Monday, December 6, 2010

Neighborhoods at Mesoamerican Hilltop Cities

How does Calixtlahuaca compare to other Mesoamerican hilltop cities? We have written about this in a couple of places. In a paper from the SAA meetings in 2010, I compared Calixtlahuaca, Xochicalco, and a few other examples Smith (2010). If you want a copy of the paper, email me. One interesting difference is in the configuration of the terraces, and houses on terraces. This schematic diagram is from that paper:
 (This drawing is by Miriam Cox, ASU student)
  • Smith, Michael E.
    2010    Xochicalco and Calixtlahuaca as Mesoamerican Hilltop Political Capitals. Paper presented at the 75th Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis.

Julie and I have also make a very brief comparison of Calixtlahuaca to other hilltop cities in terms of their neighborhood organization. The passage below is from our book chapter, now under review:

  • Smith, Michael E. and Juliana Novic
  • n.d.    Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Neighborhoods in Mesoamerican Archaeology: The Assessment of Intermediate Units of Spatial and Social Analysis, edited by Linda Manzanilla and Charlotte Arnauld, (book in preparation).
"The hilltop capital city was a common urban form in ancient Mesoamerica, and researchers have investigated neighborhoods and districts at several of these settlements. In one of the first studies of residential zones at a Mesoamerican city, Richard Blanton (1978:66-93) analyzed districts for both early and late periods at Monte Alban. In early Monte Alban three zones had subtle differences in the ceramic assemblage suggesting that neighborhoods or districts may have had distinctive patterns of shared material culture, possibly signaling some form of spatially based identity. Later periods saw an increase in urban division to fifteen architecturally visible districts. These areas were of mixed social class, with elite and commoners living near one another. Few craft activities were identified at the level of the district, although, Blanton (1978:95) did identify zones of obsidian and groundstone production. In a more recent study, González Licón (2009) discusses inequality among households at Monte Albán, with a consideration of the role of neighborhoods.
            At the Oaxaca site of El Palmillo in the Classic period, residential zones were topographically distinguished and shared some economic and ritual activities (Feinman and Nicholas, chapter 7). Residents of nearby houses most likely engaged in joint work activities on common facilities such as terraces and stairs, which Feinman and Nicholas interpret in terms of collective action.
            On the basis of a program of intensive surface collection and mapping at the Epiclassic period (AD 600-800) hilltop city of Xochicalco, Kenneth Hirth (2000:234-239) identified fourteen residential zones that he calls “wards” and “ward subdivisions” (figure 3). These were identified on the basis of features of the natural and built environments that impeded movement within the city, such as ravines, ditches, defensive walls, walled causeways, and steep terrace walls. When Hirth plotted the distribution of civic architecture outside of the hilltop epicenter, he found that all but one of his fourteen zones contained one or more temples or civic structures. These units correspond to districts as defined in this paper. In a recent paper, Hirth (2009) compared the distribution of obsidian tool workshops to his map of districts, and found a lack of spatial association between the two. This suggests to him that “(1) artisans did not collaborate in corporate craft activities outside the household, and (2) a craft guild did not exist at the barrio [ward or district] level” (Hirth 2009:58). In both of these works, Hirth compares the Xochicalco data to the Aztec calpolli as described in documentary sources.
            Fieldwork by the authors at the hilltop city of Calixtlahuaca (Smith et al. 2009) suggests a division of the city into two districts based on topological considerations. On the basis of surface artifact densities, Novic identified twenty-four smaller zones—most likely neighborhoods—at Calixtlahuaca. The nature and dynamics of these spatial units is the focus of ongoing research (Novic 2008)."

Blanton, Richard E.
1978    Monte Alban: Settlement Patterns at the Ancient Zapotec Capitol. Academic Press, New York.
González Licón, Ernesto
2009    Ritual and Social Stratification at Monte Albán, Oaxaca: Strategies from a Household Perspective. In Domestic Life in Prehispanic Capitals: A Study of Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity, edited by Linda Manzanilla and Claude Chapdelaine, pp. 7-20. Memoirs, vol. 46. University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, Ann Arbor.
Hirth, Kenneth G.
2000    Public Architecture, Site Planning, and Urban community Organization. In Archaeological Research at Xochicalco. Volume 1, Ancient Urbanism at Xochicalco: The Evolution and Organization of a Pre-Hispanic Society, edited by Kenneth G. Hirth, pp. 210-243. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
2009    Household, Workshop, Guild, and Barrio: The Organization of Obsidian Craft Production in a Prehispanic Urban Center. In Domestic Life in Prehispanic Capitals: A Study of Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity, edited by Linda Manzanilla and Claude Chapdelaine, pp. 43-66. Memoirs, vol. 46. University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, Ann Arbor.
Novic, Juliana
2008    Reaching the City Limits: Identifying Settlement Boundaries at Calixtlahuaca, Toluca, Mexico. Paper presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver.
Smith, Michael E., Juliana Novic, Angela Huster, and Peter C. Kroefges
2009    Reconocimiento Superficial y Mapeo en Calixtlahuaca. Expresión Antropológica 36:39-55.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Old Xochimilco canal photo

This is an old photograph of women  harvesting crops  selling goods from a boat in a canal connected to  the chinampas south of Mexico City, probably in the 1920s. My daughter purchased it from a dealer in old photographs, who has no information about its origin. Does anyone have a clue about who might have taken the photo, when and where?  The name "Scott" is penciled in at the lower right.

Please contact me if you know anything about this. I am thinking about using this in the 3rd edition of my book, The Aztecs, but I'd like to know more about the photo before deciding to include it.  

I have found an alternate old photo, this one with a chinampero along the chinampas. Maybe I will post it at some point.

And what does this have to do with Calixtlahuaca, you might ask. Well, the lakes around Tenochtitlan, and in the southern part of the Basin of Mexico, were filled with chinampas in Aztec times. The high productivity of this form of agriculture is one reason why Tenochtitlan conquered Calixtlahuaca, rather than the other way around.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ceramics from Teotenango

Anthropology major Anne Beyens is scanning some of the drawings of ceramics from Teotenango to use in our ceramic type guidebook. Teotenango (see photo) is a large site in the southern part of thToluca Valley.

The first pot shown here is an E-1 tripod bowl, a type whose decoration is similar to the Macana red-on-brown type from Tollan-phase Tula. The second bowl is a Malinalco import (type D-1). These drawings are nice - very clear, good reproduction in black-and-white. They are from:

Tommasi de Magrelli, Wanda
    1978    La cerámica funeraria de Teotenango. Biblioteca Enciclopédica del Estado de México, vol. 61. Estado de México, Toluca.

In 2002, I photographed the Teotenango vessels and recorded attributes, and some day I'll find time to work this material up for publication. Some preliminary information is found in:

Smith, Michael E., and Jennifer Wharton
    2003    Postclassic Funerary Ceramics from the Toluca Valley, Central Mexico. Paper presented at the 2003 Annual Conference, Society for American Archaeology, Milwaukee.

The Teotenango ceramics are from a series of burials in the plazas of the site. The plazas shown in the site photo at the top were filled with burials. The photo on the right is a reconstruction of a burial, in the museum at the site (which is a great museum, well worth a trip). The monumental architecture was probably built during the Epiclassic period, then perhaps abandoned during the Early Postclassic (this isn't clear), and then during the Middle/Late Postclassic period, people put in all these burials. The ceramics are very similar to Calixtlahuaca, although with different quantities (e.g., red-on-white, our grouop D, is common at Teotenango but rare at Calixtlahuaca).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New paper on political geography of the Toluca Valley

A new paper by Brian Tomaszewski and I on the political geography of the Toluca Valley is in press at the Journal of Historical Geography. The proof copy is now online.

Tomaszewski, Brian M. and Michael E. Smith
2010    Politics, Territory, and Historical Change in Postclassic Matlatzinco (Toluca Valley, central Mexico). Journal of Historical Geography (in press).


Historical interpretation of political dynamics in pre-conquest central Mexico from indigenous records is fraught with difficulties. Beyond the basic challenges involved in interpreting fragmentary evidence is the fact that the majority of evidence comes from the dominant imperial polity (Tenochtitlan) and paints a biased and overly generalized view of political and social dynamics in provincial areas.We present a reconstruction of the political geography of the Toluca Valley of central Mexico in Aztec times that avoids these biases by focusing not on the events described in native histories, but on the individual towns and their spatial locations. We find that a theoretical perspective that defines political entities by networks and relations among people more adequately captures the historical situation than traditional models that define polities based on territory and boundaries.

2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserve

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Our final two hectic weeks in the lab

Here I am in the pacific port city of Guaymas, Sinaloa. After a nice norrth Mexican arrachera steak and a margarita, I'm resting up for the final day of the drive home. Whew, that was a hectic final 2 weeks in the lab. The previous post, by Angela, describes our petrographic sherd sample, one of our three massive sampling programs, all carried out during the last 2 weeks. We also picked a couple of hundred sherds for INAA analysis, and Adrian Burke picked around 250 pieces of obsidian for XRF source analysis. Each sampling program involved numerous searching through bags and boxes, cross-checking, measuring, etc. We take sampling seriously on this project, since we want the results of our technical analyses to represent various contexts, time periods, and artifact categories as well as possible. Why the rush during these 2 weeks? We needed to complete the seriation, so that we could assign the excavated deposits to phases, so that we could pick intelligent samples to monitor change through time (and other things). The seriation was not completed till just recently (I think we were too busy to post a description of this; maybe Angela or I can do this from ASU in the next few weeks).

Also, Adrian ran around looking for obsidian sources (one trip with Brad and Akiko and I to Las Palomas; and one trip just Adrian). The above photo shows Akiko and I on the hill of obsidian at Las Palomas. Brad and Akiko worked on the technological analysis of obsidian. Brad found some time to knap some of the Las Palomas obsidian (the preliminary report is, ok for bifaces, but not for blades). We got a bunch of miscellaneous cataloging done. Charles and Maria Stapleton stopped by for a day to finalize their report on censers. Kristin Nado spent several days cleaning human bone. I picked some more charcoal samples for C14 dating. Two Mexican students from the new archaeology program at UAEM, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, in Tenancingo (Rosario Endañú and Ali Sarabia) stopped by to help us for a while, and ended up with thesis topics. AND we reboxed the gound stone (it had been stored by provenience, and now it is stored by functional type). AND we got a number of new ceramic bags sorted. AND we pulled out ALL of the Aztec black-on-orange (even from already-analyzed bags) and re-sorted it (which had to be done before we pulled the sherd samples). All in the final 2 weeks of lab work. Wow, I'm amazed that we got it all done. Well, actually we only got 1/2 of the petrographic sample pulled. Now we could say that we ran out of time, but I'd rather say that we decided on a two-stage sampling and analytical process, so that results from the first batch will affect how we sample for the second batch. I could even come up with a citation or two to support multi-stage sampling. That sounds much better, doesn't it?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thin-Section Sampling – or – the Invasion of the Sherds

Now that we have a basic handle on the seriation, we are picking samples of sherds from each phase to export for thin-sectioning and petrographic analysis. This analysis, which will be done by Dr. Jennifer Meanwell, will hopefully tell us two things. First, it will let us know whether the variation we think we are seeing in ceramic pastes is real at a structural level. Second, we should be able to look at changes in the frequencies of the different paste types (provided that they exist!) over time, which could relate to changing patterns of trade.
Thin-sectioning and petrographic analysis is both expensive and time consuming, so we have developed a rather elaborated sampling strategy in an effort to get a representative sample of each phase. Julie Novic and I are taking rims sherds only, dividing them into categories based on vessel types (bowls, jars, and other vessels), and then dividing each of those categories into two groups, based on paste. (This has been a good opportunity for Julie to teach me how to recognize the various paste groups, but I clearly have a ways to go!) I then get a list of randomly generated numbers and use those to pick sherds from each of the six stratified groups. So far the random selections seem to be a pretty good representation of their parent groups. Since we also have a couple of specific ceramic types that we’re interested in, I go and pull out examples of them if they weren’t chosen during the randomized selection process.
Because we are sampling by phase, our sampling unit is the stratigraphic layer, rather than the excavated lot, which is how our material is stored. Since the former usually consists of several of the latter, we have to have several different lots open at the same time, which means that we are labeling every rim sherd to avoid confusion. The practical result is that all the ceramics tables in the lab are covered with neat lines of sherds, and we are starting to eye the patches of open space on the lithics table enviously!

The photos show Julie with her trusty pliers for checking paste types, and a portion of the bowl rims from a single group.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Centro Ceremonial Otomi

While Brad, Adrian, Akiko, and I were driving around the wooded mountains northeast of Toluca, looking for an obsidian source (which we found! more on this later, I hope), we stopped in at the "Centro Ceremonial Otomi." This is one of the more bizarre built environments I have ever experienced. It is a huge monumental complex built of stone, located in the mountains northeast of Toluca (in the municipio of Temoaya) with a beautiful view down into the Toluca Valley.

The Centro was built in 1980, by Jorge Jiménez Cantú, governor of the State of Mexico. Its purpose was supposedly to provide a tribute to the Otomi peoples of the state. The design seems to have nothing to do with Otomi culture or history, from the pictorial mosaics to the architectural arrangement and elements To me, it looks like the modernist architectural monuments built by 20th century authoritarian regimes (huge monuments that dwarf human visitors, abstract decoration, large open area for ceremony, etc.).

This complex was  used in the James Bond flick "License to Kill" as the "Olympatec Meditation Institute" (see photo below).

Residents of Toluca said that at one time there was a museum featuring Otomi culture at the monument, but all we saw was a big empty room. There is a small market with traditional crafts. We didn't see much evidence of Otomi activity at the site, although the Wikipedia entry on Temoaya says that Otomi ceremonies are held regularly at the Centro.

The Centro Ceremonial Otomi is open to tourists, and it houses dormitories for athletes who come to train at the high altitude (more than 3,000 meters ASL).

If I were governor and wanted to do something for the Otomi residents of the state, I'd spend my money on education, health, and jobs. If you want to know more about the Otomi, see some of these sources:

Carrasco, Pedro  (1950)  Los Otomíes: cultura e historia prehispánica de los pueblos mesoamericanos de habla otomiana. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

Fournier García, Patricia  (2007)  Los Hñähñü del Valle de Mezquital: maguey, pulque y alfarería. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Galinier, Jacques  (1987)  Pueblos de la Sierra Madre: Ethnografía de la comunidad otomí. INI, CEMCA (Centre d'études mexicaines et centraméricaines), Mexico City.

García Castro, René (editor)  (1999)  Códice Xiquipilco-Temoaya y títulos de tierras otomíes: edición facsimilar. El Colegio Mexiquense, Toluca.

Lagarriga Attias, Isabel and Juan Manuel Sandoval Palacios  (1978)  Otomies del norte del Estado de México: una contribución al estudio de la marginalidad. Serie de Antropología Social. Gobierno del Estado de México, Toluca.

Lastra de Suárez, Yolanda  (2006)  El Códice Huichapan (Compact Disk). Serie Códices de México vol. 4. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Lastra de Suárez, Yolanda  (2006)  Los otomies: su lengua y su historia. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Mexico City.

Muñoz Samayoa, Fernando and Irma Ramírez González  (2008)  Artesanías mazahuas y otomíes en el Estado de México. In Homenaje a Noemí Quezada: VI Coloquio Internacional sobre Otopames, edited by Verónica Kugel and Ana María Salazar, pp. 335-348. Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Universidad Nacional de México, Mexico City.

Wright Carr, David Charles  (2005)  Lengua, cultura e historia de los otomíes. Arqueología Mexicana 13(73):26-29.

Wright Carr, David Charles  (2008)  La sociedad prehispánica en las lenguas Náhuatl y Otomí. Acta Universitaria (Universidad de Guanajuato) 18(especial):15-23.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Our lab is in the newspaper

The Mexican newspaper Milenio just ran a full-page spread of photos taken in our lab (at the Colegio Mexiquense). For a pdf of the article, click here.
The article is called: "Desentierran varias piezas arqueológicas en la entidad."  Milenio, July 15, 2010. Section: Milenio Edomex, page 8. It is a "fotoreportaje" with photos by Iván Carmona, and text by Caludia Hidalgo. They visited us July 14 (Bastille Day). The photos in this post were taken by Carmona, but not used in the article; they are reproduced here with his permission. A longer text piece by Ms. Hidalgo is scheduled to appear in the newspaper Tuesday July 20.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Angela and I have isolated three ceramic phases for Calixtlahuaca through our seriation work. We'll post something soon on the new chronology. Here I want to talk about some linguistic research I've been doing. Our earliest period covers the Middle Postclassic period (ca. AD 1100-1300, but don't quote me yet), and the other two correspond to the Late Postclassic period. We have decided to use indigenous terms in the three local Oto-Pamean languages to name these phases. It is almost certain that the original builders and residents of Calixtlahuaca spoke one (or more) of these languages: Otomi, Mazahua, and Matlatzinca (see my previous post on this issue). The use of native terms for our time periods is one way of showing respect for the peoples of these groups. All three languages are still spoken today.

For the earliest phase, we will use the term "Dongu," which is an Otomi term for ancient or old house. This seems appropriate for the earliest occupation period at the site. Dongu is also a placename in the Otomi region in the north-western State of Mexico. The photo above was taken at the tiny hamlet of Dongu, located between the town of Acambay and the archaeological site of Huamango (thanks to Emily Root-Garey for taking the photo during our trip to Huamango a week ago).

René García Castro suggested to me yesterday that Dongu has another sense in Otomi native histories: it may refer to ancestral locations of the Otomi ruling families or ruling "houses" of the Postclassic period. This would make the term even more appropriate for Calixtlahuaca, the Middle- and Late-Postclassic capital of the Toluca Valley.

Speaking of Otomi toponyms, I just read an interesting new article on the topic (Lastra 2008). Two place names jumped out at me:

(1) Calixtlahuaca:  n-dahni,  "viento, pega el aire." This toponym was collected in 2002 from San Andrés Cuexcontitlán (just north of Toluca, and northeast of Calixtlahuaca). Could this be a clue to the ancient name of the city? As I started to get excited about this, it occurred to me that this could be merely a modern reference to the archaeological site, where it is well known that the main temple was dedicated to the wind god, Ehecatl. Interesting, though.....

(2) Huamango: karendó, gran escalera de piedra. This was also collected in 2002, in the town of Acambay (heading south from Huamango, past Dongu). This is another appropriate-sounding toponym. For information on the site of Huamango, see my previous post.

Lastra, Yolanda
    2008    Topónimos otmíes. Estudios de Cultura Otopame 6:381-314.

** PS - I apologize to the linguists out there for not including the proper diacritics for these Otomi words. Not only am I a linguistically-challenged researcher, but my computer cannot handle the necessary symbols and diacritics needed to properly render Otopamean terms.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sounds From the Past: The Bird-Whistle from Calixtlahuaca

By Arnd Adje Both

Favourable circumstances sometimes allow a sound of the past to be recovered and brought to our ears again. This is the case of a little bird-whistle from Calixtlahuaca, so far the only instrument from the site found intact (many fragmentary instruments were recovered in the excavations).

Its little high-pitched sound is the only one that has survived until today. The whistle (a globular flute without a fingerhole) is in the shape of a bird, and it is not surprising that it produces bird-like cries, which reminded us of a raptor. Does this whistle resemble the bird shown on the shield carried by the local king? We don’t know.

When I made a recording of the whistle in the patio of the ex-Hacienda of the Colegio Mexiquense in Zinacántepec (site of the Calixtlahuaca laboratory), Mike and Angela noted a definite effect on the many birds around. These birds made a lot of noise (or song, as the Aztecs would say), and notably were attracted by the sound produced by the whistle.

Click below for a short excerpt from my

recording of this whistle.

For more information on whistles like this and other Aztec musical instruments, see:

Both, Arnd Adje  (2002)  Aztec Flower-Flutes: The Symbolic Organization of Sound in Late Postclassic Mesoamerica. Studien zur Musikarchäologie III:279-289. Rahden/Westf.

Both, Arnd Adje  (2005)  Aerófonos mexicas de las orfrendas del recinto sagrado de Tenochtitlan. PhD dissertation. Lateinamerika-Institut, Freue Universität Berlin.

Both, Arnd Adje  (2006) On the Context of Imitative and Associative Processes in Prehispanic Music. Studien zur Musikarchäologie V, pp. 319-332. Rahden/Westf.

Martí, Samuel  (1968)  Instrumentos musicales precortesianos. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Calixtlahuaca Obsidian

By Bradford Andrews

At Calixtlahuaca (like most prehispanic societies in Mesoamerica), obsidian was the most common type of stone used to make tools for a wide variety of domestic, militaristic, and ritualistic purposes. More than 94% of the tools and debitage (byproducts of stone tool manufacture and use) from the site are composed of obsidian. Analysis of the obsidian materials was initiated by me and two of my Pacific Lutheran University students, Elisa Hoelter and David Treichel, during the summer of 2009. To date almost 9,000 artifacts have been analyzed.

Obsidian is a volcanic stone made of silica that is created by the rapid cooling of volcanic ejecta. Because it cools so rapidly, it lacks a true crystalline structure (Cobean 2002). This quality makes obsidian ideal flaking sharp implements used for numerous slicing, cutting, and scraping activities. Most of the obsidian found on Aztec sites comes from relatively recent volcanic deposits scattered across Central Mexico, stretching from Veracruz on the Gulf to the western Mexican state of Michoacan bordering the Pacific Ocean (Glascock et al. 1988).

The Calixtlahuaca obsidian artifacts show some interesting variation concerning flaked stone tool production and use in Aztec period Central Mexico. Here are three patterns that stand out:

First, the collections are composed almost exclusively of gray obsidian (75%). Although data are limited, this contrasts with has been reported for other Aztec sites outside the Basin of Mexico, the location of modern day Mexico City and the heartland of the Aztec Empire. In Morelos more than 90% of the artifacts are made of obsidian from the Pachuca source in the modern state of Hidalgo, northwest of the Basin. Pachuca obsidian is typically green in color. We think, therefore, that Calixtlahuaca was supplied with obsidian by means of a different system than was the case for some of the other Aztec dominated sites in Mesoamerica. It is probable that much of it came from sources west of Calixtlahuaca, many of which are located in Michoacan. Future chemical analysis will be conducted to evaluate this proposition.

Second, most of the tools (66%) were derived from obsidian blades that do not appear to have been produced by craftsmen who lived at Calixtlahuaca. The Mesoamerican blade technology consisted of shaping a cylindrical “core” from which blades were then removed by “pressing” them off with a wooden implement (Hirth and Andrews 2002). Such a process results in byproducts of blade production that are minimally represented at Calixtlahuaca. This finding is interesting because at numerous Mesoamerican sites evidence suggests that blades were made in workshops by resident craftsmen. It seems likely, therefore, that blade tools arrived at the site ready-made for use, or were produced by traveling craftsmen who periodically visited the site and plied their wares in the market.

Third, many of the artifacts that were made using a biface technology (23%) do appear to have been shaped into various tools in Calixtlahuaca households  Biface technology entails the removal of flakes from two sides, or “faces” of a relatively flat piece of obsidian to make items such as projectile points (arrowheads) and other scraping and chopping tools. This finding is interesting because in Central Mexico evidence for the production biface tools in the majority of a city’s households is the exception rather than the rule.

These preliminary observations on the obsidian artifacts from Calixtlahuaca provide important new comparative information on flaked stone tool production and use in the provinces of the Aztec Empire.

I presented these observations at the recent Society for American Archaeology meetings:

Andrews, Bradford W. (2010)  Calixtlahuaca Obsidian: Initial Reflections of Lithic Technology on the Western Aztec Periphery. Paper Presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis, Missouri.

Artist’s reconstruction of Biface production in a Calixtlahuaca Household, illustration by Michael Stasinos.

References cited

Cobean, Robert H. (2002) A World of Obsidian: The Mining and Trade of a Volcanic Glass in Ancient Mexico. Serie Arqueología De México. Pittsburgh: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia/University of Pittsburgh.

Glascock, Michael D., J. Michael Elam, and Robert H. Cobean. (1988) Differentiation of Obsidian Sources in Mesoamerica. Archaeometry '88. Eds. R. M. Farquhar, G. V. Hancock and L. A. Pavlish. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 245-51.

Hirth, Kenneth G., and Bradford W. Andrews (2002) Introduction." Pathways to Prismatic Blades: A Study in Mesoamerican Obsidian Core-Blade Technology. Eds. Kenneth G. Hirth and Bradford W. Andrews. Los Angeles: The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, 1-14.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ceramics and chronology

Angela and I are working on ceramic seriation right now. We are using counts of ceramic types to define ceramic phases (time periods), and we will use the results to assign as many of our excavated and surface contexts to a time period. I'll post more details when we have made more progress. But for some time how we have noticed an interesting chronological pattern that is very different from the ceramic situation at the provincial sites I excavated previously in Morelos.

We have noticed a strong association between the three ceramic types pictured here:
  1. comals (tortilla griddles)
  2. Texcoco fabric-marked (salt transport vessels), and 
  3. Aztec III black-on-orange.
In Morelos this correlation does not exist. There, salt vessels and comals ran throughout the sequence (Middle and Late Postclassic periods), whereas Aztec III was only found in the Late Postclassic. Most comals were locally made, and there are lots of them at the Morelos sites. The other two types were imported from the Basin of Mexico (as we showed with chemical analysis).
At Calixtlahuaca, however, the strong correlation among these types suggest that people were not using comals in the Middle Postclassic, and that they were not importing their salt from the Basin of Mexico at that time either. Then in the Late Postclassic, they started importing Aztec III bowls, Texcoco fabric-marked vessels, AND comals. All of our comals resemble closely the Late Postclassic comals from the Basin of Mexico; also, comals are much, much rarer at Calixtlahuaca than in Morelos.

So what does this mean? Until our seriation work is complete I don't want to speculate too much. Howeever these three types suggest very different patterns of trade and interaction between center and provinces than I documented in Morelos. And if they didn't have comals prior to the Late Postclassic, then they weren't eating torillas. Unfortunately we have been unable to identify vessels for steaming tamales, the logical tortilla alternative.

Stay tuned......

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What are we up to?

  1. Adje Both, expert in Aztec and Mesoamerican musical instruments, spent a day looking at our flutes and such. He recorded the sounds of the whole examples. He and I then went to Morelos to look at the material from my excavations there. When he gets back to Germany, he will write up a blog entry on the Calixtlahuaca material, with a link to his recording. These musical instruments are special - we can play them today, and hear the same sounds that the ancient inhabitants of the site heard.
  2. We are slogging through burned daub again, getting ready to throw out the stuff we don't need and save the informative pieces.
  3. Julie is measuring attributes on surface ceramics.
  4. Angela and I are working on the seriation. Stay tuned, this will be hot news when we are done.
  5. I gave a lecture today, a featured speech at an annual convention of Mexican archaeology students (at the archaeology facility of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México in Tenancingo). Several of the UAEM students worked with us during our excavations. And several visiting students from the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potisí had taken classes with Peter Kroefges, who worked at Calixtlahuaca in 2006.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

New articles and papers on Calixtlahuaca

I just posted an article on our 2006 season, the surface survey:

Smith, Michael E., Juliana Novic, Angela Huster and Peter C. Kroefges (2009) Reconocimiento Superficial y Mapeo en Calixtlahuaca. Expresión Antropológica 36:39-55.

Also, there is a link to this at the right, under "Links".

I plan to put this and other papers onto our project website, but I am having trouble editing the html here in Mexico (I don't have my regular editing program, and the one I downloaded is difficult to work with). This is one reason why blogs and wikis, etc., are easier than traditional websites.

We've had some recent papers at meetings.

Huster, Angela (2008) Scraping and Spinning: Maguey Fiber Production at Calixtlahuaca, Mexico. Paper presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver.

Novic, Juliana (2008) Reaching the City Limits: Identifying Settlement Boundaries at Calixtlahuaca, Toluca, Mexico. Paper presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver.

And there are a couple of papers accepted for publication and now in press:

Smith, Michael E. (2010) Las ciudades prehispánicas: su traza y su dinámica social. In Nueva Historia General del Estado de México, tomo 2, periodo postclásico (IN PRESS), edited by Rosaura Hernández Rodríguez and Raymundo César Martníez García. El Colegio Mexiquense, Toluca.

Tomaszewski, Brian M. and Michael E. Smith (n.d.) Politics, Territory, and Historical Change in Postclassic Matlatzinco (Toluca Valley, central Mexico). Journal of Historical Geography (accepted for publication).

If you need copies of any of these, email the author(s).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A new look

Blogger offers some new design templates, so I am trying one out. In addition to the colors and such, the text frame is now wider.

We are working in the lab at the Colegio Mexiquense now, and should be posting more frequently!

Here is a very low-resolution version of the plan of unit 307, the house that yielded most of the Spaniards with hats.

Let me know if you like or dislike this new format for the blog.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Amy Karabowicz is honored by SHESC

Amy Karabowicz, who wrote her senior honors thesis on the burned daub from Calixtlahuaca, has received several honors at her ASU graduation this month. First, she received the "Undergraduate Award for Academic Achievement" from SHESC (the School of Human Evolution & Social Change). Check out the page on her award. Amy was also given the University's "Moeur Award," for "those individuals who have attained the highest academic standing in any four-year curriculum during their undergraduate years at ASU."

Amy's senior honors thesis, "Wattle and Daub Architecture at Calixtlahuaca, Mexico," was written for the Barrett Honors College. We hope it will become available in some fashion before too long. Stay tuned.

Congratulations, Amy!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The "King of Calixtlahuaca" cake

We had a party last night for the archaeologists, and Alanna Ossa made this awesome cake, decorated with a Calixlahuaca relief. Her model was Emily Umberger's drawing of the monument (see Umberger 2007). Emily was given the honor of cutting the cake, I got to eat the bird emblem, and a good time was had by all. No one fell into the pool.

Alanna is quite a cake artist. Check out her blog, "Cake and Empire" for more excellent cakes (including the Aztec Calendar stone, a skull rack, and other cool cakes). Ace of Cakes watch out!

Umberger, Emily
2007 Historia del arte e Imperio Azteca: la evidencia de las esculturas. Revista Española de Antropología Americana 37:165-202.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tarascan urbanism in the news

West Mexico seems to be the exciting place for new archaeological research on Postclassic urbanism See my prior post on the French work in Michoacan. And now Chris Fisher's fieldwork at early Tarascan urban, or proto-urban, sites is making the news (LA Times). Read more about his project on his website, the "Legacies of Resilience Foundation."

I'm sure that the people of Calixtlahuaca were in touch with Tarascans, but why haven't we found any Tarascan pottery at the site? When we analyze the obsidian, we will probably find that a good part of it comes from sources near Lake Cuitzeo, and it is also very likely that much of our copper-bronze is from Tarascan territory. But the lack of ceramics remains puzzling.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How big are those pyramids?

I like to talk about the "monumental architecture" at Calixtlahuaca as if the pyramids and palace were truly large and impressive structures. I realize that the temples at Calixtlahuaca are much smaller than the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, or the other big Aztec twin-temple pyramids such as Tlatelolco or Tenayuca. This fits a general expectation that the scale of civic architecture should match up with the scale of the polity. Joyce Marcus (2003) has pointed out that this assumption is not always true, but I think it holds up reasonably within a cultural tradition such as Aztec central Mexico. As the capital of a big empire, it is not surprising that Tenochtitlan has bigger temples than Calixtlahuaca, the capital of a smaller regional state.But Chris Fisher just sent me an image that makes even the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan look puny. He has merged a model of that temple into the main platform at Tzintzuntzan, the Tarascan capital (Pollard 1993; Fisher 2005):
(image by Christopher Fisher)

The oddly shaped temples on top of the great platform are called yacatas. The Templo Mayor fits right in the line of yacatas. Well, since the Tarascans beat the Aztecs soundly in the only major direct battle they fought, I guess we can say that Tzintzuntzan was the more powerful city. So then it makes sense that their main religious structure was bigger than the Templo Mayor.

The sizes of things are important, and differences in scale can teach us important lessons. These may not be simple or obvious lessons, but it is always important to keep in mind how big things are.

Fisher, Christopher T.
2005 Demographic and Landscape Change in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, Mexico: Abandoning the Garden. American Anthropologist 107:87-95.

Marcus, Joyce
2003 Monumentality in Archaic States: Lessons Learned from Large-Scale Excavations of the Past. In Theory and Practice in Mediterranean Archaeology: Old World and New World Perspectives, edited by John K. Papadopoulos and Richard M. Leventhal, pp. 115-134. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Pollard, Helen Perlstein
1993 Tariacuri's Legacy: The Prehispanic Tarascan State. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Burning Incense at Calixtlahuaca

Incense burners (or censers) are a regular part of household artifact inventories at Aztec-period sites in central Mexico. People made offerings to the gods by burning copal, an aromatic resin made from the sap of various trees of the genus coparifera. The censers we found in domestic contexts at Calixtlahuaca are interesting; their form is uncommon at other sites. The first few images show some of our sherds, and a reconstruction drawing (made by ASU student Will Russell). Caitlin Guthrie did a preliminary study of these censers and presented a poster at the 2008 SAA meetings:

Guthrie, Caitlin
2008 The Censers of Calixtlahuaca. Poster presented at the 2008 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver.

We are still working on comparing these items to other central Mexican censers. They seem to most closely resemble some censers from the Tollan phase (Early Postclassic) at Tula. This is interesting, becuase the Calixtlahuaca deposits are all from the Middle and Late Postclassic periods. Perhaps people adopted the Toltec censers, and then kept using them while other Aztec-period peoples in central Mexico changed to the long-handled censer style.

Here is an example of the long-handled censers that are most typical of Aztec sites in the Basin of Mexico and Morelos. There are many images in the codices of priests using these things at public cereminies (this image is from the Codex Mendoza). In Morelos, these were the dominant form of domestic censer. I describe these and talk about possible links between domestic ritual and state ritual in this paper:

Smith, Michael E.
2002 Domestic Ritual at Aztec Provincial Sites in Morelos. In Domestic Ritual in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by Patricia Plunket, pp. 93-114. Monograph, vol. 46. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Back to Calixtlahuaca: We also have some long-handled censers (see the photo), but they are very different from the Aztec examples. In fact, these forms (which are much rarer than the spiked censers shown above) also resemble censer forms from Tollan-phase Tula. Hmmmmmm. I guess the Calixtlahuaca folks really liked those Toltec incense burners. Were they making a delberate social statement about their linkages to the Toltec past, their adherence to Toltec values and ideas? Or were they country bumpkins who were so out of it that they didn't realize that everyone else in central Mexico was now using the new Aztec-style censer? Can we decide between these two views? Or do we need to consider additional kinds of evidence before making complex interpretations like this?

And here is one final example, an unusual decorated basin censer from Garcia Payon's excavations at Calixtlahuaca. The color photo shows the vessel when we photographed the collections in 2002 (thanks to the Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura and the Museo de Antropología in Toluca for permissions and help). But when it was first found, it looked like the second image, taken from the Illustrated London News in 1931:

Gann, Thomas
1931 New Light on Aboriginal America: Interesting Discoveries on Toltec Sites in Mexico: Temples and Art Treasures at Calixtlahuaca and Teotihuacan. In Illustrated London News, pp. 330-331. August 29, 1931 ed, London.

My guess is that this was used in temple ceremonies, not in domestic ritual.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

New blog on Postclassic urban sites in Michoacan

Marion Forest has just started an informative blog on "Le Projet Uacusecha." This project is investigating some very interesting urban sites in an area of lava flows near Zacapu, Michoacan.As you can see from the photo, many of the stone foundation walls are very well preserved at these sites. This is an important project for expanding our understanding of the forms and organization of urbanism in Postclassic Mesoamerica.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mysterious Calixtlahuaca: Memo to TV producers

Memo to TV producers:

Tonight I watched the PBS/National Geographic show, “Ghosts of Machu Picchu” that emphasized the mysterious nature of this Inca site. When you make your million-dollar documentary on Calixtlahuaca, here are some of the mysteries you could emphasize. Based on the fact that many of the so-called “mysteries” that structured the Machu Picchu show have not been at all mysterious since John Rowe’s 1990 paper (Rowe 1990), I will list some “mysteries” of Calixtlahuaca and their solutions (so that you can avoid the real information until the end of the show, for dramatic effect).

  • Why was the main pyramid circular in form? Was this a sacred shape, perhaps a symbol of the cosmos? Might the shape relate to the statue of the wind god found buried in the pyramid? Could it indicate that the people of Calixtlahuaca were in tune with the weather and the cosmos? You can use haunting and spooky flute music in this segment.
    • Reality check: The role of circular temples and the wind god has been known since the first codices were studied, and the topic was thoroughly analyzed in Pollock (1936).
  • Why did so many of the human long bones excavated at Calixtlahuaca in the 1930s have deep parallel notches? Could these have been sacred musical instruments that produced an eerie percussion sound used in secret rituals? Why did these skeletons disappear after 1935?
    • Reality check: The uses of these objects as musical instruments has been understood at least since Seler’s work over a hundred years ago (Seler 1992). We don’t know what happened to the bones, though.
  • Why was this city built on a hill? Was it to worship the gods of the sky, or perhaps the sun god? Can this be explained by the “sacred landscape theory” that explains Machu Picchu according to Nova last night? (actually I prefer Rowe’s more prosaic explanation). Just like Machu Picchu, there were sacred volcanoes to the south and the east of Calixtlahuaca (and probably to the north and west, although I haven’t looked yet).
    • Well, I guess I have to admit that the placement of the city on a hill is really a mystery of sorts, something that we are working on. But it is hard to attribute the location to a “sacred landscape theory” when nearly all other Aztec-period cities were NOT built on mountains, whereas the basic belief system was widespread.

Sincerely yours,

M. E. Smith, skeptical archaeologist

Now, here are some REAL mysteries, but probably not the kind of mystery that TV producers would be interested in:

  • Why do so many people insist in attributing mystery to archaeological sites and ancient peoples? Weren’t ancient people humans like you and me, living regular lives like people all over the world? Why must the past be portrayed as mysterious and so very different from the present?
  • Why do people seem amazed that ancient peoples did the things they did? Inka stonework is admirable for its skill and aesthetics, but there is nothing mysterious about it. They put thousands of people to work cutting stone, they had expert masons, and they took whatever time was needed to do things right. The Mayas had an advanced calendar and writing system, and they were pretty smart people, but there is nothing mysterious about this. (And no, the world will NOT end in 2012). The Aztecs used one of the most highly productive agricultural systems known to the preindustrial world (chinampas, or raised fields), but this is not mysterious. They had the skills, the labor, and the economic and political structure to do what they needed to do.


Pollock, Harry E. D.

1936 Round Structures of Aboriginal Middle America. Publications, vol. 471. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC.

Rowe, John H.

1990 Machu Picchu en la luz de documentos del siglo XVI. Histórica (Lima) 14(1):139-154.

Seler, Eduard

1992 Ancient Mexican Bone Rattles. In Collected Works in Mesoamerican Linguistics and Archaeoalogy, pp. 62-73, vol. 3. Labyrinthos, Culver City.