Excavations at Aztec Peasant Sites   Version en español

by Dr. Michael E. Smith
Professor of Anthropology, University at Albany, State University of New York

excavations of a peasant house This page describes archaeological excavations at the rural sites of Cuexcomate and Capilco in the Mexican state of Morelos, with information on peasant life in the Aztec period. These sites pertain to the Tlahuica culture, one of the regional ethnic groups of the Aztec culture. Most of the text is adapted from chapters 3 and 6 of my book, The Aztecs. Technical information and complete descriptions of the excavations are provided in the bilingual site report (AZTEC PERIOD RURAL SITES) and in various articles in scholarly journals and anthologies (see bibliography below).

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

For information on the site report: Click Here


My wife, Cynthia Heath-Smith, and I directed mapping and excavations at these sites in 1985 and 1986 in a project designed to gather information on social and economic conditions among Aztec peasants. Although ethnohistoric sources provided rich data on the lives of Aztec nobles and urban-dwellers, little was known about the Aztec peasantry. We selected these sites for study because they were not deeply buried, and the foundations of individual houses were visible on the ground surface. Archaeologists have found that the best information on social and economic organization comes from the excavation of houses, and conditions at Cuexcomate and Capilco made them ideal sites.

Capilco is a small site with 21 house foundations, and Cuexcomate is a larger site with over 150 houses and other structures, including temples, storehouses, and ritual dumps. One of our first tasks was to estimate the populations of these sites. Since we were unable to excavate all 164 houses at the two sites, we used the technique of random sampling to select a sample of houses at each site. At Capilco, eight of the 21 houses (38%) were selected in a simple random sample, while at Cuexcomate 21 out of 143 houses (15%) were chosen in a stratified random sample.

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map of unit 101 excavations
For each house in the two samples, two test pits were dug: one in the structure to date its construction, and one in a nearby midden (trash deposit) to recover information on domestic artifacts and living conditions. Through a combination of dating methods, we determined in which periods each house was occupied. We used a detailed sequence of temporal phases based upon the types of pottery present. The latter part of the Early Aztec period is represented at these site in the Temazcalli phase (AD 1200-1350), and the Early Cuauhnahuac (AD 1350-1440) and Late Cuauhnahuac (AD 1440-1550) phases correspond to the Late Aztec A and B periods. The use of random sampling to choose the 29 houses to excavate permits us to extrapolate characteristics of the houses in the samples to the total collection of houses at Capilco and Cuexcomate. In addition to the random sample, we selected a number of houses for more complete excavations.

Patterns of house occupation show a dramatic growth of population across the three phases. When we applied the demographic patterns from Capilco and Cuexcomate to nearby sites in western Morelos, it became obvious that by the Late Aztec B phase, the regional population far exceeded the carrying capacity of rainfall agriculture. This burgeoning population needed intensive agricultural methods to survive, and in the hilly landscape of western Morelos terraces and check-dams were the logical choices.

Farming Methods

When we mapped these sites, we noticed check-dams at both sites. Check-dams are stone terrace walls built across the flow of seasonal streams that trap eroding sediments to create agricultural fields. Although the remains of ancient check-dams and hillside terraces had been reported from various parts of central Mexico, no one had excavated these features to establish their age, construction methods, or use. At Capilco, we excavated two of the seven check-dams, and we dug three of the 36 check-dams that crossed a seasonal stream bed just southwest of the occupation zone at Cuexcomate.

map of excavated check-dam We were able to piece together the history of one extensively excavated check-dam at Cuexcomate by using a combination of methods, including stratigraphic analysis, pollen studies, soil chemistry, grain-size analysis, and radiocarbon dating. Its construction was begun sometime in the fifteenth century. A stone wall was built and the upstream side quickly filled up with sediments carried by flash floods. After a period of active use, a flood breached the wall and carried away much of the accumulated deposit. The wall was repaired, and a long period of use followed, during which sediments gradually built up, and the wall was enlarged several times one row of stones at a time. A radiocarbon date of AD 1476 was obtained from a deposit early in this period of gradual expansion. Unfortunately our pollen results were equivocal and do not permit us to state which crops were grown on this or other check-dam fields. The dam was probably abandoned soon after the Spanish conquest, when the occupants of Cuexcomate (those who did not succumb to disease) were forced to move to another community.

Although we had noted the remnants of a few stone terrace walls on hillsides around Cuexcomate and Capilco, they did not seem to cover a large area. The soils are very rocky, and today large and small stones are scattered all over the ground surface, in pastures and plowed fields alike. One of the student excavators, Osvaldo Sterpone, first noticed that the sloping flanks of the ridge surrounding the settlement of Cuexcomate had many subtle stone alignments that could only be the bases of ancient terrace walls. The crew had been walking all over these features for months without noticing their existence. We mapped and excavated some of the stone alignments, but soil erosion on the hillsides has been severe since the site was abandoned, and preservation of the terraces is quite poor. The surviving terrace walls consist of rough lines of stones, only a single course high, often resting directly on bedrock.

photo of unit 101 houses

Rural Life

The site of Cuexcomate, with 135 simple houses, was probably a rural calpolli town (a calpolli was an Aztec residential ward). In addition to the peasant houses, Cuexcomate also had a small palace, a temple, a public plaza, and a special civil building that may have been a telpochcalli school. Families at Cuexcomate and the nearby single-ward village of Capilco lived in small one-room houses with sun-dried mud brick (adobe) walls and thatched roofs. All that remains of their houses today are the wall foundations and floors that were constructed of stone. When in use, these houses probably looked much like modern adobe peasant houses.

Nahuatl-language census records from soon after the Spanish conquest tell us that small houses such as these were home to either nuclear families or joint families that consisted of more than one married couple. In many areas, the average household size was five to six members although, in some communities, the average size exceeded eight persons per household. Sometimes servants or other unrelated persons lived with a family. Many houses were arranged in small patio groups with two to five houses built around a common open courtyard. Although the residents of a patio group often were related, perhaps as a multi-generation extended family, in other cases, unrelated families lived together. The Nahuatl term for these units is cemithualtin, meaning "those in one yard."
spinning artifacts
The houses at Capilco and Cuexcomate were so small that most domestic activity probably took place in the patio outside, which was kept clear of debris. People threw their trash to the sides and rear of the house, and the study of artifacts from these locations provides information about the activities and social conditions of the families who lived in each house. Broken potsherds from ceramic cooking pots, storage jars, serving bowls, and tortilla griddles give abundant evidence for the preparation of meals by the women of Capilco and Cuexcomate. When pots broke, sherds accumulated around the house and yard. Friar Sahagún noted that Aztec babies, "spend their time piling up earth and potsherds, those on the ground." In addition to the tens of thousands of such sherds excavated from each house, obsidian blades and basalt grinding tools, such as the metate for maize, provide additional evidence for kitchen activities (obsidian and basalt tools were also used for other domestic activities, and in some cases they were used for craft production). Every house excavated at these sites also yielded ceramic spindle whorls and spinning bowls, and many had bronze sewing needles. Several types of ritual artifacts were found at all houses, including figurines and incense burners.

Whereas women's activities -- food preparation, textile manufacture, and domestic offerings -- left abundant material evidence for archaeologists to find, men's work is almost invisible at these sites. Most of the men were probably farmers, but farm tools or other evidence of farming are not found in domestic contexts. Family members in some houses worked part-time making paper from tree bark. This paper, used for both writing and rituals, was a major tribute good paid by the inhabitants of Morelos to the Aztec empire.
photo of bark beaters
To judge from the nature of the artifacts found around each house, the peasants of Capilco and Cuexcomate were quite well-off economically. They were able to obtain trade goods from all over central Mexico, including obsidian from Pachuca and Otumba, salt from the Valley of Mexico, bronze goods from western Mexico, and ceramic serving bowls from the Valley of Mexico, Cholula, Toluca, Cuernavaca, and Yautepec. These imported bowls, many of them with elaborate polychrome decoration, were found in nearly all houses. The large number of imported goods suggests that the inhabitants of Capilco and Cuexcomate were able to produce sufficient crops, textiles, paper, and other goods beyond their domestic needs and tribute quotas to enter the markets as active participants.
drawing of Cuexcomate palace

The Palace of a Rural Noble

The town of Cuexcomate was laid out around a central public plaza. On the east side was a small temple-pyramid probably dedicated to the town's patron deity. The north and west sides of the plaza were occupied by compounds consisting of interconnected mounds. We excavated several mounds and patios in these compounds and came to the conclusion that they were elite residences. Group 6 on the west was occupied during the Late Aztec A period and was the larger and better preserved of the two compounds. Group 7 on the north was occupied only during the following Late Aztec B period. The occupants of these modest palace compounds were probably minor nobles in the Aztec hierarchy.

Group 6 at Cuexcomate was not a very imposing sight prior to excavation, appearing as several low mounds arranged around a patio. These mounds turned out to be the ruins of a noble's palace, whose size and architectural quality set it far above the predominant commoner houses at the site. Our crew cleared off the top layers of rubble on these mounds to uncover the architectural plan of the final construction stage. We also excavated into the mounds and located the remains of three earlier construction stages. The drawing is an artist's reconstruction of how group 6 may have looked in the early 1400s, shortly before its abandonment. At that time, it consisted of a series of connected low platforms around a patio with rooms, passages, and shrines built on top of the platforms. The platforms were built of stone and covered with a layer of red painted lime plaster.

Our hypothesis that group 6 was the palace of a noble is based upon both the architecture and the artifacts. With a surface area of 540 sq meters, this compound is much larger than the typical commoner house at the site (commoner houses averaged around 20 sq meters). The manner of it's construction and the materials used were far superior to those of the commoner houses. The elevation of rooms on platforms also set group 6 apart from commoner houses, most of which were built at ground level. The artifacts found in the trash deposits adjacent to the compound were typical domestic wares (cookpots, serving bowls, obsidian blades, and the like), but with a greater proportion of fancy imported items than in deposits from commoner houses.

This arrangement of rooms elevated on platforms that surround a central patio is consistent with ethnohistoric descriptions and maps of Aztec palaces in the Valley of Mexico. This compound was probably the residence of a low-ranking provincial noble to whom the 250 or so inhabitants of Cuexcomate in the Late Aztec P period paid tribute. Nobles often were polygamous, and the individual room blocks may have been separate apartments for the lord's wives. Servants or artisans in the service of the lord probably lived in neighboring commoner houses. For example, houses in a nearby commoner patio group had very high frequencies of paint pigments and bark beaters, which suggests that their residents were artisans who made paper and paints. These items would have been used by the nobles of group 6 or their scribes to produce historical and religious painted books. Group 6 was abandoned in the 1430s or 1440s, at which time a second and far more modest elite compound, group 7, was built on the empty north side of the plaza. We don't know why group 6 was abandoned, but conquest by outsiders may have had something to do with it. From historic documents, we know the area was conquered twice at about that time: once in the 1420s by the expanding Cuauhnahuac state and again around 1440 by the Aztec empire under the Mexica emperor Itzcoatl.


Smith, Michael E. (1992) Archaeological Research at Aztec-Period Rural Sites in Morelos, Mexico. Volume 1, Excavations and Architecture / Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Sitios Rurales de la Epoca Azteca en Morelos, Tomo I: Excavaciones y Arquitectura. University of Pittsburgh Memoirs in Latin American Archaeology 4. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. (bilingual)

Smith, Michael E. (1993) Houses and the settlement hierarchy in Late Postclassic Morelos: A comparison of archaeology and ethnohistory. In Prehispanic Domestic Units in Western Mesoamerica: Studies of the Household, Compound, and Residence, edited by Robert S.; Hirth Santley, Kenneth G., pp. 191-206. CRC Press, Boca Raton.

Smith, Michael E. (1994) Social complexity in the Aztec countryside. In Archaeological Views from the Countryside: Village Communities in Early Complex Societies, edited by Glenn; Falconer Schwartz, Steven, pp. 143-159. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

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

Smith, Michael E. and Cynthia Heath-Smith (1994) Rural Economy in Late Postclassic Morelos: An Archaeological Study. In Economies and Polities in the Aztec Realm, edited by Mary G. Hodge and Michael E. Smith, pp. 349-376. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, Albany.

Smith, Michael E. and Kenneth G. Hirth (1988) The Development of Prehispanic Cotton-spinning Technology in Western Morelos, Mexico. Journal of Field Archaeology 15:349-358.

Smith, Michael E. and T. Jeffrey Price (1994) Aztec-Period Agricultural Terraces in Morelos, Mexico: Evidence for Household-Level Agricultural Intensification. Journal of Field Archaeology 21:169-179.

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

For More Information:
Monograph on these excavations || Michael E. Smith's Home Page ||
Description of the book, THE AZTECS || Tlahuica Culture Home Page ||
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© 2003, Michael E. Smith (updated 10/30/03)