Dr. Christopher Morehart showcasing his excavation site in the northern Basin of Mexico for public archaeology day
I am an environmental anthropologist/archaeologist, an ethnobotanist/paleoethnobotanist, and a landscape/household archaeologist. Broad, no? One of the best things about archaeology is the ability and training to exhibit this kind of flexible pragmatism. Indeed, this characteristic is what drew me to archaeology and is what keeps me here. These interests have led me to tackle a number of social questions at different times and places. Regionally, the vast majority of my work as an anthropological archaeologist occurs in the region scholars call (somewhat arbitrarily) Mesoamerica. Sub-regionally, I have conducted research in the Maya Lowlands of Belize, Yucatan, and Guatemala, and I have been working intensively in the Basin of Mexico over the past several years. Conceptually, much of my research centers on questions of inequality and ideology. I have studied the impact of state power on agrarian landscapes, the connection between politics and environmental sustainability, the integration of ritual with politics, community formation in the wake of imperial collapse, the effect of economic circumstances on gender relations, the role of archaeological narratives in contemporary identity politics, and many other important anthropological issues.
I continue to work as a paleoethnobotanist on archaeological projects in Yucatan, Mexico; Belize, Guatemala; and the southeast United States. Creating a Mesoamerican ethnobotanical database (based on published literature) is a project I’ve been working on since 2000 (though I am now picking it up again after a hiatus). However, my primary research exists in central Mexico, namely the Northern Basin of Mexico. I was the director of the Proyecto Chinampero Xaltocan, an archaeological project that reconstructed the raised field agricultural landscape surrounding the pre-Aztec city state of Xaltocan. This project gave me the opportunity to invest in an agricultural landscape the same amount of time and energy archaeologists typically give to households. In so doing, I realized the importance of these spaces for addressing central problems in the archaeology of political economy as well as key limitations in many of our models that explain the relationship between farmers and state polities (i.e., all that bottom-up/top-down nonsense). Moreover, this work opened my eyes to agricultural landscapes as active, lived spaces—spaces where past people spent so much of their daily lives (but spaces that seem to be relegated archaeologically to a handful of surface collections, trenches or test pits, if that). Using satellite imagery and aerial photos (managed in a GIS) with this intensive, on the ground fieldwork, allowed me to document one of the largest pre-Aztec chinampa systems.
Currently, I am the director of a project that seeks to examine community formation, conflict, and ritual relations following a period of imperial collapse, particularly the Epiclassic period in central Mexico. A relatively enigmatic period, the Epiclassic denotes a block of several centuries following the decline of Teotihuacan and leading up to the rise of city states that marked the Postclassic period. Archaeologists have long designated the Epiclassic as decadent and transitional, but my research on shrines and communities in the Northern Basin of Mexico does not support this narrative. This was a dynamic period in which communities developed, located places on the landscape for ritual, and engaged in warfare (and even sacrifice), possibly independently of the power of emergent polities. The Epiclassic period is as much a pan-Mesoamerican phenomenon (especially in the highlands) as it is a time period, and its significance is not restricted to the Basin of Mexico. However, most scholars recognize some macro-regional link to the dynamics of this time and the breakdown of the Teotihuacan state. My project, which centers on an area no more than 20 km west of Teo, takes on added importance in understanding this period of central Mexican history.
As an environmental anthropologist, however, this work is only one aspect of longer term research on the historical ecology of the northern Basin of Mexico—a project with no temporal boundaries and with questions whose answers are as much about the present as they are about the past.
In press Human Sacrifice in the Northern Basin of Mexico during the Epiclassic Period. Latin American Antiquity. To be published in December 2012 issue.In prep Surplus: The Politics of Production and the Strategies of Everyday Life. The
2012 What if The Aztec Empire Never Existed: The Prerequisites of Empire and the Politics of Plausible Alternative Histories. American Anthropologist, 114:267-281.
2012 Mapping Ancient Chinampa Landscapes in the Basin of Mexico: A Remote Sensing and GIS Approach. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:2541-2551.2011 Food, Fire, and Fragrance: A Paleoethnobotanical Perspective on Classic Maya
2011 The Fourth Obligation: Food Offerings in Caves and the Politics of Sacred
Relationships in Maya Landscapes. In Ecology, Power, and Religion in Maya Landscapes,
edited by Christian Isendahl and Bodil Liljefors Persson. Verlag Anton Sauerwein, Möckmuhl.
2011 Sustainable Ecologies and Unsustainable Politics: Chinampa Farming in Ancient
Central Mexico. Anthropology News, April Issue, pp. 9-10.
2010 Ritual Exchange and the Fourth Obligation: Ancient Maya Food Offering and the
Flexible Materiality of Ritual. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16:588-608. (with Noah Butler).
2010 Power, Prosperity, and Change: Modeling Maize at Postclassic Xaltocan, Mexico.
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 29:(1):94-112. (with Dan Eisenberg).
2008 Situating Power and Locating Knowledge: A Paleoethnobotanical Perspective to
Ancient Maya Gender and Social Relations. In Gender, Households, and Society: Unraveling
the threads of the past and present, edited by Cynthia Robin and Elizabeth Brumfiel.
Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, Vol. 18, No.1, pp. 60-75.
(with Christophe Helmke).
2005 Plants and Caves in Ancient Maya Society. In Reconstructing Maya Ritual and
Cosmology in the Cave Context, edited by Keith Prufer and James Brady, pp. 167-185.
University of Colorado Press, Boulder.
2005 Wood of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Pine (Pinus spp.) by the Ancient Lowland
Maya. Latin American Antiquity 16(3):255-274. (with David L. Lentz, and Keith
2004 Ancient Textile Remains from Barton Creek Cave, Cayo District, Belize. Mexicon
26(3):50-56. (with Jaime J. Awe, Michael Mirro, Vanessa Owen, and Christophe