The following is an article excerpt from the Winter 2019 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By Elizabeth Lunday
Paquimé has been a mystery since Spanish explorers first saw the abandoned city. In an account of a 1565 expedition, chronicler Baltasar Obregón described the site as encompassing “many houses of great size, strength, and height . . . with towers and walls like fortresses. . . . The houses contain large and magnificent patios paved with enormous and beautiful stones resembling jasper. There are knife-shaped stones which support the wonderful and big pillars of heavy timbers brought from far away. The walls of the houses were whitewashed and painted in many colors and shades.”
And yet this city was empty of inhabitants. The Spanish asked indigenous people living in the surrounding area about the community, and they said that the city had been defeated in battle a few generations before and its residents had fled.
These Paquimé macaw pens were excavated from December 1960 to January 1961 during the
Joint Casas Grandes Project headed by Charles Di Peso. Eleven nesting boxes and twenty-four macaw burials were found. | Photo: Russell Rosene, courtesy of the Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Ariz.
This photograph taken in September 1960 shows Room 36 of the House of Pillars at Paquimé. Room 36 was a two-story structure that was part of a cluster of rooms. Di Peso called rooms like 36 “butterfly rooms” because of their shapes. | Photo: Russell Rosene, courtesy of the Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Ariz.
This altar stone and plinth were found in Altar Room 1 in the Mound of the Offerings at Paquimé. The Mound of the Offerings contained the burials of people presumed to be among the highest status individuals in the community. | Photo: Margaret Cohn, courtesy of the Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Ariz.
Michael Searcy (center) wraps a wooden post with cotton batting and gauze after it was removed to prepare it for transport and analysis. Searcy and his colleagues found the post while excavating the floor of a communal structure at the San Diego site, a Viejo period settlement (A.D. 700-1200) located south of Paquimé. | Credit: Scott Ure
Today, archaeologists know much more about Paquimé, which is located in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua in a wide, fertile river valley in the foothills of the Sierra Madres. The surrounding region, and the culture that thrived there, is known as Casas Grandes. Paquimé was a wealthy city whose residents imported rare and valuable objects from hundreds of miles away—from the western coast of Mexico, from Mesoamerica to the south, and from Ancestral Pueblo region to the north. The city’s architecture also incorporates elements from distant cultures.
The Casas Grandes region received little attention from archaeologists until 1958, when Charles Di Peso of the Amerind Foundation began a three-year excavation of the city. Di Peso developed a basic chronology for the site; although it was revised by later archaeologists, researchers continue to divide the timeline of the Casas Grandes culture into two periods, the Viejo (Old) period between A.D. 700 and 1200, and the Medio (Middle) period between 1200 and 1450.