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Lisa Overholtzer NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (Proposed Research Essay) 1
Title: Space and Place: the practices of everyday life in Postclassic Xaltocan, Mexico
Keywords: Aztecs, space, household archaeology, identity, figurines, trade
Archaeology as a discipline has often been used to provide a window into the past, but its
success relies on the accuracy of that window. The question of accuracy is particularly relevant
to my research on ancient Mexican societies. Because of clear historical biases in
anthropological research towards telling the story of men at the state level, much of the general
knowledge about the Aztecs emphasizes their violent nature and ritual human sacrifices. My
research attempts to correct these biases by exploring aspects of the everyday lives of common
Mexican men, women, and children in a provincial town in the Aztec empire.
My research builds upon a growing emphasis in anthropological archaeology on the study
of household dynamics, everyday life, and the construction of place (see Robin 2002; Joyce and
Hendon 2000). Drawing on social theorist Michel De Certeau (1984), I will examine everyday
life in the Aztec empire by studying the way that individuals utilize, create, experience, and
transform space and imbue spaces with history, memory, and meaning. Yet the spaces we
excavate archaeologically only come into being within the historical and social context, as
individuals interact with other people in the space given current ideological and socio-political
realities (Robin 2002). Time, therefore, is necessarily inseparable from studies of space, because
the history and memory of space is constructed and changes over time (Robin 2002). By
understanding how people create space in their lives, I will gain insights into social construction,
social experience, and how people craft their own identities, focusing on ethnicity and gender.
My work examines the creation of space in the town of Xaltocan, a Postclassic site in the
northern Basin of Mexico. Xaltocan was founded in the 11th century CE and was an important
regional center until being conquered by Cuauhtitlan and Azcapotzalco in 1395, at which time it
was deserted. After being incorporated into the Aztec empire in 1428, it was repopulated, and
despite being burned by Hernán Cortés in 1521, is still inhabited today (Brumfiel and
Overholtzer in press). Xaltocan is the perfect site for studying the creation of space not only
because of its lengthy habitation and its history of contested space over time through conquest
and repopulation, but also because as a human-made island that required 1.5 million cubic meters
of soil to construct, the founders and their descendants had a personal investment in a place they
themselves created from a lake.
I will draw on both traditional field and new laboratory analysis techniques to explore
aspects of space and place at Xaltocan. Central to my work will be analyses of the production of
small ceramic mold-made figurines excavated at Xaltocan. These figurines were mass-produced
at various sites throughout the Basin of Mexico and distributed through the market system (Neff
et. al. 2000). My work will use geochemical analyses (instrumental neutron activation analysis
[INAA]) to study the composition of ceramic figurines at Xaltocan. Previous studies of serving
vessels at Xaltocan (Hodge and Neff 2005) have shown that they originated in various cities
throughout the Valley of Mexico, including Tenochtitlan, Cuauhtitlan, Chalco, Otumba,
Texcoco, and Xaltocan. However, this research has focused exclusively on macro-level relations
between communities, rather than on understanding fine-grained social dynamics. Thus, my
approach is unique in that it uses geoarchaeological analyses in order to directly address the lived
reality of the people, and therefore links the macro and micro theories of society.
Thinking of the Xaltocan figurines in the framework of the proposed project, several
questions emerge. What histories did these figurines accumulate on their journeys from
production locale, to market, to user? How did people choose figurines to purchase, and how did
they conceive of the places of origin for the figurines? How did the residents of Xaltocan
Lisa Overholtzer NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (Proposed Research Essay) 2
negotiate their place in society with these figurines? I argue that these figurines, literally created
from the earth of those places, would have been charged with the meaning of all of those places.
A figurine from Tenochtitlan, where cloth woven with an Aztec woman’s hard work had to be
given up as tribute to an empire that she felt might not represent her best interests, may not have
been imbued with pleasant memories. Perhaps the figurine she bought when she had a
successful market day in Azcapotzalco might have conjured up cheery thoughts.
To address these questions, I will combine three lines of evidence: archaeological,
textual, and geoarchaeological. Because these figurines were excavated, I have context data,
associated ceramics, and C-14 dates. I have already photographed, measured, recorded attributes
of, and assigned types to all of these figurines. I will also utilize textual evidence, such as native
and colonial maps and accounts, to look at conceptions of specific places. Finally, I plan to use
INAA geochemical analyses, supplemented by color, texture, and mineralogical analyses, of a
subset of figurines chosen from various phases and figurine types.
Given my hypothesis that people from Xaltocan differentially constructed space and
identity by purchasing and using figurines from various places, I would expect to find changes
across the site and over time in the frequencies of figurines in terms of origin and
representational imagery. In addition, a subset of figurines from Xaltocan are in a foreign
(Toltec) style, and I expect chemical analyses to show foreign origin, and context data to show
that only some households purchased foreign figurines and used them to negotiate a different
identity. Alternatively, these figurines might show local manufacture, which would reflect a
desired affiliation with the Toltecs, known as skilled artisans. I also anticipate finding textual
data about figurine production places that I will use to interpret the changes in frequencies.
Addressing these questions will greatly enrich our understanding of Aztec society and
Aztec conceptions and use of space. Not only will this contribute to knowledge in archaeology,
but it will also have larger implications for today’s society. In a time of hotly contested space
here in the United States, alternate views regarding the conceptions of space and identity in the
past may serve as a way of highlighting the transitory nature of contemporary assumptions.
Statement of originality: To the best of my knowledge, this is the first project to examine
trade of figurines in Postclassic Mexico in order to address the creation of place and identity.
References Cited:
Brumfiel, E and L Overholtzer. In Press. Alien Bodies, Everyday People, and Internal Spaces:
Embodiment, Figurines and Social Discourse in Postclassic Mexico. In Mesoamerican
Figurines: Small-Scale Indexes of Large-Scale Phenomena. Eds. Halperin, C, K Faust, and
R Taube. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hodge, M and H Neff. 2005. Xaltocan in the Economy of the Basin of Mexico: A View from
Ceramic Tradewares. In Production and Power at Postclassic Xaltocan. Ed. E Brumfiel,
319-48. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.
Joyce, R and J Hendon. 2000. Heterarchy, History, and Material Reality: “Communities” in
Late Classic Honduras. In The Archaeology of Communities: A New World Perspective. Eds.
M Canuto and J Yaeger, 143-60. London: Routledge.
Neff, H, et. al. 2000. Provenience Investigation of Ceramics and Obsidian from Otumba. In
Ancient Mesoamerica, 11:307-21.
Robin, C. 2002. Outside of houses: the practices of everyday life at Chan Nóohol, Belize. In
Journal of Social Archaeology, 2(2):245-68.