Sacred Sites: A New Book on Urbanism in Ancient Central Mexico

David M. Carballo, Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 309 pp., $ 58.99 / £ 41.99 / € 64.99.

Reviewed by Caterina Pizzigoni, Columbia University

In a study that is as concise as it is illuminating, David Carballo takes us through a tour of Central Mexico urbanism in the late Formative Period (roughly from ca. 600 BCE to 100 CE), building on extensive scholarship as well as his own archaeological research. The analysis hinges on the connections between ancient urbanization and religion, brought to life through the methodological choice of combining archaeology with religious studies.

Teotihuacán

Teotihuacán in Central Mexico

Chapter 1 lays the framework of the book, focusing on religion and urbanization in Ancient Mesoamerica. Chapter 2 deals with the environment, resources, and peoples of Central Mexico. The author’s original research is mainly deployed in the following three chapters, and it is based on Carballo’s excavations of two sites in the North-Central Tlaxcala region. The first one, Tetel, was part of Richard Lesure’s project, while the second and more extensively covered, La Laguna, was excavated first under his direction and later in collaboration with Luis Barba. Chapter 3 is an illuminating overview of site excavations in the Basin of Mexico and the Puebla-Tlaxcala region from the early twentieth century to today. The data relate to all the ceremonial centers that the book deals with, but more rarely also concern the domestic units of various social groups. Chapter 4 takes us through the sacred landscape, made of mountains, waters, cycles of the cosmos, and recounted in buildings and structures. Here as well, the analysis deals with both ceremonial and domestic architecture, now complicated by functions of inclusion and distinction. For instance, a ceremonial center can foster inclusivity and identity through assembly or spectacle, but it can also create distinction through spatial segregation and differential access. The sacred actors are the protagonists of Chapter 5, which is based on data about human and nonhuman participants in the religious system. Humans and animals can be studied especially through the archaeological record of burials, clay figurines, effigy vessels, and tools associated to specific rituals, such as knives for bloodletting. Deities are the most obvious sacred actors, and two in particular emerge in central Mexico at this time: the Old God of Fire (Xiuhtecuhtli in Nahuatl, the predominant indigenous language of the area), and the Storm God (Tlaloc). At the end, Chapter 6 concludes by highlighting the role of ritual and religion in the creation of urban landscapes.

9780190251062Through excavations of places such as Cuicuilco, Tlapacoya, Xochitecatl, Tetel, La Laguna, and comparison with the Classic period cities of Teotihuacan, Cholula, and Cantona, we learn a great deal about the typical ancient Mesoamerican city: its civic-ceremonial core, with the central plaza, the paired temple pyramids, the ball court, the marketplace, as well as other buildings with religious and administrative functions; the absence of fortifications; the high density and complex social hierarchy; the variety of craft activities to complement agricultural production.

The book expands our understanding of urbanization in the ancient world in multiple ways. It shows how central Mexico was one of the most urbanized areas of the world much earlier than one would generally believe from the examples of the famous cities of the Classic period (ca. 100–650 CE) such as Teotihuacan, or fourteenth-century Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. It also demonstrates that, to understand the impact of religious practices and architecture on the development of cities we cannot stop at temples and plazas but need to include domestic archaeology, paying attention to what goes on in the household. Besides zooming in at the house level, we also need to zoom out to include mountains, springs, lakes, and other features of a sacred landscape essential to urbanism in this time and place. Finally, through a painstaking analysis of similarities in buildings and structures across sites, Carballo aptly shows how a prehispanic central Mexican urban tradition emerged around this time. Yet this tradition does not tell the full story: Different templates developed within broader common trends, creating a composite urban landscape with significant subregional variations.

Xiuhtecuhtli_3

The Old God of Fire (Xiuhtecuhtli), as illustrated in the Codex Borgia

Thinking of urbanism in a period as remote as the beginning of the first millennium is as intriguing as it is important for all the reasons outlined above, besides many other revealing insights. But Carballo makes the relevance also more contemporary, in line with what a few other scholars have started to do: seeing archaeology as “providing time-depth and materially informed insights that could generate creative solutions to contemporary problems such as urban stressors and sustainability.” Comparisons of urban experiences across time and cultures can make us reflect upon the ways in which cities support growing populations, for example, or have an impact upon the environment. Indeed, it is fascinating to think about the exploration of ancient cities as a way to find answers to questions about past societies as well as our own.

 

Caterina Pizzigoni is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. She specializes in the colonial history of Latin America, with a particular interest in the history of indigenous populations and the study of sources in Nahuatl. She is the author of The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, 1650–1800 (Stanford, 2013).

 

 

 

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