Museum Loan Network: Starr Collection Survey

The Department of Anthropology curates tens of thousands of objects from Mexico, including spectacular archaeological collections. The nucleus of the Mexican archaeology collection was gathered in 1894, 1895, and 1896 by University of Chicago anthropologist Frederick Starr (1858 - 1933) and accessioned by the Museum in 1905.

In sum, over 1,000 whole ceramic vessels, including 364 tri-pod vessels, make up the bulk of Starr's Collection from the site of Tlacotepec, in the Valley of Toluca, near Mexico City, and surrounding environs. Other ceramic objects include whistles, figurines, rattle balls, bells, and 160 spindle whorls. Also accessioned were 181 pieces of stone, 130 pieces of obsidian, human bone, including fourteen notched bones, copper, some bronze, and even a gold ornament. It is arguable that the Field Museum’s is the most important collection outside of Mexico for the study of Matlatzincan ceramics and the impact of Aztec culture on provincial artistic traditions.

Excavations directed by Starr focused on two primary areas that exhibit contrasting artifact assemblages. Locality 1 contained some Early Postclassic (A.D. 950 - 1150) period material. Excavations at Locality 1 yielded more than 800 whole vessels, including 350 ollas (bean pots), cantaros (water jars) and pitchers, many of which show signs of household use. The assemblage is primarily domestic material representative of the Matlatzincan culture, though some Aztec artifacts are present as well. Matlatzincan pottery is decorated with geometric designs and lacks recognizable sacred symbols. Locality 2 dates to the Late Postclassic (A.D. 1350 - 1550) and contained primarily Aztec material, which employs glyphs and symbols that reflect deities and rituals. The Field Museum collection from Locality 2 includes black-on-orange tripod vessels, tripod grater bowls, and Cholula polychrome bowls from the Valley of Mexico. Most of this assemblage consists of trade goods. Recent Neutron Activation Analysis research by Dr. Don McVicker and others on the Field Museum collections indicates that Locality 2 represents an Aztec colony at Tlacotepec. Conversely, Locality 1 indicates continuity of a Matlatzincan ceramic tradition, and therefore culture, in the face of Aztec conquest and colonization. Very little is known about Locality 3, and the Field Museum curates only a handful of objects from this lesser area.