The material culture of religion and ritual : an analysis of social change in the Aztec-to-colonial transition at Tula, Hidalgo
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This dissertation offers an archaeological perspective on the relationships between power, history, religion, and ritual. Using Tula, Hidalgo in central Mexico as a case study, I provide a long-term perspective on how Christianity developed in the New World following the Spanish military conquest of the Aztec empire. The bulk of secondary historical literature characterizes the colonial conversion project as a top-down process to which Indigenous actors could passively acquiesce or revolt. Using artifacts deposited by Tula’s Indigenous majority, I adopt a material culture perspective to argue for another view: that the active, diverse engagements of Indigenous subjects changed Christianity by forcing it to adapt to Indigenous religious ontologies. To examine the religious transition in Tula, this dissertation compares two early colonial sites: an open chapel constructed around 1530 A.D., and a cathedral constructed around 1550 A.D. I employ historical documents, human burials, architectural elements, ritual objects such as censers, and everyday artifacts such as ceramics, faunal remains, and macrobotanical specimens. The two sites and their corresponding artifact assemblages allow for a diachronic comparison of social change within the Church and the community in Tula. This dissertation takes a power-centered approach to the study of religion. I adopt Judith Butler’s concept of “resignification” to explain the material patterns in Tula: I found that Christian rites, concepts, buildings, and words shifted significantly as they were repeated within an Indigenous religious framework. This broader frame also informs my approach to the major themes of the dissertation: religion, ritual, and history. Based on previous research, my study revealed that Aztec activities in Tula were likely centered around two major rituals that first deconsecrated and later reanimated the city, an interpretation that speaks to debates surrounding the Aztecs’ relationships with their predecessors, the Toltecs, whose capital was Tula. Using data from my excavations, I found that colonial Christian ritual was immediately shaped by Indigenous prerogatives—especially feasting and outdoor worship—and these persisted even as the colonial Church stabilized. My study of everyday materials from a religious perspective revealed that Spanish friars were compelled to adapt to Indigenous material preferences: material changes occurred primarily within the Indigenous tradition even as the Church consolidated its authority in New Spain. Broadly, this dissertation argues that colonial Christianity in central Mexico was deeply indebted to the active contributions of Indigenous subjects.