Winter 2017: By Lizzie Wade.

Climbing up a hillside away from the heart of Tlaxcala, Mexico, it doesn’t take long to leave behind the well-maintained churches and immaculate plazas of this colonial city. The road grows steep and bumpy, the pavement giving way to cobblestones, and then dirt. Cinderblock houses are replaced by the cornfields the local residents plant and tend every summer. Urban life, while still visible in the valley below, seems far away. Just off this dirt road about two dozen people are hard at work unearthing the remains of a remarkable city: Tlaxcallan, the capital of a pre-Columbian state that resisted domination by the powerful Aztec empire and whose leaders were accountable to their people.

On an August afternoon, with the volcano Malinche towering above, archaeologist Lane Fargher with the Mexican research institute Cinvestav strode onto this terrace high above the modern city to check on his team’s progress. Under the terrace’s surface they found stone walls from a 600-year-old house. It’s a comfortable size, with five or six rooms plus some patio areas—plenty of space for a family of about seven to ten people. “But it’s not spectacular,” Fargher said. “Not by any means a palace.” And that makes what’s next to the house—an enormous two-tiered public plaza, with the remains of low walls and ramps that once allowed people to move between the two levels—highly unusual. Fargher believes the two connected public spaces ensured there was room for everyone in the neighborhood to watch and participate in community rituals. Other than that minimal architecture, the plazas are devoid of artifacts, an indication that they were used for public events and cleaned in between, he said.

In other Mesoamerican cities, this kind of public space would have been in the center of the city, surrounded by palaces, temples, and the sprawling houses of the most elite residents. But in Tlaxcallan, which was occupied from about A.D. 1250 to 1550, this is just one node in a vibrant urban network of more than twenty neighborhood plazas, connected by paved hilltop roads and flanked by the relatively humble homes of the city’s typical citizens.


Read More in our Winter 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4.             Browse Content of this Issue: WINTER 2017.

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