Formative Lifeways in Central Tlaxcala, Volume 1: Excavations, Ceramics, and Chronology

Volume 27, No. 4 - Summer 2016
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Formative Lifeways in Central Tlaxcala, Volume 1: Excavations, Ceramics, and Chronology Edited by Richard G. LesureEdited by Richard G. Lesure
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press (2014)
429 pages

Review by Michael E. Smith

This is the first volume of a planned multi-volume set presenting the results of archaeological excavations at formative-period sites (900 B.C. to A.D. 100) in central Mexico. There are 13 chapters by varying combinations of five authors (Lesure, Aleksander Borejsza, David Carballo, Jennifer Carballo, and Isabel Rodríguez López). While site reports like this tend to be technical and detailed, often of interest to only specialists, this one stands out as more interesting and accessible than most. Just prior to the Spanish conquest, the Indigenous people of Tlaxcala successfully fought off the expanding Aztec empire. Because their ancestors left few large cities or monuments, archaeologists have tended to ignore the early prehistory of Tlaxcala. But for those interested in how Native peoples managed to colonize new environments and establish sustainable ways of life, Tlaxcala is an important region, precisely because of the lack of big sites and monuments. This report addresses the everyday lives of early farmers as they learned to live, farm, and thrive in the central Mexican highlands.

This volume describes excavations at four early sites— Amomoloc, Tetel, Las Mesitas, and La Laguna. The fieldwork was rigorous and innovative, with lessons for archaeologists working in other regions. I am particularly impressed with the documentation of the excavations—including excellent stratigraphic profiles, the presentation of extensive geoarchaeological research by Borejsza on patterns of land use and erosion (with some surprising results), and the careful discussion of decisions made in sampling the sites and analyzing the artifacts. It is easy for archaeologists to just apply the same methods they have used before without much thought; here, in contrast, we are given clear discussions of how decisions were made in the field and the lab in order to maximize the results from the fieldwork. For me, this was a highlight of the book.

There are seven chapters describing the four sites and their excavations. A chapter on pottery typology is rigorous and wellillustrated. Then, Lesure describes the approach taken to ceramic figurines, a common item of domestic ritual at Mesoamerican sites. The figurines themselves will be the subject of a more extensive analysis in a later volume. After a chapter on the chronology of the sites, the final chapter synthesizes the results with respect to large-scale processes in ancient central Mexico. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to see how archaeologists reconstruct life and community in early agricultural villages in Mesoamerica.

Michael E. Smith, Ph.D., is an archaeologist at Arizona State University who has excavated and written about Aztec provincial sites on the eve of Spanish conquest.