5. Archaeology of the Huasteca: The Ekholm Collection

Authors: Adriana Jimenez Greco, Christina M. Elson

In the 1940s, Dr. Gordon F. Ekholm, curator of Mesoamerican archaeology at the AMNH (1937-1974), was one of the first archaeologists to excavate in the Huastec area on the east coast of Mexico. Today, his numerous findings are housed at the American Museum of Natural History. Ekholm's fieldwork acquired data on the existence of widespread cultural links amongst Prehispanic peoples.

Who was Gordon Ekholm?

Black-and-white photo of a researcher standing inside an excavated rectangular hole.
Dr. Ekholm at excavation in Tabuco, Tuxpan region, 1947.

Dr. Gordon F. Ekholm was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1909. After receiving his BA from the University of Minnesota and his MA in Anthropology at Harvard University, he joined the staff of the Museum in 1937. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1941 and served as a special field-assistant in northwestern Mexico under the supervision of George C. Vaillant. He became Assistant Curator in 1942, Associate Curator in 1947, and Curator in 1957. Ekholm participated in and headed many archaeological expeditions to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. After retiring in 1974, he became Curator Emeritus and continued consulting on museum projects. Dr. Ekholm was a lecturer in anthropology at Columbia University from 1943 to 1971, where he gave courses in Mexican archaeology. He was a consultant for the former Museum of Primitive Arts and a member of the Advisory Committee on Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks.

Seven people at the edge of an excavation pit holding long-handled shovels; Ekholm with his team at Tabuco, Tuxpan region in 1947.
Ekholm and his excavation team at Tabuco, Tuxpan region, 1947.

He participated twice in the preparation and redesign of the Hall of Mexico and Central America (in 1944 and again in 1970) and wrote the catalogue for the hall. He was also president of the Society for American Archaeology from 1953 to 1954 and of the Institute of Andean Research from 1968 to 1971. In addition to his field work, he contributed extensively to various journals. His texts appeared in Anthropological Papers, Natural History, and Curator (all publications of the AMNH), as well as American Anthropologist and American Antiquity. Dr. Ekholm married Margueritte M. Wander in 1937. She joined her husband on many of his expeditions and worked with him at the museum as a volunteer. He died unexpectedly in December 1987, after undergoing minor surgery. Today, the AMNH remembers him as an early authority on the pre-Columbian archaeology of Mexico and Central America whose research contributed to a better understanding of Pre-Hispanic cultures.

Discovering the Huasteca: Excavations at the Panuco and Tuxpan Regions 

Excavations at the Panuco and Tuxpan Regions
General area known as the Huasteca and major sites excavated by Ekholm
Excavations at the Panuco and Tuxpan Regions
Profile of the Pavon excavation site, Tampico-Panuco region. Shows different stratigraphic layers and their corresponding time periods

When Dr. Ekholm began his excavations on the east coast of Mexico in 1941, he originally intended to work north towards the border of Texas, in order to evaluate the possibility of Mesoamerican cultural influences on the southeastern United States. Initially, he was struck by the similarities between the pottery of both regions and suggested that the two ceramic traditions were culturally connected. This plan, however, was modified as Ekholm and his team found a substantial amount of material worth studying in the Tampico-Panuco area alone, where a culture known as the Huasteca developed in Pre-Columbian times.

The Huasteca developed in a wide area that extends without precise boundaries through the actual states of Tamaulipas, northern Veracruz, San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo, and some parts of Queretaro and Puebla. Realizing that there were abundant archaeological sites and materials in the region that had been neglected, Ekholm carried out the very first stratigraphic study of the zone, attempting to establish a chronological sequence to identify the age of the remains found in different layers beneath the ground. He classified his findings under very descriptive categories according to their material, function, color and texture (see Appendix 1). For Dr. Ekholm, not only was it crucial to use these artifacts to establish a chronology of local cultural development, but it also was important to insert them into a wider cultural context. This is evident in his intent to compare them with the material culture of surrounding peoples.

A massive stone structure with wide steps leading to its rounded top. Steps are mostly intact, while parts of the outer wall have broken off.
Circular pyramid at Las Flores
Two people wearing brimmed hats standing in a square excavation pit about six feet deep, working with double-headed pick axes.
Excavation at Las Flores
Three small photos of people working small square-shaped excavation pits in Tabuco.
Excavation at Tabuco
A man standing at a deep level of an excavation pit with flat squared walls.
Lower levels of excavation

Ekholm felt it was important to collect more regional data before the artifacts of Tampico-Panuco could be taken as "representative" of the Huasteca. He thus returned to the field in 1947 to excavate sites near the Tuxpan Valley. He began by making surface collections at 23 separate sites, in order to give "a fair sample of the large number of sites that must exist." Of these sites, Tabuco was the most interesting, since material at that site suggested it was occupied over several time periods. Finally, Ekholm traveled southwest towards the ancient Totonac capital of El Tajin for the purpose of collecting data that he could use to compare with his information from sites further north. His research suggested that the Huastec and the Totonac were similar in some cultural aspects during the Classic Period (A.D. 200-700).

The Ekholm Collection at the AMNH

The Ekholm Collection at the AMNH is vast and includes thousands of artifacts from the Huasteca: vessels, blades, figurines, tools, jewelry, and objects made of carved bone. Only a small fraction of Ekholm's research on this collection was published; the rest, documented in his personal notes, photographs and sketches, remained publicly inaccessible (see Appendix 2). In 1944, Ekholm published a monograph titled "Excavations at Tampico and Panuco in the Huasteca, Mexico". The monograph contains the some of the data from his investigation. In 1953, "Notes on the Archaeology of the Tuxpan Valley and Neighboring Areas" was published in Revista mexicana de estudios antropologicos (Mexican Journal on Anthropological Studies). The content if this article is more descriptive than the AMNH publication and many of the specific sites that Ekholm excavated were not discussed in detail. It is evident that Ekholm based many of his interpretations of the Huasteca on a selection of representative sites; however, it is crucial to identify all the sites he worked at and the data he found at each one. My aim was to divulge the valuable contents of this wide array of unpublished research. After creating a database of his uncatalogued material, I reviewed the archaeologist's excavation notes to learn what he had said about these objects. Next I will present a general overview of some of the artifacts that compose the Ekholm collection at the AMNH (see Appendix 1 for more illustrations).

  • Pottery
    More than addressing architectural and urban issues, Ekholm was interested in analyzing the pottery of the Huasteca in order to establish a time sequence of its development, so he could compare Huastec ceramics with the ceramics of other regions. This was done by analyzing decoration and rim types. Ceramics from the Panuco and Tuxpan sites were classified into Periods I - VI, which spans the most archaic era to the Spanish conquest.

    The Ekholm Collection at the AMNH
    Time sequence
    The Ekholm Collection at the AMNH
    Rim types
    sketch of Chila blanco pottery to show internal profile
    Chila Blanco pottery
    A close-up drawing of the smooth surface of a ceramic sherd, captioned "Fine-grain finish pottery."
    Fine-grain finish pottery
    The Ekholm Collection at the AMNH
    Negative painting or "lost-color" technique
    A rendering of a wide-neck round-body vessel on three legs, captioned, "Red-on-Buff pottery."
    Red-on-Buff pottery
    Ten pieces of broken ceramic, painted with different designs, photo-captioned "Black-on-White pottery."
    Black-on-White pottery

    According this classification, Chila White ceramics from the Pre-Classic Period I and II (?-AD 300) were some of the oldest Huastec pottery types. They are contemporary to Monte Alban I and II. But these types were only found in the Panuco region; Ekholm interpreted their absence in Tuxpan as sign that they were buried so deeply beneath the ground that it was impossible to reach them. A flourishing of the Classic Period in the Huasteca is evidenced by the presence of Period III (AD 300- 650) pottery, characterized by its fine-grain finish. Decoration and form are mostly local in style, although the presence of Teotihuacan type pottery seems to indicate some contact with the Valley of Mexico. The pottery from the Epiclassic, Periods IV and V (AD 750 - 1200) also shows numerous resemblances to types from Tajin and Teotihuacan, such as the negative painting or "lost-color" technique. Designs of this kind were found inside the Pyramid of the Sun and in the Valley of Toluca. Ekholm suggested that Period V pottery, in particular Las Flores Red-on-Buff, had affiliations with many cultures. He found similarities between Huastec pottery and that of places such as the Isla de Sacrificios, Cerro Montoso, Altar de los Craneos of Cholula, Chichen Itza, Mazapan, and sites in the basin of Mexico. Period VI (1200-1500s) is contemporaneous with the Aztec II or Aztec III horizon in the Valley of Mexico, and continued up to the time of the Conquest (in fact, some modern pottery types still resemble these). Tenochtitlan ceramics and figurines were found in the top layers of the Tabuco excavation, showing trade between the two areas in the late Postclassic period. But one local pottery type, Huasteca Black-on-White, dominates by far Period VI ceramic assemblages. Ekholm exalts this type as as "...one of the most distinctive wares in all of that great area" because it bears no resemblance to any other pottery of Middle America.

  • Figurines
    Ekholm excavated an abundance of small anthropomorphic clay figurines in the Huasteca, spanning all six time periods. Figurines, as well as larger sculptures like stele often have lively expressions and a vivacity practically unseen in other Pre-Hispanic cultures.
    A tall carved stone column representing a human in elaborate costume and tall headdress, captioned "Anthropomorphic stela at Castillo de Teayo, Period VI."
    Anthropomorphic stella at Castillo del Teayo, Period VI.
    Carved stone column of a fertility goddess in a belted skirt. Bas-relief arms bend at elbows, hands resting near belly. Breasts are bas-relief circles.
    Ixcuinan/Tlazolteotl, Goddess of fertility, Castillo del Teayo, Period VI, height: 1.46m.
    Two dozen figurine body fragments, headless torsos mostly curvaceous nude female forms, discovered in Tampico-Panuco region, Periods II-VI.
    Figurine body fragments, Tampico-Panuco region, Periods II-VI.
    The Ekholm Collection at the AMNH
    Ekholm's classification of figurine types with their approximate chronological position
    They reveal a culture that was clearly ritualistic. The vast majority of them represent voluptuous women that in the Huasteca stood for diverse deities of vegetation, but there are also male figurines. In both cases, the sex is always clearly indicated, possibly symbolizing (as some authors have suggested) a cult related to issues of fertility. Zoomorphic figurines are also common among the Huastec. Representations of diverse animal life sometimes functioned as musical instruments (such as whistles in the shape of birds, or rattles in the form of armadillos). Other figurines were part of other ornaments and sculptures.
  • Other
    Black-and-white photos, front and back of an oval-shaped copper bell in the image of a human face. The base has an opening similar to a clamshell.
    Copper bell seen in Tajin, Height: 15 cm. Ekholm signaled the existence of this metal in the Huasteca as evidence of its contact with the Toltecs.
    Ekholm excavated many objects of human and animal bone, such as combs, needles and knives. Although these were mostly functional, many of them were found in graves, suggesting they were needed in the afterlife. Shells cut to form the Sign of the Wind God were quite common in the Huasteca.
    In late Central Mexican ceremonial art, the design formed by the center scroll represented one of the signs of Quetzalcoatl. Sahagun refers to the ornament asecailacatzcozcatl , "the spirally voluted wind jewel". It is quite probable that these are the artifacts wore by the God in the codex illustrations. In his representation he is frequently shown wearing a shell pectoral. The Huastec were known for their skill in the manufacture of pectorals and shell earplugs (the same motif is used in other media, like dishes from Cholula) and Ekholm suggested that Quetzalcoatl was originally a divinity from the Huasteca. In all the sites, Ekholm dug up a myriad of chipped-stone implements. These useful tools were mostly made of obsidian and helped the Huastec in their day-to-day activities.

Ethnohistory and Other Data on the Huastecs

Hill with dense vegetation overlooking a valley with a narrow river and low mountains, captioned Huasteca landscape, northern Veracruz.
Huasteca landscape, northern Veracruz.

The actual origin of the Huastec people is unknown. Both Fray Bernardino de Sahagun and Fray Juan de Torquemada relate that the first settlers arrived by sea and settled at Tamoanchan, a place yet to be located. In contrast, linguistic evidence indicates that the Huastec initially descended from Maya speakers that traveled up to the region at some unknown time in the past (Huastec is a Mayan language that is still extensively spoken, although its aboriginal culture pattern has largely disappeared). Around 100 BC they were isolated from other Maya speakers and surrounded by the Nahua to the west and the Totonac to the south.

In Prehispanic History on the Huasteca (UNAM, 1979), Lorenzo Ochoa states that the Huastecs remained peripheral to the rest of the Mesoamerican cultures until the Classic Period, partly due to the region's geographic isolation and rich vegetation. From the Classic Period on, the Huastec had contact with the powerful highland cultures of Teotihuacan, Tula, and the Aztec. From these exchanges came new ideas in religion, numerology and calendars, architecture, construction, and urbanism. Little is known about Huastec political and social organization. Ochoa suggested that the Hausteca was not united under a single governing center, but divided into multiple small providences ruled by independent caciques.

A sketch of pyramid-like structure with steps leading to the first level, which resembles a narrow terrace that runs around the structure.
Reconstruction of structure on Mound A, Las Flores, Tampico-Panuco region

The Huastec were attacked several times by Aztec armies. According to the Mendocino Code, in the year 1 acatl (AD 1467) the Aztecs Triple Alliance, under the rule of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina fought against the Huasteca and Totonac and eventually conquered them. In Aztec Imperial Strategies (1993), Emily Umberger states that patronage by Mexica officials influenced Huastec art. At Castillo del Teayo, for example, the Aztec established a colony dedicated to artistic practices, creating a curious fusion of Huastec and Mexica styles in the local material culture and architecture. However, Huastec architecture is most famous for its round and oval structures, somewhat unique among Prehispanic cultures. In the 1940s, Du Solier daringly stated that these forms might be linked to the cult of Quetzalcoatl. By the Postclassic Period some Huastec architecture, such as the buildings that Ekholm excavated at Tabuco, included rectangular forms with rounded corners.

Ekholm's Methods: Archaeology at a Time of Change

...before one can measure or count, compare or contrast, one has to form categories (types of pots, contexts, cultures and so on). These categories are formed through the process of perception [...] what one measures depends on perception and categorization and there can be no independent instruments of measurement since methodology is itself theory dependent.

Ian Hodder, on Binford and Sabloff's Middle-Range Theory, 1982.


To the eyes of the XXIst Century, the results achieved by Ekholm's excavations may seem tedious in their detailed descriptions. But his methodology was actually somewhat innovative for his time: In the 1950s, the Structuralists called for an approach which looked at structure and at the meaning of signs, stating: "we are no longer bound to the quantification of presences, but we are also drawn to the interpretation of absences." Although Ekholm's is primarily a quantitative analysis, it is also qualitative in many aspects. He dared to propose when his data was insufficient or missing and tried to use other lines of evidence such as historical documents or comparative data to support his findings. He was ambitious in his desire to find cultural connections extending over a large area (from Veracruz up to the southeastern United States and down to the Mayan regions and west towards Central Mexico), but warned against making generalizations when the data supporting them was lacking. In regards to his Panuco findings, he writes:

I do insist that my conclusions must be proved or confirmed by other larger excavations to such a degree that one can be fairly certain that most of the possibilities of inaccuracy are eliminated. Therefore, my interpretations are not intended to be unduly dogmatic. The chronological framework which is attempted here is presented tentatively, as one which must be confirmed before it can be fully accepted.

In this sense, his propositions were sure to leave room for refinements and thus paved the way for further investigation on the topic. During the years when Ekholm was excavating in the Huasteca, a heated debate arose which questioned the way objects should be studied and classified. In 1948, the anthropologist Walter W. Taylor criticized the traditional typological procedures in the social sciences claiming that "types must be related to the cultural context in which they operated, that is they must refer to actual categorizations of the culture being studied." He distinguished between empirical and cultural classifications, and criticized archaeologists who treated objects merely as material evidence and created object typologies that did not have cultural significance. Of course archaeologists still debate whether or not it is possible to assign particular cultural meanings to objects.

Ekholm often admitted to the arbitrariness of his classifications, recognizing the limits of common taxonomical procedures. For example, in his monograph he states that on several occasions he grouped objects together largely for convenience and not because they represented cultural types. Ekholm was well aware of his analytical shortcomings. Nonetheless, his exhaustive research contributed to the study of Huastec culture and most archaeologists who are interested in the region have found the data he collected, analyzed, and published invaluable.


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