The focus of my research in Mesoamerica is the Tarascan State, whose capital was Tzintzuntzan, located on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The Tarascans came to dominate a territory roughly equivalent to what is today the entire state of Michoacán and was the second largest conquest empire in Mesoamerica (after the Aztec Empire) at the time of European contact. Much of what is known about the Tarascan State comes from the ethnohistoric record produced by Spanish colonial and religious authorities in the sixteenth century. Archaeological materials from the Pátzcuaro Basin and throughout Michoacán indicate that the ruling dynasty at Tzintzuntzan began to control the definition, if not the distribution, of the material markers of noble status. This appears to have been key to the efforts of the ruling dynasty to consolidate and maintain their grip on power in the Tarascan State.
My research has focused on archaeological materials from the sites of Urichu and Erongarícuaro. Dr. Helen Pollard of Michigan State University carried out survey and excavations at Urichu in the 1990’s, and Dr. Pollard and I carried out survey and excavations at Erongarícuaro in the 2000’s. I have also utilized the Relación de Michoacán and other ethnohistoric sources extensively in order to examine how the ruling dynasty explained the legitimacy of their rule to Spanish colonial authorities and model the kinds of social interactions that would have produced the hierarchical superiority of the ruling dynasty. These same interactions would have also resulted in the establishment of the perception that the actions of subordinate lords would not have been perceived as legitimate unless they were believed to have been sanctioned by the king. Using these models of social interaction, I analyze how the material objects implicated in those interactions would have been perceived by the multiple actors involved in their exchange and deployment, and thus how the relationships between the king and subordinate lords would have been perceived by the actors involved as well as witnesses.