The Izapa Household Archaeology Project
The Izapa Household Archaeology Project consists of 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 of Mesoamerica’s dominant early 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 Dr. Robert Rosenswig’s (UAlbany) Izapa Regional Settlement Project. Data collected from Izapa is intended to shed light on the fundamental transition from chiefdoms to states and settlements to cities.
Just as today, the urbanization of a town or settlement has economic impacts at every level of society. This project looks to the past and asks how social systems and human relationships are manipulated to achieve urban expansion and sustain population growth. By documenting household contents at different stages of occupation, the study aims to determine how the urbanization and increasing development of socioeconomic hierarchy at Izapa affected the material wellbeing of commoners. Artifacts collected from excavations are used to reconstruct the early economy and investigate how emerging kings or king-like leaders gained enough social and economic capital to organize monumental construction at the site. The project investigates how strategies like the regulation of prestige items and long-distance trade products, control over craft specialization, and manipulation of religious symbols can be used to widen the social and economic gap between elites and commoners. Are these strategies the same as those employed in other incipient states in Mesoamerica and around the world?
My dissertation, Resilience and Interregional Interaction at the Early Mesoamerican City of Izapa: The Formative to Classic Period Transition, 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. My findings counter previous reports that Izapa was conquered by invaders from the southeast around 100 BC. Instead, I argue that Izapa’s location along a central trade corridor, its role as an important religious center, and its residents’ shifting alliances with neighboring urban centers, all contributed to Izapa’s success.
The Izapa Household Archaeology project is comprised of the director, doctoral candidate 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).
Check out the Izapa Household Archaeology Project highlighted in the May 16, 2014 issue of Science:
Click here to check out our Notes from the Field and Lab.