Colorado State University professors win grants to excavate ancient city in Mexico

Colorado State University professors Christopher Fisher and Stephen Leisz were recently awarded grants in excess of $200,000 to excavate at the newly documented ancient city of Angamuco, Michoacan, Mexico.

“The goal of this research is to provide insights into the formation of the Purépecha Empire and help unravel connections between complex societies and climate change” Fisher said.

Fisher and Leisz, associate and assistant professors of anthropology, received $192,000 from the National Science Foundation and $18,000 from the National Geographic Society. The site of Angamuco is located in the Lake Patzcuaro Basin, the geopolitical core of the Purépecha (Tarascan) Empire at the time of European contact (A.D. 1520).

“This Angamuco site is an important window into the pre-empire period in the region,” said Fisher, who first began documenting and mapping the site five years ago. “The next step is to test the models that we developed during our previous research through excavation. We’re very thankful to have these grants so we can continue this exciting research.”

Fisher and his team will begin excavation in the spring of 2013. He will spend the coming months preparing a team to begin excavation during the spring semester.

One year ago, Fisher and Leisz used ground-breaking LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to help map the city from the air. The LiDAR survey revealed more than 20,000 architectural features and a highly organized city that is far more complex and included more people than previous research in the region has suggested.

Included in the survey are several small pyramids, the only ball court in the region and evidence of a residential community of more than 25,000 people. In addition, there is evidence of a complex water management system and intensive agricultural features.

“We’re trying to discover when the city was settled, how the neighborhoods were interconnected, road works – all aspects of a major residential city,” Fisher said. “We want to look at how social complexity evolved and led to the creation of an empire – how the ‘1 percent’ of that society was created. We’re also looking at the impact of climate change and what role, if any, it played in the development of this culture.”

The Purépecha were contemporaries and rivals of the Aztecs in central Mexico. The Purépecha were considered the most advanced metal smiths in the region and created some of the finest crafts in Mexico. Like the Aztec, the Purépecha Empire was destroyed following European occupation in the early 1500s.

The ancient city, which covers more than 10 square kilometers, is located at 7,000 feet, four hours northwest of Mexico City.

Fisher’s work is part of Legacies of Resilience: The Lake Pátzcuaro Basin Archaeology Project, a long-term program of research by archaeologists, geologists and geographers from the United States and Mexico that is funded by major granting agencies and private donations.