Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2002:
William T. Sanders

Tepetlaoztoc Project: Archaeological Investigations
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Area North of Cerro Teponaztle Prior to Reforestation, Cerro Teponaztle in the Background. Note Eroded Tepetate Surface, and Remnants of Aztec Residential Mound.

Research Year:  1996
Culture:  Aztec
Chronology:  Late Aztec and Early Colonial
Location:  Valley of México
Site:  Tepetlaoztoc

Table of Contents

Results of The Pilot Project
Related Research
List of Figures
Sources Cited


Tepetlaoztoc, an ancient Aztec capital in the Valley of México, offered a rare opportunity for archaeological research. In 1967 not only were its remains in reasonably good condition (an increasingly unusual situation, due to México City’s massive growth), but Early Colonial period censuses document the community’s structure immediately after the Aztec period. Tepetlaoztoc’s ethnohistoric documents (principally the Códice de Santa María Asunción and the Codex Vergara) have been well studied and are presently being published in facsimile editions. Furthermore, while the Tepetlaoztoc area was generally surveyed (Parsons, 1971), no excavation had been undertaken. Development now threatens this area. Ethnohistorian Herbert Harvey and geographer Barbara Williams worked on Tepetlaoztoc materials for years and were concerned that the chance to excavate in this uniquely well-documented Aztec-period archaeological site would soon pass; they urged their archaeologist colleagues to undertake a large-scale multi-disciplinary project to study Tepetlaoztoc. This project was a response to their plea.

The Tepetlaoztoc project was intended as a pilot project with two immediate aims: a plan-of-work for the long-term project and its personnel, including proposals to submit to potential funders (NSF, NEH), and a descriptive paper suitable for publication as an illustrated article for Archaeology or Arqueología Mexicana magazines, discussing the Aztec city of Tepetlaoztoc and how its archaeological landscape relates to its codices. The pilot project entailed travel to México for a site visit to identify and photograph remaining resources and talk with local landowners and political officials about future plans for development. While in México, I also contacted Norberto Gonzalez Crespo, president of the Consejo de Arqueologia of INAH, to discuss the feasibility of the project, and request a permit to conduct the pilot phase of the project.

The project is important because the "Aztec Empire" of México is well known to us from ethnohistoric sources, but very few Aztec period archaeological sites have been excavated. This problem of the lack of material evidence provided by excavated sites could be addressed at leisure, but for the breakneck pace of land development in the Valley of México, home of modern México City as well as ancient heartland of Aztec (Nahua) culture. If the codices were about to be put into a recycling bin, there would be a justly-horrified outcry against this desecration: we must see the destruction of the archaeological remains in the same light.

Our proposed research would permit future study of Tepetlaoztoc’s archaeological remains, as well as demonstrating the great potential of a truly conjunctive research strategy, which would use a combination of historical, ethnographic and archaeological methods and data to reconstruct this city-state in one of the most exciting and intriguing ancient cultures. Our larger goal was to excavate a large sample of residential sites within the area of the kingdom.

Each "household archaeology" excavation would involve complete exposure of walls, floors, and immediate peripheral space of the residence. While excavations of this type have been conducted virtually from the beginning of New World Archaeology, only recently has this strategy been overtly conceptualized and, most importantly, new techniques have been developed that enable us to reconstruct, first the functional use of residential space, and the size, structure and function of the household. The household is the fundamental unit of virtually all human societies and household archaeology has the capacity to generate an understanding of the entire society, including the degree of economic stratification, nature of the division of labor and distribution of political power as these are reflected in variations in houses and artifacts.

On the basis of the Post-Conquest documents, including the Codex Vergara and Códice de Santa María Asunción; it appears that the nuclear rather than extended family was the majority type of household. We had assumed that the Pre-Conquest households were composed primarily of patrilocal extended families and that a shift to nuclear family households occurred after the Conquest as the product of stimulus from the Spanish clergy. Archaeological surveys of the type Parsons conducted at Tepetaoxtoc, in other areas of the Basin of México, however, had revealed numerous small residential mounds that would seemed to have housed very small families--most likely of the nuclear type. Excavations of a substantial sample of residences would have resolved this question.

The particular value of applying household archaeology to Tepetlaoztoc lies not only in the broad base of data in this case but to the specific nature of information in the Post-Conquest period. The Codices Vergara and Santa María Asunción provide household-level data on age, sex, kinship relations, socioeconomic status and land holding of each household in the period immediately subsequent to the conquest. The sample of house remains in the 1967 survey revealed that preserved residential remains were abundant–and included urban and rural households, and thus could address issues such as the degree to which variation household size, composition, and function reflect Pre-Hispanic patterns in the same area. Excavated houses could answer these questions.

Parsons’ Tepetlaoztoc survey revealed a pattern found in other areas of the Basin of México: i.e., that rural households were dispersed over the countryside and most probably situated on their agricultural holdings–in sharp contrast to the pattern found today in which farmers reside in nucleated villages and farm lands outside of the village, often at a distance of two to three kilometers from their residence. The present-day pattern is the product of the 16th and early 17th century process and policy of the Spanish state and church to congregate dispersed rural populations into large nucleated, often planned, communities to facilitate conversion and tax collection. The process was initiated in the mid 16th century and continued into the early decades of the 17th century in the Basin of México. Archaeological excavations in a large sample of residences would provide details as to this process. With the exception of a few outlying and very recent "Colonias," as they are called, virtually all of the population of Tepetlaoztoc today resides in the municipal center, including the residents of the barrio of Santa María Asunción (see Figure 3 and Figure 4).

Within the Tepetlaoztoc kingdom area, Parsons, defined the following sites: TA-24 (the town of Tepetlaoztoc), and 10 rural sites, TA-25-34 (see Figure 1 and Figure 2 from Parsons, 1971). On these sites he found over 400 house mounds, approximately one quarter of which were at TA-24. Furthermore, in a great number of these, wall lines were visible and partial residential plans were drawn. Our experience in excavating structures of this type and condition is that the overburden can be removed with only a small crew over a short period, that complete floor plans can be exposed and in situ artifacts found that identify the functional use of space. The original plan was to finance these excavations with a more substantial grant from another source, but urgently needed was a preliminary survey to plan a full program of research, and to give Tepetlaoztoc’s rich heritage the attention it deserves.

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Submitted 08/01/1996 by:
William T. Sanders
The Pennsylvania State University

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