Saturday, June 9, 2007

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.

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