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.