POTTERY IN A TRASH PIT:
CAN THIS TELL US HOW TWO GROUPS OF PEOPLE GOT ALONG?
BY: PATTI HUNG AND KELSEY BREEN
The Late Woodland people are viewed as having been the original inhabitants of Aztalan, though the site hits its peak occupation around 900-1100 AD. This period is marked by at least two different culture groups, the Late Woodland and the Mississippian, coexisting in this walled settlement. The often repeated story of this site has been that the area’s original inhabitants gradually assimilated to the ways of the powerful Mississippians, though much of this is merely postulated. But a more recent examination of trash pit and middens (large trash areas), at Aztalan, tells a slightly different tale. John Richards’ excavation of a midden in the 1980s suggests that, rather than being wholly absorbed by the Mississippian people, the Late Woodland people lived side-by-side in a shared community. This idea influenced our research goals this year as field school students. This project focused on the daily lives of the ordinary people who called Aztalan their home, of which pottery played a big part.
As we have found, what we hypothesize to be, several trash pits during our summer excavation we are able to evaluate, contradict, or support Richards’ ideas with our own research. Rather than finding trash pits that hint to a use by only one culture group, we see trash pits that reflect populations that lived amongst each other, shared the same spaces, the same trash, and even new shared styles of pottery. By understanding the technology and styles that are specific to each culture group, we are able to notice when these styles and technologies overlap. We call these types hybrid pottery because they show signs typical of Mississippian pottery as well as Late Woodland types. One example of Aztalan’s local renditions of Mississippian-styled pottery is called Hyer Plain Pottery.
This pottery is made with the technology of Late Woodland people, who used ground up rock added to clay for pottery making to improve its firing qualities and prevent a vessel from cracking during the drying process. However, the style is a plain finish and has the shape of Mississippian Powell Plain pottery.
According to Richards’ research on middens at Aztalan, sometime around A.D. 1100 the pottery in the midden shows that the Mississippians themselves arrived, bringing with them their distinctive shell-tempered pottery style. However, Late Woodland style pottery continues to be seen in these later layers along with the hybrid style, lending credence to the idea that Aztalan was an ethnically diverse, integrated community rather than having one group completely overtake the other.
Pottery has helped contributed to popular hypotheses and questions. Today, excavations continue, and as more of Aztalan’s history comes to light, so does our understanding of the complex relationship between these two groups of people. But, looking at pottery gives us only part of the picture. Research conducted on domestic structures and palisade walls provide further insight into how these cultures mutually ‘hybridized’, and managed to cohabitate peacefully for over a hundred years. All of these clues pieced together can help us better understand the power dynamics at a site with multiple culture groups inside a walled village. Surely these pieces will continue to inform Aztalan’s ever changing narrative as we strive to understand just what happened here so long ago.