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.

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