2. Excavations at San Francisco Mazapan, Mexico

Authors: Juan Carlos Perez, Christina M. Elson

Background to Vaillant's Field Work

Dr. George Vaillant was a Curator in the Anthropology Department of the American Museum of Natural History (1927-41). In the early 1930s, Vaillant excavated near San Francisco Mazapan, a small town located just outside the ruins of the Classic Period city of Teotihuacan.

A wide shot of the Teotihuacan complex showing a row of pyramids and a wide avenue.

One of the largest cities of its time, Teotihuacan flourished from AD 150 to 750, and reached its peak between AD 450 and 650. During this time, Teotihuacan's influence was felt over much of Mesoamerica, including cities like Tikal located far away in the Maya lowlands of Guatemala.

A simple line map of the Teotihuacan area featuring the Pyramid of the Sun.
Pyramid of the Sun

Teotihuacan ceased to be a powerful city around AD 750; however; after its political decline the city continued to be inhabited by thousands of people and during the Postclassic Period the site played an important role in Aztec mythology (Smith 1996:34-36).

Vaillant's excavations were located in a field east of the Pyramid of the Sun and approximately 200 meters south of Xolalpan, a Classic Period residential compound excavated by the Swedish archaeologist Sigvald Linn. Because the pottery Vaillant found was neither Teotihuacan nor Aztec, he suggested that it belonged to the time period in between the two cultures, which he called the "Mazapan" culture. Scholars now date the Mazapan Period to the Early Postclassic Period (AD 950 to 1150). Vaillant never published the results of his work, which is unfortunate because data from his excavations can shed new light on the Mazapan culture.

The American Museum of Natural History Collection

A simple map of the Teotihuacan area with ovals indicating the locations of burials and offerings.
Location of burials and offerings

Of all the artifacts found at the site, Vaillant sent the majority to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for further study. In 2002-2003, Dr. Christina Elson and I conducted an analysis of the artifacts in the museum's collections. Vaillant did not recover the remains of architecture, but he did encounter a number of burials and offerings. It was possible to locate almost all of the artifacts from the burials and offerings in the museum's collection. A few artifacts were retained by the Mexican Government. The AMNH also has Vaillant's field notes and pictures from the Mazapan excavation. The features Vaillant found can be divided into three types: (1) complete burials; (2) human remains consisting of skulls, which usually were inside two pots placed lip to lip; and (3) groups of artifact "lots" or offerings with no human remains. After the approximate location of the burials and offerings had been determined, we made a database that listed the objects found in each feature (which had been recorded in Vaillant's field notes and in the AMNH catalogue). Then, we located the objects in storage and measured them. We photographed the objects in groups to show which objects had been found together. Using this information, I prepared a description of each feature:

An effigy jar, sculpted in the detailed likeness of a human face with the neck forming the base of the vessel.
Burials X and XI: Effigy jar

Burials X and XI were placed together in an extended (face up) position. They were located several meters away from the skulls and offerings. Six dishes, two bowls, and two jars, including an effigy jar, accompanied the burials.

Skull 1 has several artifacts in the collection.

Skull 2 was placed in a bowl (30 cm in diameter and 10 cm tall).

Skull 3 was placed in a bowl (29.5 cm in diameter and 10 cm tall) and covered by fragments of another bowl (the largest fragment was 21 cm by 5 cm).

Skull 4 was located south of Skull 3. The skull was placed inside a bowl (25.5 cm in diameter and 5 cm tall). Another bowl covered the skull.

A ceramic bowl with a broken piece or potsherd atop it.
Skull 5: Bowl with a sherd

Skull 5 was located to the south of Skull 4. The skull was inside a bowl (35 cm diameter in and 10 cm tall). The bowl also contained a small dish and a green obsidian blade. The bowl was covered by large sherds (the largest sherd was 12 cm by 4.5 cm).

Skull 6 was located south of Skull 5. The Mexican Government retained the bowl holding the skull. The bowl held three shreds of another bowl, four green obsidian blades, and one small pottery figure of a bird.

Skull 7 was located south of Skull 6. The skull was placed inside a bowl (30 cm in diameter and 9.5 cm tall). Two sherds in the bowl were not found in the museum's collection.

Skull 8 was located south of Skull 7 and was associated with only one bowl.

Two shallow bowls with painted designs.
Skull 9: Bowls

Skull 9 was located south of Skull 8. The bowl holding the skull (27 cm in diameter and 8 cm tall) was placed lip to lip with another bowl (28 cm in diameter and 9 cm tall). There were three obsidian blades inside the bowl holding the skull, but only one green blade was found in the museum's collection.

Two shallow ceramic bowls, a small jar with cover, and several small narrow sharp blades.
Offering A: Blades, bowls, jars, a stone scraper

Offering A contained five gray blades, six green blades, two bowls, two jars with covers (one not in the museum's collection), two small dishes, and one stone scraper. All the artifacts were inside a bowl that was covered by another bowl.

Offering B was found west of Lot A. It contained two bowls, three small dishes, one charcoal chunk, and two jars with covers. The lot was inside one bowl and covered by the other bowl.

Offering C was found west of Lot B. It contained a jar with a cover, a piece of fired clay, and a bowl (that is not in the collection). In this offering, the artifacts were placed under the bowl.

Offering D was found northwest of Lot C. It contained two bowls, two small dishes, fragments of two other small dishes, a green obsidian blade, and another obsidian blade not in the museum's collection. The artifacts in this offering were stacked upside down on top of one another.

Offering E was found north of Lot B. This lot contained only one small vessel, which had a diameter of 8 cm diameter and was 5.5 cm tall.
Offering F: Bowls, a dish, obsidian blades

Four shallow bowls, a small dish, and an obsidian blade.
Offering F: Bowls, a dish, obsidian blades

Offering F was found west of Lot C. It contained four bowls, one dish, one green obsidian blade, and another obsidian blade not in the museum's collection. All the artifacts were placed inside a bowl containing black ash. The offering was covered by the largest bowl, which was placed upside down over the others.

Offering G appears to have consisted of three bowls. One bowl was right side up and two were placed lip to lip. The two bowls placed right side up contained obsidian blades and also one contained a piece of mica.
Offering H was found east of Lot G. It contained two bowls and a green obsidian blade. One bowl was broken in half.

Offering I was found east of Lot J. It contained two bowls placed rim to rim and a green obsidian blade.

Offering J was found west of Lot I and east of Lot G. It contained two bowls, one placed upside down over the other, and a green obsidian blade.

Offering K was found to the south of and centered between Lot H and Lot G. It contained three bowls, a jar sherd, and a piece of obsidian (not in the collection). Vaillant's field notes state that one bowl was face up and the other two bowls were placed face down over the bowl. This arrangement was covered by the olla, which was broken into pieces and stacked on top of the bowls.

Offering L was found southeast of Lot I. It contained a fragmented bowl, a dish, and a green obsidian blade. The blade was inside a bowl, which was covered by the dish.

Two shallow ceramic bowls.
Offering M: Two bowls

Offering M was found southeast of Lot L. It contained two bowls placed lip to lip. The bowl on top was the unpainted, orange bowl with three small solid supports seen in Figure 9. This kind of bowl is usually called a cajete (picture shown).

Offering N was found southwest of Lot M. It contained two bowls placed lip to lip, an obsidian blade, a piece of red ochre, and a chunk of obsidian. The obsidian was not in the museum's collection.

Offering O was found south of Lot M, and southeast of Lot N. It contained two bowls one placed face down over the other one.

Offering P was found south of Lot J, and southwest of Lot L. It contained two bowls, one sherd, one disc, and one gray obsidian blade. The small objects were placed in one bowl and covered with the other bowl.

Offering Q was found west of Lot G. It contained two bowls, one green blade, one gray blade and one sherd from an incense burner. The small objects were inside the two bowls placed lip to lip.

The burials and offerings at San Francisco Mazapan contain decorated and undecorated serving vessels in several different forms including plates, bowls, jars, and small dishes. Twelve of the seventeen offerings contained obsidian, three of the nine skulls placed in bowls contained obsidian, and no obsidian was listed with the complete skeletons. A preliminary analysis of the human remains by Dr. Kenneth Mowbray (Division of Anthropology, AMNH) suggests that all nine skulls buried in bowls are from adults (both males and females). Several skulls had artificial cranial deformation. Finally, the skulls probably were removed from the rest of the remains after the body had decomposed, suggesting that these features may be secondary burials.

Sigvald Linn's Mazapan Excavations

I compared Vaillant's excavations with data from the 1934-35 expedition led by Archeologist S. Linn; (Ethnographical Museum of Sweden). For the most part, Linn; excavated at a placed name Xolalpan, Teotihuacan, where he encountered 16 simple burials from the Mazapan culture located stratigraphically above the Teotihuacan-era plaster floors (Linn; 1934:80-83). These burials contained Mazapan pottery similar in form and in decoration to pottery in the features Vaillant excavated. Only one of the graves Linn; found contained anything besides pottery. That grave, which belonged to a child, contained two figurines. Another burial, also of a child, appears to have been of only the skull placed under an overturned pot. One of Linn's workers found a slab-lined tomb (170 cm long and 80 cm deep built on bedrock) at a small homestead called Oztotlan about 200 m southeast of Xolalpan (Linn; 1938:168-173). That grave contained the remains of two adults. In addition, it held 34 clay vessels, 1 clay incense burner (with a handle), 3 spindle whorls, 1 obsidian blade, one obsidian knife (12.1 cm in length), and part of a stone sculpture. Five slabs of stone fitted together to form the roof covered the grave. In general, the artifacts Linn; and Vaillant found in the features they excavated are similar (vessels decorated in red with wavy lines, parallel lines, and swirl/scroll patterns that take the form of bowls, plates, and jars) and burials in the three areas should be contemporaneous. The data suggest that the Mazapan people buried their dead in three ways: in formal tomb structures, in cemeteries containing one or more individuals placed in simple graves, and possibly as secondary burials-i.e. the skulls placed in bowls. I compared these burial patterns with data on burial practices in the Classic Period and Postclassic Period.

Teotihuacan and Aztec Burials

Martha Sempowski (1994) published an analysis of mortuary practices at Teotihuacan. She states that burials vary in quantity and quality according to the social status of the person and to the reason for death (Sempowski 1994:17-20). Many of the burials that have been found in Teotihuacan were located in residences and contained offerings. Sempowski states that the most common ceramic artifacts found in burials explored by the archaeologist Sjourn (1966) were ollitas, comales, vasos, and miniature hacecillos, but braseros and adornos (common ceramic objects from residences) usually were absent from burials and she notes that other researchers have observed that miniatures also are common in burials (see Müller 1978). Some skeletons had mica, shell or jade beads placed in the mouth at death (Sempowski 1994:18). Sempowski's mortuary data suggests that Teotihuacanos practiced secondary burial. Out of the 266 individuals that she studied 24.8%, were secondary burials; however, usually only adults and sub-adults (both men and women) were re-buried in this way (Sempowski 1994:136). The mortuary practices of the Aztecs are described in ethnohistoric sources and are documented with archaeological data. Michael Smith (1992:259, 1994:142) states that in the Postclassic burials commonly are found in three places: adults are buried in religious structures or in cemeteries outside of the town while children are buried near the house. Drawing on Gómez de Orozoco (1945:57-58), Smith (192:367) adds that some elites were cremated after death, but elite adults who were buried were accompanied by sacrificed slaves and cooking utensils. Other wealthy people (like merchants) were buried with valuable trade goods and food, while commoners were accompanied mainly by bowls of food.


Preliminary analysis of the Mazapan burials excavated by Vaillant and Linn; suggests that the Mazapan people buried some of their dead in cemeteries containing both primary and secondary burials. People were accompanied by objects they may have used during their life and possibly by food. These cemeteries may have been placed within the ceremonial zone of Teotihuacan, but away from the residences of the Mazapan people. Other people, possibly people of a higher status, were placed in formal tombs. Vaillant's burial with two individuals contained 10 vessels while Linn's tomb holding two individuals contained 35 vessels. Individuals in the graves Linn excavated at Xolalpan appear to have had been buried with no more then six vessels. This hypothesis could be tested with more detailed comparisons of the contexts or with more data from other excavations. Finally, the Mazapan people, like the Teotihuacanos seem to have practiced secondary burial while the Aztecs did not. Dr. Elson and Dr. Mowbray are continuing to work on these data, which will be presented in more detail in future publications.


Linn, Sigvald
1934 Archaeological Researches at Teotihuacán, Mexico. Victor Pettersons Bokindustriaktiebolag, Stockholm.
1938 A Mazapan Grave at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Ethnos 3:167-178.
Sempowski, Martha L.
1994 Mortuary Practices at Teotihuacan. In Mortuary Practices and Skeletal Remains at Teotihuacan. By M. L. Sempowski and M. W. Spence. University of Utah Press.
Smith, Michael E.
1992 Archaeological Research at Aztec-Period Rural Sites in Morelos, Mexico. University of Pittsburgh Memoirs in Latin American Archaeology No. 4.
1998 The Aztecs. Blackwell Publishers Inc., MA.
Vaillant, George
1994 The Aztecs of Mexico. Doubleday and Company, New York.