Community and Household
FIGURE 18. The 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan. Chicago, Newberry Library, Ayer 655.51.C8 1524b. To the left is a map of the Caribbean basin, with south to the top (half of Cuba is visible to the left, below which is the peninsula of Florida). To the left are Lake Texcoco and the island of Tenochtitlan, with west on the top.
FIGURE 19. The ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan, from the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan. Chicago, Newberry Library, Ayer 655.51.C8 1524b.
FIGURE 20. The palace of Mocteczuma (towards the bottom of the image) and a Platea (street), from the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan. Chicago, Newberry Library, Ayer 655.51.C8 1524b.
FIGURE 21. The palace of Moctezuma I: Cell 14 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 22. The palace of Moctezuma I: Cell 15 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 23. The great market of Tlatelolco as a Forum, from the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan. Chicago, Newberry Library, Ayer 655.51.C8 1524b.
FIGURE 24. The aqueduct along the causeway from Chapultepec, from the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan. Chicago, Newberry Library, Ayer 655.51.C8 1524b.
FIGURE 25. The Hill of the Star (?) from the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan. Chicago, Newberry Library, Ayer 655.51.C8 1524b.
FIGURE 26. The Hill of the Star (at the far right edge of the photo) as seen from the top of the Torre Latinoamericana in downtown Mexico City, looking to the south-southeast. Photo by Byron Hamann.
FIGURE 27. Reconstruction of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico; the red line indicates the approximate location of the barrier dike.
FIGURE 28. Cell 42 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala: Tenochtitlan in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
FIGURE 29. The barrier dike in Lake Texcoco, from the 1524 Nuremberg map of Tenochtitlan. Chicago, Newberry Library, Ayer 655.51.C8 1524b.
FIGURE 30. The ruins of Cuexcomate, Morelos. The two buildings in red are the palace (Structure 6, to the left) and the temple (to the right). The set of buildings in blue are Group 10, a household compound.
FIGURE 31. Cuexcomate Structure 6. Light red lines indicate platform walls, dark red lines indicate building walls, and grey fill indicates stone floors. Redrawn from Smith et al. 1989, 195.
FIGURE 32. Cuexcomate Group 10. Light brown lines indicate platform walls, dark brown lines indicate building walls, grey fill indicates stone porches, and clusters of black ovals indicate ritual dumps. Redrawn from Smith et al. 1989, 195.
The mountains and valleys of Postclassic central Mexico were dotted with settlements of many different sizes—from isolated farmhouses, to villages of a dozen homes, to towns and cities of hundreds or thousands of dwellings. Largest of all was the island capital of Tenochtitlan (and the neighboring city it took over, Tlatelolco). Perhaps as many as 200,000 people lived on this floating city in the middle of Lake Texcoco. But despite this great range in scale, central Mexican settlements were often organized according to the same basic principle: a central plaza would be bordered by a temple, the ruler’s palace, and other official buildings; beyond this were the houses of the common people. In order to see how this basic principle of urban design was used at very different scales, and to get a sense of what it was like to live in central Mexican settlements, this section looks first at Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico, and then at the much smaller town of Cuexcomate in the Valley of Morelos.
Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, and the waters of Lake Texcoco were finally channeled away in 1900. Spectacular excavations in the late 1970s and early 1980s have revealed what remains of the great temple that stood in the center of the city, but the presence of a living city has made the archaeological study of Tenochtitlan difficult. Fortunately, a woodcut map of the city was published in Nuremberg in 1524. It accompanied a Latin translation of the second letter of conquest that Hernán Cortes had sent to Emperor Charles V (Figure 18). This is map a stylized, idealized representation—it is nothing like the detailed street plans we use today. However, as Barbara Mundy has argued in a brilliant essay, the overall design of the map conforms to what we know about the layout of Tenochtitlan from many other sources, and details of the map’s imagery strongly suggest that it was based on an indigenous drawing of the capital city. In other words, beneath its European form and inscriptions in Latin lies a Native American view of the capital of the Aztec empire.
The map is oriented with west to the top, north to the right. In the center of everything is a large white square: the ceremonial precinct in the heart of Tenochtitlan (Figure 19). The twin sanctuaries to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli at the top of the Great Temple are represented by a pair of towers, each flanked by a triangular flight of stairs. (One of the words Hernán Cortés used to describe pyramid-temples was torre, tower). A round sun rises up between the two towers, probably adapted from the original indigenous map and indicating how the Great Temple was aligned so that the sun would rise above the sanctuary of Huitzilopochtli on the equinox.29 Other tower-temples fill up the rest of the center’s space, along with two grid-like skull racks and, in the very center, a decapitated human torso. The Latin text that accompanies this torso reads idol lapideu[m]: “stone idol”. This detail may refer to the stone bas-relief sculpture of Coyolxauqui that stood at the base of the Great Temple.30 Coyolxauqui was sister of, and rival to, Huitzilopochtli. According to Mexica sacred histories, when Huitzilopochtli was born, he attacked his sister, decapitated her, and cut her body into pieces (a story retold in Davíd Carrasco’s Lecture for Mesolore). The Coyolxauqui stone at the foot of the Great Temple commemorated this ancient act of sacrifice, and may be remembered in this 1524 map.
Just outside of the ceremonial precinct were the city’s royal palaces. One of these—labeled Dom[us] D. Muteezuma, “house of Don Moctezuma”—is shown on the 1524 map, just to the left (that is, south) of the ceremonial precinct, at the eastern end of a large open space labeled Platea, “street” (Figure 20). It is drawn as a large square edifice, composed of a number of smaller buildings arranged around courtyards. At least one other royal palace existed in the center of Tenochtitlan when the Europeans arrived: the palace built by Moctezuma I (great-grandfather of Moctezuma II, who was emperor when the Europeans arrived).31 This is the place where Cortés and his allies took up residence during their first stay in the city from November 1519 to June 1520. This palace is shown a number of times in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, and==much like the image of Moctezuma’s palace in the 1524 map—it is represented as a number of buildings constructed around a central patio (Figures 21 and 22). Cell 11 depicts the first interactions between Cortés, Malinche, and the emperor Moctezuma II, and its syllabic hieroglyphic label actually labels the building where this meeting took place as the palace of the old Moctezuma (Wewe Motekotzoma)—that is, the palace of Moctezuma I (Figure 3).
Four main roads leave the ceremonial precinct, thus dividing the city into four quarters. In the sixteenth century, these would become four Catholic parishes: San Juan, San Pablo, San Sebastián, and Santa María la Redonda.32 Tenochtitlan shared its island in Lake Texcoco with a second, subordinate city: Tlatelolco, located to the north. Tlatelolco was famous for its market, which is represented on this map as an open square just to the northwest of the ceremonial precinct (the market is labeled in Latin as the Foru[m]; Figure 23) These main divisions of the city are filled with houses, watery canals, groves of trees, and occasional tower-temples.
Tenochtitlan—and Nahua cities in general—were organized into neighborhoods called calpolli, which means “big house.”33 There may have been as many as 80 of these calpolli-neighborhoods in Tenochtitlan in 1521. According to alphabetic records, these calpolli were organized as miniature cities, organized around a small central plaza, a neighborhood temple, a priest’s house, and a calmecac or school for boys and girls (who were taught separately). Surrounding these central spaces were the dwellings of each neighborhood’s inhabitants. These dwellings were usually house compounds, in which two or more buildings (houses, or calli) of one or occasionally two stories were arranged around a central open patio (ithualli). These house compounds would usually have small gardens as well, and in Tenochtitlan many bordered on the sides of canals, which provided a means of transport as well as access to canoe-traveling merchants.
Canoes connected the island to the surrounding mainland, as did a set of three main causeways to the south, west, and north of the city. The causeway to the west contained an aqueduct, which brought fresh water to the island from the lakeshore hill of Chapultepec. The 1524 map uses thin blue lines on the western causeway to indicate that “From here a stream of water flows into the city” (Ex isto fluuio conducut aguá in ciutatem; Figure 24). The southern causeway links Tenochtitlan to the large lobed form of a hill on the southern shores of Lake Texcoco. This may represent the Hill of the Star, a prominent hill in the landscape of the southern Valley of Mexico (Figures 25, 26).34 Every fifty-two years, when the 260-day and 360-day calendar cycles coincided, all of the fires in the Valley, and beyond, were extinguished. A New Fire was drilled in the chest of a sacrificial victim at the summit of the Hill of the Star, and runners would then carry the flames to the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan, crossing the lake on the southern causeway. The fire would then be distributed to the local temples of each calpolli neighborhood, and from there to the houses of individual families (for more on the New Fire ceremony, see the Counting: Tomorrow, the Day After Tomorrow Nahua tutorial).
Lake Texcoco was in fact composed of a number of smaller lakes, and its form was much more irregular than the near-circular form shown in the 1524 map (the lake looked something like a backwards Ã‡; Figure 27).35 A circular representation of lake Texcoco also appears at the very center of the seven by thirteen grid of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Figure 28).36 For the Mexica, Tenochtitlan represented the center of the world, and was designed as a miniature model, or cosmogram, of a universe ideally ordered along the five directions (North, South, East, West, and Center—see the Landscapes: Water, Mountain Nahua tutorial). In other words, the round lakes shown in both Lienzo and Map are geographically imprecise, but symbolically accurate. One unusual feature of the bodies of water that made up Lake Texcoco is that some of them (to the south and west) contained fresh water, while others (to the east) were salty. Prehispanic Nahuas attempted to keep these waters separate—and to control flooding—by building a barrier dike in the western part of the lake. This, too, is represented in the 1524 map, though as a series of woven fences rather than a wall of earth and stone (Figure 29).37 (The placement and scale of this dike are also significant. Although two-thirds of Lake Texcoco were saline, the 1524 representation shows only a small portion of the lake being fenced off—once again, we are dealing with a map that is symbolically representational, not geographically accurate according to our standards today.) Of the three altepetl that made up the Triple Alliance, Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan were built in the freshwater portions of the lake, while Texcoco was built on the saline western shores. The people of Texcoco used the brackish water to their advantage, boiling it in special ceramics to make salt for local consumption as well as trade.38
Tenochtitlan was inhabited by some 200,000 people, and was exponentially larger than any other city in prehispanic Central Mexico. However, its basic spatial layout was also found in many smaller cities and towns.39 To gain a comparative understanding of what life was like in one of these smaller towns—and to gain a clearer picture of what it was like to live in prehispanic Nahua communities—we now leave the Valley of Mexico and turn to the Valley of Morelos, just to the south. Excavations in the town of Cuexcomate will allow us to consider what archaeological evidence—in contrast to visual and alphabetic evidence—can teach us about community and household in prehispanic Central Mexico.
The town of Cuexcomate was founded around 1350 on a raised ridge of land running roughly from the northwest to the southeast. Today, the foundations of some 150 houses are still visible on the ground, most of them arranged around central patios to create multi-building house compounds (Figure 30). The settlement takes up 14.2 hectares—just under a kilometer from end to end—and is centered on a main plaza surrounded by the ruins of public buildings. The map in Figure 30 includes all of the buildings in Cuexcomate whose foundations are visible today, but not all of these houses were inhabited at the same time. From 1350-1430 the community consisted of some 39 houses, whereas 139 houses date to the period 1430-1550.40 In terms of population, during the first century of its existence Cuexcomate was home to some 237 people—a number that would leap to 803 inhabitants during the period 1430 to 1550.41
Cuexcomate, like Tenochtitlan, was built around a central public plaza. The main temple was located on the eastern side of the central plaza (thus facing west, like the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan). Significantly, trash middens associated with this structure contained a very high percentage of broken incense burners—strong indicators of the building’s sacred function.42 Facing this temple, on the western side of the plaza, was a large multiroomed building that probably served as an elite palace (tecpan) for the first century of Cuexcomate’s existence. It was abandoned around 1430—perhaps indicating a change in ruling dynasty related to the political turbulence of those years (remember that the region was conquered by Cuauhnahuac in the 1420s and by the Aztecs in 1438). Later Cuexcomate ruling elites probably lived in a more modest palace constructed on the north side of the plaza. In the southeast corner of the plaza, next to the temple, was a group of buildings that may have formed the priest’s residence.43 Two-thirds of the houses in Cuexcomate are arranged in patio groups, with three or four buildings constructed around a central space. Based on the spatial clustering of houses and house-groups within the site itself, it is possible that Cuexcomate was divided into four calpolli, or neighborhoods: one surrounding the main plaza, one at the northern end of the site, and two more on the ridge south of the main plaza.44
Structure 6—the original palace of Cuexcomate—was constructed in a series of stages.45 In its final form, it consisted of over a dozen rooms constructed on top of a C-shaped stone platform finished with red plaster, 0.7 meters high and around 30 meters on each side (Figure 31). In the center of the palace, then, was a sunken courtyard—sunken in comparison to the raised rooms around it. Interior rooms were floored with red plaster or cobblestones, and were roofed with either flat wooden beams or palm thatch—although some of the “rooms” on top of the palace platform may have been courtyards or patios open to the sky.46 Walls were made of adobe bricks with stone foundations, and covered with plaster.
Contrast this multi-room elite palace with the Group 10 house compound some 200 meters to the east, consisting of three one-room houses (calli) built around a central patio (ithualli), along with a circular stone structure in the northwest corner of the group (Figure 32).47 The three houses were built with stone foundations and adobe walls, and the northern and southern buildings had stone floors. As with Structure 6, roofs may have been thatched with palm leaves, or covered with flat wooden beams. The northern house, Structure 85, measures 5 by 6 meters, and had a stone-floored porch on the west side (probably for doing outdoor work in the shade, such as weaving or preparing food). Structure 84, to the west, was slightly smaller (about 4 by 6 meters) and constructed on top of a low platform just under a meter high. Structure 83, on the south side of the central patio measures 4 by 6 meters, and is built on a low platform (about a half a meter high). As with Structure 85, this house has a connected stone patio, to the north. The circular masonry structure in the northwest corner of the group (about 4 meters in diameter) may be the remains of a round granary (cuexcomatl), for storing maize.48 In total, the patio space between the three main houses measures about 16 by 16 meters—roughly the same size as the ground-level patio in the center of the palatial Structure 6.
But who would have lived in these house compounds, and what purpose did their buildings serve? From colonial alphabetic documents, we know that people living in the houses around a central patio were often relatives, and that these house groups developed dynamically over time: starting with a single calli, with additional buildings being constructed later for grown children and their families.49 Individual buildings seem to have been used above all for sleeping, with cooking, weaving, and other chores being done outside, in the central courtyard or on paved patios attached to individual houses. However, colonial documents also mention buildings set aside for special purposes: bakeries, sweatbaths (temazcalli), round bins for storing maize (cuexcomatl), “woman-houses” (cihuacalli —apparently a space for women’s tasks), and “saint-houses” (_santocalli_—apparently where altars and religious images were set up).50
A final important feature of Group 10—and of other household clusters in Cuexcomate as well—are five “ritual dumps,” covered with a layer of stones.51 The stones cover deposits of (primarily) ceramic vessels deposited en masse and broken at the same time (whole vessels can be pieced together from the sherds, which is seldom the case for the fragments found in ordinary household trash heaps). These are probably the material remains of a local version of the New Fire ceremony also celebrated in Tenochtitlan (and discussed above). Every 52 years, the cycles of the 360 day solar calendar and 260 day ritual calendar started on the same day. A ritual of renewal was therefore performed. Household fires were extinguished, and houses were ceremonially cleaned: “every fifty-two years they extinguished all the fires so that none remained in all the land, and they broke all of the ollas and pitchers that they had used, and they broke all the comales and vessels that they owned…”  The “ritual dumps” excavated in Cuexcomate seem to be the material remains of these cyclical house-cleansings, providing us with an important perspective on household ritual in the central Mexican countryside.
But what else did people do in these multi-roomed residences and patios (and the fields beyond them)? What more can archaeology tell us about daily life among Cuexcomate’s nobles and commoners?
Production and Daily Life >
29 Carrasco 1999, 112-113.
30 Mundy 1998, 20-21.
31 This palace is sometimes referred to as the Palace of Axayacatl, the emperor who succeeded Moctezuma I and who seems to have enlarged the constructions of his predecessor; see Evans 2004, 20-23.
32 Lockhart 1992, 25.
33 Lockhart 1992; see also Monaghan 1996.
34 Mundy (1998, 23-24) interprets this protrusion as the place sign for Culhuacan, the largest city on the southern shores of the lake. Culhuacan was built at the western base of the Hill of the Star, so our interpretations are in agreement.
35 Mundy 1998, 14.
36 Mundy 1998, 14-16.
37 Mundy 1998, 24.
38 Smith 1990, 154; Kepecs 2003.
39 See Lockhart 1992, 18-19 and Smith 2003, 148 on the basic spatial layout of Nahua settlements.
40 Smith and Heath-Smith 1994, 353.
41 Smith and Heath-Smith 1994: 253.
42 Smith 1992, 327.
43 Smith 1992, 169-177, 373-375.
44 See map in Smith 1992, 345; see also Smith 2010, 147.
45 Smith 1992, 187-207, 309-319. For more on Postclassic central Mexican palaces in general, see Evans 1988 and Evans 2004.
46 Smith 1992, 309, 311.
47 Molina 1555, 45v (Casa. calli. techan), 190v (Patio qualquiera. ythualli); on the excavations, see Smith 1992: 149-165.
48 Smith et al. 1989, 198.
49 Lockhart 1992: 64.
50 Lockhart 1992: 66, 69.
51 Smith 1992, 241-251; Elson and Smith 2001; Hamann 2008.
52 “en cinquenta y dos aÃ±os apagauan todo el fuego que no quedaua ning[un]o en toda la ti[er]ra y quebrauan todas las ollas y cantaros que auian seruido y los comales y vasijas q[ue] tenian todo lo q[ue]brauan…” Costumbres, fiestas, enterram[ien]tos y diversas formas de proceder de los indios de nueva espaÃ±a, 1553, Biblioteca de El Escorial, San Lorenzo el Escorial, Ms. K III 8, 387r.