Saturday, August 11, 2007
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
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”? http://publishingarchaeology.blogspot.com/ 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 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
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!
The basic kind of molcajete used in
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
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
Monday, May 14, 2007
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
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
Wattle-and-daub is rarely or never used in peasant houses today in the vicinity of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
This structure, and that uncovered in excavation 307 (stay tuned), are the first Postclassic houses to be excavated in the
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
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
Friday, February 23, 2007
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
Much confusion was introduced when colonial friars named one of the indigenous languages of the
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
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!
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.