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.