Academic Archaeology

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 Michoacan and was the second largest conquest empire in Mesoamerica (after the Aztec Empire) at the time of European contact.

Map of the maximum extent of the Tarascan State, around 1500 CE. Adapted from Helen Pollard’s book Tariacuri’s Legacy.

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 ichoacán 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 Relacíon 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.

The Patzcuaro Basin as it would have been ca. 1520. (It has shrunk considerably in the last few decades.) The three “capitals” where lineages of the royal dynasty ruled from are indicated by the larger dots; smaller dots are centers where subordinate lords resided and sites that I drew data from for my research.

Archaeologically, what is known of the prehistory of Michoacán parallels the legendary history of the royal dynasty recorded in the Relacíon de Michoacán, at least in general terms. Research by INAH archaeologists at the capitals of Tzintzuntzan (see picture) and Ihuatzio have documented a short period of monumental construction that produced the large pyramidal structures befitting of an imperial capital and reflecting the state’s ability to control labor. Furthermore, no state level society existed in Michoacán prior to the rise of the Tarascan state. Small societies with emerging elites that marked their status by acquiring and displaying valuable goods and symbols from elsewhere in Mesoamerica have been recorded as early as the Late Preclassic period (roughly 100 BC to 250 AD). By the EpiClassic to Early Postclassic (roughly 800 AD to 1100 AD), these elites were in active competition and perhaps engaged in armed conflict frequently. Only with the emergence of a centralized political authority in the Pátzcuaro Basin and then the dominance of the region by the Pátzcuaro Basin core was the political landscape fundamentally transformed. Once areas had been conquered and politically subjugated, a fairly standardized (and unique) array of material objects was adopted by provincial elites, reflecting the fact that the king and his political machine defined markers of nobility within the boundaries of his state.

Copper bell found in the elite area of Erongaricuaro in 2005. Such bells were worn by nobles in the Tarascan society in the late prehispanic period.

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.

Digital drawing of a finely crafted pipe bowl, of the style depicted being used by Tarascan nobles in the Relacion de Michoacan, recovered from excavations in 2005 at Erongaricuaro

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 Relacíon de Michoacán. It therefore seems that the local nobility of Erongarícuaro had a fairly large amount of power and influence within the Tarascan State.

A few of the obsidian artifacts recovered in 2005 at Erongaricuaro that indicate the presence of a lapidary industry. This crafting was associated with the elite area of the site. Karin Rebnegger wrote her dissertation and has published her research on the obsidian industry at Erongaricuaro.
Digital drawing of a white-on-red bowl from the 2005 excavations at Erongaricuaro. This bowl dates to the Middle or Late Classic period, perhaps 400-700 CE. The regional culture at this time is known as “Loma Alta.”

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 vessels). This does not appear to be a very large occupation, and together with the 2001 research it appears that during this time period Erongarícuaro 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 Erongarícuaro, demonstrating that foreign trade contacts were not monopolized by one lineage 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 Erongarícuaro likely enjoyed a higher status than other lords, because they were permitted to produce their own lapidary objects. More significantly, the lords of Erongarícuaro might have attempted to use these lapidary objects to form dominant/subordinate relationships with other lords. The evidence at Erongarícuaro 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.

More recently I along with Amy Hirshman of West Virginia University evaluated how ceramic pastes and decorations can shed light on production arrangements between potters and elites at Erongaricuaro. Based on distributions of sherds and which pastes were most highly decorated at the site or were used to make ceramic forms utilized by the elite, we suggested that ceramic production at the site was not attached to elites. On the other hand, the link between one paste in particular and a high proportion of decorated sherds and elite forms does indicate that potters who used a certain paste recipe were sought out by the elites to make their wares for them. Perhaps these elites, who wanted to copy elite forms derived from the royal dynasty, provided the impetus for skilled potters to craft these vessels and a relatively stable, if small, market for these wares. On the other hand, production above the needs of the elites also seem to have made their way into the general populace, as such wares are present in other areas of the site.

I also worked with Christ Stawski to use GIS capabilities to try and place ourselves in the past and “see” lake level changes of Lake Pátzcuaro as an initial step in evaluating how perceptions of changing lake levels and resource zones created by lake change would have been perceived by past actors. From about 900-1500 CE the lake first experienced a period of regression (lowering lake levels) followed immediately by transgression (rising lake levels). The experience of rapidly changing change was new to inhabitants of the basin, and likely played a role in political behavior including wars that resulted in the consolidation of the basin by about 1400 CE, if not earlier. Below is an image, produced by Chris and his Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of the Pátzcuaro Basin, from our publication in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

Image of the Lake Patzcuaro Basin, looking West-Northwest, at a lake level of 2041 meters above sea level (masl). Circled is the emerging island of Apupato in the eastern end of the southerly “arm” of the lake. We argued that the emergence of landscape features such as Apupato must have alerted past inhabitants of the basin of the changing lake levels and opportunities/costs of those changing levels.