The politics of commerce: Aztec pottery production and exchange in the Basin of Mexico, A.D. 1200--1650

Christopher P. Garraty
School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University
July, 2006


The relationships between market and political institutions have varied in different times and places, but no market system was (or is) devoid of political involvement. The contrasting approaches of the Aztec empire and Spanish colonial regime to the Basin of Mexico market system are instructive about the ways that commercial agents (producers, traders) respond to 'top- down' pressures from state elites to steer and direct the commercial economy to their political advantage. The results of this study suggest that the market system in the Basin nourished under the Aztec empire but suffered a decline after the Spanish conquest. To establish a window on state-market relationships, I focus on pottery production and exchange (plainware and decorated wares) prior to and during the period of Aztec imperial rule (ca. A.D. 1200-1520) and subsequent colonial period (ca. A.D. 1520-1650) based on compositional analyses and analyses of form specialization and attribute standardization. In the fragmented political landscape that preceded the Aztec empire, most plainware producers manufactured on a relatively small scale and exchanged their wares locally through a system of small, non-hierarchical market networks that likely operated independently of elite regulation. Conversely, decorated Black-on-orange and redware serving vessels were manufactured on a larger scale in fewer production loci and exchanged over a wider area, indicating a hierarchical exchange system that operated under elite auspices. During the Aztec empire, the consolidation of power under the imperial capitals of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco brought about a more stable milieu for inter-polity interaction. In this context, plainware and Black-on-orange production both involved large-scale, high-intensity production industries centered at or near four principal market centers in the Basin, including the imperial capitals. Tenochtitlan became by far the most prominent and prolific locus of pottery production and export, especially for Black-on-orange vessels and comales (tortilla griddles).
After the Spanish conquest, the large-scale pottery production and export industries evident in the Late Aztec period collapsed. Production was generally less intensive, smaller in scale, and probably mostly geared toward local consumers. Tenochtitlan---now Mexico City--- was no longer the principal hub of indigenous commerce and became increasingly geared toward the Spanish overseas economy.