Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Where Were the Elites?

First in a series of discussions of interpretive problems

We had hoped to locate and excavate at least one elite residence at Calixtlahuaca, but none of the houses we dug are obviously elite houses. So, where did the elites live? One possibility is that we just happened to miss the elite houses at the site, and all of our houses were residences of commoners. Another possibility is that one or two of our excavated houses were indeed the abodes of elite households; they just don’t stand out architecturally like elite houses in other areas. Solving this puzzle is an important part of our analytical research.

What I expected elite houses to look like

My initial expections were based on my prievious fieldwork in the state of Morelos, southeast of the Toluca Valley. One of the nice features of Postclassic sites in Morelos is that its easy to tell commoner houses from elite houses. Commoners lived in small (ca. 25 square meters), one-room adobe houses built at the level of the ground. Elites, on the other hand, lived in large (ca. 500 square m) sumptuous compounds with better construction methods and many rooms. I excavated two such elite houses, at Cuexcomate (Smith 1992) and Yautepec (Smith, et al. 1999); the Yautepec structure is shown here. It is not possible to confuse elite and commoner houses at these sites in Morelos. Yautepec also has a royal palace (ca. 7,000 square meters), again impossible confuse with other kinds of houses.

So why didn’t we find any large elite structures at Calixtlahuaca? I am excluding consideration of the royal palace here, a huge compound not too different from other Aztec palaces. Could it be that there were simply no elites beyond the royal family at the site? This is extremely unlikely; all known Aztec cities had significant number of elites, generally around 5% of the total population (Smith 2008). So, we either just missed the elite houses, of some of the ones we did excavate did pertain to the elite.

Could units 507 or 509 be elite houses?

The excavations of these two structures are described in earlier posts from the fieldwork season. These are not any larger than other houses at the site, leading to our initial hypothesis that they were commoner houses. But after we had excavated a bunch of houses and none were much larger than the others, the thought comes up that perhaps some of our houses were indeed elite residences.

House 507 was in poor condition. It did yield the densest midden deposit (the infamous 34 bags of sherds). We have not yet analyzed enough of the ceramics and other artifacts to evaluate whether they could suggest elite consumption patterns. But one thing immediately stood out at this house: lots of copper-bronze objects (mostly bells and bell fragments). A few are shown in the photo. This house yielded nearly half of all the copper we excavated at Calixtlahuaca. Copper bells and tweezers were elite items in Aztec-period Mesoamerica, so perhaps this material indicates an elite status for the residents of unit 509.

House 509 was in somewhat better condition than 507. It showed a pattern found at some other excavations: the house itself had an earth floor, but exterior areas were covered with well-made stone pavements. The distinctive thing about the material recovered in unit 509 was the presence of a number of stone architectural ornaments. Some of these are shown in the photo. They include “clavos,” tapered cylinders used as architectural ornamentation on Aztec temples and palaces, as well as a stone with thin-line reliefs in a glyph-like pattern. Other excavated houses did not produce anywhere near the quantity of architectural ornaments recovered in unit 509. So perhaps this suggest an elite presence.

How will we evaluate these possibilities? Domestic artifacts are typically good markers of wealth (Smith 1987), and we will use quantified measures based on the artifact inventories of these and other houses to evaluate wealth distributions at the site. We will also consider other likely material indicators of wealth and status (architecture, location within the city, etc.). First, however, we need to get our chronology in order so that we can compare houses and artifacts from particular time periods. Stay tuned.


Smith, Michael E. (1987) Household Possessions and Wealth in Agrarian States: Implications for Archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 6:297-335.

Smith, Michael E. (1992) Archaeological Research at Aztec-Period Rural Sites in Morelos, Mexico. Volume 1, Excavations and Architecture / Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Sitios Rurales de la Época Azteca en Morelos, Tomo 1, Excavaciones y Arquitectura. University of Pittsburgh Memoirs in Latin American Archaeology vol. 4. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.

Smith, Michael E. (2008) Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E., Cynthia Heath-Smith and Lisa Montiel (1999) Excavations of Aztec Urban Houses at Yautepec, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 10:133-150.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Animation of the Ehecatl pyramid

Raúl Miranda Gómez, a Mexican student who worked on the project in 2007, created a short animation file that shows Structure 3, the Ehecatl pyramid.

View the animation here

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Open Access Day

Today, October 14, 2008, is "Open Access Day." Please see my Publishing Archaeology blog about this. Open Access is important for many reasons, including the fact that we plan to post all papers and reports from the Calixtlahuaca Project on our web site (when we have time......).

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Calixtlahuaca Project Wedding!

On Saturday (September 27, 2008), Calixtlahuaca project members Mellissa Ruiz and Tim Brown got married in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The tables at their reception were labeled with the names of archaeological sites (Monte Alban, etc.), and the head table was labelled Calixtlahuaca.

Mellissa and Tim met on the project in 2006 and both excavated with us in 2007. Here are photos of them in the field.

If other project members want to add details, please feel free - this is just a quick post right after the wedding.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Calixtlahuaca Around the World

For many decades, Calixtlahuaca was a regular stop on the circuit for artifact collectors in central Mexico. In the late 19th and early 20th century, visitors purchased hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of objects at the site, and many of these ended up in museums in Mexico, the U.S., and Europe.

The objects pictured here are just a few of these. We have been gathering information on such museum collections outside of Mexico for some time, and now ASU student Lindsay Davis is organizing this information. When she is done we hope to have a good idea of how many objects, and what kinds of objects, from Calixtlahuaca are in museums outside of Mexico. This will help the project in a number of ways.

Stay tuned for more information on this and other student projects on Calixtlahuaca.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"Lantern censer"

Marc Levine sent me a citation for a vessel that matches our odd "fondue-pot" pretty closely. Several of these have been excavated at Cholula. Geoff McCafferty (2001:43) calls these "lantern censers" within his type Xicalli Plain, and illustrates two complete examples from the Universidad de las Américas excavations at Cholula.The vessel in the drawing shown here (from p.43) is from UA-79. This is a "minor vessel form" at Cholula, with 56 sherds excavated (table, p. 44). The overall type Xicalli Plain (with numerous vessel forms) is found in the entire sequence from Epiclassic through Late Postclassic, but its not clear whether the lantern censers occur in a more limited time span.

Geoff cites Muller (1978:129) for a photo of another example (see photo here). Muller calls this a brazier lid of the type "Cerámica Fresco Seco." She dates it to the Cholulteca III period, but her chronological assignments are often wrong.

This is as close to our odd ceramic type 180 as I have seen yet. Thanks to Marc Levine for pointing out the discussion in Geoff McCafferty's Cholula ceramics report.

This bring up the larger issue of using the internet to help identify unusual archaeological objects. In this case some good comparative materials were published, but we had yet to locate the descriptions. But in many cases the relevant comparative material is either not published or is published in obscure places that are difficult to find. Archaeologists always have a box of weird sherds that they can't identify, and when colleagues visit the lab one is sure to pull out the box to see if any of the sherds can be identified. I have found Tlahuica polychrome sherds (from Postclassic Morelos) in many such collections at labs outside of Morelos. Woudln't it be nice if there were a central website where people could post their odd sherds and get help identifying them? Perhaps something like "The Weird Aztec Sherd Site." Until that happens, though, I guess a blog like this can help in a small way.

McCafferty, Geoffrey G. (2001) Ceramics of Postclassic Cholula, Mexico: Typology and Seriation of the Pottery from the UA-1 Domestic Compound. Monographs vol. 43. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Muller, Florencia (1978) La Alfarería de Cholula. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

3-Prong Brazier

Our odd vessel (photo at right; see prior post) is probably some kind of 3-prong brazier. We had figured this out in general terms, but the only examples I knew were the "3-prong burners" from Teotihuacan, which are very different from our "fondue-pot." But thanks to a tip from Liz Brumfiel I looked at the article in Latin American Antiquity by Joe Ball and Jennifer Taschek (2007), and found some vessels not too different from the Calixtlahuaca forms. (I should have been familiar with this myself, but I was several months behind in my journal reading.....).

Ball and Taschek note that these vessels from Belize had been confused in the literature with incense burners that share some similar traits. But their finds from a number of sites suggest that these 3-prong braziers were stoves, not censers: "The three-prong brazier was an article of everyday domestic service, not of mystical ritual use" (p.454). The illustration here (one of several very nice drawings) is from p. 452 of their article. Note that the flat base of this and other Maya examples have "a solid, center-point 'wing-nut' or 'bow-tie' applique" (p.451), just like the circular base of the Calixtlahuaca examples.

We are still trying to figure out what the top of the vessels were like. Our "prongs" open up on top into some kind of upper framework, but we haven't figured out yet what it may have looked like. But for our continuing work on this (and other) ceramic mysteries, the very informative (and witty) article by Ball and Taschek has been a great help. I tip my hat to Mayanists like Ball and Taschek for doing a much better job of publishing their ceramics than we Aztec folks (see also Borhegyi 1959, and other sources cited by Ball and Taschek).

Ball, Joseph W., and Jennifer T. Taschek
2007 Sometimes a "Stove" Is "Just A Stove": A Context-Based Reconsideration of Three-Prong "Incense Burners" from the Western Belize Valley. Latin American Antiquity 18:451-470.

Borhegyi, Stephan F. de
1959 The Composite or Assemble-it-Yourself Censer: A New Lowland Maya Variety of the Three-pronged Incense Burner. American Antiquity 25:51-58.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Has William Sanders been to Calixtlahuaca?

One of the reasons we are working at Calixtlahuaca is to try to understand the site as an urban center. This was a major Aztec-period city, and not to many such sites have been intensively studied. I've been working on and off on Mesoamerican urbanism since my first fieldwork in Mexico, with William T. Sanders in 1974. I'm sure that Bill Sanders visited Calixtlahuaca during his long archaeological career. But the title of this entry refers to the influence of Sanders's thought on my own approach to urbanism in general and to Calixtlahuaca in particular.

William Sanders passed away a few weeks ago. I've already blogged about my relationship with Sanders and about his impressive publication record, and I just sent in a post to H-Urban, a listserv on urban history, that outlines Sanders's work on urbanism. I often argued with Sanders, in person and in print, and I frequently criticized his approach to urbanism as too limiting and confining for ancient Mesoamerican cities. That said, much of what we are doing at Calixtlahuaca are things that Sanders would consider important activities for urban archaeology.

After two seasons of fieldwork, we are still not in a position to make a credible population estimate for the site. This is completely unacceptable to me--probably because of the influence of Sanders on my thinking. Yes, it is limiting to put too much emphasis on urban population levels. But we certainly do need those data. So in our next grant we will include funds for some geophysical prospecting that will allow us to figure out how many people lived at Calixtlahuaca. We are also working to document the houses of Calixtlahuaca, and the entire spectrum of the urban economy, from gardening to using imported bronze bells, topics that Bill Sanders would want to know about the site.

So apart from any personal visits he may have made, the ideas and inspiration of William Sanders have certainly been to Calixtlahuaca, and they continue to influence this project.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Has Indiana Jones Been to Calixtlahuaca?

The site of Calixtlahuaca has been the target of looting for over 100 years. It’s impossible to calculate how many pots, figurines, copper bells, and obsidian lip plugs have been removed from the site. But several observations point to a long-time looting of the site. Perhaps Indiana Jones is responsible. After all, he is a looter and plunderer, not an archaeologist. I used to think that Indiana Jones was all right. He is a Hollywood character, designed to make money for film studios, and one should not confuse Hollywood fantasy with reality. The films are great fun, and perhaps the publicity they generate for archaeology is a good thing. The Archaeological Institute of American seems to think this way, because they recently made Harrison Ford a member of their Board or Directors. Hey, if the movies increase enrollments in archaeology courses, this is a good thing, isn’t it?

After reading the comments on Indiana Jones and the AIA on the very interesting blog Safe Corner: Cultural Heritage in Danger, however, I started thinking about the relationship between Indiana Jones and the looting of Calixtlahuaca. I doubt that any big-time looter like Jones (or his real-world counterparts) has ever found any treasures at the site. The looting has been very small in scale. I know about this from three sources. (1) Calixtlahuaca was a popular stop on the antiquities-collecting circuit of Mexico in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of collectors (including some major names in mid-20th century Mesoamerican archaeology) sold or donated their collections from the site to the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History, where I have studied the material and the acquisition records. I’ve published on one such collection, made by Wilhelm Bauer around 1900 (Smith, Michael E. (2001) Postclassic Ceramics from the Toluca Valley in U.S. Museums: The Bauer and Blake Collections. Mexicon 23:141-146).

(2) Numerous elderly residents of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca have told me that in their youth, the surface of the site was littered with whole pots, partial vessels, and other ancient remains. But now, they say, most of this is gone. “There is nothing left” I was informed on several occasions (well, we did manage to excavate over a half million potsherds in one season). These informants noted that foreigners would come to the site, often camping out for several days, to buy pots and other objects from local farmers. (The apparent abundance of whole and partial vessels on the surface may be due to the disturbance of burials and offerings when the terraces were enlarged a century or more ago).

(3) Several people tried to sell me, or other project members, ceramic pots. This was mostly during our first season, before word got out that not only did we not purchase such items, but we gave lectures on the legality of selling ancient artifacts, not something that the sellers wanted to hear.

So, what does this have to do with Indiana Jones?

Archaeological sites like Calixtlahuaca cannot be protected from looting by fences and guards. There just isn’t enough money to protect this and the thousands of other sites in Mexico (and elsewhere) that can yield commercially valuable artifacts. The main protection for the site lies in the attitudes and actions of the people of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca. If they want to protect the site, then looters will have a hard time operating. If local people don’t care about the site as their patrimony or heritage, then destruction and looting would be encouraged. During our fieldwork at Calixtlahuaca (and continuing during out lab analyses) we spent a fair amount of time and effort in public education—lectures and tours to school classes, presentations in the town hall, numerous conversations in town and at the site, free distribution of brochures and guidebooks we wrote, etc. There are reasons to believe that the people of Calixtlahuaca are in fact doing well by the site (this is a topic for a future post).

But against our modest academic activities stands the huge media publicity of Indiana Jones. What are its messages in relation to archaeological sites and research? Plundering and looting are just fine. In fact they are exciting and sexy. The goal of archaeology is to bring home goodies (that is, bring them across international borders, illegally). Generating knowledge about past societies is not important, nor is the preservation of cultural heritage. Of course few viewers are going to confuse the activities of Indiana Jones with those of real archaeologists. But the context or the framing of his activities (i.e., the messages listed above) comes across very clearly. This is the pernicious part of these movies.

Although I cannot prove this empirically, my suspicion is that people who watch the Indiana Jones movies are more likely to take a casual attitude toward looting and the preservation of the archaeological heritage. Now maybe I’m all wet. Maybe I underestimate the intelligence or good sense of the movie-going public. But still, I’m not comfortable with a media hero who is a looter and plunderer at a time when such activities continue to do irreparable harm to the archaeological record and to our understanding of the human past.

So, even if Indiana Jones has never set foot in Calixtlahuaca, I fear that his influence may extend to the site, and that is not a happy thought.

Friday, July 18, 2008

10,182 potsherds

Sorry if I'm still obsessing about this one ceramic collection, but in its size, good preservation, and diversity it tops any single sherd collection I've ever worked on. These piles of sherds on a lab table (probably 700 or so) are JUST THE DECORATED SHERDS from our big midden. This is somewhere near the total size of an average sherd collection.

The next photo shows a couple of piles of sherds by type (Red rim bowls o the left, and polished red, type B-0, on the right). The classification of these sherds is done by our excellent sherd wizards. These women, from the village of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca, started off last year washing sherds and other artifacts as they came in from the excavations. Our lab director, Cindy, had the women start working on some classification and cataloging in addition to the washing, so we hired them again this year, and they are doing a great job.

Here is another photo, with all four included this time. It took all week to get this level done, and we can now move on to a few of the other one thousand or so collections that need to be sorted.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Weirdest Object for this Season

What the heck is this thing? Please let me know if you have any ideas!!!

This is a partial ceramic object formed of a circular flat base with two small parallel linear projections, and three arms rising up at an angle. The arm on the left actually fits onto the base; the other two arms are just for illustrative purposes (there were clearly three arms).

We had the circular bases and arms classified in two different types (see photo 2). The bases were called "unidentified objects" and the arms were in the category "scored censers." It wasn't until Dorothy Hosler, our metallurgy expert, was puzzling over the circular objects and asking what kind of projections they had, that I thought to pull out some "handles" from the box of scored censers. Lo and behold, one of the arms fit right onto one of the bases (photo 3).

This thing is made of coarse paste with a crudely smoothed surface. Most pieces are heavily burned in an uneven fashion, suggesting that fire may have been involved in their use. The "tops" of the bases (with the two parallel projections) are more extensively burned than their bottoms.

The "tops" of the arms are all broken (photos 1 and 4). They are about 12 cm in length, after which they begin to curve inward. We have no idea how this thing looked in its upper part, but it seems logical to assume that the three arms were connected in some fashion.

The arms have crude deep irregular incisions on their top side (photo 4). These incisions were the justification for including the arms with our ceramic type "scored censers." This is a poorly understood low-frequency Aztec type made out of friable ware, and few if any whole vessels have survived. Now it is entirely possible that some or all of the "body sherds" of the scored censers type actually were part of the tops of these odd forms. We have tried refitting lots of sherds, but no luck yet.

So was this a stand for an ancient fondue pot? Was it a ritual object (always a good fall-back when considering an odd artifact). Or was it used in some kind of industrial activity? The crude nature of the ceramic material and finish, coupled with the extensive burning, suggest the latter possibility.

One reason for my ignorance about this (and many other fragmentary ceramic things) is that Aztec ceramic objects are poorly published. I discuss this broader issue in my Publishing Archaeology blog; see also my 2004 paper, Aztec Materials in Museum Collections: Some Frustrations of a Field Archaeologist, in the Nahua Newsletter.

So if you have any idea what this thing may have been used for, please post a comment, or better still, email me.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ten thousand potsherds

The richest deposit we excavated at Calixtlahuaca was a trash pit behind a small house in unit 307. As noted in the blog last year, we recovered 34 bags of sherds from a single 10 cm excavated level. When they were washed and counted, there were 10,323 sherds in those 34 bags. The density of sherds was 22,550 sherds per cubic meter, a record by far for any of my excavations. Well, we now have those 10,323 sherds dumped out on a table, where they are being sorted into types by our able sherd workers from Calixtlahuaca: Judith Peralta Ortiz, Delfina Jaime Urbina, Janeth Gutiérrez Peralta, and Julia Peralta Ortiz (who is missing from the photo).

In any domestic ceramic collection, the single biggest category is the plain jars (see photo). We haven't finished counting these yet, but they probably comprise half or more of the total collection. Much more useful for the project, however, are the decorated bowls. We have a whole tub full of these sherds from this level. We like these not just because they are attractive and more interesting visually than plain jar sherds. They are useful for dating purposes (ceramic types and styles change through time), and they help us reconstruct patterns of trade (since some of the decorated types were imported from other areas).

This rich domestic trash midden will be extremely useful for the project goals. Trash is good for reconstructing domestic activities and conditions (what did they eat? where did they get their dishes? what kinds of ritual or craft activities took place in and around the hosue?). And more trash is better than less trash. Also, this trash pit showed some stratigraphic changes, with a thin deposit at the base that may date to the Middle Postclassic period, a thick batch of Late Postclassic materials (including this one level), and then a very early Spanish colonial layer at the top (See Spaniards in hats).

We know that this was a special deposit when Marieke Joel posed with her 34 bags of sherds last year. But now that we are getting into the collection, it is turning out to be an especially important deposit. We classified all of the other levels from the trash pit earlier this season, but we left this one for last, afraid of its enormous size. But the time spent classifying all those sherds will be well rewarded when we get to analyzing the results.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Terraced Hill Cities in Postclassic Codices

Calixtlahuaca covered the top and most of the slopes of Cerro Tenismo (see photo). There were a number of other terrace hill cities in ancient Mesoamerica. The best known are from the Classic and Epiclassic periods: Monte Alban and Xochicalco. Both were large complex cities with abundant public architecture on top of the hill and residential areas on terraces on the hillslopes. The site of El Palmillo in Oaxaca has less spectacular public architecture, but the residential preservation is good and recent fieldwork by Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas is providing important new information (Feinman, and Nicholas 2004; Feinman, et al. 2002; Feinman, et al. 2006).

The terraced hill cities of the Late Postclassic period are less well known, but this was a major settlement type. Just 15 km south of Calixtlahuaca is Tlacotepec, another Postclassic terraced hill city. It was damaged severely by Frederick Starr by his “excavations” around 1900, and today we know little about the site beyond the several thousand objects that Starr sold to the Field Museum of Natural History (McVicker 1992).

There are a number of representations of terraced hill cities in the codices. One such image from a Cuicatec codex, the Códice Fernéndez Leal (f. 13-14), is shown here (van Doesburg 2001: v.2, f.13-14). There is a battle in progress, with warriors standing on all of the terraces and fending off attackers at the base. Another Oaxacan example (see photo) is from the Relación Geográfica of Texupan (Acuña 1984-88: v.2, p222). The terraced site, on a hill looming above the Spanish colonial town, may have been the Postclassic citey of Texupan.

One final example is provided in the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (Kirchhoff, et al. 1976:f. 42v), which is also the scene of a battle. The fact that two out of three codex images show battles suggests that military defense may have been important in the decision to build cities on hills in the Postclassic period. This is the interpretation of Gerardo Gutiérrez, whose 2005 article pointed me toward these images (Gutiérrez 2005).

For Calixtlahuaca, however, the defensive argument has less to support it. It is always difficult to argue from archaeological remains whether features such as city walls were built for defense or for symbolic reasons (there is a big literature on this, I won’t cite sources here). At Calixtlahuaca, two public buildings were built on the flat land at the base of the hill—the royal palace and a ceremonial platform that may have been a ballcourt. If defense were of paramount importance in the design of the site, one would expect that the royal palace would be built on the slopes, or perhaps on top of the cerro.

As far as we can tell from the native historical sources, Calixtlahuaca had no rivals as a political capital early in its history (this is from a paper by Brian Tomaszewski and me that is now in preparation), so perhaps its rulers did not worry about defense in laying out their city. But had they thought more of defense, perhaps they could have held off Axayacatl and the invading Mexica army a bit longer in the 1470s.

I wish someone would write a paper synthesizing what we know about terraced hill cities in Postclassic Mesoamerica.


Acuña, René (1984-88) Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI. 10 vols. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

Feinman, Gary M. and Linda M. Nicholas (2004) Hilltop Terrace Sites of Oaxaca, Mexico: Intensive Surface Survey at Guirún, El Palmillo, and the Mitla Fortress. Fieldiana, Anthropology vol. 37. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

Feinman, Gary M., Linda M. Nicholas and Helen R. Haines (2002) Houses on a Hill: Classic Period Domestic Life at El Palmillo, Oaxaca, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 13:251-278.

Feinman, Gary M., Linda M. Nicholas and Helen R. Haines (2006) Socioeconomic Inequality and the Consumption of Chipped Stone at El Palmillo, Oaxaca, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 17:151-176.

Gutiérrez, Gerardo (2005) Jardines defensivos: un acercamiento histórica-arqueológico al use de la vegetación en la guerra antigua. Anales de Antropología 39(1):51-78.

Kirchhoff, Paul, Lina Odena Güemes and Luis Reyes García (editors) (1976) Historia tolteca-chichimeca. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

McVicker, Donald (1992) México: La Visión del Cosmos: Three Thousand Years of Creativity. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Chicago.

van Doesburg, Sebastian (2001) Códices Cuicatecos Porfirio Díaz y Fernández Leal. 2 vols. Grupo Editorial Miguel Angel Porrúa, Mexico City.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Calixtlahuaca Chronology, part 1

Most of our work in the lab this summer focuses on two themes: processing various miscellaneous artifact categories, and working on chronology. Many people think that archaeological chronology is boring, and they are probably right. But if archaeologists can’t get our time sequence straight, it’s hard to say much that is interesting about events and processes in the past. Perhaps due to some strange mental defect, I happen to think chronology is interesting and even fun (sometimes). I’ve developed a number of Postclassic chronologies in the state of Morelos; each region has needed its own sequence (Hare, and Smith 1996; Smith, and Doershuk 1991). I’ve also written on theoretical aspects of archaeological chronology (Smith 1992), arguing that the degree of effort archaeologists need to invest in chronology is related to the kinds of ancient processes they want to study.

At Calixtlahuaca, we want to know how the site was founded and grew through time, and we would like to be able to tell apart the periods before and after the site was conquered by the Triple Alliance (Aztec) Empire. This will require a relatively fine-grained chronology, comparable to those I worked out for parts of Morelos. We will use three basic ingredients for the task: radiocarbon dates, stratigraphy, and ceramics. Most of our time in the lab right now is dedicated to ceramic classification, focusing this year on contexts that will help us establish the chronology and assign dates to structures and deposits. More about this later.

Last winter we ran the first batch of C14 dates for Calixtlahuaca. The results are shown in the accompanying figure. Each horizontal line with blobs is a calibrated date. I won’t explain calibration here; there are good web pages on calibration. The important fact is that each “date” is in reality a range of probabilities, shown by the blobs in a calibration chart like this. Due to the peculiarity (perversity?) of the atmospheric carbon during Postclassic times, the calibration curve fluctuates, so that for many dates there are two different ranges of years that could represent the true age of the sample. This makes it difficult to figure out just how old some of the samples really are.

Most of our dates fall into the interval of the Late Postclassic (or Late Aztec) period (ca. AD 1300-1520, green and red on the chart). This is not surprising; our initial hypothesis, based on ceramics from García Payón’s collections and our 2006 survey, was that most of the occupation at the site was from the Late Postclassic period. We have several dates from the Middle Postclassic (or Early Aztec) period (ca. AD 1100-1300), again not surprising. Most Aztec-period urban sites were occupied in both periods (Smith 2008), with growth and expansion in the later period. The earliest dates may extend back into the Early Postclassic (or Toltec) period, AD 900-1100; to me this suggests that the Middle Postclassic occupation may have begun prior to 1100. There are few or no Early Postclassic ceramics at the site.

Unfortunately none of these dates (except possibly the bottom two) fall clearly into the second half of the Late Postclassic period (the red zone on the chart). This corresponds to the period after the Aztec conquest of the Toluca Valley. The most likely explanation is that we simply did not happen to submit carbon samples from occupations of this time period, and this will be a priority when we submit our next batch of samples. We are beginning to see some ceramic patterns in the lab that suggest that we will be able to isolate this late portion of the Late Postclassic with ceramics.

Now, an important caveat: THESE RADIOCARBON DATES PROVIDE ONLY A VERY PROVISIONAL PICTURE OF THE DATING OF THE SITE! We have a few deposits dated by 2 or more dates, but most of the dates are from a single carbon sample from an individual context. An old saying in the carbon dating world is that “One date is no date” (Aitken 1990:95). The reason for this derives from the fact that C14 dates are really probability distributions (the blobs), not single points in time. When one gets multiple dates from a single context and most of them agree, then the context is dated much more securely (and much more precisely). So until we get more dates, this is an initial look at the chronology of our deposits.

References Cited:

· Aitken, M. J. (1990) Science-Based Dating in Archaeology. Longman, New York.

· Hare, Timothy S. and Michael E. Smith (1996) A New Postclassic Chronology for Yautepec, Morelos. Ancient Mesoamerica 7:281-297.

· Smith, Michael E. (1992) Braudel's Temporal Rhythms and Chronology Theory in Archaeology. In Annales, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory, edited by A. Bernard Knapp, pp. 23-34. Cambridge University Press, New York.

· Smith, Michael E. (2008) Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

· Smith, Michael E. and John F. Doershuk (1991) Late Postclassic Chronology in Western Morelos, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 2:291-310.

My articles are posted here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Can we call Calixtlahuaca an “Aztec” city?

Well, look what site is featured on the cover of the newly released book, Aztec City-State Capitals! This book cover proves that Calixtlahuaca was indeed an Aztec city.

To get serious now, the answer to the above question depends, of course, on one’s definition of the term Aztec. Although there are a few limited uses of “Azteca” in native sources, the term is basically a modern label, so scholars have been free to use it as they please. Some writers use “Aztec” to refer to just the Mexica peoples who inhabited the imperial capital, Tenochtitlan. This does not make sense to me, because the terms “Mexica” or “Tenochca” are indigenous terms that work just fine for that category of people. Others use Aztec for all of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of the Valley of Mexico, but I tend to use the term Aztec to refer to all of the people living in highland central Mexico on the eve of the Spanish conquest (see The Aztecs, 2nd edition, 2003, Blackwell, chapter 1). There is no clear indigenous word for this category of people, but it is an important grouping in terms of social, economic, political, and religious dynamics.

Furthermore, this category of people—including mostly Nahuatl speakers but also significant numbers of speakers of Otomi and other Oto-Pamean languages—has a certain unity in terms of material culture. Each region (such as the area around Calixtlahuaca) had its own ceramic types and styles, but the Aztecs as defined above shared a number of ceramic traits. Also, a basic Aztec style of architecture was found throughout this area. And that is the subject of my new book (which, by the way, I have yet to see, even though my wife informs me that ten copies from the publisher showed up in Arizona last week).

Calixtlahuaca was a provincial city, hardly given a second thought by most of the Aztecs who lived in the Valley of Mexico (and hardly given a second thought today by people who associate "Aztec" with the Valley of Mexico). Yet some of the finest and best preserved Aztec public buildings (Aztec in style and form) are found at Calixtlahuaca. The publisher, University Press of Florida, initially wanted to put an image of Tenochtitlan on the book cover, but this goes against my informal alternative title for the book: “All the Aztec Cities Except for Tenochtitlan.” Besides, José Luis de Rojas is writing a book on Tenochtitlan for the same book series, Ancient Cities of the New World. So I sent them the photo of structure 3 at Calixtlahuaca, and voilá.

So my answer to the above question is yes, Calixtlahuaca was an Aztec city. But if someone wants to claim that it was a Matlatzinca city, that is also correct. The city was called Matlatzinco and it was the capital of a large territorial state also known as Matlatzinco, and some of its inhabitants probably spoke the language known today as Matlatzinca.

You can buy the book at the University Press of Florida.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Calixtlahuaca Project is Back

Well, the Calixtlahuaca Archaeological Project didn’t leave, so how can we come back? It is the blog that is back, after months of little activity. During the 2007-08 academic year the project moved forward in a number of areas, mostly research by students and faculty at Arizona State University. Now we are back in Mexico, working on the artifacts in our nice new lab facility at the Colegio Mexiquense in Zinacantepec (outside of Toluca, State of Mexico). I’ll try to post more often to describe what we are doing and what we are leaning.

In this post and perhaps one or more to follow, I’ll outline what we have been up to since fieldwork ended in July, 2007. Activities included the following:

  • I had to move my office and lab at ASU upon returning from Mexico. This caused all sorts of chaos and delays.
  • We ran twenty radiocarbon dates at the University of Arizona AMS dating lab. This is a first set of dates; more will follow if and when I get a grant for analysis. Nearly all of the dates fall into a Middle to Late Postclassic time span (ca AD 1100-1520). A couple of them could extend into Early Postclassic times (AD 900-1100) and a couple could extend into the early colonial period (AD 1520 -1650). We need to run more dates and do comparative ceramic and stratigraphic analysis to refine the chronology, but basically the dates confirm my impression that all or nearly all of the occupation of Calixtlahuaca was during the Middle to Late Postclassic period (in other words, the Aztec period).
  • We worked on field notes, drawings, databases, photo catalogs, and other exciting stuff.
  • We worked on technical reports, also an exciting development.
  • We began making plans for a series of technical analyses of artifacts and data, to be included in a new grant proposal to the National Science Foundation.
  • A number of students gave papers and posters at the 2008 SAA meetings in Vancouver. The project had a very good presence at the meetings:
    • Brown, Timothy and Mellissa Ruiz (2008) Calixtlahuaca, Mexico,2007 Field Season: Preliminary Excavation Results. Poster presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology.
    • Guthrie, Caitlin (2008) The Censers of Calixtlahuaca. Poster presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology.
    • Huster, Angela (2008) Scraping and Spinning: Maguey Fiber Production at Calixtlahuaca, Mexico. Paper presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology.
    • Novic, Juliana (2008) Reaching the City Limits: Identifying Settlement Boundaries at Calixtlahuaca, Toluca, Mexico. Poster presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology.
  • I gave lectures on the project at various places, including the University of Colorado, and University of Connecticut, the Colegio Mexiquense, and ASU.
  • Emily Umberger continued work on the sculptures, documenting a new regional political art style in the reliefs that José García Payón excavated at Calixtlahuaca. Some of her preliminary findings are presented in:
    • Umberger, Emily (2007) Historia del arte e Imperio Azteca: la evidencia de las esculturas. Revista Española de Antropología Americana 37:165-202.
  • I completed the proofing and indexing for my new book, which has some limited information from the Calixtlahuaca Archaeological Project:

Now it’s back to potsherds and burnt daub. Stay tuned for more results.

But first, the question everybody wants answered: NO, we did NOT find any crystal skulls at Calixtlahuaca.