Friday, April 20, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 8: The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions

A weaver operates a 16th century-style loom at the Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares. In this posting, we return to Tlaxcala from our visit to the ancient ruins of Cantona. The museum contains more than 3000 pieces of popular art dating from colonial times to the modern era, as well as some reproductions of pre-hispanic craftsmanship. All this is displayed in the old Governor's Office, built in 1950 and turned into a museum in 1986. In this posting are just a few samples of the multitude of fascinating items on display. The Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares has become one of the biggest attractions in the city of Tlaxcala. To locate it on a Google map, click here.


Large, beautifully decorated tibors are displayed near the museum's entrance. Tibors are vases traditionally used for storage. After glazing with a white background, they are painted in the talavera style, using a variety of colors and naturalistic designs.

A couple of tibors stand next to bowls painted in a similar style. While Tlaxcala is not one of the major pottery centers in Mexico, what is produced here is of high quality. Much of comes from small, outlying towns which specialize in particular types of ceramics. In addition to talavera, which originated in the 16th century, some local potters also use pre-hispanic styles, employing ancient methods rather than potter's wheels.

A pitcher and matching wash basin hark back to an earlier age. It was not that long ago when even wealthy homes had no running water. In those days, a set like this would have stood near a dressing table in a bedroom.

Ancient and modern musical instruments

Reproduction of an Aztec-style drum called a teponaztli. The instrument is a horizontal slit-drum made from a hollow, hard-wood log. Slits are cut in the top of the log in the shape of an H. The tongues thus created are struck with rubber-headed mallets or deer antlers. Teponaztli were usually covered with relief carvings on their sides and ends. Human or animal faces were often part of the decoration. In order to increase the volume, either the bottom or one end of the log is left open. The teponazoani (drummer) played his instrument as an accompaniment for dances, poetry, and celebrations. Teponaztli were also used by military leaders as communication devices during battles. The instrument was considered so sacred that the blood of sacrifice victims was sometimes poured into it.

Reproduction of an upright skin-drum called a huehuetl. These drums, made from hollow tree trunks, are played with either mallets or using the hands directly. While the top of the huehuetl is covered with skin of an ocelot, the bottom is open and stands on three legs. The Tarascan Empire, the Aztecs' great rival, also used this kind of drum. It was especially popular for warrior gatherings. Notice the Jaguar Warrior carved and painted on the side. Teponaztli and huehuetl are often played together. The two drums were believed to embody the spirits of two different gods who had each been banished to earth

Also displayed were a variety of traditional stringed instruments. Stringed instruments did not exist in Mesoamerica until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. At the bottom are two guitars and a mandolin, with a pair of lap harps above them. All are made from cedar and come from the town of Calpulalpan on Tlaxcala's western border with the State of Mexico.

Indigenous costumes

Dance costume of an indigenous dancer featuring an elaborate, feathered headdress. The headdress, called a penacho, was made with the feathers of a variety of birds. While the headdress approximates an original, ancient penacho, the rest of the costume is clearly influenced by styles and materials introduced by the Spanish.

Costume of a Spaniard, as seen through indigenous eyes. Note the crossed ribbons on the chest, which resemble the straps associated with a military uniform of the colonial or early national period. In the mannequin's right hand is a gold-colored whip. The native craftsperson uses the outlandish hat to poke fun, but also makes a rather sinister statement about Spaniards with the rest of the costume.

Costume from the Dance of the Moors and Christians. This ancient dance celebrates the victory of the Spanish Christians over the Moors in 1492, marking the end of the 700-year-long struggle known as La Reconquista (the Reconquest). That same year, Christopher Columbus hung around the Christian army camp outside Granada, waiting for the Moors to surrender. He desperately wanted to gain an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella so he could propose his Atlantic voyage. The Spanish later incorporated many of the practices and strategies developed during of La Reconquista in their conquest of the New World.

Religious statues from the 18th century

Religious statues carved in the 18th century for display in colonial churches. On the left is San Pedro Apóstol (the Apostle Peter), one of the original twelve apostles as well as the first pope. In the center is San Miguel Arcángel, el Niño (Archangel Michael as a child). San Miguel was the general of God's armies in the struggle against Satan. On the right is San Antonio de Padua (1195-1231 AD). He was a Portuguese Augustinian friar who later became a Franciscan because he was attracted to their simplicity and poverty. His great knowledge of Christian doctrine and ability as a preacher led the Church to designate him as one of a handful of Doctors of the Church.

Virgen de Guadalupe, guarded by angels on either side.  The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron of Mexico, and particularly of the poor and indigenous people. She was the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to be encountered in the New World. However, she was not widely accepted as a legitimate figure of veneration for nearly a century. She first appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego in the ruins of a temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec Earth Mother. Juan Diego reported to Catholic authorities that she was dark-skinned, and she spoke Nahuatl, the language of the recently conquered Aztecs. All this led to an intense dispute between the Franciscans on one side and the Dominicans and Augustinians on the other. The Franciscans thought it was all a scam to allow the natives to continue "devil worship". The other Orders adopted a more practical stance, noting that hordes of new converts appeared wherever she was venerated. In the end, practicality won.


The museum doesn't just display finished works of popular art. This foot-pedal loom, built in the fashion of those brought over by the Spanish after the Conquest, is fully functional and capable of producing beautiful textile designs. Tlaxcala has a long history of textile production, dating far back into pre-hispanic times. Before Spanish looms, the indigenous people used simple, but effective back-strap looms. Devices were held in place by a strap around the back of the weaver, with the other end of the loom attached to a stationary vertical object like a tree. Such looms are still used in Mexico.

Finished product of a foot-pedal loom. I was impressed by the close weave of this lovely piece of textile art. Pre-hispanic Tlaxcalan weavers favored cotton, but it had to be imported from the coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and thus was expensive. So, fibers from other plants such as maguey, yucca, and sisal were also employed. However, these fibers are much rougher than cotton and therefore less comfortable in the tilmas (cloaks) used by pre-hispanic people. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced wool and silk, to which native weavers readily adapted. 

Textile piece showing birds and other animals, produced by an Otomi weaver. The Otomis are an indigenous group who have maintained much of their pre-hispanic culture. Their homeland is in the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro, north of Mexico City. Indigenous weavers often use scenes from the natural world, as well as abstract designs such as the diamond and zig zag patterns seen previously. 

Another textile using indigenous themes. This long, narrow piece of Otomi textile contains a deer, a bird, and what may be a coyote, as well as stars and plants. 

Indigenous Masks

Mask-making is another craft with deep pre-hispanic roots. In the photo above you can see the different stages of mask production, as well as some of the tools used in the process. Such masks are used in the innumerable indigenous dances still held all over Mexico. The ones above are of pink-skinned and bearded Spaniards. Such masks were often used in dances during which native people subtly mocked their unsuspecting overlords. 

The gold tooth on this mask is meant to portray a person of wealth. Notice the eyeholes in the eyebrows, which allow the dancer to see while wearing the mask. 

Miscellaneous craftsmanship

Necklace of red beads and Mexican coins. The coins were minted before the currency was changed in appearance and valuation in the 1994. While they are no longer in circulation, some of the old coins are beautifully designed and make striking jewelry.

Items made from twigs, straw, and natural fiber. Two of the pieces above are made in the form of chapels, while others are formed into whisk brooms and a sash.

These canes were made by two artisans from the town of San Estaban Tizatlán Jamie García Padilla and Raymundo Paredes Sánchez carved and painted a variety of designs on the canes. Three of the handles end in snake heads.

Stone mortars and pestles carved in the shapes of burros and a bird. Devices like this have a long history, going back as far as 35,000 years in some parts of the world. In Mexico, they are called molcajetes. Similar food grinding devices have been found in Mesoamerican sites many thousands of years old. They were used for grinding ingredients such as seeds and other plant material for food and medicinal purposes. Despite their antiquity, the mortar and pestle are still basic tools found in many modern kitchens. 

This beautiful leather saddle highlights Tlaxcala's ranch culture. Ranching came early in Mexico, starting in the 16th century when the Spanish imported cattle into colonial New Spain. Vast herds were driven hundreds of miles to provide meat and leather for the silver mines and the burgeoning cities that serviced them. All of the basic tools and practices of the cowboy culture had been perfected by Mexican vaqueros at least 200 years before the first American cowboy pulled on his spurs. 

This completes Part 8 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts and questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cantona Part 4 of 4: Where and how the ancient people lived

View of an elite neighborhood from atop one of the pyramids on the Acropolis. In this posting, we'll take a look at Cantona's elite and middle-class neighborhoods, as well as some of the artifacts recovered from them. I don't have many photos of working-class neighborhoods. Even though they amount to as much as 90% of Cantona's structures, the working-class areas have, so far, received little archeological attention. However, this Google satellite photo  shows the working-class neighborhoods west of the Acropolis. In the picture above, an elite neighborhood stretches out toward a pyramid in the distance. This area contains a large number of closely-packed household compounds. Each of the compounds contains one or more platforms which formed the foundations of houses made of perishable structures of wood and thatch. In front of some of the platforms are patios paved with cobblestones. Surrounding each compound are stone walls and between these walls are narrow, cobblestone lanes allowing passage between compounds and from one part of the neighborhood to another.

Cantona's middle class neighborhoods

One of Cantona's many unique aspects is its complex network of paved streets. Although we don't know this street's ancient name, it has been dubbed Calzada (Avenue) #2 by archeologists. It is one of more than 500 avenues, streets, lanes, and alleyways that connect all parts of what was once a densely packed city of 90,000. The point where I took this shot, at the bottom of the ridge that rises up to Cantona's Acropolis, was once a working class neighborhood. The stairway leads up to the middle class and elite areas. A person's social status was roughly equivalent to the altitude of his/her home. At the bottom level, both socially and in terms of terrain, were the working class, the largest group in the population. Higher up the slope lived the middle class, comprised of  lower-level priests, warriors, highly skilled artisans, and the merchants. The elite lived on or near the top-level mesa called the Acropolis. They were the high priests, military leaders, nobles owning large estates, and probably the wealthiest merchants. All of the social classes lived in walled compounds. These, along with the narrow  streets separating them, made Cantona one of the most defensible cities in Mesoamerica. This may explain its amazing 1,650 year lifespan (600 BC - 1050 AD). Over more than one and a half millennia, Cantona managed to outlast several great empires and multiple invasions from the north by the fierce Chichimec nomads. In the end, Cantona was abandoned because of climate change, not conquest.

Building tools and equipment made from basalt stone. The builders of Cantona were skilled masons and architects. Among the items shown above are polishers used for tamping, plumb bobs to accurately measure incline, and hinges for doors. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Mesoamerica, the people who constructed this city used no mortar to secure the stones in their walls and other structures. They simply cut them to size, placed them carefully, and used smaller stones to ensure their stability. Amazingly, some of these structures survived for more than 2,500 years! Again, unlike everywhere else, the stone walls were not covered with lime plaster and then painted with colored designs or murals. Instead, Cantona's architects left the stone surfaces in their natural state. However, to create pleasing decorative effects, the builders arranged different types and colors of stone in contrasting patterns.

Another street, called Calzada #1, passes through a middle class neighborhood. To the left is a short stairway leading into a residential compound. In the distance are terraces that lead up to the Acropolis, which contains elite residential areas, pyramids, palaces, and ball courts. Calzada #1 is typical, in that its narrow passage allows for only two people abreast. It is easily defensible, since attackers could be assailed from all sides by warriors sheltering behind the walls of the various compounds and on the terraces above.

View of a house platform, with multiple terraces rising to the Acropolis. Geologically, Cantona's terrain was created by a series of superimposed lava flows. When they cooled, these formed several natural terraces, each about 3m (10 ft) high. The last, topmost, flow created the mesa on which Cantona's architects built their Acropolis. Over a millennia and a half, the ancient architects used these natural features to construct their city, adding 3000 man-made terraces to fill in the slopes between the natural ones. The city's 8000 residential units were constructed on these terraces.

Located within the site museum is a reconstructed working class home. The walls are made of upright wood poles, with the gaps plastered in mud to keep out the wind. The thatch roof would have provided shade and shelter from seasonal rains, while still allowing smoke to escape from interior fires. Structures like this would have been used primarily for sleeping and during bad weather. Daytime activities would have been conducted outside, in the patios and on the steps of the various levels of a compound. Middle class structures and those of the elite would have been larger and probably somewhat more artfully constructed than this one. However, since everyone was limited to the same basic materials and tools, there is no reason to believe the style of house in higher class neighborhoods would have been substantially different. In addition, the platforms of the different neighborhoods are quite similar, except that the higher class versions tend to be a bit larger and sometimes have more stepped levels. 

View of a middle class compound. The two step platform in the foreground has a cobbled patio in front. This is one of several platforms in the compound, with the others seen in the distance. At Cantona, middle class compounds typically have several platforms, sometimes partially separated into subcompounds by internal walls, but still connected through passages. This suggests either extended families, or possibly several different families with something in common such as an economic activity. The central feature of Cantona's economy throughout its history was the manufacture of obsidian objects for trade. These included various kinds of cutting tools, as well as weapons such as arrow and spear heads. Although the nearby Oyameles-Zaragoza obsidian mines may have been state-controlled, it appears that the manufacture of useful objects from the volcanic glass was accomplished by households. So far, more than 300 obsidian manufacturing sites have been discovered in Cantona's neighborhoods. It should be remembered that only 10% (possibly only 1%) of the city has been excavated. There must be many more sites, given the size of the population and the importance of obsidian to the economy.

Various stone tools. At the top are three axes made from basalt and two pieces of obsidian. One of the obsidian objects is a large blade and the other is a "core". A core is a chunk of volcanic glass from which pieces are struck to create useful objects such as tools or weapons. At the bottom are more axes and tools for pounding. The purpose of the three disks with holes in their centers is unclear. However, I have seen tools like this elsewhere that were used to smooth and straighten the shafts of arrows.  All of these tools are fairly simple and, except for the obsidian, materials to make them are available almost everywhere in Mesoamerica. The basalt axes were probably not intended for long-distance trade because of their weight and the lack of draft animals in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica. Instead, they were probably made for personal use or for sale within Cantona itself. It appears that households often crafted multiple kinds of items for internal and/or external trade, according to changes in demand. In a multi-family compound, each family may have specialized in particular items, while also cooperating with the other families in the manufacture of obsidian or other high-value items. There are two reasons why the vast majority of the population appear to have been engaged in home-based manufacturing and artisanship. First, few people appear to have been farmers since there is little productive land immediately around the city. There was arable land some distance away, but it would have been worked by people living close to their fields. Second, Cantona was, above all, a trading city. It was located on important routes between the Gulf Coast and the Valley of Mexico, as well as others leading to Oaxaca and the Maya country to the south. In fact, obsidian objects originating from the Oyameles-Zaragoza mines have been found in all these areas and even as far away as Guatemala.

Assorted bone tools. These appear to be awls and punches, probably for working animal skins. After the hides had been scraped with basalt or obsidian tools to remove the hair and then cured, these wooden tools would have been employed to make holes for stitching. All of these activities, as well as work on other craft items, would have occurred in the patios and open areas of the compounds, with several generations participating together. Close analysis of bone tools has revealed that some of them were made from human bones. It is not clear to whom the bones belonged. However, it was not uncommon in Mesoamerica to craft the bones of deceased relatives into household utensils as a way to maintaining a connection with those who have passed into the next world. Although this may seem ghoulish to a modern sensibility, I imagine that many of our social practices would seem pretty bizarre to ancient people.

In another multi-family compound, two platforms share a patio. Visible in the center of the patio is a fire pit. The proximity of these two platforms, one with a single-level, the other with two steps, suggests a close family relationship. They would have shared the patio for work, private religious rituals, social occasions, and the preparation and consumption of meals. In addition to small patios, suitable for family gatherings, Cantona has one hundred plazas. Thirty of these are associated with the pyramid and ball court complexes on the Acropolis level. The other seventy are scattered throughout the city's residential areas. They would have been used by the inhabitants of the several compounds grouped around them, essentially forming neighborhoods. Plaza activities would have included religious, civic, and social events. In addition, they may have served as small marketplaces for the exchange of goods manufactured for local sale.

Ancient kitchen equipment. The various pots would have been used for storing, preparing, and cooking different kinds of food. The curved object at the bottom is a metate, or grinding tray, with its mano or hand grinder lying across it. These were employed primarily to grind maiz (corn), but also various kinds of seeds. Analysis of human teeth found at Cantona indicates a diet high in these carbohydrates. Other kinds of cultivated plants included beans and squash. Wild foods such as nopal cactus and maguey were also gathered. For animal protein, dogs and turkeys were domesticated. In addition, wild game including deer, rabbit, birds, and other animals were hunted in the desert and nearby mountains.

Plates, platters and bowls used in serving meals.  Many are quite similar to those that might be found on a modern table. Another of Cantona's unique features is its remarkable consistency in ceramic styles, with little difference between the earliest pottery and that of later centuries. Since pottery fragments are one of the primary tools archeologists use in dating ancient societies, this has made it more difficult to clearly identify the time frames of other objects found closeby. One possible explanation for this unusual consistency is that the city-state was never conquered and, in fact, strongly resisted outside cultural influences--particularly those of its great rival, Teotihuacán. However, Cantona was also intensely involved in long-distance trade, which normally would have included imports of foreign ceramics, which might be expected to influence local styles. That it did not happen is just another of this ancient city's many mysteries.  

Residences of the elite

The remains of a grand staircase leads up to the elite level. This is one of a limited number of entry points to the Acropolis. This area covers 88 hecatares (217 acres) and contains not only residential compounds but other civic and religious structures such as Ball Game Cluster #7 and the Plaza of Fertility, both seen in previous postings of this series. This is the most defensible area of a city built for defense. The Acropolis was the final redoubt, the bastion where a last stand could be made against either an external invader or a social uprising. 

Guard post at the top of the Calzada #1 staircase leading to the Acropolis. Even without any identifying information, I immediately recognized the purpose of this structure. There is  a birds-eye view of the surrounding area and alert sentries could detect any hostile movement coming from the west. From the guard post, warriors could rain down arrows and spears on attackers trying to squeeze up the narrow staircase, or scrambling up the multiple terraces on the slope below. In addition, there are other fortified areas on the Acropolis, including the one attached to Ball Court Cluster #7, which I showed in a previous posting.

Obsidian arrowhead of the kind used by Cantona's warriors and also for trade. Obsidian can be sharpened to a razor edge and skilled artisans could manufacture large numbers of arrow and spearheads in a relatively short time. No doubt, a guard post would have been heavily stocked with arrows, spears, and hand weapons in times of crisis, all using razor-sharp obsidian. Cantona's ready access to large deposits of the volcanic glass may have given the city-state an armaments edge over potential opponents without such access and contributed to its long life-span.

Scattered among the pyramids, plazas and ball courts are neighborhoods like this. In the foreground is a compound with an open area, surrounded by a stone boundary wall. Inside the wall is a single, double-stepped platform with a cobblestone patio immediately in front. While this is very similar, in overall composition, to the middle class compounds, there is at least one important difference. There are fewer house platforms in the elite compounds, although it is also true that their overall surface area is somewhat less than their middle class counterparts. This indicates that elite compounds like the one above are not multi-family living areas. Even in elite compounds that have more than one platform, they tend to have less than in middle class counterparts. One conclusion that can be drawn is that the elites did not need to have several families living together for economic purposes. Simply put, they could afford to live in smaller groups. In addition, the middle class may have needed some of their extra compound space for small food gardens and/or to raise animals like turkeys. Once again, the elites had the resources to avoid this necessity. 

Decorative stone work. Elite compounds also tended to have more decorative stone work. The fragment above appears to represent the tail feathers of a bird. 

Sellos, or decorative stamps, were used to print designs on various surfaces. Artisans used sellos to create luxury goods for sale to the elites. The stamps would have been dipped in a plant and/or mineral-based pigment and then pressed on a surface, such as cloth, to create a repetitive design. There is also some speculation that sellos were used for body decoration. However, there is no solid evidence for this, one way or another. Such designs would have been fairly quickly washed or worn off and, in any case, very little human skin has survived for archeologists to examine for such traces. 

Another luxury item was jade, a form of greenstone. Above is a necklace arranged around an ear plug or flare. Jade jewelry was an elite luxury item and often associated with warrior cults and the military. Neither jade, nor any of the other forms of greenstone are naturally found in the area around Cantona. The only way to obtain them was through long-distance trade. The pieces above originated in what is now the state of Guerrero on the Pacific Coast. They probably arrived at Cantona through trade routes controlled by Xochicalco, an Epi-Classic competitor. Another source of jade were the Maya mines in Guatemala. Because greenstone is hard to obtain, anything made from it was highly valued. When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, they discovered that the Aztecs considered jade far more valuable than gold. In addition, greenstone--and particularly jade--was considered to have a religious connection with water. The goddess of rivers, streams, and seas was called Chalchihuitlicue ("She of the Jade Skirt"). Her name comes from the Nahuatl word chalchihuite, meaning "jade jewel" or "drop of precious water". 

Elongated skull of a woman belonging to the elite class. High status families wrapped the heads of newborns in such a way that the skull became elongated as the bone hardened. An elongated head immediately identified a person as a member of the elite. This method was common throughout Mesoamerica. The delicacy of the facial structure is such that the skull likely belonged to a young woman. Lifespans at Cantona averaged 25-35 years, with a particularly high mortality rate for children and women of child-bearing age.

Sunken patio of an elite compound. This compound also had only one house platform, the edge of which can be seen on the left. The patio is quite large and has an excellent view of Cerro de Águilas (Eagle Hill). In the middle ground, past the far edge of the patio, are the tops of trees growing among the middle class compounds on the terraces below. The size of the patio is unusual, indicating that a person of particularly high status may have lived here.

Pots for drinking pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant. Pulque is mildly alcoholic, on the level of beer, and was the preferred drink of the elite. One can imagine the homeowner from the previous photo throwing a party for a large group of his friends and retainers. They might have sat around the cobbled patio on their metates (reed mats), drinking pulque, and listening to the music of drums and flutes as dancers whirled about to entertain them. Meanwhile the middle class folks living on the terraces below would gnash their teeth that they had not been invited to party with the rich and famous.

Relief carving of a night heron with wings extended, superimposed over a rattlesnake. The accompanying sign dates the relief to 150 BC and indicates that the stone slab on which it is carved may have been used to collect offerings. Rattlesnakes are common desert creatures and night herons can be found in the nearby Laguna El Salado. I was not completely satisfied with this brief description, so I emailed the photo to my friend Javier Urcid, who specializes in Mesoamerican rock carvings as a Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. He has never visited Cantona, nor had he ever seen this carving, so he was delighted to receive it and quickly replied.

Analysis of the "Sun-Fire" Bird. On the upper left is Javier's rendering of the carving. In the next two drawings on the upper level, he has disarticulated the original image to show the bird and the snake separately. Here are his comments:

"Two of the features in the serpent make it clear that it refers to the 'Fire Serpent'. The attributes in question include the upward retroflexed nasal appendage and the 'stepped' elements in the tail (features highlighted in gray above). The early date attributed to the slab is strongly supported by another Late Formative representation of the 'Fire Serpent' emblem from Ticuman, Morelos (see lower left drawing). In this case however, the emblem emphasizes its crocodilian version, but the 'stepped' elements in the tail are the same. 

Regarding the bird, it may be the case that this is an early variant in the Central Highlands of the symbol of the Sun. A most elaborate and much earlier example (ca. 400 BC) appears several times in the murals from San Bartolo, Guatemala. This Maya emblem is usually referred to as 'the Principal Bird Deity.'

The glyphic compound from Cantona may stand for a logographic couplet that perhaps reads as 'Sun-Fire', and its function could have been as an ephithet or personal name of an important personage."

The Aztecs believed the 'Fire Serpent', whom they called Xiuhcoatl, carried the sun across the sky. He was associated with young warriors and rulers. Therefore, "Sun-Fire" may be either the title or personal name of a military leader who lived during Cantona I (600 BC - 50 AD), the earliest stage of the city-state's development.

View from an elite house platform on the southern edge of the Acropolis. I hope my series has conveyed how unusual Cantona is. It had unique methods of construction, a complex network of paved streets, far more ball courts (27) than other prehispanic cities, a huge population of 90,000--bigger, during its period of occupation, than any contemporary pre-hispanic city except Teotihuacán, and finally, a 1,600 year lifespan. 

This completes Part 4 of my Cantona series and also completes the series itself. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. 

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Cantona Part 3 of 4: The Plaza of Fertility, the South Plaza & Pyramid, and the Palace Complex

Cantona's largest pyramid overlooks the Plaza of Fertility. These structures are part of a civic, religious, and administrative complex that lies just south of Ball Game Cluster #7 (see previous posting). The proximity of Cluster #7 suggests that it played a part in the functions of the overall complex. If you open a separate screen page and click here, you will see a Google satellite image showing how all these structures relate to one another. An ancient street passes through the image diagonally from west to east (left to right) and separates Cluster #7 (north of the street) from the rest of the complex to its south. In this posting we will look at the Fertility Plaza (far left in the satellite image), the South Plaza and its pyramid (left of center at bottom), and the Palace and its attached pyramid (bottom center stretching to the right). All of these structures lie to the south of the ancient street. A precipitous escarpment, marked by the dark green vegetation at its base, runs west to east along the bottom of the satellite image. The escarpment forms the southern edge of the Acropolis, a plateau which contains the elite ceremonial area.

Plaza of Fertility, its pyramid, and its ball court

Schematic of the Fertility Plaza, pyramid, and ball court. The geographic orientation is west (top) to east (bottom). The Plaza of Fertility is the large, open, sunken square at the bottom. It has a small stone structure in its center and a set of stairs leading down into the square from its east end. Above the Plaza is the pyramid, with a grand staircase leading up to its summit. Along the left (south) side of the pyramid is the ball court, shaped like a capital "I".
View of the Fertility Plaza and pyramid, looking west. The small square of rocks in the foreground is duplicated by another in the center of the Plaza. These served some ceremonial purpose, possibly as altars. Just beyond the nearest rock square is the top of the stairs leading down into the Plaza of Fertility. The right and left (north and south) sides of the sunken Plaza are delimited by stepped walls. The east side is bordered by the Palace, where I was standing when I took the photo. When archeologists excavated the top of the pyramid, they discovered a variety of offerings, including human and deer bones, as well as ceramics, stones, and shells. Also present was a "tool kit" containing two long, thin, obsidian flakes called prismatic blades, as well as a variety of other razor-sharp obsidian cutting tools. The human bones show cut marks and signs of having been boiled. All this points to human sacrifice, dismemberment, and ritual cannibalism. These activities would have been part of fertility ceremonies conducted atop the pyramid by priests and other members of the elite.

Small altar at the bottom of the pyramid's staircase. This has been described by archeologists as part of a "mask" representing a deity, although I confess I can't quite make it out. The summit of the pyramid was not the only area where evidence of human sacrifice was discovered. Excavation of the staircase revealed human skulls and long bones along with tranchets, which are curved obsidian blades probably used to de-flesh bones.

The Fertility Plaza, looking northeast from the left corner of the pyramid. In the upper right are the terraces that lead up to the Palace. Under the floor of the plaza, more human bones were discovered, with more evidence of cannibalism. Also present were prismatic blades of the sort used in non-lethal (but quite painful) voluntary bloodletting. During a ritual called auto-sacrifice, priests and other elites cut or pierced their own tongues, earlobes or penises in order to produce blood to encourage the fertility of the earth. Why blood? Well, the ancients believed that the gods had shed their own blood to create both the earth and human beings. Blood sacrifices were seen as a way of returning the favor and ensuring good harvests.

Other evidence of fertility rites includes large stone phallic sculptures. Nine of these were found buried in the floor of the Plaza of Fertility. Similar phallic sculptures were found in the main plaza of the nearby Ball Court Cluster #7. Adequate precipitation was the critical element for growing maiz (corn), the staple of the Mesoamerican diet. Rain was seen as divine semen, fertilizing the earth, hence the phallic sculptures.

Huehueteotl, the Fire God, holding a skull between his knees. This statue of the Fire God was created between 50 and 600 AD, the period known as Cantona II. The statue was dug up in the Plaza of Fertility near the foot of the pyramid. We don't know for sure what the people at Cantona called the Fire God (or even what they called themselves). However, the Aztecs called him Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old, God". Whatever the name, his image has been the same, from the earliest times, all over Mesoamerica. He is always portrayed as a wrinkled, hunched-over old man, in a seated position, with his hands on his knees and a tray on his head. In the tray, lit coals or copal incense would be burned. Control of fire was the first great step for humankind in its quest for mastery over the natural world. Fire represented both a powerful tool and a dangerous force, and this naturally suggested an otherworldly explanation. The Fire God is probably the oldest of all gods, since the control of fire pre-dates agriculture and thus also pre-dates the Storm God (later known as Tlaloc, the Rain God). The Fire God was tied into the Mesoamerican calendar system, in which a holy 260-day year and a secular 360-day year were linked together in a 52-year cycle. At the end of the cycle, the New Fire Ceremony was conducted. All existing fires were extinguished until the appropriate sacrifices were made, including that of humans. At that point, the chief priest ignited a new fire in his temple and, from it, fire would be carried out to all the households.

A ball court stands along the left side of the Plaza of Fertility's pyramid. Its placement here probably has to do with the nature of the terrain. Not far to the left of the ball court, an escarpment drops vertically 10 meters (30 ft) to the level the elite neighborhoods. As discussed in Part 2 of this series, ball courts were also closely related to fertility and good harvests.

The flat surface of the ball court's playing area is in the shape of a capital "I". The sloping walls were also part of the playing field. Although the precise rules of the game seem to have varied from place to place, it is believed there were generally two to four players on a side. The ball game somewhat resembled volleyball, in that the idea was to keep the ball in play. It could not be touched by hands or feet and the primary method of moving it was to strike it with the shoulders, thighs, or hips. Aside from its entertainment value, the game was a metaphor for the ongoing struggle between the cosmic forces of light and darkness. The ball represented the sun and stars moving across the sky, which created the seasons during which planting and harvesting occurred.

Pot representing Tlaloc, the Rain God. He looks pretty fed up, probably because he hasn't been served his favorite food, human blood. Tlaloc had several helpers, called the Tlaloque, whose job it was to produce rain by breaking large clay pots of water, like the one above. The ancients believed that the sound of thunder was produced when the pots were broken.

Platforms and terraces that once contained elite homes. The view here is from the top of the pyramid, looking down on the elite area below the escarpment. The size of the platforms in the upper left suggests that some of the homes were quite substantial. However, since they were made of perishable materials, nothing remains but the stone platforms themselves.

South Plaza and its Altar and Pyramid

Schematic showing the South Plaza, its pyramid, and the Palace terraces. The South Plaza is the large square area at the bottom containing a stepped altar. To its right is its pyramid. Just above the South Plaza is a slightly smaller sunken plaza. This is part of the Palace Complex, which has terraces bordering the top and right sides of the sunken plaza.

The South Plaza, its altar, and pyramid. These structures, although they are a distinct unit, are directly adjacent to the palace and may have formed part of the Palace Complex.  The pyramid's summit contains the remains of what was either a temple or a residence. If the latter, it was probably the habitation of a very high official, perhaps the chief priest. Regardless of the pyramid's possible residential purposes, this plaza was clearly for ceremonial purposes, particularly given the presence of the large altar. The typical Mesoamerican palace tended to combine residential, civic, ceremonial, and administrative functions.

The grand staircase of the pyramid demonstrates Cantona's unique building styles. Unlike those in other Mesoamerican cities, Cantona's stone structures use no mortar. The stones were carefully cut and placed upon one another, with the gaps filled in by small rocks. It is a testimony to the skill of the ancient architects that the buildings have survived not only as much as 1600 years of use, but an additional 1100 years since they were abandoned. Another difference is that, unlike the other cities, Cantona's walls were not stuccoed smooth and then painted. Instead, the stone surfaces were left bare, with different kinds and colors of rock used to decorate them. In the pyramid above, you can see smooth, light-colored, cantera stone on the stairs and on the vertical part of the lowest of the pyramid's stepped levels. The balustrades on either side of the staircase, as well as the upper stepped-levels, were constructed with tezontlea rougher volcanic stone with a darker color. The low walls bordering the other three sides of the South Plaza are similarly decorated. This unique style may have been due to local geology. Volcanic stone is plentiful here, but limestone for stucco is scarce. In addition, this desert area's limited wood supply would have made it difficult to create stucco, which requires large amounts of firewood to burn limestone. Still another of Cantona's unique aspects is that, unlike most of its contemporaries, the city-state seems to have deliberately fended off most of Teotihuacán's cultural influences. Even though an example of the talud y tablero architectural style, popularized by Teotihuacán, can be seen along the bottom of the pyramid above, it is one of the few to be found at Cantona. And, in fact, talud y tablero actually pre-dates Teotihuacán, as does Cantona itself. The style could well have been adopted at Cantona before Teotihuacán's rise to power and influence.

View from the top of the South Plaza's pyramid. The mountain ridge on the upper right is named Cerro de las Águilas (Hill of the Eagles). Below the pyramid's summit, you can see most of the plaza as well as the two-level altar and its steps. The vista of desert and mountains is grand. If a high priest lived atop this pyramid, he certainly enjoyed a spectacular view from his front porch. Just beyond the plaza's south and west boundary walls, seen in the middle ground, are a series of terraces which drop down the slope in steps.

The terraces below the boundary walls of the South Plaza. These terraces are large enough that they might have been occupied by dwellings or administrative offices. Cantona's architects made creative use of every possible feature of the terrain. Their conformance to the vagaries of the terrain further differentiates them from their contemporaries in other Mesoamerican cities, who adhered more rigidly to the concept of symmetry.

View of the Fertility Plaza pyramid from the top of the South Plaza pyramid. Running diagonally across the photo is the three-step wall bordering the north side of the South Plaza. In the middle of the wall is a small staircase leading up to the sunken plaza that is a part of the Palace Complex.

The Palace Complex

View of the Palace terraces from atop the Fertility Plaza's pyramid. In the foreground is the Fertility plaza. In the upper right, framed by the volcano, is the South Plaza pyramid. Various perishable structures once covered the tops of the terraced areas.

The sunken plaza in front of the Palace. The purpose of this plaza is not clear, but it could have been used for smaller civic gatherings such as a priestly council. It could also have functioned as a place for the residents of the Palace to work or just sit and socialize and admire the view. These uses were not mutually exclusive.

View to the north from the top of the Plaza's terraces. Here, you can get a sense of how the architects used asymmetry in their building practices to cope with the uneven terrain. In the middle distance is the Ball Court Cluster #7. The area beyond appears to be open, yucca covered desert. However, hidden among the yucca are thousands of house platforms, walls, streets, and alleyways. To get a sense of how densely packed these structures are, click here on this Google satellite map.

View to the northeast from from the top of the terraces. In the upper left is Cluster #7's pyramid. In the center of the photo is a staircase that leads up to another part of the Palace Complex.

View to the west along the main street that separates the Palace from Ball Court Cluster #7. To the left are terraces leading up to the Palace. In the upper right is the small military post built during the Cantona III period when fortification and militarization intensified. This street was one of the main avenues that transected Cantona from west to east.

Terraces of the Palace from the main street. This section is a long, semi-rectangular construction with the sunken plaza on one end and a pyramid on the other. As stated before, it would have served multiple uses, including residential, civic, and ceremonial.

Pyramid at the east end of the Palace Complex, viewed from its north side. The pyramid faces west over another sunken plaza. This structure is much larger than the pyramid that overlooks the South Plaza and is more likely to be a temple than a residence. In my next posting we'll take a look at the elite neighborhoods just below the Acropolis, as well as more "middle class" homes lower down the slope. I'll show a number of interesting artifacts that illustrate the daily lives of the inhabitants of Cantona.

This completes Part 3 of my Cantona series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim