3: The Termination of a Home

Oaxaca, Mexico
© L. Nicholas
Transit Reading

We've been excavating on Terrace 276 for two weeks now. The time in the field always flies by and these weeks have been no exception. We were very fortunate to have had so many of our Mitla crew members return to the project this season, but with only one other North American, Eric, to assist us in the field through Easter, we also knew that this was a good year to teach a number of our local workers to map units on graph paper and take elevations of ancient walls and floors using the laser transit (see above image and Photo #1 below.)

I cannot stress too strongly or too many times that in archaeology, the most important findings are a direct product of discovering artifacts in their context, or where they were left/deposited. This is the best way that we can learn how things were used and what activities happened where. Consequently, we devote a great deal of time and effort to mapping what we find.

As mentioned earlier, we elected to excavate Terrace 276, which is lower down the slope of the hill than where we excavated in 2009 and 2010. So far, Linda and I are quietly pleased with this choice because we've found that this terrace has even less damage of the uppermost or last residential surface than was the case for either Terraces 56 or 57, where we excavated during the past two seasons. Late in the history of use of these two terraces (56 and 57), their spaces were fortified along the front wall and used as a lookout. These late activities, as well as post-occupational erosion, did some damage to the earlier surfaces of the house remains that sat on these terraces.

When we began excavating Terrace 276, we immediately started to find residential vestiges, including stone walls and lime plaster floors, which are associated with prehispanic dwellings. In some places, these findings were just centimeters below the current ground surface. Although we've found some erosion and plowing damage, especially toward the front of Terrace 276, it was minimal compared to what we found in association with the top surfaces in prior years at the Fortress.

For those following these emails for the first time, or those with sieve-like memories similar to mine these days, I should step back and explain that at many Valley of Oaxaca sites, including the regional capital of Monte Albán, many inhabitants lived on terraces that were built on the slopes of hills. Each of these spaces sustained a dwelling or house, which covered much of the flattened area, so that each terrace served as a house lot, often no more than a meter away from that of their neighbors. Our field strategy is to excavate a terrace surface horizontally to expose an entire house lot in order to define and understand the use of domestic space, and if possible, learn how it changed for a specific terrace over time.

Over these past two weeks, we've exposed almost the entire final residential surface of Terrace 276 (see Photo #2 below.) As is typical for the later prehispanic era in Oaxaca, this residence was constituted by a central patio surrounded by rooms and other defined spaces (such as outdoor cooking areas). We've been able to document some minor remodeling—such as slight shifts in the placement of walls and a transition from a sunken patio to one almost at the height of the surrounding rooms—that was implemented to this final surface.

Most significantly, we observed the placement of several ceramic offerings and a burial that marked the end of the residential occupation of Terrace 276 (see Photo #3 below.) The offerings were left on the final floors of this complex, in a terminating ritual commonly noted for much of ancient Mesoamerica. What's most interesting about the ceramic vessels left to mark the end of this home, as well as the offerings included with the burial, is that they all date to the Postclassic period (perhaps early in that period), meaning that the Fortress was not abandoned at the end of the Classic period (ca. AD 800-900) but instead continued to be inhabited for at least a century or two beyond.

After a busy two weeks in the field and lab, Linda and I took Eric and Katelyn to Monte Albán, at the edge of Oaxaca City. We were able to combine our annual pilgrimage to this incredible site (designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and one of Mexico’s first cities) with the opening at the site’s museum of a small photography exhibit featuring Guillermo Aldana’s images of Easter Week at the contemporary Triqui community of San Andrés Chicahuaxtla (see Photo #4 below.) The colorful images of the bright-red embroidered dresses worn by Triqui women, along with the chance to visit with many old friends and colleagues who work at the Oaxaca offices of Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology and History, provided a fitting exclamation point for the last two full, yet productive, weeks.

More soon,
Gary

© L. Nicholas
Mapping a Unit
© L. Nicholas
Terrace 276: Surface 1
© L. Nicholas
Termination Offering
© L. Nicholas
Ribbon-cutting Ceremony