Archaeology at Izapa

Mendelsohn and Kuchnicki excavate offering vessels

Mendelsohn and Kuchnicki excavate offering vessels

The Izapa Household Archaeology Project

The Izapa Household Archaeology Project involved household excavations at the early Mesoamerican city of Izapa (1900 B.C.-A.D. 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 was about the economy and environment at the site. This project represented the first household excavations at Izapa using modern excavation techniques. The project also included the first excavation of new mounds discovered during the 2011 LiDAR (light detection and ranging) remapping of the site by Robert Rosenswig’s (UAlbany) Izapa Regional Settlement Project.

Izapa Trade Route Map

Izapa’s position along an important trade corridor along the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica

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 combined 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 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 documented recent excavations by the Izapa Household Archaeology Project in the southern zone of the site. Excavation data, ceramic analyses, and obsidian sourcing have provided new insight into the challenging chronology for this period and represent the first systematically collected economic data for the site.

Findings counter a previous proposal for a population intrusion from 100 B.C.-A.D. 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 A.D. 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 Team

The Izapa Household Archaeology project was 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), Kelly Rich (UAlbany), Gabriela Kerem Galicia Castillo (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia), and Royma Nayeli Gutierrez Garcia (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México).

Financial support for this work was 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

Community Outreach

The Izapa Household Archaeology Project also involved a community outreach component, which supported local community members’ interest in developing tourism to the site and learning more about its ancient inhabitants. My role included interviewing with local news outlets, including reporters from newspapers (e.g. El Orbe), local and national television stations (e.g. TV Azteca, Televisa), and appearing as a guest on a radio station in nearby Cacahoatan. At the end of the season, we hosted a series of lectures for community leaders and middle school students to share our findings. After the lab work was completed and the results were compiled, a separate trip was made  (2017) to distribute project results. Our educational pamphlet can be downloaded in English and Spanish below:

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