Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2002:
Janine Gasco

Ancient Xoconochco: Occupational History
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View of Las Gradas and coastal plain in distance.

Research Year:  2000
Culture:  Aztec
Chronology:  Post Classic
Location:  Xoconochco, México
Sites:  Las Gradas and Old Soconusco

Table of Contents

Introduction and Background
Description of Fieldwork
Soconusco Viejo
Las Gradas
Soconusco Bajo
Artifact Analysis
Tentative Interpretations and Directions for Future Research
List of Figures and Photos
Sources Cited

Introduction and Background

Fieldwork carried out at and in the vicinity of Xoconochco, capital of the ancient Province of Xoconochco (or Soconusco, the hispanicized rendering of the name) (Figure 1) during the summer of 2000 1   and supported by FAMSI, has provided us with valuable new information regarding the history and occupation of this important regional capital. This research was the second phase of a multi-year project, the Proyecto Soconusco Posclásico (hereafter PSP), initiated in 1997 (Gasco 1998a, 1998b). 2   The summer 2000 fieldwork was very specifically focused on the occupational history of the community of Xoconochco, which was named as the regional capital when the region fell to Aztec rule in the late 1400s and served briefly as the provincial capital early in the Colonial period (Gasco 1999, n.d.; Gasco and Voorhies 1989; Voorhies and Gasco n.d).

The long-term goals of the PSP are to examine the social and economic transformations that took place in the Soconusco region during the Postclassic period. There is a general consensus among Mesoamerican scholars that the Postclassic period was a time of political, economic, and social transformation (e.g., Andrews 1993; Berdan et al. 1996; Blanton et al. 1993; Byland and Pohl 1994; Chase and Rice 1985; Hodge and Smith 1994; Sabloff and Andrews 1986; Smith and Berdan n.d.). As Mesoamerica was experiencing political fragmentation following the collapse of the large centralized polities of the Classic period, the evidence suggests that the intensity of economic and social relations between and among diverse regions of Mesoamerica was actually increasing. With expanding commerce and the growing importance of long-distance trade, the products of several regions of Mesoamerica were increasingly in demand.

Among the goods that circulated widely within the Postclassic Mesoamerican commercial system were cacao, turquoise, metal, polychrome ceramics, and obsidian. Although the importance of these and other products in both the economic and ideological spheres is widely recognized, little is known about many of the regions where these goods originated. This is particularly true of the cacao-producing regions, like Soconusco, and the regions in western and northern México and the American Southwest where metals and turquoise were mined. Clearly, we cannot fully understand the complexities of Postclassic Mesoamerica until these poorly studied yet vitally important regions are investigated.

The Soconusco region was undoubtedly a key player in the Postclassic Mesoamerican economic system because it was a primary producer of cacao—a product that not only circulated widely in long-distance trade, but also served as a medium of exchange and played an important role in feasting and in ritual activity (Gasco 1996). Two of the long-term goals of the PSP are to explore how the organization of cacao production and exchange may have changed during the course of the Postclassic period and how participation in an expanding commercial system may have transformed social and economic relations between and within Postclassic Soconusco communities.

To achieve the larger goals of the PSP, basic information about the location and composition of Postclassic Soconusco sites must first be in hand. One of the archaeological manifestations of changes taking place across Mesoamerica during the Postclassic period is that there was a significant decline in mound building and the construction of monumental public architecture. This shift in architectural strategies means that Postclassic communities often go undetected if archaeologists rely on the presence of mounds to identify sites. In our surveys in the Soconusco region (see Voorhies and Gasco n.d.) we have found that single-component Postclassic sites without mounds are virtually impossible to locate using standard survey techniques. Thick vegetation and soil build-up typically mean that there are no surface features or artifacts. Only when an area has been recently plowed have we successfully located this kind of site. Similarly, Postclassic occupations that are part of multi-component sites are difficult to interpret. A number of sites in the Soconusco region seem to have had a major occupation during earlier time periods, either the Late Formative or Classic periods, when most or all of the mounds/platforms were constructed. But many of these sites also exhibit ephemeral evidence (often only a few sherds) for occupation during the Postclassic period, as well. Without substantial subsurface testing, however, it is impossible to determine the extent or the nature of the Postclassic occupation at these multi-component sites. To avoid the problems associated with multi-component sites, the PSP has so far focused only on single-component Postclassic sites. The sites investigated as part of this project are located at both inland locations as well as estuary locations (see Figure 2 for location of sites excavated during the 1997 field season). The sites located within the estuary system or wetlands are on islands along the inner-coastal canal system which was utilized as a transportation route for long-distance trade (discussed more fully below).

The problems associated with locating and interpreting Postclassic sites in the Soconusco have been particularly vexing as we attempted to locate the town of Xoconochco. In several documents that record the incorporation of the Soconusco region into the Aztec Empire (e.g., the Codex Mendoza, the Matricula de Tributos, and a third document that records tribute paid to the Aztecs), the town of Xoconochco is portrayed as the capital of the tributary province of Xoconochco (Gasco and Voorhies 1989). The Codex Mendoza notes further that two high-ranking Aztec officials were stationed in the town of Xoconochco (Berdan and Anawalt 1997), and other reports claim that an Aztec garrison was located there (Carrasco 1999). Obviously, any investigation of the Late Postclassic Soconusco region should include research at this important community.

The identification of the Postclassic town of Xoconochco has been difficult because of the changes in architecture and the difficulty of locating sites with small mounds or no mounds discussed above, because the colonial town of Soconusco was abandoned in the early 1800s so there is no modern town associated with the colonial town, and because of contradictory information in the literature (Voorhies and Gasco n.d.). It is clear from a wide range of colonial documents that the town was located somewhere north of the modern town of Acacoyagua. We have been able to narrow the possible location to two sites, Soconusco Viejo and Las Gradas, both local names for the sites (Figure 3).

The Postclassic site of Soconusco is first mentioned in the archaeological literature by Drucker (1948), who notes that a site claimed by local residents to be Soconusco is small and unimpressive. Unfortunately, the site does not appear on his published map, nor is it mentioned in his field notes (1947). Navarrete (1978) identifies the remains of Xoconochco as a few km. northwest of Acacoyagua, but he does not describe the site in any detail, and he could be referring to either Las Gradas or Soconusco Viejo. Finally, a local historian (Culebro 1975) also reports that Soconusco is located to the northwest of Acacoyagua in the foothills of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. The site he describes is large, with several pyramids and plain stelae, and with a series of steps built into the hillside leading to a shrine. Drucker, Navarrete, and Culebro all claim to be describing the same site, but it now seems likely that Drucker was describing Soconusco Viejo and Culebro was describing Las Gradas. We are not certain which site Navarrete visited.

Given the importance of the town of Xoconochco in the reconstruction of Postclassic Soconusco cultural history, and with the preliminary but contradictory evidence about the two sites of Las Gradas and Soconusco Viejo, the very specific goals for the Summer 2000 field season were to investigate the two sites as well as the area located between the two sites to determine whether these were, in fact, two separate sites, or whether there was continuous occupation between the two areas, which would mean that these two sites were instead two components of a single "metropolitan Xoconochco" area. We also hoped to be able to determine the relationships between the two sites (or the two components of the site).

Prior to the 2000 field season we had established that the sites of Las Gradas and Soconusco were both occupied during the Late Postclassic period, and the site of Soconusco Viejo also has a colonial occupation. In 1989 and again in 1997 I had conducted limited fieldwork at the site of Soconusco Viejo that had included mapping and excavating test pits in both the colonial and postclassic components of the site (Gasco 1990, 1998a, 1998b). The site of Las Gradas had only been located and visited briefly by me in July 1998. The materials observed on the surface indicated unequivocally that the site dated to the Late Postclassic period, but the site had not yet been thoroughly surveyed, and site boundaries were unknown.

Survey conducted during the 2000 field season has led me to identify the entire area, which covers approximately seven square kilometers, as "Greater Xoconochco" 3   (Figure 4). This is not meant to imply that the area constitutes a single large site, however. Instead certain portions of the entire area were foci of activity during the Late Postclassic period, but because these different areas are in such close proximity, it seems appropriate to consider them together as part of a single integrated area rather than to think of them exclusively as separate and distinct sites. It is clear that two areas within the Greater Xoconochco area, Soconusco Viejo (Figure 5) and Las Gradas (Figure 6), were the main foci of Late Postclassic occupation. Yet these two "sites" are separated by less than 400m. A third area, which we are calling Soconusco Bajo (Figure 7), is even more difficult to characterize. A very light scatter of Late Postclassic sherds was found across most of the area surveyed and foundation stones of three structures that may date to the Late Postclassic period were identified, yet the bulk of sherds from test pits and several mounds pre-date the Postclassic period.

In this Report I describe the fieldwork conducted in each of these three areas, I describe the ongoing analysis of the artifacts, and I provide tentative interpretations and discuss plans for future research.

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Submitted 12/01/2002 by:

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