PAX 2009-2011

I organized and directed the Proyecto Arqueológico Xaltocan for my dissertation research at Northwestern University under the supervision of Dr. Elizabeth Brumfiel and Dr. Cynthia Robin. This project was carried out by an international, 30-person team and was funded by over $87,000 in grants and fellowships (see acknowledgements below). My major findings are summarized in the abstract of my dissertation, included here. Most of these conclusions are published or are being published in journal articles, and a small amount of material will make its way into my book, Empires at Home.

One of the first preserved wall foundations we found in excavations (a very exciting moment!)


Empires and Everyday Material Practices: A Household Archaeology of Aztec and Spanish Imperialism at Xaltocan, Mexico

This dissertation presents an approach to the archaeological study of empire that draws on postcolonial theory and theories of practice and materiality, recentering our understanding of empire around the daily lives of the ordinary people that experienced imperial entanglements. Rather than focusing on macroscale political and economic processes, I contend that we must understand local history, commoner agency, and lived experience as they are situated within broader contexts. This approach is implemented to examine the successive Aztec imperial and Spanish colonial transitions at Xaltocan, Mexico. To reconstruct the everyday material practices of residents across these transitions, I employ multiple lines of evidence—including detailed social stratigraphic analysis, Bayesian statistical modeling of radiocarbon dates, and human ancient DNA analysis—and maintain active tension between ethnohistoric and archaeological data. I conclude that historical accounts of complete population replacement with the site’s incorporation into the Aztec Empire were fabricated by elites in the pre-Hispanic and early colonial periods. In place of this rewritten history, I create a narrative that reconstructs the histories that commoners inscribed in the material record. These histories recount how residents made land claims, constructed family identities, and created household landscapes that materialized philosophies later executed in monumental form by Aztec rulers. They credit ordinary people, not Aztec kings, with shifts in ethnic affiliation. They demonstrate how commoners engaged in social commentaries on embodied racial identities and experimented with, and ultimately rejected, European technologies and iconographies, thereby fueling a thriving indigenous ceramic industry.

This case study demonstrates that the same silencing that postcolonial scholars discuss for Western colonialism also happened in non-Western imperial contexts, making postcolonial theory an appropriate tool for de-imperializing the pre-Hispanic past. Moreover, I present a community archaeology methodology that allows us to begin to decolonize archaeological practice and end the continued silencing of descendants and the disenfranchising of modern residents from their own history. While this dissertation illuminates how the exercise of power in the past has structured the frameworks that guide our archaeological investigations, the approach set forth here provides a way to create alternative accounts of empire that challenge elite views of history.


This research was conducted with the permission of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. The González-Sánchez family graciously allowed excavations on their property, and the project also benefited from the support of the Xaltocan cultural center, the Xaltocan delegados, and the Gran Señorio de Xaltocan Historical Society.

The project was supported by a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant (7797) from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (0968551), a Young Explorer Grant from the National Geographic Society, a Grant-in-Aid of Research from the Sigma Xi Foundation, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a Graduate Research Grant from the University Research Grants Committee at Northwestern University, and a Research Grant from the LeCron Foster and Friends of Anthropology at Northwestern University.

Members of the 2009-2011 Xaltocan Archaeological Project include:
Victor Archundia Moras, Nidia Archundia Sánchez, Juana Arenas Ramírez, Dr. Luis Barba Pingarrón, Jorge Blancas Vázquez, Daniella Bracchita, José Cruz Cobos, María de los Angeles Cruz Palacios, Emilio Domíngez Rodríguez, Kirby Farah, Aldo González Lobato, Luis González Sánchez, Tomás González Sánchez, Georgina Ibarra Arzave, Dálida Lobato González, Angelica López-Forment, Mario Martínez Moreno, Irene Martínez Rivero, Julia Martínez Rivero, Agustín Ortiz Butrón, Lisa Overholtzer, Imelda Palmas Martínez, Ibeth Robles Rizo, Jorge Rojas Juárez, Isidro Sánchez Aldana, Juana Sánchez Aldana, Juan Joel Viveros Sánchez, Andrés Zamorano Sánchez, Juan Carlos Zamorano Sánchez, Julie Wesp


Structure 122 excavation crew. Unfortunately, I do not have a photograph of the entire project staff. I could not have asked for a better team, and could not have carried out any of this research without them.




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