to finding Postclassic deposits in and just under the plow zone, this is quite a change. We are below the level of the palace, but not immediately next to it, so we now have to figure out if the clay (from a flood or colluvial event) was deposited before or after the construction of the palace.