FORT COLLINS – The sublime sounds of a jingling rattle silenced for more than 500 years helps tell the story of an ancient civilization in western Mexico and ties together more than seven years of discovery by a team of researchers led by a Colorado State University archaeologist.
The copper and bronze rattle was discovered in an ancient cemetery by Chris Fisher, associate professor of anthropology, and a team at Angamuco, a pre-Hispanic city in the Mexican state of Michoacán and associated with the ancient Purépecha culture of western Mexico. Fisher’s team also discovered the complete skeletal remains of 37 individuals and many partial burials of both genders ranging from infants to adults.
“The discovery of this mortuary complex provides a unique lens through which we can examine changes in health, status and well-being during a period of rapid social change that is associated with the formation of the Purépecha Empire,” Fisher said. “This is the key to putting all of this research together – like almost eight years of survey and excavation. It’s a representative sample of the population that can be dated and examined, so it really completes our view of this ancient civilization and the occupation of the site.”
Ceramic vessels, copper-arsenic alloy
rattles and other artifacts found with the burials indicate the cemetery dates primarily to the middle to late Postclassic period (A.D. 1000-1520). Hear a soundfile of one of the rattles here.
“This is a period of reorganization and social change on the cusp of the late Postclassic Purépecha Empire,” said Fisher, project director. “Individuals recovered represent an impressive cross-section of the ancient Purépecha population at the city during a period of dramatic social and environmental change.”
The discovery of the cemetery provides new insights into the funerary practices of the ancient Purépecha. The burials were discovered within a large plaza dominated by a traditional Purépecha keyhole-shaped pyramid and associated large altars. Most of the burials – numerous incomplete skeletons, along with evidence of cremations – were discovered in “flexed” positions either in formal small tombs or in pits.
“Many of the remains exhibit pathologies and stress indicators consistent with social stratification and possible environmental change,” said Cinthya Cardenas, lead bioarchaeologist and a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatán (UADY). “The minimum number of remains documented at the Angamuco cemetery this season – including complete and partial inhumations – represents 61.”
Though the contents of the ceramic vessels discovered during excavation are in the process of being systematically tested at least one contains the remains of small fish. The excavations are part of “Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeological Project,” which is a long-term multidisciplinary effort to understand the development of complex societies in the region.
Angamuco was first documented in 2007 by the Legacies project and has undergone over three years of intensive ground survey that has documented over 7,000 ancient buildings and landscape features. In addition Fisher, with Colorado State University Geography Professor Stephen Leisz, used ground-breaking LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to help map the city from the air. The LiDAR survey revealed more than 20,000 architectural features and a highly organized city that is far more complex and included more people than previous research in the region has suggested.
Contemporaries, rivals of Aztecs
The Purépecha were contemporaries and rivals of the Aztecs in central Mexico. The Purépecha were considered the most advanced metalsmiths and created some of the finest crafts in Mexico. Like the Aztec, the Purépecha Empire was destroyed following European occupation in the early 1500s.
The ancient city, which covers more than 12 square kilometers, is located at 7,000 feet above sea level, four hours northwest of Mexico City.
This work is part of “Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeology Project,” a long-term program of research by archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico that is funded by a grant to Fisher and Leisz from the National Science Foundation, a grant to Fisher from the National Geographic Society, and private donors. The Legacies project is based at Colorado State University and the Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos (CEMCA) in Mexico City.
by Anna Cohen and Kyle R. Urquhart
The Temple Platform Excavations
Beginning in mid-January, the project has been excavating on the southern edge of the site within the largest ceremonial neighborhood yet identified at Angamuco. Our work has focused on a transect of excavation units between the largest yacata (pyramid) and an associated altar. In addition we have tested several adjacent plazas and terraces. Florencia Pezzutti (CSU), Rodrigo Solinís Casparius (UW) ,and Cinthya Cardenas (UADY) are currently exposing units in the main plaza.
The main purpose of this work is to understand the timing of occupation, construction phases, and life-history of this critical area of the site including plaza areas and associated architecture. A second goal is to explore ritual practices at Angamuco. Ethnohistorical sources from western central Mexico such as the Relación de Michoacan (c. 1541 CE) have limited information on Purépecha religion. For example, the first part of the Relación was entirely devoted to Purépecha religion, but much of that text is missing (Warren 1985). Any available information refers to the time period leading up to the Spanish conquest and details of Purépecha religious practices preceding the Late Postclassic Empire remain largely unknown. How did Purépecha religion manifest in public contexts? What kinds of materials were used in ritual activities? How did religious practices change throughout broader political changes in the Pátzcuaro Basin? The yacata excavations aim to provide a foundation for addressing these types of questions. In the coming weeks, we will continue to carefully expose the areas around the altars and document any ofrendas, burials, and building phases.
Neighborhood and Complejo Excavations
Anna Cohen (UW) and Kyle Urquhart (CSU) have been leading an effort to test different complejos around the site. Excavation is occurring in associated sunken plaza and domestic structure contexts in order to better understand neighborhood and complejo level organization at Angamuco. Neighborhoods were important social, political, and economic units in Mesoamerica. They played a central role in the urban organization of the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Mixtecs, although the specifics of how they functioned varied between cultures (Arnauld et al. 2012; Carballo 2011). Complejo is a term introduced by Chris Fisher to describe socio-spatial units that are visible at Angamuco and that are smaller than a neighborhood (Fisher and Leisz 2013).
The Relación does mention that Purépecha neighborhoods were political units that were involved in social activities such as marriage, but there is limited information about how they were organized or what roles they played in larger government affairs. How were Purépecha cities like Angamuco organized? Are there differences in neighborhood-level social and economic activities? How did the daily activities of people living at Angamuco change throughout broader Purépecha political changes? The neighborhood and complejo excavations will address such questions. Anna’s dissertation research will focus on ceramic changes in public and private contexts throughout political initiatives in the lake basin. Kyle’s Master’s thesis will attempt to understand emic perspectives of neighborhood-level political organization through the use of historical research, GIS, and LiDAR spatial data. Over the next few weeks, we hope to test at least one other complejo in a different neighborhood on the eastern side of the site. This will provide us with additional samples for addressing questions about site occupation, function, and organization.
- Arnauld, M. Charlotte, Manzanilla, Linda and Smith, Michael E. eds. (2012) The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
- Carballo, David M. (2011) Advances in the Household Archaeology of Highland Mesoamerica. Journal of Archaeological Research 19:133-189.
- Fisher, Christopher T. and Leisz, Stephen (2013) New Perspectives on Purépecha Urbanism Through the Use of Lidar at the Site of Angamuco, Mexico. In Space Archaeology: Mapping Ancient Landscapes with Air and Spaceborne Imagery, edited by D. and M. Harrower, pp. 191-201. New York: Springer.
- Warren, J. Benedict (1985) The Conquest of Michoacán. Normal, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Archaeology, by its nature, is a destructive process. Once material is removed from its original context, that contextual information is gone. It exists only in the form of data recorded by the archaeologist who excavated it. Furthermore, the removal of debris, fill, and sediment from ruins exposes underlying architecture to the elements. Unless additional steps are taken, the effects of mechanical and chemical erosion will damage any features that have not been removed during excavation. In order to preserve sites for future generations, archaeologists must consolidate standing architecture and refill open units once excavations have concluded. As we prepare to begin excavations for the 2014 field season, lets look back at how our preservation efforts from last year have held up.
In 2013, we excavated a large community public building labeled Casa 5128. Below is the structure prior to our excavation. The overlying vegetation has been cleared, but the rubble and wall fall has not been removed.
Below is the same structure towards the end of the 2013 excavations. The rubble from the collapsed portion of the walls has been removed, exposing the standing portion of the walls underneath. Our excavation uncovered several floors and a central hearth, which were recorded and removed to expose the underlying platform fill.
Once excavations were concluded, the rubble from the collapsed wall fall was packed inside to brace the standing portion of the walls, and the excavated sediment was poured back into the interior of the building. This helped stabilize the structure to protect it against erosion. Here’s the same structure one year later:
The forest has largely reclaimed Casa 5128, which is now more protected than it was before excavations began. It is now almost impossible to tell than anyone excvated here at all.
In the El Dorado Machine, noted author Douglas Preston outlines the efforts to uncover traces of ancient civilization in the Mosquitia region of Honduras. The Legacies of Resilience Team, including Christopher Fisher and Stephen Leisz, have been involved in this effort. Check out the article here, which mentions the work at Angamuco and has a couple of quotes from Chris Fisher.
This animation shows the area of the Main Platform at Angamuco with and without the overlying vegetation. A static image of this view has been featured in many recent publications.
Increasingly archaeologists are finding themselves at the center of intensive local debates involving issues of access and ownership, looting, patrimony, local, regional, and national politics, and the nature of community engagement and collaboration.
Issues ranging from how community-based research initiatives can be constructed to the actual financial inputs and contributions of archaeological projects to local economies have become a focus of scholarly interest within the archaeological community.
Most major archaeological projects have some element of community outreach built into their research design – with many doing substantially more.
For those that know me – unsurprisingly probably – community outreach is not my forte. Though I realize the imperative of such programs I’m honestly not very good at talking to a non-academic audience.
Luckily for the project the LORE-LPB team is comprised of several talented graduate students and researchers who devoted considerable time and effort this season at better engaging the local community who own and use the land that Angamuco occupies. These students deserve major kudos for the work they have done in this regard for the 2013 field season.
Yesterday we were able to discuss some of our findings, talk about the nature of archaeology, and the role our research can play in better understanding the prehistory of Michoacán at a community event honoring Benito Juarez. I hope it is the first of many such activities.
It has been said more then once that a field crew runs on it’s stomach – the LORE-LPB 2013 field season is no exception. The theme this year seems to be hot food and animals!!
Casa 5128 – a Purépecha public building
Excavation is proceeding well at Casa 5128 – one of two areas currently under excavation. 5128 represents a large building that dominates a small neighborhood of residential and public architecture near one of the largest pyramid complexes at the ancient city.
Casa 5128 is constructed on a large platform of stone and rubble that served to flatten a small hill that forms one end of the complex. On top of this platform walls were constructed of uncut stacked stone with simple clay mortar. We started excavation by systematically clearing rubble and debris to expose the original exterior and interior. This also fully exposed the interior areas of the house so that they could be excavated. At the close of the excavation season the walls and platform of the house will be stabilized and reburied.
Excavation within the house interior shows a clear sequence of debris on top of a Late Postclassic floor (A.D. 1350-1520), with a second possible floor below containing a mixed Early-Middle Postclassic assemblage (A.D. 1000-1350). This is followed by fill and debris that form the platform itself.
As of today (03/21/2013) we have fully excavated the interior of the house and exposed the platform at the base of the floor-area. Now the hard part, mapping, drawing profiles, and making sure everything is fully documented prior to consolidation and reburial.
We have begun excavation at two locations within some of the Late and Middle Postclassic areas of occupation at Angamuco. Here is a video of some of the first days of excavation at Casa 5128 – a large public building that dominates one cluster of residential and other architecture below the largest platform and associated pyramid at the site. Music – Chucho Valdez
One Day of Excavation at Angamuco