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.

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