The Izapa Household Archaeology Project
The Izapa Household Archaeology Project involved household excavations at the early Mesoamerican city of Izapa (1900 BC-AD 1000), located in the southern Pacific coast region of Chiapas, Mexico. Izapa is among the largest Formative period centers in Mesoamerica, containing mounds up to 21m high and over 250 associated monuments. The site is famous for its art style and has been proposed by archaeologists to be an important link between two dominant Mesoamerican cultural groups, the Olmec and the Maya. Despite the site’s importance, relatively few excavations have been conducted and very little is known about the economy and environment at the site. This project represents the first household excavations at Izapa using modern excavation techniques. The project also includes the first excavation of new mounds discovered during the 2011 remapping of the site by Robert Rosenswig’s (UAlbany) Izapa Regional Settlement Project.
Results from the project are compiled in my dissertation, Resilience and Interregional Interaction at the Early Mesoamerican City of Izapa: The Formative to Classic Period Transition. The project combines economic data recovered from household excavations with settlement and environmental data to explain why Izapa survived at a time when many early cities struggled or collapsed. The focus is a period of lesser known collapse in Mesoamerican history that has been documented across southern Mesoamerica beginning around A.D. 100. The transition between the Formative and Classic periods, between 100 B.C. and A.D. 400, was a time of great social change, including the apogee and fall of several powerful Formative period cities. My dissertation investigates this period of widespread cultural change from the perspective of the early capital of Izapa. It documents recent excavations by the Izapa Household Archaeology Project in the southern zone of the site. Excavation data, ceramic analyses, and obsidian sourcing provide new insight into the challenging chronology for this period and represent the first systematically collected economic data for the site.
Findings counter previous a proposal for a population intrusion from 100 BC-AD 100. Instead, I propose that the dramatic material changes present at Izapa during this period reflect a transformation in the display of kingship at the site, the participation of Izapa’s residents in a widespread trade network, and a possible short-term disruption resulting from a nearby volcanic eruption. Results further suggest that Izapa did not experience the same large-scale collapse recorded at other sites in southern Mesoamerica between AD 100 and 250. Occupation at Izapa persisted for another millennium, though the site did not maintain its former grandeur. The location of Izapa along a central trade corridor, the site’s role as an important religious center, access to resources in multiple environmental zones, and its residents’ shifting alliances with neighboring urban centers, all contributed to the site’s long-term success. Results show that the willingness of Izapa’s population to shift their trade ties, and presumably their political alliances, to suit their needs, was an important factor in this early city’s survival.
The Izapa Household Archaeology project is comprised of the director, Rebecca Mendelsohn (UAlbany), 4 archaeologist/student collaborators from Mexico and the United States, 12 workmen from the Izapa community, and 2 local women assisting in the lab. Archaeologist/student collaborators include Saskia Kuchnicki (UAlbany ‘12), Kelly Rich (UAlbany ‘12), Gabriela Kerem Galicia Castillo (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia), and Royma Nayeli Gutierrez Garcia (Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán).
Financial support for this work has been provided by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (#BCS-1349916), a Fulbright-García Robles grant, a Junior Fellowship in Pre-Columbian Studies at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (Harvard University), an Institute for Mesoamerican Studies DeCormier award, and the UAlbany Initiatives for Women’s Karen R. Hitchcock New Frontiers award. Permission for excavations was provided by the Consejo de Arqueología of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH).
Press and Blog Posts
Check out the Izapa Household Archaeology Project highlighted in the May 16, 2014 issue of Science:
See our Notes from the Field
Another important goal of the project was community outreach. Contemporary residents of Izapa took a great deal of interest in our excavations and we worked throughout the project to share our findings with them through television and radio interviews. At the end of the season we hosted a series of lectures for community leaders and later for middle school students. Educational materials were developed after labwork was completed and shared with community members in 2017.