Mexico / Copper Canyons / Paquimé, Casas Grandes
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Monday, March 27, 2017

Paquimé, Casas Grandes

In the northwestern part of the federal state of Chihuahua, west of the old Camino Real between El Paso and the state capital Chihuahua, lies Casas Grandes with its famous excavation site Paquimé. The large, archeologically interesting area at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental covers more than 60 hectares (about 150 acres) on the west bank of the Casas Grandes River. So far only 10 hectares (25 acres) of the historically very important place have been excavated and secured. The remains of the settlement are still impressive.

Several buildings, which consisted of up to 600 rooms, were constructed from tamped clay using the toilsome hand-molding technique: Wet clay was manually applied to an existing clay layer and spread equally. Interestingly, the buildings had rectangular walls, a fact that is indicative of intense planning and is a remarkable difference from buildings erected in other civilizations at the same time. Water was led through the rooms in open channels. Also characteristic of the buildings were T-shaped doorways between the rooms. The buildings enclosed large courts for games or meetings. There were subterranean religious convention halls and walk-in wells. You can still see the remains of firm market stands and the houses for parrots, imported from South America, and turkeys. In Paquimé, pit houses – pits in the ground with a primitive roof – define the origin of new building techniques that began to soar in the 7th century AD. Over some centuries, the simple pit houses, which are also known from the North American Pueblo civilization, gave way first to one-story buildings and later – at the zenith and in the final phase of Paquimé – to multistory houses with fascinating galleries and columns. The supporting columns were mostly placed on plinths of sandstone. Pyramids erected as earth mounds had platforms on their tops – they were possibly used for religious ceremonies, signal fires or as lookouts.

Like all pre-Columbian settlements, Paquimé poses more riddles than can currently be solved. The people who lived there did not leave any written documents, or if so, such documents were completely destroyed by the Spanish. The finds suggest that while the place was settled (700 - 1450 AD), economic and cultural relations were built to Middle America in the South and to what is today Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in the North. The Casas Gran¬des civilization developed slowly. The people farmed in the style of the time, i.e., they grew corn, squash, and beans, and supplemented the vegetable food with rodents and deer they hunted. Conspicuously, even bones of bison have been found in Paquimé. According to the archeologists, Paquimé experienced a very fast and obviously systematic development in its final phase. This was also the time when the people surrounded their settlement with a protective wall. It is highly interesting that just when, about 1350, the other Pueblo civilizations, e.g., the Anasazi, Mogollon and Hohokam, collapsed and their settlements were abandoned, Paquimé became a trade center with an estimated 10,000 inhabitants. The large warehouses, where the Indians stored their provisions and where the archeologists discovered remains of outstanding works of copper, ceramics and shells, likewise date from that time. It is assumed today that crafts were greatly developed in this time. Apart from a true “ceramics industry,” high-quality copper works must be mentioned; copper parts were made by cold hammering or by lost-wax casting: A form of wax is repeatedly dipped into a slurry of silica and then dried. The model thus produced is heated so the wax can flow out of the form. The empty form is filled with liquid metal. Once the metal has cooled down, the craftsman breaks the form and takes out the finished work piece. These products became one of Paquimé’s staples of trade.

Which factor caused this burst of development is a matter of debate. One theory says that a widening of trade relations led to an invasion of more developed traders and/or priests from the South of Mexico who then systematically took the lead in enlarging and developing the settlement. Suggestive of this assumption are architectural developments that indicate Mesoamerican or Central American influence, e.g., stone-lined pits and water conduits, tamped clay being unsuited as a lining material. According to another theory, the population of abandoned settlements of the Pueblo civilizations immigrated to Paquimé and enlarged the place according to their own tradition.

Although it had been a flourishing center, Paquimé had been abandoned even before the Spanish arrived. The end of the Casas Grandes civilization in the 15th century may have been caused by raids of enemy peoples or by the collapse of trade. The descriptions of the excavations relate of bodies lying in the irrigation system and of valuable breeding birds that had obviously starved in their cages; all this is suggestive of a violent end of the pueblos. Another possibility is that it became impossible to sustain the large number of people, who therefore reorganized in smaller settling units that burdened the environment less.

Except for some pieces, the famous pottery from old Paquimé, an important item of pre-Columbian trade, can be admired in the large museums of the world only in the form of potsherd.

In the 1960’s, young Juan Queseda was so fascinated with the ceramic remains found in the excavations at Mata Ortíz, a small village near Paquimé, that he made numerous experiments to try and manufacture similar ceramics. The first thing necessary was to find the right raw material. Pure clay cracked when drying. It took some time before he found the material originally used – clay mixed with volcanic ash, which was excavated at a site near Paquimé. Further experiments were necessary to determine how the vessels were formed, painted and burned. Today, almost 500 potters are working in Mata Ortíz and trying to equal the quality of the Paquimé originals in each work.