They have done the bulk of their work in the Huasteca’s heart, about sixty miles west of Tampico, where the Tampaón River winds eastward toward the Gulf.
Davila and Zaragoza have made important discoveries at two ancient cities that once dominated this area: Tamtoc, which reached its height between A.D. 700-1000, and Tamohi, which flourished five miles downriver between 1400 and the Conquest. When the pair began digging in the early 1990s, Tamtoc was owned by local rancher; as they began to unearth fabulous stone bas reliefs of a kind never seen before, he decided he wanted the property’s resources for himself. He locked the gates and threatened to kill them if they ever came back. The pair fled, but not before they had made other discoveries that may turn the accepted history of the cultural flow between North America upside down.
INAH bought the site in 2000; the dangerous landowner moved away, and Davila and Zaragoza returned. They now counsel archaeologists digging at Tamtoc and have resumed their own work at Tamohi.
Tamohi was once a thriving city, home to Nahua migrants from central Mexico who paid tribute to the Aztec kings at Tenochtitlán. In 1919, archaeologist Walter Staub reported the discovery of what is now one of the Mesoamerica's most acclaimed sculptures, The Adolescent, at the site. In the 1940s, Mexican archaeologist Wilfrido Du Solier unearthed platforms, reflecting pools, and an altar with a spectacular painted mural.
Davila and Zaragoza, working with INAH archaeologist Jose Maruilio Pera Salas, have discovered that Tamohi was far larger than anyone had ever imagined. They've mapped an urban footprint that stretches along at least a mile of riverbank and extends inland to encompass four distinct districts with residences, terraces, a huge ceramics workshop, ritual mounds, and, in a prominent place on the riverbank, an enormous platform with a commanding view of the river floodplain. This vista reveals that Tamohi was intentionally sited in a propitious spot: Thirty miles away, the Sierra Oriental mountains loom on the horizon, a solid line save for the Paso del Diablo, a canyon carved in the mountains by the Tampaón River. From Tamohi, on the summer solstice, the setting sun drops neatly into the Paso’s notch, an astral alignment which, in Mesoamerican cosmology, establishes the city as a sacred center, blessed with the powers of earth and sky.
Cortez swept into the Huasteca soon after conquering Aztec Tenochtitlán. His army and successors brought epidemic disease, war, imprisonment, and the slave trade. In about 1531, the Spanish corralled Tamohi's survivors into an existing town five miles down river that became Antiguo Tamuín.
Antiguo Tamuín’s main temple stood atop its highest hill; the Spaniards razed it, replaced it with a church, and buried their dead in front of it on the hill's gentle slope. It became the town cemetary, where, with today's townspeople's blessing, Davila and Zaragoza have been digging for details of the Spanish usurpation.
Chunks of the Spanish church's cobble walls are still in evidence, and on the hill, beneath a towering tree, Davila and Zaragoza have found the pre-Hispanic temple's plaster floor.
The Spanish buried their coffins six feet deep to evade scavaging animals and covered them in lime to halt the spread of infection. Deep in one grave physical anthropologist Carlos Karam carefully brushes dirt from an odd set of bones -- the coffin held two skeletons and but one skull. Davila and Zaragoza suspect one of the dead was a priest; they have found priests in other graves, as well as a wealthy individual who may have been a soldier or a government dignitary. They have also found the remains of a convent -- its kitchen used both pre-Hispanic pots and fine majolica crockery.