Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why are Aztec cities interesting?

I excavate Aztec cities for a living. At the drop of a hat I can go on and on about Aztec cities, describing all kinds of details only a few people in the world would care to hear about. I've written a book on the subject, Aztec City-State Capitals. Here, I want to discuss three things that are interesting about Aztec cities:

  1. Aztec cities were expressions of their political context.
  2. Aztec rural and urban life were remarkably similar.
  3. Urban agriculture was the norm in Aztec cities.


Aztec cities were expressions of their political context.

This theme follows from my previous post, The power of the state to remake cities.  Most cities before the modern era were political capitals. This was certainly true for the Aztecs, Mayas, and other groups in Mesoamerica and the Andes. The biggest and most prosperous Aztec city--by far--was the imperial capital Tenochtitlan (now called Mexico City). Its size and opulence were direct consequences of the success of the Aztec Empire in: (1) conquering foreign peopless and getting them to pay taxes, and, (2) promoting commerce throughout Mesoamerica. Tenochtitlan is BY FAR the most extensively documented Aztec city, thanks both to a rich historical record and to the spectacular results of recent excavations at the main temple, the "Templo Mayor."

Teopanzolco (City-state capital)

But Tenochtitlan was the most atypical Aztec city. Compared to its 150,000-200,000 residents, the median Aztec city covered just one square km, with 5,000 people. These were the capitals of city-states, the dominant Aztec political form. While the empire gets all the publicity, the city-state was the active government for nearly all of the Aztec people. This is where people went to market, paid their taxes, socialized and married their spouses. The capitals of Aztec city-states reflected their small size and the limited powers of their kings. Their main pyramids were dwarfed by Tenochtitlan's Templo Mayor, their royal palace was a pale reflection of Motecuhzoma's palace in Tenochtitlan, their weekly market was a puny affair compared to the central imperial marketplace at Tlatelolco, and their level of opulence and prosperity was much lower than Tenochtitlan. But these WERE the capitals of
Acozac (City-state capital)
semi-independent governments, and their kings did have power over the local domain. So they all had some good-sized pyramids, a big public plaza, a distinctive royal palace, and other markers of urban political status.

Aztec rural and urban life were very similar

Rural house

I began my career excavating Aztec rural sites. When I started out, a fresh PhD in 1985, I expected that rural provincial sites would be poor and isolated, and that their residents would be downtrodden because they were exploited and dominated by the empire. Boy, was I wrong! I found that Aztec peasants were prosperous and successful, and their communities wealthy and resilient. I am now writing a book about these excavations. The residents had ready access to imported goods from all over Mesoamerica, they produced a steady stream of cotton textiles at home (which served as a form of money), and there were other signals of wealth and complexity. I published an article using the concept of "rural complexity" to describe my findings. In a number of ways, these rural Aztec villages were very "urban-like" in their complexity.

Then I excavated houses at an urban site, Yautepec. At first I thought that since the rural peasants had been very prosperous and well-connected, the urbanites would be fabulously wealthy and very different from their rural cousins. Wrong again! The urban households were almost impossible to
Urban house
distinguish from the rural households. Small, one-room houses built of adobe bricks were the norm in both settings. The basic domestic artifact assemblages were almost identical (same kinds of cookware, serving ware, obsidian tools, ritual items, craft objects, and so on). Each area had its own distinctive style of painted pottery, but painted bowls and jars were abundant in both settings. The same exotic imported goods were present in the middens of both contexts (bronze tools and
Serving ware, rural & urban
ornaments, greenstone beads, etc.). Surprisingly, population density was the same in both contexts (about 50 persons per hectare). So after excavating urban-looking villages, I then found a rural-looking city. Yes, the fact that Yautepec had a royal palace and some big pyramids made a difference. But for people's everyday lives, there was just not much to distinguish the rural and urban sites.
Urban fields, Tenochtitlan

Urban agriculture was the norm in Aztec cities

In every case where archaeologists have looked specifically for evidence of agricultural production within a city, they have found it. In Yautepec, people had both home gardens and irrigated fields. In Calixtlahuaca (my present excavation) and a series of Aztec cities in the Teotihuacan Valley, agricultural terraces were abundant within the city limits. Tenochtitlan, Xochimilco, Xaltocan, and other cities in and around the lakes in the Basin of Mexico all contained raised fields (chinampas) as part of the urban landscape. At Otumba, people grew maguey plants, both for their products (fiber and sap) and as stabilizers for terrace fields.
Urban fields in Zinacantepec

I have already written a post on Aztec urban agriculture, so I won't say much more here. For a more technical treatment, see Isendahl and Smith (2013).

The larger context of Aztec cities

Some of the features of Aztec cities go against the grain of both popular and scholarly thought on urbanism. Cities are supposed to be radically different places to live than the countryside. Open any urban textbook and you will read about this.  Urban agriculture is supposed to be something new and different. Well, there is a lot of variation in cities across space and time. Our current western pattern of urbanization is not the only urban trajectory, and premodern city traditions like the Aztec may be able to give us some new ideas or options to think about as we face the future of the Wide Urban World.

Isendahl, Christian, and Michael E. Smith    2013    Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism: The Low-Density Cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities 30 (in press).

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo    1988    The Great Temple of the Aztecs. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Rojas, José Luis de    2012    Tenochtitlan: Capital of the Aztec Empire. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E.
    2008    Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

    2012    The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

    n.d.    The Archaeology of Aztec Families and Communities. Book in preparation.

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