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.