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Macuilxochitl, Oaxaca

Submitted by mccaffer on Sun, 02/01/2009 - 4:31pm

By Geoffrey McCafferty (2009) 

In 2002, a team of archaeologists from the University of Calgary assisted Dr. Marc Winter of the Oaxaca Regional Center of INAH on a salvage archaeology project at the site of Macuilxochitl. Macuilxochitl is located in the Tlacolula arm of the Valley of Oaxaca, midway between Oaxaca City and Mitla (Fig. 1). Improvements to that section of the Pan-American highway necessitated mitigation of mounds located on either side of the road, especially at the turn-off to the town of Macuilxochitl.

Figure 1: Macuilxochitl at the base of Danush mountain


Macuilxochitl was one of the largest pre-Columbian sites in the Valley of Oaxaca. It sprawls over a large area, with distinctive concentrations at different time periods; for example, Dainzu is a Formative period center withing the area of 'metropolitan' Macuilxochitl, while the modern town is located at the far northern extent of that same area. The project area included mounds relating to the Late Classic Xoo and Early Postclassic Liobaa periods. Several mounds were bisected when the Pan-American highway was initially constructed in the 1930s, and plaster floors and mound fill have long been visible along the side of the road. It was gratifying to be able to finally answer questions about those mysterious mounds.

A small group of University of Calgary graduate students accompanied me for a two month field season: Danny Zborover, Melissa Knight, Bobbi Parry, and Hollie Brooks. We stayed in the town of Macuilxochitl with the Zapotec family of one of the laborer chiefs. We greatly enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the local culture and appreciated the wonderful hospitality.

The salvage project concentrated on three large mounds: 35, 36, and 55 (Fig. 2). Mound 35 was located on the south side of the highway, while Mound 55 was on the east side of the road leading into the town of Macuilxochitl. The U of Calgary team focused on Mound 36 (and part of Mound 37), located on the north side of the highway and west of the road to town.

Figure 2: Site plan (Markens et al. 2008)


Mound 36 was the mound most severely impacted by previous road construction, with less than half of the original structure intact. Several plaster floors were exposed in the road cut (Fig. 3).  Excavations were directed at clearing the exposed surfaces and the upper floor level.  Additional clearing exposed a staircase on the north side of the mound facing Mound 37 (Fig. 4).  Located at the midpoint of the staircase was a human skeleton in a flexed, seated position, placed over the final construction layer and with a metate fragment over the skull (Fig. 5).  

Figure 3: Mound 36 before excavation


Figure 4: North face of Mound 36


 Figure 5: Skeleton buried at the midpoint of the north staircase


 Although Mound 36 was badly damaged by highway construction and subsequent erosion and looting, nevertheless there were multiple wall and floor levels encountered.  One of the most complete features was a wall facing to the north, made of small pebbles covered with a layer of stucco, and in the characteristic talud/tablero form best known from Teotihuacan (and not common in Oaxaca) (Fig. 6).  This feature was found on both the east and west side of the central staircase.


Figure 6: Talud/tablero style facade covered by later facade


 The outermost facade featured a decorative pattern of horizontal masonry interspersed with larger stones placed vertically (Fig. 7).  This style is known locally as a "Mixtec" trait, supposedly linked with the Postclassic incursion of Mixtec speakers into the Valley of Oaxaca.  Macuilxochitl is specifically named as one of the sites with Mixtec rulers  in the Late Postclassic period (see Oudijk 2000).  If this (admittedly tenuous) ethnic identification is true, then the Macuilxochitl archaeological evidence would suggest a very early date for this influence.  A more complete example of the "Mixtec" facade was found at Mound 35 (Fig. 8).

 Figure 7:  Fragment of "Mixtec" style architecture from Mound 36


Figure 8: Detail of "Mixtec" style architecture from Mound 35


 North of Mound 36 was Mound 37, a very large mound that was likely residential.  Separating the two mounds was a modern drainage canal that also impacted the prehispanic architectural remains.  Excavations in the canal exposed several plaza floor layers (Fig. 9), as well as ancient water management systems (Fig. 10).

Figure 9: Plaza floors exposed in modern canal


Figure 10: Prehispanic drainage system


A small area of Mound 37 was excavated to explore a floor surface exposed by the modern canal.  A patio was cleared that included a sunken area filled with wall rubble (Fig. 11).  To one side of this patio was a drain that presumably fed run-off from upper levels of the structure (Fig. 12).  A similar arrangement of small patios is known from Monte Alban.


 Figure 11: Patio associated with Mound 37


Figure 12: Detail of drain onto patio floor


The material culture associated with Mound 36 was consistently Late Classic (Xoo phase), but with Early Postclassic Liobaa material associated with post-abandonment levels.  This was best demonstrated in a trench dug west from the mound, which encountered a rich midden deposit including well-preserved corn cobs  (Fig. 13).  For the Late Classic, by far the most abundant ceramic type was the ubiquitous G-35 conical bowl, making up roughly 90% of all pottery fragments.  Liobaa material culture included numerous examples of what have been identified as ritual offerings (Winter et al. 2007), including miniature vessels and handled incense burners.  Also present were many fragments of anthropomorphic urns (Fig. 14).  Interestingly, there were virtually no stone tools or evidence of lithic debitage.  One notable object that was found (at Mound 35) was a carved human mandible similar to those depicted in Mixtec codices (Fig. 15).

Figure 13: Cala 2 trench profile showing stratigraphy at edge of Mound 36


Figure 14: Fragment of ceramic urn representing seated female figure


Figure 15: Carved human mandible of buccal mask


Figure 15: Architecture students from the Universidad Autonoma de Oaxaca mapping


Figure 16:  Hollie Brooks and Bobbi Parry measuring slope of Mound 55


Figure 17:  Danny Zborover taking "aerial" photos in organ cactus 

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