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THEORETICAL INTEREST: CULTURAL IDENTITY


Middle Formative figurine c. 800 BC

Chiapa de Corzo is a superb place to investigate the formation of cultural identities, both modern and ancient. The site is now shaping modern nation-state identity in Chiapas; its opening drew considerable media attention and provided an opportunity to inform the public that the region was not primarily occupied by the Maya. Local inhabitants, who are mainly of Chiapanec descent, have adopted the ruin as a symbol of their own cultural heritage, assigning it a name in their Otomanguean language. Other Chiapanecs either pay less attention to the site or are at ease with notions of racial or ethnic mixing or mestizaje among their pre-Columbian forebears. Two new Mexican research institutions will open in the modern town of Chiapa de Corzo in 2010—a school of archaeology and an institute of Chiapanec studies. These public institutions are an outgrowth of people’s heightened interest in their origins. But Mexicans are not the only ones who have a relationship with the site. Some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe Chiapa de Corzo is one of the ancient communities described in the Book of Mormon.
The ruin itself is an extraordinary archaeological palimpsest. It contains a record of two-thousand years of human history in which Olmec (or Mixe), Zoque, and Maya elements were creatively and selectively blended. The principal aim of the Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Project is to elucidate the distinctive characteristics of Zoque culture, which, by many indications was the cultural substrate at Chiapa de Corzo for most of its history. To form a clearer picture of what is/is not Zoque, we seek to obtain: 1) a fuller understanding of local and regional cultural lifeways, especially public ritual practices and domestic material behaviors, 2) a clearer knowledge of the many “foreign” elements that appear at the site, and 3) a detailed bioarchaeological record of human stature, disease, diet, genetic parentage, and migration. We believe the combination of these data sets will yield a more nuanced, if not richer understanding of Chiapa de Corzo, and perhaps alter our views of the ethnic, cultural, and political affiliations of the region’s ancient inhabitants.
Interestingly enough, the modern-day Zoque show little interest in the ruined capital of their descendents. They have existed in minor numbers around Chiapa de Corzo since the arrival of Chiapanec peoples in the middle of the first millennium AD. Today, a small Zoque community resides on the eastern outskirts of town, refugees from the Chichonal volcanic eruption of 1982. After a fifteen-century absence, it would appear that the Zoque have once again returned home.

SCIENTIFIC OBJECTIVES

The scientific objectives of the Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Project are threefold:

  • to publish all work undertaken at the site by the NWAF since 1955
  • to address gaps in our knowledge of the site with new investigation
  • to synthesize everything known about the site for the scientific community and general public

Reopening Trench A-121, Southwest Quadrant plaza


The first objective entails the rescuing of 'old' archaeological information, the completion of unfinished scientific analyses, and the dissemination of unpublished field excavations. For example, field drawings have not been published for the three largest trenches excavated by the NWAF in the 1950's. Pilot excavations in 2007 clarified the stratigraphic details of two of these trenches.

Another goal is to finish Bruce Warren's typological study of the site's remarkable pottery collection. Warren studied approximately 3,000 whole and partial vessels, most of which are now housed in the Chiapas Regional Museum in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. A further aim is to edit and publish old manuscripts on excavations conducted by the NWAF in Mounds 3, 15, 17, and 32. These manuscripts contain information on archaeological discoveries that significantly modify our knowledge of the site.

The second objective is to investigate new areas of Chiapa de Corzo to refine our understanding of its history using modern scientific techniques. This intention led to the discovery in 2008 of a massive Olmec axe offering at the base of Mound 11, and to the detection of a probable Middle Formative "ceremonial pond" beneath the Southwest Quadrant plaza. Contrary to popular opinion, many areas of Chiapa de Corzo remain poorly documented. The site's southern perimeter has never been mapped nor surveyed and an intensive investigation of its household settlement has never been undertaken. Chiapa de Corzo's earliest public buildings remain poorly documented, a problem we hope to rectify with an extensive investigation of Mound 11 in 2010.

New radiometric procedures and statistical tools now enable us to date Chiapa de Corzo with sub-century precision. We are attempting to sub-divide the site's history by obtaining new AMS radiocarbon dates and reducing C-14 error terms in carefully designed Bayesian models. This refined historical framework will enhance the value of our planned bioarchaeological study of 300+ human burials excavated at the site since 1955. The anticipated study will include analyses of health, diet, place of origin, and genetic ancestry in addition to the AMS radiocarbon dating of human bone.

Our ultimate goal is to present a more detailed picture of Chiapa de Corzo, one of the premiere Zoque capitals of early Mesoamerica, by specifying its historical richness and complexity as conveyed through its archaeological remains. To this end, we aim to publish synthetic monographs in both English and Spanish that describe the site's key cultural elements and locate it within broader cultural, historical, and geographic frames. These books will describe prehispanic Zoque peoples with greater clarity than before and stimulate further study of their origins, spread, and contact with Chiapanec rivals prior to the Spanish conquest.