METATE – Volcanic environment and millstone activity from the thirteenth century to the present day on the El Metate massif, Michoacán (Mexico)

The METATE project aims to reconstruct the evolution of a volcanic territory organised around a specific activity: the exploitation of andesite for the production of metates and molcajetes, key tools in traditional Mesoamerican food preparation. The project adopts a resolutely multidisciplinary approach combining paleovolcanism, rock mechanics, geography, archaeology and the anthropology of techniques, in order to shed light on the evolutionary trajectories of this millstone activity located on the slopes of the El Metate volcano (Michoacán, Mexico), at different spatial (from the quarries where the metates were produced to the villages where they were used) and temporal scales (from the thirteenth century to the present). It was initiated in 2018-2019 as a result of SARDYN support of the Labex DYNAMITE and the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Project leader : C. Hamon with the collaboration of G. Pereira

Partners and participants: Trajectoires (C. Hamon, L. Aubry), ARCHAM (G. Pereira), CEMCA, UNAM Instituto de geofisica (C. Siebe, O. Quezada), IRD (O. Chevrel), ENES Morelia (A. Pola)

The METATE project aims to reconstruct the evolution of a volcanic territory organised around a specific activity: the exploitation of andesite for the production of metates and molcajetes, key tools in traditional Mesoamerican food preparation. The project adopts a resolutely multidisciplinary approach combining paleovolcanism, rock mechanics, geography, archaeology and the anthropology of techniques, in order to shed light on the evolutionary trajectories of this millstone activity located on the slopes of the El Metate volcano (Michoacán, Mexico), at different spatial (from the quarries where the metates were produced to the villages where they were used) and temporal scales (from the thirteenth century to the present). It was initiated in 2018-2019 as a result of SARDYN support of the Labex DYNAMITE and the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Metate being made in the quarries at the summit of El Metate (photo: C. Hamon)

The objective here is to study the production and use of metates in close collaboration with the metateros artisans of the village of Turicuaro, who still work rocks from the El Metate volcano in Michoacan in central Mexico.

The first part of the project, “quarries”, focuses on the identification of exploitation areas, extraction techniques and the characterisation of andesites. Surveys were carried out to identify the criteria underlying the choice of locations of current and former millstone quarries, as well as the extent, location and dating of the different exploitation areas. The mechanical properties of andesites selected for milling are specified by analysing their geochemical and petrographic characteristics, based on previously established geological references. In addition to evidence from modern activity, the search for archaeological markers (material, remains of structures) in the various extraction zones will track possible exploitations attributable to the Tarascan and colonial periods. The aim is to evaluate the variations or similarities in block extraction methods and millstone roughouts in the different sectors. A map of the operations and their sequencing over time is currently being drawn up.

-The second part, “production”, covers the entire current production chain, from the quarrying of blocks to the first use of metates. The aim here is to identify the operating sequences, skills and tools used by present-day millstone workers on the slopes of the volcano, in order to understand the degree of skill involved and how it was passed on. In addition to the technological aspects, it is essential to characterise the economic and social context in which this activity takes place. How is production organised? What are the modes and networks for the dissemination of metates throughout the region? The investigation of the metates manufacturing workshops of Turicuaro craftsmen aims to provide information on the diversity of know-how, gestures, technical choices, operating chains, tools and the parameters of their variability.

– Finally, a last section on “use” examines the status of these tools in the household. How are metates used to prepare corn and condiments for different recipes? Finally, in addition to their functional role, metates bear strong social meaning, in terms of ownership, but also in terms of intergenerational transmission. Who buys, owns and uses metates? Finally, despite the arrival of new technical solutions, what are metates still used for today?

See also in «Current projects»

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