Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Bezotes (Lip Plugs or Labrets)

By Angela Huster
One form of Aztec jewelry were decorative objects worn through a piercing in a person’s lower lip, known as bezotes in Spanish and lip plugs or labrets in English. They can be made out of different materials – bone, clay, obsidian, or other stones – and come in various shapes. While there are a few very fancy examples in museums, with gold and turquoise inlays, most examples are much simpler. In Central Mexico, “T-shaped” lip plugs are traditionally associated with the Otomi ethnic group, based on historic documents. In her excavations at Xaltocan, Lisa Overholtzer (2015) showed that T-shaped lip plugs were used during the Middle Postclassic, and and wider, flatter "Button-shaped" ones were used during the Late Postclassic. However, people seem to have switched forms before the Aztec conquest of the site, suggesting that they may have actively manipulated their ethnic identity in anticipation of shifts in regional power. 

The rock crystal and obsidian lip plugs from Calixtlahuaca (plus a copper earspool on the left)

At Calixtlahuaca, we recovered two T-shaped lip plugs (one made out of obsidian and one of rock crystal), and two button-shaped ones (both made out of clay). Both T-shaped pieces come from Ninupi phase contexts. One of the button-shaped ones comes from a Ninupi phase context and the other from a Yata phase context. The fact that we recovered so few examples of lip plugs is interesting, since the Otomi were one of the ethnic groups who lived in the Toluca Valley. The phasing of the few lip plugs we did find parallels the findings from Xaltocan; T-shaped lip plugs are earlier and from prior to the Aztec conquest of the site, and button-shaped ones are more likely to be later, from the period under Aztec rule, but there’s some fuzziness. However, because Calixtlahuaca was conquered by the Aztecs later than Xaltocan was, the transition in forms occurs later in calendar time; instead of a change between the Middle and Late Postclassic, the switch in forms occurs between the two halves of the Late Postclassic.
The ceramic lip plugs from Calixtlahuaca

Because lip plugs are low frequency objects (even at sites where they are more common than at Calixtlahuaca!), it can be hard for any one project to find enough to identify meaningful patterns. As a result, it is important for projects to publish good descriptions of their rare finds and their proveniences, so that a larger regional sample can eventually be put together. We are currently writing the informe chapter on miscellaneous ceramic objects at Calixtlahuaca – which includes, but certainly isn’t limited to, lip plugs.

Works Cited:

Overholtzer, Lisa M.
                2015       Agency, practice, and chronological context: A Bayesian approach to household chronologies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 37:37-47.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Grinding Stones

Angela Huster

Stone tools for grinding corn – manos and metates – are a fundamental hallmark of Mesoamerican culture. Prior to the introduction of modern electric mills, Mexican women would spend several hours every day grinding corn with a mano and metate. A mano and metate were traditional wedding gifts, because they were so fundamental to setting up your own household. At Calixtlahuaca, they are one more line of evidence for how the site is subtly different from many contemporaneous Aztec sites. 

A woman instructing her daughter how to grind corn in Codex Mendoza

In Central Mexico, grinding stones go through two major changes. First, early in Mesoamerican prehistory, there is a change from mostly basin metates (with walls around the edges) and smaller handstones, to mostly flat metates with longer handstones. Archaeologists generally assume that this change is related to a shift toward grinding pre-soaked corn (a soft food that doesn’t bounce around when it’s being ground), rather than small, hard seeds or dry corn. In the US Southwest, the introduction of corn produces the opposite pattern in metate forms, because people there grind their corn dry (Adams 1999). There is a second change in grinding stone tools in the Postclassic, when metates with legs and thin manos with handles on the ends become more common. These changes would have made fine-grinding corn more efficient, perhaps as a way to reduce the fuel needed for cooking or to make it easier to digest (Biskowski 2000)

Mano fragments from Calixtlahuaca

At Calixtlahuaca, this second change didn’t really happen. We get some metates with legs, but they aren’t the only type in use. More noticeably, the shift from “Classic style” relatively thick manos without distinct handle grips on the ends, to thinner “Aztec style” manos with handle grips is missing. When I classified the ground stone from the site, I planned on using the same coding categories from Mike’s previous projects in Morelos. This classification basically has five categories for manos, ranging from one for a thick mano without differentiated handles, to five for a thin mano with pronounced handles. At sites in Morelos, most manos are 4s or 5s on this scale. At Calixtlahuaca, there were only a couple of cases that even scored as 3s; most were 1s or 2s.

Ways of classifying the shapes of manos
This “conservatism” in grinding technology fits into two larger patterns at Calixtlahuaca. First, it is likely related to differences in how maize was eaten in the Toluca Valley, relative to many other parts of Central Mexico (see previous posts on maize cooking HERE). If people at Calixtlahuaca didn’t eat as many tortillas (which require finer-than-average grinding), they may not have needed the increased efficiency provided by handled manos. Second, the continued use of an older style of grinding stones is part of a broader set of traits that people in the Toluca Valley maintained long after their neighbors in the Basin of Mexico, including the use of red-on-natural pottery, particular styles of censers, and lots of obsidian from the Ucareo source.

Works Cited:
Adams, Jenny L.
                1999       Refocusing the Role of Food-Grinding Tools as Correlates for Subsistence Strategies in the U.S. Southwest. American Antiquity 64(3):475-498.

Biskowski, Martin
                2000       Maize Preparation and the Aztec Subsistence Economy. Ancient Mesoamerica 11:293-306.