Residential Terrace Excavations at El Palmillo, Oaxaca, Mexico. (News & Notes)

By Feinman, Gary M.; Nicholas, Linda M. | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Residential Terrace Excavations at El Palmillo, Oaxaca, Mexico. (News & Notes)


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


In ancient Mesoamerica, the Valley of Oaxaca was a key nexus of demographic and political power throughout the prehispanic sequence. For archaeologists, this region also is the heartland of the Early Mesoamerican Village (Flannery 1976). Yet relatively little is known about the domestic economy and everyday life in this region following the Formative period (1500 BC-AD 100) treated in Flannery's important work.

During the Classic period (AD 200-700) in ancient Oaxaca, hilltop settlements composed of terraces were a principal community form. Yet despite the location and mapping of scores of these foothill and mountain sites (over 100 in the Valley of Oaxaca alone) (Kowalewski et al. 1989), some sceptics doubted whether the terraced communities were residential and if these sites were indeed the focus of long-lived population concentrations.

In 1999 we began excavations at El Palmillo, a large hilltop site with over 1400 terraces in the dry, eastern part of the valley (FIGURE 1). Our goals were to determine if the terraces were residential and, if so, to gain a picture of Classic period domestic life.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

With the completion of three field seasons, we have excavated five terraces -- four adjacent terraces near the base of the hill, and one terrace higher up the slope. We found domestic architecture on all five terraces; residential complexes filled most of the flat space on the terraces, leaving little area for agriculture. The residential complexes generally consisted of several rooms enclosing three sides of a small central patio situated at the front of the terrace (FIGURE 2). Burials and offerings were often placed in the central patios and under house floors.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The terraces reflect continuous use by a domestic unit. After initial construction, terraces appear to have undergone a cycle of renovations. During major remodelling episodes, terrace walls were raised, and new surfaces were built up through multiple filling events. At times, these fill layers consisted of more than half a metre of almost sterile sediments. The residential structures were rebuilt as well, either superimposed atop earlier structures or moved slightly further upslope. Some of the residential complexes retained a similar layout throughout several rebuilding episodes.

This cycle of terrace construction and remodelling endured for at least 400-500 years. …

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