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.