The archaeology of farmscapes: Production, place, and the materiality of landscape at Xaltocan, Mexico

Christopher T. Morehart
Dept. of Anthropology, Northwestern University
July, 2010


This dissertation is about farmscapes. Farmscapes are the landscapes produced by agriculturalists. They are physical places built, modified, and inherited. Farmers cultivate to feed their families but also to produce a surplus to meet other obligations and opportunities. They cooperate and interact. They teach children knowledge about physical and conceptual worlds. They undertake rituals that concretize communal and spiritual obligations and provide a rhythm between diverse spatialities and temporalities. As lived space, they are connected to but independent from the patterns of life of other social spaces, such as the household. This dissertation is about a specific farmscape: the chinampa landscape of the Postclassic (ca. A.D. 1000-1400) kingdom of Xaltocan in the northern Basin of Mexico. Xaltocan influenced much of this region. By the end of the 14th century A.D. it was conquered by an alliance of several kingdoms.
As the community developed, residents constructed chinampas in the surrounding lake. The system was highly integrated, requiring supra-household cooperation. Farmers integrated an abandoned shrine into the design of the chinampa system. The shrine was first used for mass human sacrifice during the Epiclassic period (A.D. 600-800), but later rituals materialized more communal relations.
The chinampa system covered about 1500 ha and was capable of supporting far more than Xaltocan's population. The farmscape was tied to Xaltocan's state. Political relations, communal relations, and systems of property became progressively interdependent. With the rise of more family-based systems of property, the cessation of collective ritual, and eventual warfare, the network of cooperative relations broke down, and farmers abandoned their farmscape.
Later residents living under the Aztec and Spanish empires inherited th ematerial imprints of earlier people. They maintained different ways of life but used the canals for fishing and returned to the same shrine to conduct rituals.
Farmscapes necessitate detailed study. They require extensive excavations and multiple lines of data: historic sources; remote sensing data; Geographic Information Systems; stratigraphic, soil chemistry, artifact, archaeobotanical, and osteological data analyses. Integrating each of these lines of data enables the reconstruction of Xaltocan's farmscape across time and space and situates it as part of a broader landscape.