Intensive Survey of Hilltop Terrace Sites in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Feinman, Gary M.; Nicholas, Linda M. | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Intensive Survey of Hilltop Terrace Sites in Oaxaca, Mexico


Feinman, Gary M., Nicholas, Linda M., Antiquity


As part of a long-term project examining the Classic-Postclassic (AD 200-1520) domestic economy in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, we have completed intensive mapping and surface survey at three large, hilltop terrace sites in eastern Tlacolula: Guirun (Saville 1900; 1909), El Palmillo and the Mitla Fortress (Holmes 1897). Earlier surveys (Kowalewski et al. 1989) indicated that all three sites were craft production centres (stone working) and had extensive Classic and Postclassic occupations (Feinman & Nicholas 1996).

Beginning in 1996, we undertook terrace-by-terrace surveys of each site (Feinman & Nicholas 1997; 1998a; 1998b). All three were found to have more terraces than we previously thought: 330 residential terraces at Guirun, 1453 at El Palmillo and 463 at the Mitla Fortress. Guirun is spread over a series of high piedmont ridges, with public architecture on almost every flat ridgetop and discrete groups of terraces on the descending slopes (FIGURE 1). In contrast, El Palmillo and the fortress were more compact, with public architecture concentrated at the apex of each site and terraces descending the lower slopes. The El Palmillo occupation was especially dense, with row upon row of terraces crammed on the main, west face of the site.

[FIGURE 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Mitla Fortress had long been known for its huge defensive walls (FIGURE 2); the recent fieldwork revealed that the other sites also were extremely well defended. We mapped more than 50 defensive walls at Guirun and well over 100 at El Palmillo and the fortress. A series of walls guarded the most gradual approaches to all three sites. At El Palmillo and the fortress narrow roads and accessways cut through both systems of walls and strings of terraces. Generally, these paths were flanked by small structures and platforms that could have monitored movement in and out of the site (e.g. Hirth 1982: 323).

[FIGURE 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The intensive surveys provide a broad picture of the different economic specializations (especially stone working and plant processing) practised at each settlement. Stone tool processing and utilization were more evident at these three sites than in most other parts of the valley (Kowalewski et al. 1989; Robles 1994; Whalen 1986; Williams & Heizer 1965).

Distinctive scraping tools, raspadores (Hester & Heizer 1972; Parsons & Parsons 1990), are present at all three sites. These tools likely were used to process plants for fibre (e.g. Evans 1990), which has been long proposed for the eastern Valley of Oaxaca (Hester & Heizer 1972; Messer 1978: 77-80). We suspect that a variety of xerophytic plants found on the sites today, including maguey and a palm-like plant, Yucca periculosa, were cultivated by the inhabitants of the ancient sites.

The more detailed information on site layout and economic activities collected by intensive survey cannot be obtained during more extensive regional surveys. The new work also is valuable for selecting representative samples of well-preserved terraces for excavation (which began in 1999 at El Palmillo), and for providing a more precise context into which future excavation findings can be placed. …

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