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Everyday life of Aztecs

September 1, 2009

Digging into history

When Bradford Andrews looks at an obsidian core in his hand, he doesn’t see its indigo beauty, as it sparks back against the spotlight. The palm-sized flake gives PLU’s assistant visiting professor of anthropology a window into the everyday life of a complex society that called the mountains just east of Mexico City home in the 16th century.

Obsidian flakes and tools, how they were found, how they were made, where they were made and in what quantity opens up a window for Andrews and his students into a thriving agrarian culture that flourished in Mexico 500 years ago, before the conquest by the Spanish in 1521.

This summer, Andrews and anthropology students Elisa Hoelter, ‘11 an David Treichel, ‘10 spent the summer down in Calixtlahuaca (pronounced Ka-less_TLA-wa-Ka), a village of 10,000 that flourished about 31 miles east of Mexico City, cataloging flakes. Thousands of flakes, arrowheads and other items.  As many as 9,000 in one month by Hoelter’s count.

While monotonous work, Hoelter and Treichel agreed it was exciting to see all the variations of this very practical art form.

“This gives you an idea of how this site fit in with the Aztec economy as a whole,” said Treichel.

“This is a very basic technology,” said Andrews, carefully handling the large flake in his hand. It was used to shaving, hunting, scraping hides and drilling. Obsidian is the sharpest substance on earth. Yes, even sharper than steel.

Under an electron microscope, the edge of a surgeon’s scalpel  will show peaks and valleys. Obsidian will show a solid line. It was used in eye surgery until the AMA ruled  it was a ancient technology and shouldn’t be used, Andrews said with a dismissive shrug.

Studying the flints will peel back how this town of 10,000 interacted with the main populations centers just to the west, he said.

Both Hoelter and Treichel say the field experience with Andrews has been invaluable, and will help them in their future careers – Treichel hopes for a career as a contract field archeologist, Hoelter working in a museum.