Tlaxcallan: The Archaeology of an Ancient Republic in the New World

By Fargher, Lane F.; Blanton, Richard E. et al. | Antiquity, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Tlaxcallan: The Archaeology of an Ancient Republic in the New World


Fargher, Lane F., Blanton, Richard E., Espinoza, Verenice Y. Heredia, Millhauser, John, Xiuhtecutli, Nezahualcoyotl, Overholtzer, Lisa, Antiquity


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Introduction

In Western history, the development of the modern nation-state or republic involved the construction of a political system that combined legal-rational bureaucracy (e.g. Weber 1947: 333) with some form of collective rule such as rule by council (e.g. congresses, parliaments, senates). Bureaucratic and governmental reforms were intended to overcome the despotic forms of government that dominated northern Europe and parts of Mediterranean Europe during the medieval period (e.g. England, France, Spain, Milan) (e.g. Bendix 1978). In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and still often expressed now, Europeans and by extension Euro-Americans developed the philosophy that the social construction of nation-states and the rational social action they imply were uniquely European developments (Mills 1817; Hegel 1953; Marx 1973; Montesquieu 1989; for more recent expressions of similar ideas see Wittfogel 1957; Hobsbawm 1985; Anderson 1991; Wolf 1999) and that ancient republics are absent outside Mediterranean/European history (e.g. Nederman 2005: 2099).

We suggest that this idea reflects, in part, a view of the non-Western 'other' that is largely informed by a symbolic inversion of European history (rather than empirically supportable social analysis) that sees European society in opposition to supposed despotism in which powerful rulers were able to remain in power because the people they ruled were mired in irrationality (e.g. Anderson 1974: 472; Vitkin 1981: 445). Recently, however, Western and non-Western anthropologists, archaeologists and historians have begun to accumulate data demonstrating that legal-rational bureaucracy and especially collective rule are not uniquely European in origin and are present in many cultural traditions (e.g. Blanton & Fargher 2008). Importantly, recent work has demonstrated that collective rule or republics (states which lack a king or monarch) developed in the Near East, south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and (possibly) China (see Liu 2004: 247-51) independent of European intervention. For example, numerous scholars have drawn attention to historical evidence that late fourth- and early third-millennium BC cities in the Near East were governed by citizen assemblies similar to later Greek democracy (Jacobsen 1943; Postgate 1992: 80-81; van de Mieroop 1997; Fleming 2004; cf. Raaflaub 1998: 31). In south Asia, the period from 1000 to 300 BC saw the emergence of republics (gana or sangha) (e.g. Licchavi) that rejected monarchy and placed ruling power in the hands of a council or assembly drawn from the ksatriya caste (J.P. Sharma 1968; Thapar 1984: 78-81; R.S. Sharma 1996: 128-32). In nineteenth-century Swahili Lamu (East Africa), the political system was organised around a ruling council (diwan) which represented 'the people' and elected leaders who served four-year terms, at which time they were replaced by elected leaders from the opposing moiety (Prins 1967: 49, 100, 1971: 50; Horton & Middleton 2000: 159-60).

To this list we can now add the Americas. Our recent work has documented the development of aspects of legal-rational bureaucracy, especially open and competitive recruitment, and a mix of governing councils and dynastic rule in the Aztec Triple Alliance (Fargher & Blanton 2007; Blanton & Fargher 2008; see also van Zantwijk 1985). And here, we describe the archaeology of a republic in the pre-Columbian New World, Tlaxcallan located in central Mexico.

The archaeological remains of an ancient republic

In August of 2009, we completed a systematic full-coverage study of the ancient city of Tlaxcallan, as well as a rural governmental complex (Tizatlan) on a hill located about 1km outside the city's limits (Figure 1). Between about AD 1250 and 1519 (the Late Postclassic period of the central Mexican archaeological sequence) Tlaxcallan city was constructed rapidly on a series of hilltops and hillsides that have little evidence for occupation during any previous archaeological period. …

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