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.