Aztec Archaeology at Calixtlahuaca, or Not One of My Better Days


I’m an archaeology graduate student working on lab analysis of Aztec artifacts in Toluca, Mexico.   In 2007 I was part of a team that spent six months excavating at the nearby site of Calixtlahuaca, and ever since then have been spending my summers sorting through an apparently never-ending amount of broken pottery.  Calixtlahuaca was an important city of the local Matlazinca culture before the Aztecs conquered it, so my research questions address how the Aztecs controlled their conquered provinces and whether this produced changes in how people in those provinces lived.  So far, I can tell you that tortillas became a lot more popular after the Aztecs arrived!

Disclaimer: Friday was not one of my better days, and should not be taken as representative.

Most my drama for the day occurred before I ever arrived at the lab in the morning.  First, my apartment was out of gas for the water heater and stove.  As several other posters have pointed out, archaeologists run on coffee, so the lack of hot water put a damper on things.  Then, my taxi got rear-ended half way out to the lab, in what was clearly a mutual-fault situation.  (Toluca drivers generally qualify as reckless even by Mexican standards, so I usually get in, pray, and tell myself that any taxi driver still on the road has to at least marginally competent.) The driver strapped the rear bumper back on, asked me if I was fine, and had the other party follow us until I got dropped off.  The two drivers were discussing who was going to pay for damages when I left them.

Our lab is located in a former hacienda that has been converted to hold several social-science graduate programs for the state (as opposed to the nation) of Mexico.  This last week, however, was a vacation week for the entire staff before the new semester starts, so most the usual services are canceled.  By the end of the week, the facilities were just about out of water.  (All Mexican buildings have large water storage tanks to even out irregularities in the water distribution schedule.  Many also have extra water brought in by tanker if they don’t receive enough from the local government.)  The power was also out all day for unrelated reasons, which meant that the coffee pot in the lab didn’t work either!

There were six of us in the lab for the day: myself, a student from a local university program, four women from the modern village of Calixtlahuaca, and the daughter of one of the staff members from the college.  Over the course of the day, we had two main things going on, with occasional side forays as distractions came up.  First, we were quickly skimming through bags of sherds from plowzone, erosional, mixed, or otherwise low value levels.  In these bags we noted ceramic types that date to particular periods, took out particularly good examples of types to add to our reference collection, and took out special items like whistles or figurines.  Even if we only pulled out a couple things from each bag, getting the catalog numbers onto the pieces themselves and then noted on two paper forms, took almost as long as skimming the whole bag did in the first place!

Second, we were doing full classifications of the pottery from more important contexts, like under floors or in trash pits.  Full classifications involve deciding what type of pot each sherd came from, and if it’s decorated, what type of decoration it has.  Besides basic cooking pots and bowls, we get fancy grinding bowls (the original food processors for making salsa!), a bunch of different types of incense burners, and the occasional pitcher, miniature pot, or tortilla griddle.  For the decorated types, some are local, some are Aztec, and a few are from other parts of Central Mexico.

At the end of the day, I went home to discover that my (non-archaeologist) housemate hadn’t had the gas tank refilled, so my whiplash-stiff neck had to go without a hot shower.

More on the Calixtlahuaca project can be found at:

Watching brief

Today I’m doing a watching brief on the footprint of a new build house plot. Having read the spec I’m surprised to find there was a medieval village on the site of the modern village. I did not know the modern village even existed despite it being not a million miles from where I live and grew up. The village today is on one side of a road going nowhere in particular and consists of some houses and a single pub. The new build adds another house to the line. Although surprised by the village’s existence I am more surprised to see that this forgotten moor was once a hive of mining activity with the surrounding area riddled with mines and ventilation shafts.

The topsoil scrape is taking forever as the plant hire company has sent a JCB to do the job of a rubber duck or three-sixty. The driver is also not up to much, it is disconcerting to see him twitching and talking to himself in the cab when I am standing right in front of the blade. Still, the previous year I was machine-watching a driver from the same company who complained that the falling snow was giving him trails and flashbacks. However, there is absolutely nothing on the site and before long I am fighting to keep my concentration as the driver moves the spoil from the site to the spoil heap to the truck. The developer is an amateur building a spec house, and once he hands over his notes to the truck driver and plant operator they mention “the other job”, the truck disappears never to return and the machine has to leave early. As Blackadder says “the abused always kick downwards”, the next morning the developer is on the phone apologising having got hold of another machine and forgotten to tell us. Luckily, we have foreseen this eventuality and someone is on call ready and will be there to watch the machine in ten minutes, the developer is thankful but seems unenthusiastic.

All I can really think of to say is that there must have to be days like this to balance the days when you actually find something good. The attack doesn’t come on every watch. I hate the feeling when you think that everyone has got a better site, trench or area that is better than yours. The van arrives to take me and the gear back and as usual we find some little peculiarity of the site to laugh about, even if we never want to set foot in the place again. I suppose it’s these tiny little peculiarities that give places their individual character and are what we try to preserve as archaeologists.