Yautepec glyph

Yautepec, an Aztec City      Version en español.

by Dr. Michael E. Smith
Professor of Anthropology, University at Albany, State University of New York
Yautepec was an Aztec urban center whose ruins today lie under the modern town of the same name in the Mexican state of Morelos. Three recent archaeological projects make Yautepec one of the most intensively-studied Aztec cities outside of the imperial capital Tenochtitlan. First, Hortensia de Vega Nova of the Centro INAH en Morelos (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) has been excavating the royal palace at Yautepec. Second, I directed excavations of houses at Yautepec. Third, my students Lisa Cascio and Timothy Hare conducted a regional survey of settelement patterns in the Yautepec Valley. This web page describes some of the results of the first two projects. Much of the text is adapted from my book, The Aztecs (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1996). All three projects are ongoing, and there is still much to be learned about Aztec Yautepec. The inhabitants of Yautepec were known as the Tlahuica, one of the regional ethnic groups of Aztec civilization.

For more information about the book, THE AZTECS: Click Here

Note: You may click on the small icon images to view larger photographs of the excavations, architecture, and artifacts from the Yautepec excavations. Then use your browser's "back" button to return to the main document.
Front of the Yautepec palace.

The Royal Palace of Yautepec

For many years archaeologists were aware of a large Aztec-period mound at the edge of the modern town of Yautepec in Morelos, but none of us had any idea of the importance of this structure. When the mound was threatened by urban expansion in the 1980s, a local citizen's group organized to help save it. A team of Mexican government archaeologists began excavations at the mound in 1989, under the direction of Hortensia de Vega Nova, and fieldwork has continued through 1996. The excavators discovered an enormous stone platform some 6,000 square meters in area (0.6 hectares, or about 1.5 acres) that had been the royal palace of the king (tlatoani) of Yautepec. This is the first Aztec royal palace to be excavated by archaeologists (see photo).

Yautepec was a powerful polity whose king ruled over four or five lesser city-states in the Yautepec river valley. The Aztec city of Yautepec, located under and adjacent to modern Yautepec, was the largest city in the area, and the sumptuous royal palace was of a size befitting the power of the city's king. The outer walls of the structure were sloping panels of stone four meters high that presented an imposing image to the people of Yautepec. Entrance was by a single stairway up the west side of the building, which led to a passageway into the heart of the palace.

Excavations on top of the platform have uncovered numerous courtyards, rooms, and passages, all constructed of stone covered with layers of lime plaster. The palace walls were covered with elaborate polychrome murals. There is evidence for several stages of construction at this structure. To date, archaeologists have cleared only about one-quarter of the palace. If there was a large central patio or courtyard, as at other known Aztec palaces, it has not been found yet.
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More information about the palace excavations can be found in the Tlahuica Ruins Page 

You may click on these photos of the Yautepec royal palace.

The Albany Excavations of Houses at Yautepec

Map of 1992 survey of Yautepec After the success of the initial seasons of Hortensia de Vega Nova's excavations at the Yautepec royal palace, my wife (Cynthia Heath-Smith) and I were invited by the Mexican government to work at Yautepec. The palace was on the edge of the modern town with Aztec residential areas extending into agricultural fields to the west and south. This left major areas of Aztec Yautepec open for fieldwork. de Vega Nova continued her work at the palace and we concentrated on excavating houses and other features in other parts of the site. Although fieldwork at the palace is still not completed, and our analyses of artifacts are still in progress, the two complementary projects have already uncovered much new information on Aztec urban life.7

In our first season of fieldwork (1992), we used surface concentrations of artifacts to trace the size and shape of the Aztec city. This was easy in the plowed fields, but required patience and perseverance within town. Our field crews spent a lot of time knocking on doors and explaining our purpose to the people of Yautepec so that they would let us root around in their yards for potsherds, obsidian, and other traces of Aztec occupation. I was surprised at how well we were able to find artifacts in and around modern Yautepec, and the goodwill of the citizens contributed greatly to our success. We made several hundred collections of artifacts from two by two meter squares and used computer-generated maps of artifact density to help draw the borders of Aztec Yautepec. The city reached its maximum extent, 210 hectares (2.1 square km), in the Late Aztec B period, just prior to the Spanish conquest (AD 1430-1520). Although there were some earlier villages at the site, the major occupation began in the Early Aztec period (AD 1100-1300), which suggests that Yautepec, like other Aztec cities, was founded by immigrants from Aztlan.

map of Yautepec Our second season (1993) was devoted to excavations of houses, garbage middens, and other key areas in and around Aztec Yautepec. We placed excavations in various parts of the modern town, including schoolyards, vacant lots, residential neighborhoods, churchyards (see photo of excavations in the yard of the 16th century church)., plowed fields, and even a street (see photo of an Aztec house excavated at the edge of a street).. In all we placed excavations in 17 different areas of Yautepec. Twelve of these 17 excavations were undertaken specifically to find buried houses. We located and excavated seven Aztec houses as well as numerous other domestic deposits.

The locations of the excavations and houses are shown on the map of Yautepec. We dug one elite residence (structure 6), five commoner dwellings (structures 1-4 and 7), and one intermediate structure (no. 5). This is the first set of urban Aztec houses excavated anywhere in central Mexico. We were somewhat surprised that the urban houses (see chapter 6) were quite similar in size and construction to the rural houses we had excavated previously at Cuexcomate and Capilco. (Click here for information on the excavations of Aztec rural sites). The population density of Yautepec was not much higher than the rural sites, and this implies that this city had considerable open space for gardens and fields within its borders.

You macy click on these photos of the 1993 Albany excavations at Yautepec.
Preliminary results indicate that there may have been a zone of wealthy residents to the west of the royal palace, perhaps a ward with primarily nobles and/or wealthy commoners (see map). Although the houses we excavated in other parts of the city were smaller than those in this one neighborhood, we think that most Yautepec residents were fairly prosperous. The artifact assemblages from all of the excavated houses included many imported goods, such as obsidian from Pachuca, salt from the Valley of Mexico lakes, pottery from many parts of central Mexico, and copper and bronze from the Tarascan territory (see photo of bronze tools and jewelry). in addition to local items. In domestic contexts throughout Yautepec, we uncovered considerable evidence for the production of goods such as obsidian tools and jewelry, ceramic figurines, bark paper, and cotton textiles. None of these artifact deposits, however, were heavy enough to suggest that they were the remains of workshops. Unfortunately, we cannot tell from our scattered excavations whether Yautepec had economically specialized wards similar to those at the Aztec city of Otumba. (see photo of ceramic molds for figurines and spindle whorls).

The locations of the colonial and modern Yautepec settlements, just to the north of Aztec Yautepec, contributed enormously to the success of our fieldwork. In most central Mexican towns, the Spanish settlement was constructed directly on top of the Aztec settlement. The Spaniards typically tore down the Aztec pyramid to make a base for construction of a Catholic church. We tested this notion by excavating in and around Yautepec's sixteenth-century church and convent but found no evidence for a temple or other Aztec structure beneath. We do not know why the early Spanish settlers of Yautepec founded their town to the north of the Aztec city, but as archaeologists we are grateful for this turn of events.
Photo of bronze artifacts.
You can click on this photo of ceramic molds (right) to manufacture figurines and spindle whorls.

Urban Life in Aztec Yautepec

In many ways the lives of urban commoners were not very different from the lives of rural peasants. Both were commoners (macehualli) subject to nobles, and both lived as members of wards called calpolli. Most Aztec cities were small settlements, and many urban residents were farmers or part-time craftspersons whose domestic conditions resembled those of peasant families in rural villages. On the other hand, cities were the place of residence and seat of government for the king, and urban commoners were more likely than their rural cousins to be subject directly to the royal palace. Also, because cities were the locations of major markets and concentrations of nobles, urbanites were more likely to be craft specialists. Specialists in the luxury crafts, in particular, would have benefited by living and working near the king and other noble patrons.

In our excavations at the urban center of Yautepec in Morelos we found that the houses of commoners were only slightly larger and fancier than those at the rural sites of Capilco and Cuexcomate. They were far more similar to rural peasant houses than to noble residences. Their domestic artifacts were nearly identical to those excavated at Aztec rural sites with one major difference. Evidence for part-time domestic craft production was much more abundant and widespread among Yautepec houses than at their rural counterparts. Some Yautepec households were involved in producing blades and other tools of obsidian, and the manufacture of ceramic figurines was also a common domestic activity (as evidenced by molds). We also found adult burials at Yautepec.

As at all Aztec sites, the most common production activitiy at Yautepec was the spinning and weaving of cotton cloth. All Aztec women engaged in textile production, and we recovered numerous ceramic spindle whorls and spinning bowls at every excavation of a domestic context (see photo of cotton-spinning artifacts). Household ritual involving small clay figurines was another common activity at Yautepec households. We excavated hundreds of these figurines, most of which are images of Aztec women. Men are also represented, as are animals and plants, and deities (see photo of figurines).

You can click on these photos of commoner houses (left), tools for spinning cotton (center), and clay figurines (right).

Some Information on the Albany Yautepec Project

The Yautepec archaeological project is an analysis of urbanism and household organization at the Aztec city of Yautepec, located in the central Mexican state of Morelos. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and several other organizations, this project is directed by Dr. Michael E. Smith, Professor of Anthropology at the University at Albany (State University of New York). In 1992 we surveyed the modern town of Yautepec in order to locate and study the layout and size of the Aztec city (see Smith et al. 1994). For six months in 1993, we conducted excavations of houses and domestic contexts at Yautepec. These excavations, the first ever directed at Aztec urban houses, uncovered dense artifact deposits (over 1.2 million sherds) that provide evidence for domestic conditions, craft production, trade, and household ritual (Smith 1996).

Since 1993, we have devoted three summers to artifact analysis, and this work will continue through 1997 and perhaps 1998 as well. As a result of initial artifact studies we have defined a new Postclassic ceramic chronology for Yautepec (Hare and Smith 1996), and we have advanced our understanding of ceramic and lithic materials. Copper/bronze objects from the excavations have been analyzed by Dr. Dorothy Hosler of MIT in the first application of lead isotope analysis to ancient Mexican metallurgy (Hosler and Macfarlane 1996). Other topics that are being pursued by various project members include textile production, obsidian tool production and use, domestic ritual, production of ceramic figurines and spindle whorls, and the exchange of ceramics and obsidian using various archaeometric techniques. Descriptions of these subprojects will be posted as information becomes available.

In 1994 and 1996, SUNY crews conducted a full-coverage regional survey of the Yautepec Valley. This project, directed by Smith and graduate students Lisa Cascio and Timothy Hare, located over 400 sites of all time periods. We conducted intensive surface collections at many of the sites, and test excavations at several sites. Information on this project will be posted as it becomes available.

Another component of the Yautepec project has been public educations. Project members gave lectures to over 1,000 schoolchildren to show them the excavations and teach them about Yautepec's past(see photo of lecture to Yautepec 5th grade students).


Hare, Timothy S. and Michael E. Smith (1996) A New Postclassic Chronology for Yautepec, Morelos. Ancient Mesoamerica 7:281-297.

Smith, Michael E. (1996) The Aztecs. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Smith, Michael E., et al. (1994) The Size of the Aztec City of Yautepec: Urban Survey in Central Mexico, Ancient Mesoamerica 5: 1-11.

Hosler, Dorothy and Andrew Macfarlane (1996) Copper Sources, Metal Production, and Metals Trade in Late Postclassic Mesoamerica. Science 273:1819-1824.

Smith, Michael E., Timothy S. Hare, and Lea Pickard (1996) Yautepec City-States in the Mesoamerican World System. Unpublished paper presented at the 1996 annual meeting, American Anthropological Association.

NOTE: for more recent publications, see my curriculum vitae on my home page.

For More Information:
Michael E. Smith's Home Page || Description of the book, THE AZTECS ||
Tlahuica Culture Home Page || Aztec Peasant Sites ||

© 2003, Michael E. Smith (updated 10/30/03)