david haskell, phd
mesoamerican archaeology

The 2005 field season at Erongarícuaro, Michoacán, Mexico carried out excavations focusing in the northern part of the site. There was reason to believe based on the 2001 field season that this northern part of the site was where the nobility of the prehispanic site lived. Because a resident noble class at the secondary center would have been an important locus for the negotiation of status, power, and roles within the administrative system of the Tarascan State, this part of the site was a logical choice as a good place to investigate how the Tarascan State was organized and maintained itself.

The excavations of 2005 confirmed that this northern part of the site was indeed home to a noble family in the last few centuries of the prehispanic era. Certain artifacts, such as a copper bell, pipes, minibowls and other finely decorated ceramic vessels were found here, and these are objects that were possessed exclusively by members of the nobility.

Even more importantly the 2005 excavations unearthed evidence of a lapidary industry (making jewelry) in the same area of the site. Local artisans were making jewelry out of obsidian, or volcanic glass. A wide range of colors of obsidian was found in this area, including black, gray, clear, red, and green. From the obsidian artisans produced lip-plugs (bezotes) and ear-spools, items that were worn by members of the nobility to demonstrate their authority in society. Evidence of jewelry production at a secondary site indicates that the local nobility of Erongaricuaro was not wholly dependent upon the king in Tzintzuntzan for the symbols of authority, as is claimed in the Relación de Michoacán. It therefore seems that the local nobility of Erongaricuaro had a fairly large amount of power and influence within the Tarascan State.

Nearby, but still in the northern section of the site, excavations also revealed an earlier occupation, dating roughly to the Classic period (200-600 AD). Four burials were excavated, along with associated grave goods (see pictures below of two of the ceramic bowls). This does not appear to be a very large occupation, and together with the 2001 research it appears that during this time period Erongaricuaro was home to a fairly dispersed population, with extended family units roughly equal in status with one another. During this time, green obsidian from the large Central Mexican site of Teotihuacan was imported to this region and is surprisingly common in Erongaricuaro, demonstrating that foreign trade contacts were not monopolized by one family or another at that time.

A discussion of the findings of the 2005 excavations and the lab season of 2006 can be found in my dissertation. There, I discuss how the lords of both Erongaricuaro and Urichu were engaged in social interaction and subordinated by their relationship with the king, but in different ways. The lords of Urichu were encompassed by the king-they could not rule effectively without his consent and the material markers of nobility that the king bestowed upon them. In contrast, the lords of Erongaricuaro were similarly encompassed by the king-certain material indicators of rituals and ceremonies in which agents of the king took part reveal that the king would have laid claim to the markers of nobility possessed by the lords of that site, even the bezotes and earspools produced there. However, the lords of Erongaricuaro likely enjoyed a higher status than other lords, because they were permitted to produce their own lapidary objects. More significantly, the lords of Erongaricuaro might have attempted to use these lapidary objects to form dominant/subordinate relationships with other lords. The evidence at Erongaricuaro and Urichu suggests that the lords of these two sites, though related in the tributary hierarchy, did not interact much when it came to the political hierarchy. Perhaps the lords of Erongaricuaro engaged subordinate lords in the mountainous region to the west in order to attempt to foster a small group of client lords.


Excavations in process, with some local onlookers.

Excavation of a cooking hearth from the area of the site where members of a noble family were living. Charcoal from the hearth indicates that the hearth was used around between 1450 and 1500 AD.

A bifacially flaked point made of green obsidian, likely dating to the last few centuries before contact (1300 to 1520 AD). Photo by Karin Rebnegger and Chris Valvano of Michigan State University

Several lip-plugs in process of manufacture. They have not been smoothed out, because they broke in the process and were discarded, only to be found in 2005. They are also made of green obsidian and date to roughly 1300 to 1520 AD. Photo by Karin Rebnegger and Chris Valvano of Michigan State University.

Bowl of a ceramic pipe, used for smoking tabacco. Dating to roughly 1300-1520 AD, the Relacion de Michoacan shows Tarascan nobles smoking pipes just like this one. Smoking was an activitywith religious significance and largely restricted to the noble class.

Bowl found with burials dating to the Classic period, probably around 200 to 500 AD.

Another bowl found with burials dating to the Classic period.
Copyright © 2013 David L. Haskell