6: Water

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Oaxaca, Mexico
© L. Nicholas
Excavation Progress

Mitla is situated in a rain shadow. As a consequence, it’s not at all rare to see and hear thunder and lightning in the distance or even observe rain falling on the horizon—but the rain clouds barely skirt over Mitla or the precipitation doesn't fall here at all (see above photo.) The dearth of rain in this part of the valley has its benefits for archaeologists trying to keep their excavation area dry, but it’s not so good for those who make their living from the land.

Traditionally, annual rainfall in the Valley of Oaxaca varies around the minimum needed to grow corn. But, in this more arid area of the valley, precipitation has often been below that amount and, with increasing drought and falling water tables (ground water has traditionally been a way to supplement rainfall in lower-lying areas), agriculture in Mitla today largely is restricted to those places where some kind of irrigation is feasible. Thirty to forty years ago, the situation was entirely different.

Because water is always in short supply, rain and water are constant topics for conversation among the people. When will the rains come? Do you think it will rain today? These are questions that are speculated upon all the time, and because rainfall is spatially and temporally patchy, they are queries that aren't easy to answer.

This year, the threat of rain has begun earlier than usual. Typically, April is a very dry month in the Valley of Oaxaca, if anything, punctuated by the rains or winds of one or two brief nortes (storms set off by cold fronts to the north). But oddly, for the last ten days, we've faced chances of rain coming more from the south and west. Because this is Mitla, we've seen more clouds, light shows, and thunderous bluster over these days than actual hard rains, but nevertheless the weather is certainly different than the last several years.

We did catch a break when the rains held off last week during the time we were excavating three burials found the previous Friday (see Photos #1 and #2 below.) Fortunately, on Monday afternoon, just minutes after we finished mapping and excavating the third individual, we were touched by a passing rain shower, but no damage was done.

After Monday, we were able to focus more on the domestic architecture, and we discovered two examples of something we've never found before. Associated with the same occupational level of this residence, we unearthed two giant ollas (jars) that were practically incorporated into the architecture of this residence.

The first jar had been broken in the past, and so we recovered only the base in position. Interestingly, at some point after the giant jar was broken, a large mano (grinding stone) and an obsidian blade were placed in the jar base, on top of a few broken fragments, proving that the stone tools did not sit in the jar when the latter was in use (see Photo #3 below.) The second huge jar was uncovered in pieces, but with most of the vessel still in place (see Photo #4 below.) This jar was simply covered over during subsequent building episodes/occupations, and so most of the vessel stayed together.

The recovery of these large jars, one positioned just in front of a room and the other between a roofed room and an exterior area, possibly a kitchen, opens many questions. What did they hold? Water seems the more logical answer, since the interior of the broken jar was not pitted—something you might expect if an alcoholic beverage had been kept inside.

Why were these two giant jars utilized during this one Late Classic occupation? As yet, we have no comparable evidence of similar liquid storage activity in this residence, either before or after, or for the two residences excavated at the Mitla Fortress in 2009 and 2010. On the one hand, we might wonder whether water shortages became especially acute at the time these ollas (water jaws) were in use—yet this residential occupation persisted through at least a significant rebuilding, meaning it would be unusual for inhabitants to remain on site during a drought, if indeed there was one.

On the other hand, since most water at the Fortress had to be extracted from a spring at the base of the hill more than 10-15 minutes away by foot, you might wonder why every occupation did not have such a giant jar situated right close to the house. Regardless of the answers to these questions, the centrality of water for life (past and present) in the Valley of Oaxaca is indisputable.

More soon,

© L. Nicholas
Tight Squeeze
© L. Nicholas
Excavating Burials
© L. Nicholas
Olla and Mano
© L. Nicholas
Olla in Wall
© G. Feinman
Excavating an Offering