Friday, October 12, 2018

House Abandonment and Destruction

We’ve previously talked about the amount of burned daub we found at Calixtlahuaca, and how it was probably related to the intentional destruction of houses there. Based on experimental work, it’s unlikely to get that much of a house burning at a high enough temperature to fire the clay of the walls without an intentional effort (Karabowicz 2009). However, that still leaves several different options for why the houses at Calixtlahuaca burned, and who did the burning.

Our first thought was that the houses had been burned during the Aztec conquest of the site. The standard Mesoamerican glyph for the conquest of a town is a drawing of a burning temple. Later, when we realized that some of the burned structures were from excavations that also included Colonial period figurines, I thought that they might have been burned when the residents of Calixtlahuaca were moved into Toluca as part of the process of congregación. People were sometimes required to burn their houses behind them when they were moved, to prevent them from going back to their old village. Another option is that people regularly burned their own houses, either through accidental kitchen fires, or intentionally, as a way to control insects and rodents. 

The depiction of the Aztec conquest of Toluca in the Codex Mendoza, showing the burning-temple glyph

A couple of ways of separating these hypotheses are to look at the timing of the burning, and the degree of primary refuse left behind (Cameron and Tomka 1993; Inomata and Webb 2003). First, do all of the burned structures date to a single phase? If they do, this would suggest that they were burned as part of an event affecting the whole site, such as the Aztec conquest or the Spanish congregación policy. In fact, the three most severely burned structures at the site (in Units 315, 316, and 317) each dates to a different phase, which means that house burning was an ongoing activity throughout the site’s history. Second, how cleaned out were the houses before they burned? If burning is a planned, scheduled activity (such as for pest control, or congregación), people have time to remove all of their things from the house beforehand and there won’t be many artifacts left on the floor. In contrast, if the burning is unexpected (such as for conquest, or an accidental fire), the contents of the house are likely to burn with it and many of them may not be salvageable after the fire. One of the things we noticed during excavation at Calixtlahuaca was how few artifacts were found on floors, or in other primary contexts. Compared to many other projects, we found few whole or reconstructable pots (only 32), and only one of those, Vessel 2, was found on a floor, rather than in a burial or broken in a trash pit. Taken together, these two lines of evidence would suggest intentional, regular, planning burning, likely by the occupants of the houses themselves.

Vessel 2, a locally-produced version of Aztec Orangeware, found on the floor of the house in Unit 309


Cameron, Catherine M. and Steve A. Tomka (editors)
                1993       Abandonment of Settlement and Regions: Ethnoarchaeological and Archaeological Approaches. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Inomata, Takeshi and Ronald W. Webb
                2003       Archaeological Studies of Abandonment in Middle America. . In The Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment in Middle America, edited by T. Inomata and R. W. Webb, pp. 1-12. Foundations in Archaeological Inquiry, J. M. Skibo, general editor. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Karabowicz, Amy
                2009       Wattle and Daub Architecture at Calixtlahuaca, Mexico: Experimental Analyses and a Comparative Study with Europe. Senior Honors Thesis, Barrett Honor's College, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.

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