Monday, June 29, 2009

31 bags of sherds

We have just finished classifying the second-largest collection of sherds from a single excavated level. We got through the largest batch, 34 bags of sherds, in 2008. But here is the next-largest collection, 31 bags of sherds from a single 20-cm level in unit 323.

The photo shows four of our experienced "tepalcateros" (tepalcate is the Nahuatl term for potsherds, used frequently in modern central Mexican Spanish). These women are from San Francisco Calixtlahuaca, and they have become very proficient at ceramic classification and other analytical tasks. All of these sherds arefrom this one level. The big pile are undecorated jar sherds (always the biggest category). the women are holding up some of the partial vessels they were able to fit together.

This summer we are working our way through ceramics from some of the deposits that are important for chronological purposes. Unit 323 consisted of some trenches on a terrace quite high on the hill. We have some good stratigraphy, with Early Aztec sherds at the base and what we think are late markers at the top. But deep in the trench, in the final days of the field season, we hit the edge of a burned house associated with a rich artifact deposit. Most of the house went into the side wall, and at nearly 2 meters deep at the end of the field season we did not have time to expose it further. But we did get some rich floats full of seeds or beans or something (these are being processed by Emily McClung at UNAM in Mexico City), a bunch of burned daub, and nice dense trash deposits with the kinds of sherds shown here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Calixtlahuaca in the newspaper

A full-page article on Calixtlahuaca just appeared in the newspaper, Milenio, June 18, 2009. Written by Ernesto de la Cueva, the article is a nice summary of what we know about the site from both earlier excavations and from our project. There are several color photos.

Click on the title to see the article.

I found only two errors, an excellent rating for newspaper journalism. One was calling the occupation Classic, instead of Postclassic indate. The other was attributing the project to the "Universidad de Arizona", rather than Arizona State University. Oh well. I corrected these on the pdf of the article, posted at the above address.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Coatequitl (labor tribute) again

Here are a few more illustrations of labor tribute (see my previous post for the context here). I love Aztec codices, both for their information content and for their graphical style. Both are from the Codex Kingsborough, an account of encomienda tribute in the decades immediately following the Spanish conquest of 1521.

The first illustration shows the labor tribute paid by two towns, Mazahuacan and Caltecoya (the toponyms are in the left register). The clothing signals these guys as macehualli (commoners), and the digging stick indicates that this is coatequitl labor. Mazahuacan supplied one hundred laborers everh 80 days. The flag stands for 20, which is multiplied by the five dots. We know the period of collection from some latin words written on the document. Caltecoya was responsible for 40 workers, at the same schedule. Perhaps the guy from Mazahuacan looks sadder than his colleague becuaes of the heavier burden on his town. This corvee labor is only part of each town's payment; there are also payments in goods.

The second illustration is part of a listing of tribute paid to local indigenous nobles. A number of small named groups were subject to each noble; this illustration shows three such groups (these were probalby calpolli). The top row has the toponyms, and the names are also written in European letters above the toponyms. Sorry, I can't read the glyphs OR the European script. The lower register has the number of laborers (note the diging sticks); these three groups paid 20, 15 and 15 workers respectively

I was in the library of the Colegio Mexiquense looking at the codex (our Calixtlahuaca lab is at the Colegio, where I have an affiliation), when I realized that it was published by the Colegio. So I went round the corner to the bookstore and bought a copy! For some discussion on the theoretical context of this kind of labor taxation, see my post, "A 'new' kind of agency theory."

Valle, Perla (editor)
1995 Códice de Tepetlaoztoc (Códice Kingsborough), Estado de México: Edición facsimilar. 2 vols. El Colegio Mexiquense, Toluca.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Who built the temples and palace at Calixtlahuaca?

Many people will probably interpret this question in ethnic terms. Were the buildings built by the Otomis, the Nahuas, the Matlatzincas, or someone else? Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer to the question of the ethnic or linguistic affiliations of the people of Calixtlahuaca. This question, on the other hand, is meant to address the kinds of people and the kinds or labor organization behind the construction of large buildings at Calixtlahuaca and other Aztec-period cities. I discuss this issue briefly in my book, Aztec City-State Capitals (Smith 2008), but here I will elaborate on the issue of labor taxation.

I should first justify using the term “taxation” for Aztec society. In reading both the primary sources and the entire scholarly literature on the Aztecs, one rarely encounters the term “tax.” Aztec specialists (including myself) typically use the term “tribute” to refer to the obligations people had to their local king or to the Aztec Empire. But if one wants to compare the Aztecs to other early states, then it makes sense to use standard comparative terminology. Most of the obligations that are typically called “tribute” are in reality taxes – payments that were regular, specified, organized, and recorded.

Of the many types of taxes in Aztec society, the one most relevant to building large buildings was called coatequitl, an example of the category of corvée labor. One definition of corvée labor is: “compulsory, unpaid labor demanded by a lord or king and the system of such labor in general.” The best analysis of coatequitl in Aztec society is by Teresa Rojas (Rojas Rabiela 1979). To summarize a complex set of information, each commoner household owed a certain number of days of labor each year to their local king. People were organized into groups or squads of 20 workers called a centecpantli, each with an overseer.

These work squads were sometimes further organized into larger groups of 100 or 200 workers, again under an overseer. The Codex of San Andrés (Galarza 1963) shows a group of 400 laborers, divided into 20 squads of 20 workers each (see first figure). The flag (“pantli”) is a sign for 20. These 400 workers face the overseer, who stands in front of a public building.

In early colonial Mexico City, Spanish officials adapted the Aztec system of coatequitl and work squads to their own purposes, obtaining the labor to build churches, houses, and other buildings. In the second figure here, the Codex Osuna (Códice Osuna 1973) shows a group of workers who owed service to the Viceroy (pictured at the bottom). There are 20 unspecialized laborers (note the flag; the digging stick signals coatequitl labor), as well as a stonemason, a carpenter, and a plasterer. At the right is shown an emblem for 20 “indios de servicio,” personal servants for the Viceroy’s household.

We do not have any specific documents from Calixtlahuaca that talk of labor service or temple construction. But from a general knowledge of Aztec systems of labor and taxation, we can conclude that the large buildings were built by the commoner residents of the city, perhaps aided by residents of nearby towns subject to the king of Calixtlahuaca. People were expected and required to provide this labor service, which was a regular part of life for Aztec-period commoners. The situation is somewhere in between two popular views: (1) The old National-Geographic-Magazine view that ancient temples were built by gangs of slave laborers; and (2) the view that people willingly contributed their labor voluntarily to build temples to the gods (just as today people voluntarily give up their taxes to the IRS out of patriotic devotion to one’s country).

For more information on coatequitl labor in Aztec society, see: (Hicks 1978; Rojas Rabiela 1979; Rojas Rabiela 1986; Valle 2003). For some discussion of a theoretical context for this kind of labor taxation, see my publishing blog.


Códice Osuna (1973) Pintura del Gobernador, Alcaldes y Regidores de México: "Códice Osuna". 2 vols. Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia, Direccíon General de Archivos y Bibliotecas, Madrid.

Galarza, Joaquín (1963) Codex San Andrés (juridiction de Cuautitlan): Manuscrit Pictographique du Musée de l'Homme de Paris (II). Journal de la Société des Amréicanistes 52:61-90.

Hicks, Frederic (1978) Los calpixque de Nezahualcoyotl. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 13:129-152.

Rojas Rabiela, Teresa (1979) La organización del trabajo para las obras públicas: el coatequitl y las cuadrillas de trabajadores. In El trabajo y los trabajadores en la historia de México, edited by Elsa Cecilia Frost, Michel C. Meyer and Josefina Zoraido Vázquez, pp. 41-66. El Colegio de México, Mexico City.

Rojas Rabiela, Teresa (1986) El sistema de organización en cuadrillas. In Origen y formación del estado en Mesoamérica, edited by Andrés Medina, Alfredo López Austin and Mari Carmen Serra, pp. 135-150. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

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

Valle, Perla (2003) Por obra pública y coatequitl: mano de obra indígena en códices jurídicos del siglo XVI. In Proyecto etnohistoria: visión alternativa del tiempo pp. 17-21. Diario de Campo, Supplement. vol. 25.