Friday, March 23, 2018

Cantona Part 2: The ancient city's unique Ball Game Clusters

Main pyramid of Ball Court Cluster #7, viewed from its right side. Archeologists have identified twenty-seven ball courts at Cantona. This represents more than twice as many as any other pre-hispanic city in Mesoamerica, most of which have only one to three courts. Another unique aspect of the city are its twelve "clusters". Each of these include a ball court, one or more pyramids, and one or two plazas, along with various platforms, altars, stelae, and other structures. Eight of the twelve clusters have been fully unearthed and I took hundreds of photos of them. I obviously couldn't use more than a fraction of my photos for this blog so I decided against walking you through each of the clusters. Instead, I will focus on Ball Court Cluster #7 because it is the largest and most complex example of Cantona's clusters. As I take you through this site, please keep in mind that there are eleven other clusters, and twenty-six other ball courts scattered around the 66 hectares (163 acres) of the Acropolis.


Schematic of Ball Court Cluster #7. This is the largest cluster at Cantona. At the very top (east end) is the main pyramid with two levels of staircases leading to its top. Below the pyramid is a large plaza containing a small altar. Cluster #7 contains two plazas and only two of the other clusters share that distinction. The second plaza is smaller than the first and is separated from it by a raised area with staircases that allow transit. The bottom area of the schematic, below the second plaza, is a complex section containing a long, narrow corridor in the shape of a capital "I", with three dots along its length. That is the ball court. Just below the ball court is a defensive fortification that appears like a kind of nipple extending down. In addition to its large number of ball courts and cluster arrangements, another unique feature of Cantona is its deliberate asymmetry. Most other pre-hispanic cities are symmetrically laid out along a strict north-south-east-west axis. Their layout is associated with astronomical cycles and religious beliefs about the four cardinal directions. At Cantona, not only is the overall urban layout asymmetrical, but the individual elements within the various clusters, including #7, also lack internal symmetry. Archeologists believe that this is a deliberate arrangement. The positions of astronomical bodies cyclicly change from one equinox or solstice to another, and the orientation of the various structures appears to reflect these changes. In this posting, I will take you through the schematic above, beginning at the very bottom, or west end, of the site. For a Google satellite view of Ball Court Cluster #7, click here.

The rectangular space above, enclosed by stone walls, is a defensive fortification. This structure, at the extreme west end of the cluster, was added some time after the other sections had been constructed. Such fortifications reflect a growing sense of threat, either from external sources or from internal unrest.  At the far end, you can see a long rectangular corridor with sloping sides, covered by reddish pine needles. That is the ball court.

The Ball Court complex

The ball court schematic. The defensive fortification is at the bottom and the playing field starts just above it and extends up in the shape of a capital I. On the left side of the schematic is a square, enclosed area called a recinto. On either side of the long corridor with the three dots are sloping walls, also part of the playing area. Spectators sat along the top of the sloping walls, as well as in some of the structures at the schematic's top (east end) that form the boundary with the smaller plaza.

Balls were made of hard rubber, obtained from trees growing in the hot, low, coastal areas. The Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC) have been called Mesoamerica's "Mother of Civilizations" because so much of pre-hispanic culture originated with them, including the ball game. Their homeland was the Gulf Coast, where the rubber was gathered to make the balls. From there, the game migrated, probably along Olmec trade routes. Eventually, versions of it came to be played as far south as Honduras and as far north as Arizona in the US. One version, called ulama is still played in Sinaloa, in modern Mexico. The balls of the ancient game varied from about the size of a grapefruit to that of a soccer ball (like the one above). Some ancient relief carvings and murals depict players using balls as big or bigger than a beach ball, but this was probably the result of artistic exaggeration. The balls were quite heavy and players had to wear thick, leather armor around their mid-sections and on their heads to avoid injury, or even death, if struck by a ball.

The playing area included both the flat rectangular corridor and the sloping walls. The "dots" on the schematic are revealed here as flat pieces of stone, arranged together as disks. Signs at the site describe them as "goals" but it is not clear exactly what that means. The specific rules of the ancient game are not fully understood, nor are the strategies the players used to win. In Xochicalco and other cities that were Cantona's Epi-Classic Era contemporaries (650 AD - 900 AD), stone rings were mounted on the walls on either side at the mid-point of the court. One way of scoring involved passing the ball through the ring. However, no such rings are evident in the courts at Cantona, so the rules apparently differed from place to place, and may have evolved over time. The games were not simple entertainment, but were deeply religious in nature and steeped in ritual. The court here is closely aligned with the equinox, an astronomical event which was used, along with the solstice, to schedule planting and harvesting. However, that was by no means the only ritual function associated with the game.

These large stone phalluses were found buried in the playing field. They are about .66 m (2 ft) tall. Such phallic symbols are quite common in pre-hispanic societies and represent fertility and the act of sowing. In pre-hispanic beliefs, the earth was feminine and rain was divine semen fertilizing it.

Stela mounted at the top of the north wall of the court. This monument marks the mid-point of the playing field.  In the recinto behind it, human remains were discovered, including those of a child wearing a jade necklace. The sacrifice of children was a common offering to Tlaloc, the rain god. Their tears were believed to be a pure representation of rain. In addition, the child's necklace was jade and the Nahuatl word for jade is chalchihuite, which can also mean "drop of precious water".

Skull of sacrificed man also found in the recinto. This is another example of the strong linkage between Cantona's ball courts and human sacrifice. The large hole in the back side of this man's head testifies to his violent end. It is unknown whether he was a player, or simply a captive brought to a ball game for this purpose. Such acts were viewed as critical to ensuring an adequate food supply. Blood represented the essence of the universe. The gods had shed theirs in the process of creating the world. Returning the favor with human blood was a way of encouraging the gods to provide adequate rain, soil fertility, and good harvests. In the view of pre-hispanic people, no offering was more valuable than human life itself.

Made of razor-sharp obsidian, knives like this had multiple uses during sacrifices. They were used to cut out living hearts, for decapitation, and for the post-sacrifice dismemberment of a body. All this seems grisly and cruel to a modern sensibility and it no doubt seemed that way to the victim at the time. However, the beliefs of pre-hispanic people appear to have been sincere. Drought, crop failures, and famine were realities to these people. Particularly in Cantona's high desert environment, the margin of survival was thin if the rains failed. For millennia, people had been worshiping and making sacrifices to Tlaloc and his early predecessor, the Storm God. Today, even with weather satellites, we still cannot perfectly predict the weather, much less control it. The ancients did the best they could with what they had.

The Second Plaza

The Second Plaza is also known as the Plaza of the Balcony. Some of the structures on its north and east sides were apparently built to provide the best views of the ball game, kind of like theatre boxes. There is a small military post on the lower right (southwest) corner. This may have been built around the same time as the fortifications on the west end of the ball court. On the upper (west) side of the plaza are stairs that lead up to the Main Plaza.

The Plaza of the Balcony, viewed from the east end of the ball court. On the the right side of the photo, in the center, you can see the stairs leading up and  over the structure that separates the two plazas. The left (north) side of the Plaza of the Balcony is occupied by a series of terraces and steps leading up to one of the so-called "balconies".

Plaza of the Balcony, looking west toward the ball court. The photo was taken from the top of the steps leading to the Main Plaza. On the right (north) side are the terraces leading to the balcony.

Main Plaza and Pyramid

The Main Plaza, also known as the Grand Square, is the larger of the two plazas. At the top (east) side is the Main Pyramid with its two staircases leading to its summit. Just in front of the lower staircase is the double altar. At the bottom (west) side is the staircase leading to the Plaza of the Balcony. On the north, south, and west sides are more sets of terraces, built like stadium seats. A small pyramid overlooks the northwest corner of the plaza. A total of nine sets of stairs are located around the plaza, more than are found in any other cluster's plaza.

The Main Pyramid, with the double altar in front. The ceremonies conducted here were closely related to the ball game. It is possible that the winners were paraded here and cheered by the people gathered on the steps and terraces surrounding the plaza. Various kinds of sacrifices were offered at the altar.

A smooth stela stands at the very bottom of the pyramid's staircase. The purpose of the stela is unknown. There are no carvings on it, and the artisans at Cantona did not use stucco designs on stelae. At other pre-hispanic cities, stelae are usually covered with glyphs commemorating rulers, victories, and important dates. This one is a mystery.

Human remains were also found in the walls of the Main Pyramid. They were apparently victims buried here after their sacrifice. These discoveries, as well as other burials throughout the city, tell us a great deal about the beliefs of the city's inhabitants. However, the human remains also open a window on the health and physical condition of the people who lived here. For example, we know that the average height of men was 1.62 m (5' 3"). For women it was 1.55 m (5' 1"). Examination of teeth revealed a wear pattern showing that people were eating foods processed on stone metates, which left tiny bits of stone mixed with the food. The caries (cavities) in the teeth indicate a diet high in carbohydrates. The carbs probably came from the maiz (corn) and seeds ground on the metates. Osteoporosis was common due to a lack of calcium. The average lifespan was 25-35 years. Mortality was high among infants and juveniles and particularly among women of reproductive age.

A small, double altar stands in the plaza a few feet from the base of the pyramid's staircase. This style of altar later became popular throughout ancient Mexico. It is the major focal point of the Grand Square and was the site of offerings to the gods, probably including human sacrifice.

Small obsidian knives like these were used in a practice known as "auto-sacrifice". Not all sacrifices involving humans were fatal or even involuntary. Since human blood was considered essential to the functioning of the cosmos, people sometimes offered their own blood. Auto-sacrifice involved cutting or piercing soft parts of the body, such as the tongue or the genitals. The devices used included small obsidian knives, as well as the spines from the maguey plant or the stingers of manta rays. The practice produced blood but, as you might imagine, also a considerable amount of pain. In turn, this often produced a trance-like state during which the individual could enter the underworld and make contact with the gods.

View from the top of the Main Pyramid, looking southwest. The terraced south wall of the Great Sqaure forms the boundary of Cluster #7. Beyond it are more terraces and pyramids, as well as other clusters. The large structure in the distance on the left is call El Palacio (The Palace). To its right is a pyramid that overlooks Cantona's Central Plaza, known as the Plaza de la Fertilización (Fertility Plaza). We will look at these areas in a future posting.

The view to the northwest includes the small pyramid bordering the north wall. Beyond this boundary of the Great Square, you see what appears to be open, yucca-covered desert. However, concealed in the yucca are thousands of closely packed structures, separated by an intricate street network. There are more ball court clusters with pyramids and plazas, as well as residences, workshops, fortifications and more.

View to the southeast from the pyramid's top. In the foreground is a small pyramid associated with another ball court cluster. Behind it, in the distance, another pyramid/plaza complex rises. Interspersed with all of this ancient architecture are numerous unexcavated mounds of rubble that conceal still more structures. The architecture that has been revealed at Cantona is overwhelming, but one must keep in mind that all this represents only 10%--and possibly as little as 1%--of what is here.

This completes Part 2 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, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cantona Part 1: Ancient city, lost in the high desert

Person of the elite class, holding a bowl. This small statue, found at the ancient city of Cantona, represents a member of the elite class. His status is indicated by cranial elongation. Binding the head of an infant, to shape the skull while it was still soft, was a process used by elite families to physically distinguish themselves from common people. Carole and I visited Cantona during our stay at Tlaxcala. The ruins of the ancient city are located in Puebla State, in a remote, high desert area. Cantona was not only one of the largest of Mesoamerica's ancient cities, but its longevity is almost unmatched--from 600 BC to 1050 AD. My interest was particularly piqued by its remote location and because it is one of the least-visited of Mexico's ancient cities. Oddly, despite its size, longevity, and obvious importance, few modern chronologies of the pre-hispanic world even mention its existence. In this posting, I will provide an overview of Cantona's long history, including the most recent scientific research on the causes of its decline and fall. In subsequent postings, I will focus on the city's unique clusters of pyramids, palaces, ball courts, and living areas, and intersperse my photos of these with some of the beautiful artifacts located in the museum adjacent to the ruins.


Cantona is located in a broad, rolling, high-desert landscape, dotted with extinct volcanos. There are some small farms and ranches scattered about this large area, along with a few pueblos here and there, but most of the country looks pretty much like this. Until the Classic Era ended around 600 AD, the climate here was somewhat wetter. However, it did not compare to the lush terrain of the central Valley of Mexico, where so many other civilizations flourished. Still, there were important resources here and some of them related to numerous volcanos like the one seen above. Volcanic rock was plentiful, light, and easily shaped for building purposes. Of critical importance was the volcanic glass (obsidian) which could be crafted into tools and other useful objects. In addition to mineral resources, there were animals. Archeologists analyzed bones found in the ruins and identified three species of deer, two of turtles, collared peccaries, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, and rabbits. Plant resources included yucca, maguey, and nopal cactus, all of which provided sources of food and other useable products such as fibers from yucca and needles from maguey spines. The nearby mountains also contained abundant pine and oak forests which provided building materials.

Map of the major excavated structures in the city. The site covers at least 12 square kilometers and only about 10% (some say as little as 1%) has been excavated. A Google satellite view of the areas surrounding the excavated structures reveals the outlines of huge numbers of unexcavated ruins extending out in all directions. Even in the excavated areas, there are many mounds which contain large, unrevealed structures. Archeologists have barely scratched the surface. Cantona can reached via the 140D cuota (toll road) in northeast Puebla State. At the exit for Tepeyahualco, head north on a two-lane, black-top road for about 8 km (5 mi). On the map above, the black-top road can be seen in the lower left corner. The well-marked turn-off leads you to the parking lot of the site museum. I recommend checking it out before walking the site. There is an Archeological Zone fee of $60 pesos ($3.20 USD). For a separate fee, local guides can be hired outside the museum. The site is open 7 days a week from 9am-6pm. However, the museum is only open Wednesday-Sunday from 9am-6pm.

The path from the museum leads to the beginning of one of the ancient city's streets. It ascends a long ridge, taking you up through the pre-hispanic residential neighborhoods built on either side. Over 8000 residential units have been identified and they are connected by over 500 streets and alleyways. The street in the photo above is one of the main internal highways. It leads up the ridge to the top of a broad plateau, called the Acropolis. This relatively flat area of 66 hectares (163 acres) stands high above the rest of the city and the surrounding desert. Within the limits of the Acropolis are a large number of what archeologists call "clusters", a feature unique to Cantona. Each cluster contains a ball court and one or more pyramids and plazas. Also unique are the city's 27 ball courts, an astonishing number for a pre-hispanic city. From the Acropolis, and especially from the tops of its pyramids, you have a breathtaking view of desert landscape and extinct volcanos. Unlike many other pyramids in Mexico, you are allowed to climb these. Anyone who tours the ruins should wear good hiking boots or shoes and carry some water. People with limited mobility should probably not attempt a walk through the site.

Formative Period and Cantona I

Faces and figures from the Formative period. Oddly, while the people of this period produced many sculptures of humans, the inhabitants of later times did not. In addition to the several small faces above, some with interesting head dresses, there are two female figures, both headless. The purpose of these figures is not known, but they may have had ritual functions. The very first people to settle in the area arrived around 1000 BC. They cultivated small farms and established tiny pueblos. Very early in the Formative period, the inhabitants began to mine the large obsidian deposits located only 9 km (5.6 mi) to the north, in the Zaragoza Mountains.

Some of the obsidian tools found at Cantona. Obsidian can be brought to a level of sharpness that exceeds modern surgical instruments. The volcanic glass is hard, but it can be flaked into various shapes using stone or bone tools. The result can be used for knives and scrapers, as well as for tips on weapons such as arrows and spear heads. Such tools and weapons can be produced in a remarkably short time by those skilled in the technique. All of this meant that, from the earliest times, obsidian was highly valued in pre-hispanic societies. Control of large obsidian deposits gave a society a significant economic advantage, equivalent to a modern country which possesses large oil deposits within its territory. Like oil, obsidian was produced for trade, as well as for local use. Cantona was ideally placed for trade, since it straddled several ancient trade routes. One extended from the Gulf Coast to the Valley of Mexico, while others ran south into the Oaxaca area and north into the Huastec country. Archeologists have found evidence that many of Cantona's structures contained workshops for the production of obsidian objects, much of it intended for export. Large deposits of obsidian and a strategic location were probably the two most important factors in Cantona's rise to power and its longevity as a society.

Part of a residential compound, showing the platforms on which dwellings were erected. This residence, known as Patio #2, is part way up the ridge but below the Acropolis. It was once the home of a large, multi-generational family of perhaps 15-20 people. These were people who, in the social structure of Cantona, fell between the common farmers and obsidian mine workers who lived in the flatlands and the elites who lived on the Acropolis. At Cantona, the higher the geographical location of your home, the higher your social status. The perishable structures which once stood on top of the platforms have long-since vanished. The compound includes areas for sleeping, cooking, and lounging, as well for civic and religious ceremonies. There is a small shrine in one of the structures and another contains a tomb. By 600 BC, the beginning of a period known as Cantona I, development had accelerated and the population had grown to about 12,000 people, concentrated in an area of about 333 hectares (823 acres). Platforms like those above came into use at this time. Centrally controlled grain silos were built to store crop surpluses. Large scale obsidian mining began and state-controlled workshops to shape it into useful objects appeared.

Another development of Cantona I was the pyramid/ball court cluster. Above, you see Ball Court Cluster #6, the oldest of the 12 ball court clusters so far identified at Cantona. The ball court is in the middle-ground. Its playing area was composed of the long rectangular corridor leading toward the pyramid in the background. The sloping walls on either side were also part of the field of play. The pyramid is part of the group of structures that forms Cluster #6. Unlike Cantona, with its 27 ball courts, most pre-hispanic cities had from one to three courts. Although a few had more than that, no other city even approaches Cantona's total. By 50 AD, the end of  the Cantona I era, the city already had 16 courts, with 11 more built in later centuries. The ball game was very important to pre-hispanic cultures. No doubt, it had some utility as simple entertainment, but the game's political and religious functions were of far greater importance. The contests were sometimes used to settle internal political disputes, or even conflicts between city-states. On a religious level, the struggle between the two teams represented the duality of the cosmos. The teams were stand-ins for the ongoing struggle between the forces of light and darkness. The entire affair was very ritualized and often members of one team or the other were sacrificed at the end of a game. Whether it was the winners or the losers is a matter of dispute among archeologists, as are the number of players and the exact rules of the game.

The pyramid at the north end of the ball court faces a sunken patio and an altar. The exact make-up of the 12 identified clusters varies. Among those excavated, each includes a ball court at one end and at least one pyramid at the other, often with an altar at the base of its staircase. Separating the court and pyramid are one or more plazas, sometimes with other platforms or structures on either side of the patios. Each cluster forms a discrete unit. Six of these clusters had been constructed by the end of Cantona I. Not all of the ball courts were functional at the same time. For example, the one in Cluster #6 went out of use long before the city itself was abandoned. While it was in use, it had a drainage system to carry off water, possibly for storage. All during the Cantona I period, population continued to grow, increasing to 20,000 by 450 BC, with further expansion in later centuries.

Classic Era - Cantona II

One of Cantona's many walled streets winds through a terraced area leading to the Acropolis. Another striking feature of Cantona is its complex network of paved and walled streets. Most were narrow and hemmed in by thick, high walls on either side. The streets don't allow room for more than two men abreast, This was the result of a deliberate and well-thought-out defensive strategy. The purpose was to control the movements of the population, as well as to defend the city by channeling the attacks of enemy warriors into ambushes. Further, the placement of the elite area atop the steep-sided Acropolis is no coincidence. This location provided protection from both internal unrest and external attack. All this enabled Cantona to survive 1,600 years of internal unrest, invasions by the northern barbarians known as Chichimecs, and wars with rival city-states. The period known as Cantona II (50 AD - 600 AD) corresponds the rise of the Teotihuacán Empire, another serious threat that Cantona managed to survive and, ultimately, to outlive.

Selection of elite goods from the Cantona II era. In the back row are two interesting pots. The one on the right is in the shape of a dancer's foot, with rattles around the ankles. In between the pots is a conch shell, emblematic of Cantona's role as a trading center, since the city was located far from either Coast. The front row contains the same statue pictured at the beginning of this posting. In the middle is a large, polished green stone, a possible import from Guerrero on the Pacific Coast.  To its right is a elegant, heart-shaped bowl or tray. Cantona II was a period of great activity and social complexity. Trade with other city-states, including Teotihuacán, grew dramatically. Obsidian was the city's chief resource for trading and the exploitation of the mines grew in size and efficiency.

Cluster #10 - The Palace. The Palace Cluster includes two pyramids, a ball court, two large sunken plazas, and high status living areas. In the center of the plaza is a small, square, stone altar. Archeologists consider the Palace to be the living quarters of the top echelon. It was also the administrative nerve center and chief civic-ceremonial area for the whole city. All of Cantona's construction was stone-on-stone, using no mortar. This means that the stones had to be cut and fitted with special care for the structures to survive for millennia. This is yet another of the city's unique features. To get a sense of scale, you can see Carole just left of center, sitting by a staircase leading up a set of terraces. Looming in the background is the volcano seen in the second photo of this posting. During Cantona II, the city more than tripled in size 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres). By 400 AD, the population had expanded to 64,000 inhabitants. At least 20 ball courts were in operation and 10 of these were associated with the clusters.

Various jewelry worn by Cantona's elite class. The greenstone necklaces are associated with the military caste. They originated from the Guerrero coast, possibly from the ancient city of Xihuacán. The earrings and pendants, carved from conch shells, came from either the Atlantic or Pacific Coasts. Only people of wealth and power wore such adornments. Also present are cylinders made from puma bones. There were once part of staffs carried by people of authority as symbols of their power,

Epi-Classic Era

Defaced statue indicates a violent change of regime. The era known as Cantona III (600 AD - 950 AD) began with a violent incident that radically changed the character of the city's leadership. For a thousand years or more, Cantona had been ruled by a priestly caste. Suddenly, the military staged a coup-d'etat and the priests were out. You may recall from my series on Teotihuacán that a similar coup appears to have happened there around 450 AD. Just as had happened in Teotihuacán 150 years before, statues of deities at Cantona were defaced, broken into pieces, and their remains deposited in the ground, along with the staffs of power carried by the priests. The reasons for this regime change are unclear. However, about 100 years before the coup, the climate at Cantona had started to change, leading to a much dryer environment. Perhaps the failure of the priestly class to ensure enough rain for good harvests led to unrest in the population. Modern-day military coups have often occurred during times of economic distress and political turmoil. Another interesting possibility involves the fall of Teotihuacán in 650 AD. Archeologists believe its domination of Mesoamerican trade routes was challenged by rising powers like Cantona, Cacaxtla, and Xochicalco. Perhaps Cantona's warrior caste saw the the priests as standing in the way of an opportunity. If the military men were in charge, they could tighten Cantona's control over the trade routes and squeeze Teotihuacán. Much of pre-hispanic history is like a jigsaw puzzle, showing tantalizing outlines, but with all too many pieces missing.

Pyramid of the East Plaza complex. This pyramid is at the highest point of the Acropolis. A climb to the top provides a stupendous 360 degree view of the surrounding desert. The East Plaza complex was built during the Cantona III phase. It runs on an east-west axis, and includes a ball court, a second pyramid, and a sunken plaza. Around 650 AD (the beginning of the Epi-Classic Era), the the city reached its peak of population (93,000) and physical size (1,453 hectares or 3,590 acres). During this period, the city played an active role in the political and economic competition among Epi-Classic city-states. Cantona's wealth and strategic location for trade made it a target of the jealousy of city-states like Cacaxtla and Xochicalco. However, Cantona's remote location, along the strength of its defenses, helped the desert city outlive these competitors by 150 years, just as it had outlived Teotihuacán.

Elite living area on the Acropolis. The elites lived in walled compounds not unlike those who had a lesser status. However, their homes were on the Acropolis level, not below it, and tend to be larger. The elite compounds are interspersed among the clusters of pyramids and ball courts and around the civic areas. In the photo above you can see the raised platform where a family's house once stood. It stands in front of a flagstone patio where much of the household activity would have taken place. The families living in these compounds would have been those of nobles, top officials, priests, and military leaders.

Cantona's various structures were decorated with stone carvings. Unlike other pre-hispanic cities, Cantona favored carved stone rather than stucco for decorations. The design above shows two intertwined snakes, a common symbolic element. Another difference with other cities is Cantona's asymmetry. Elsewhere, urban design tends to be on a strict north-south-east-west plan, with structures symmetrically facing each other across plazas. Here, the pyramid/ball court clusters face in a variety of directions and the layout of buildings varies around each of the plazas. The reasons why Cantona's design is so different are not clear.

Cantona IV- decline and fall

By the end of Cantona III, in 900 AD, the climate was much drier and warmer. When the drying period began about 500 AD, one result was an increase in Cantona's population. This might, at first, seem surprising. The explanation is that life became increasingly difficult in the outlying rural areas and people sought food and protection in the city. However, this was no short-term drought. The environmental difficulties gradually increased, causing the priestly caste to lose credibility and triggering the military takeover in 600 AD. Cantona's strategic location on the trade routes enabled it to maintain its strength for the next several centuries, but the drying trend continued.

Skull of an elite inhabitant, showing the cranial elongation. Life had become very hard by 900 AD, even for the elites. Water sources were drying up, harvests were failing, and trade was dropping off. Cities like Cacaxtla and Xochicalco were abandoned about this time. Even so, Cantona lasted another 150 years. However, Cantona IV (900 AD - 1050 AD), was a period of steady decline. An indication of this can be seen in how construction practices changed. Houses were no longer built upon stone platforms, but on the bare earth. Cantona's extraordinary lifespan had lasted a millennium and a half, bridging the great gulf of time between the Olmec Era and the early beginnings of the Aztecs. But, by the end of Cantona IV, the city was empty and abandoned.

As I stood on the summit of one of Cantona's pyramids, surveying the vast, volcano-dotted desert, I was struck by the silence of this once proud, rich, and bustling place. The poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley came to mind:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
This concludes the first of several parts on Cantona. 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

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 7b: Museo Regional's artifacts- Pre-Hispanic Post-Classic Era through Colonial times

Chac-Mools like this were used from the Toltec through the Aztec periods. A Chac-Mool is a carved and polished stone statue, thought to represent either a god or a warrior. The figure is always the same: a reclining male, with his head turned questioningly to one side, while his hands hold a bowl on his stomach. Ritual offerings were placed in the bowl, including human hearts freshly cut from the living chests of sacrifice victims. It has been dated to the period between 1250-1519 AD, i.e. the end of the Toltec era through the rise of the Aztec Empire and arrival of the Spanish. The statue was found at Hacienda Mixco in Teacalco, Tlaxcala. Chac-Mools have also been found at Tula, the Toltec capital in the state of Hidalgo, and at Chichen Itza in the Maya territory of Yucatan. Another stands in front of the temple dedicated to Tlaloc, the Rain God, atop the Templo Mayor pyramid in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Although they were bitter enemies, the Tlaxcaltecas and the Aztecs shared many of the same gods and ritual practices, including Tlaloc and a taste for human sacrifice.

In this posting, we'll take a look at some of the Museo Regional's artifacts from the Post-Classic through the early Colonial Eras.

The Post Classic Era

And, speaking of Tlaloc... God of water, rain, lightning and governor of eight of the thirteen levels of heaven. He wears the "goggles" typical of representations of Tlaloc. Another interesting aspect of this statue is its rather phallic appearance, which may be related to agricultural fertility. Worship of a deity related to rain is probably as old as the practice of agriculture. The only god who may be older is the Fire God, known in the Post-Classic era as Huehueteotl, the "Old, old god". The statue was created somewhere between 1250-1519 AD. Tlaloc was believed to reside in the mountains where the clouds gather. Sacrificial offerings on the altars located there often included children.

Chalchihuitlicue was goddess of vegetation, particularly maiz, and patroness of young women. She was Tlaloc's consort, a nice match since the plant world needs water. Chalchihuitlicue was worshipped not only by the Tlaxcaltecas, but by many of the other Post-Classic cultures.

Ehecatl, the Wind God, is another very ancient deity. He was closely associated with Tlaloc, because the wind pushes the clouds and rain. Ehecatl always wears a strange, artificial beak. Another of his unique features is the circular shape of his temples. The temples bases of other pre-hispanic gods are square or rectangular, with the four sides oriented to the sacred, cardinal directions. Since the wind can come from any direction, Ehecatl's temples have no corners. In fact, they often had spiral shapes, perhaps to imitate a whirlwind. A very early example can be found at Xochitécatl, in western Tlaxcala, built sometime between 700-300 BC. Another example, from the Post-Classic Era, stands at Calixtlahuaca, west of Mexico City. Ehecatl was also closely associated with Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent) who, along with Tlaloc, was one of the Creator Gods..

Processional figure, used in religious rituals relating to war and the gods. Groups of figures like this helped support group cohesion by transmitting tribal history, cosmology, and religion. This figure was one of a set found at Tizatlan, in the present-day capital city of Tlaxcala. It was one of the four federated altepetls (city-states) that formed what the Spanish called the Republica de Tlaxcala.

Post-Classic "host" figurilla with child. This rather cheerful looking figurilla carries a child on her arm who wears an identical grin. The figurilla is hollow, with a removable plate on the chest. The figure inside is dressed in a loincloth and necklace and may represent the divine essence residing in each person. Figurillas like this are especially interesting because they show how the people dressed and adorned themselves at a particular time. This craftsmanship of this figurilla is of lower quality than that of similar Classic-Era figurillas found at Teotihuacan.

Beautifully painted tri-pod bowl. The decorations appear to be abstract, but some may represent snakes and birds. This would have graced the table of a high-status individual. It may have been imported or it might be an heirloom from an earlier era.

Funerary vase with glyphs. The vase was found at Ocotelulco, another of Tlaxcala's four altepetls. A vase like this is usually found in an intact tomb. Otherwise, it would have been unlikely to survive centuries of turmoil and conflict.

Two-handled pot, undecorated. This utilitarian piece might have been used in the kitchen of either a noble or a commoner. A wide variety of pre-hispanic ceramic styles have been found in Tlaxcala. One explanation of this diversity is that the area was dominated by many different cultures and civilizations over the millennia. Another factor was the network of trade routes criss-crossing the area.

Donut-shaped ceramic vase, decorated with glyphs. This is one of the most interesting ceramic pieces I have ever encountered in Mexico. It is in the shape of a thick donut, with a an opening on one side. I am left puzzled as to how this piece would have been used, and for what purpose.

The Spanish Conquest

16th century steel armor and halberd used by Spanish conquistadors. For millennia, metal armor had been used by the soldiers of Europe and elsewhere in the Old World. By the 16th century, it had reached the peak of its craftsmanship and effectiveness. However, firearms were introduced in the 15th century. Over the following centuries, improvements in the power, reliability, and rate of fire of guns gradually made armor obsolete on European battlefields. However, it continued to serve well in the New World against the flint and obsidian weapons employed by indigenous warriors. The halberd was a pole weapon, used primarily by foot soldiers. This one has a spearpoint, but it also carries a hook used to jerk mounted knights from their horses. Notice the small studs that spiral up the length of the pole. These helped a soldier keep his grip, even when the shaft was slick with sweat and blood. Armor and weapons made of steel, along with horses and firearms, were important factors in defeating the indigenous forces that opposed the Spanish Conquest. However, the Spanish could never have succeeded without the assistance of thousands of Tlaxcalteca warriors, armed with obsidian weapons, wicker shields, and cotton armor.

The Lienzo de Tlaxcala is a remarkable document, painted on cloth by native scribes. It is a pictorial record--from an indigenous point of view--of Tlaxcala's governing structure and the history of the Conquest. The Lienzo was created by indigenous scribes using a mixture of traditional and Spanish techniques. Unfortunately, the original has been lost, but the copy above was recreated in the 19th century using lithographs taken of the original. The full Lienzo was 3m wide and 5m long (9.8 ft x 16.4 ft). The top portion, seen above, shows the Republica de Tlaxcala's governing structure. The much longer bottom portion, not shown above, is composed of 91 small panels (7 across in 13 rows) showing scenes from the Conquest.

Detail from the top portion of the Lienzo showing Xicoténcatl, one of the Four Lords of Tlaxcala. The other three Lords are also depicted, along with the names and small profiles of their key supporters. Two of those can be seen in the upper left. Xicoténcatl is draped with an embroidered cape and wears a magnificent headdress. He also wears Spanish-style pantaloons, an example of the Lienzo's mix of styles.

La Malinche (center) interprets between Cortéz and a native caciqueAtlivetzian, the word in the upper left, represents the place where the event occurred. It is a Nahuatl word, rendered in Spanish script. The objects in the lower left, below the cacique (chief), represent supplies desperately needed by the Spanish as they marched on Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. Local groups like this were hoping to throw off Aztec domination. They achieved their wish, but exchanged Aztec rule for that of the Spanish, with disastrous consequences. La Malinche was a Maya woman given as a gift to Cortéz when he visited Yucatan on the way to conquer the Aztecs. She became his mistress, but also played a critical role in the Conquest as Cortéz' interpreter and adviser. As well as her native Maya dialect, she spoke Nahuatl, the language of most of the cultures in Central Mexico, including the Tlaxcaltecas and the Aztecs. La Malinche was viewed as a heroine during the colonial period and the first 100 years of the Mexican Republic. However, since the Revolution, appreciation of Mexico's pre-hispanic heritage has grown. She is now viewed by many as a traitor who collaborated in the ruin of the native civilizations of Mesoamerica. This is probably unfair, since she was, after all, a slave.

The Four Lords, under the coat-of-arms granted to Tlaxcala by the Spanish King. They wear Spanish crowns adorned by indigenous feathers. Under their native capes are Spanish doublets and pantaloons. The artist here was undoubtedly Spanish, or a mestizo trained in Spanish techniques. He saw the Lords through Spanish eyes rather than through the eyes of the indigenous creators of the Lienzo. The King's coat-of-arms was not just a meaningless symbol. Achieving it meant that Tlaxcala was directly accountable to the King, rather than to his subordinate officials in New Spain. This was the reward for Tlaxcala's loyal service during the Conquest. It also helped that Tlaxcala sent 400 native families to help colonize the wild northern wastes of New Spain. There, they acted as a buffer against the fierce Chichimecas. Those nomadic warriors had, for millennia, plagued the Aztecs and other pre-hispanic civilizations. Tlaxcala's native leadership struggled to maintain their political and cultural autonomy throughout the colonial period and were successful to a considerable extent.

The Colonial Era

St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order of evangelizing friars.  This anonymous 18th century oil painting depicts San Francisco in a simple friar's habit. Franciscans, at least in the early days, were renowned for their adherence to the principles of simplicity and poverty. The Conquest was still underway in 1524 when the first twelve Franciscans arrived. They had the evangelization field to themselves for the first few years, until the Dominicans, Augustinians, and other Orders arrived. Several of the newly arrived Franciscans set up operations in Tlaxcala. While the conquistadors carried out the military conquest, the Franciscans engaged in what some have called a spiritual conquest. In addition to conducting mass conversions, they smashed indigenous religious statues and other symbols of "devil worship". Pre-hispanic temples were demolished and new churches built from the rubble. However, the friars also strove to protect the native people from corruption and abuse by the conquistadors. This put the Franciscans and other evangelizing orders in direct conflict with the interests of the conquistadors and other Spaniards. These adventurers and opportunists often enslaved the natives, raped their women, seized their lands, and tortured anyone who might lead them to sources of gold or silver.

Spanish bridle, typical of those used on haciendas established throughout Tlaxcala. The Crown wanted to encourage the production of food and other goods for the burgeoning gold and silver mines, as well as for newly established towns and cities. As a result, the authorities began to award small land grants, called mercedes, to conquistadors. This was intended to reward them for their service, and to provide them with gainful employment as farmers. However, it was also to keep them out of trouble, since unemployed ex-soldiers often became involved in adventurism and intrigues. As time went on, other on-the-make Spaniards began to arrive. They, too, were awarded mercedes, particularly if they had family or political connections. Due to Tlaxcala's autonomy and the efforts of the Franciscans, Tlaxcaltecas had a degree of protection from land-hungry Spaniards, unlike other native groups. However, from the earliest days of the Conquest, the indigenous population of Tlaxcala was ravaged by European diseases. Between the early 16th century and the middle of the 17th, the native population of Tlaxcala crashed by 90%. Similar dramatic declines occurred throughout New Spain. This opened vast areas to Spanish settlement, resulting in a land rush. Although the Crown had established regulations intended to inhibit the development of huge estates, the genie was out of the bottle. Nearly everyone in the Spanish community was involved in the frenzy, including corrupt public officials and churchmen. The accumulation of large land holdings, often at the expense of the native population, continued for the next 400 years. Thus were born Mexico's famous haciendas.

Ornate chair belonging to Viceroy Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. It soon became clear to the Spanish Crown that they couldn't leave New Spain in the hands of conquistadors like Hernán Cortéz. He was at heart an adventurer, not an administrator. Even his invasion of the Aztec Empire had been an act of insubordination, forgivable only because of his success. Soon, the Crown established the Audiencia, an administrative court, and then appointed the first Viceroy. The early Viceroys were men of ability and energy. They worked hard to establish a framework to govern the far-flung lands and millions of new subjects that Spain had so swiftly acquired. As a direct representative of the King, the Viceroy's job was to help develop the new colony and to combat Chichimec incursions and indigenous rebellions. He also had to reconcile the interests of the Crown, the Church, the merchant class, the hacienda owners, and the indigenous people. I list the native people last because their interests usually came last. However, the early Viceroys attempted to rectify the worst abuses against them and established regulations to prevent similar occurrences. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (1600-1659) was a churchman who was Bishop of the Diocese of Tlaxcala and Archbishop of Mexico before he became Viceroy. As Tlaxcala's Bishop, he got into a fierce conflict with the Jesuits, who were independent of his authority. Their Order owned large haciendas in Tlaxcala and elsewhere, and they refused to pay Tlaxcala's Diocese the 10% tithe that supported the secular Church and its charitable institutions. Although Palafox lost this battle, his writings against the Jesuits were used more than a century later to justify their expulsion from New Spain and all other Spanish possessions. In addition to his church duties, Palafox held public office as Visitador (a sort of Inspector General). In this position, he charged the incumbent Viceroy with treason and corruption and had him arrested and deported to Spain. Palafox became interim Viceroy between June and November of 1642. He was the only man to ever hold the positions of Archbishop of Mexico and Viceroy simultaneously. One of his most important acts as Archbishop was to take the responsibility for evangelism away from the religious orders and give it to the secular clergy, who were responsible directly to the Bishops.

This stone lion, dated 1629, probably stood guard at a gate or grand stairway. If the 16th century was the era of Conquest, the 17th was one of consolidation. Huge tracts of land in Tlaxcala and elsewhere had come into the possession of Spaniards who had only the most tenuous legal claim to it. A lot of it was indigenous land which had belonged to villages that had been emptied by epidemics. Some of it was blatantly seized over the protests of its rightful, living, native owners. Other parts were Crown lands which had been given away by corrupt officials. The Crown had established strict rules governing the use of land granted through mercedes, but these were regularly flouted. For example, land granted for the purpose of raising crops was often turned into pasture for cattle or sheep. The epidemics had caused labor shortages in Tlaxcala (in fact, all over New Spain). Herding livestock required fewer workers than growing crops. However, this resulted in too little grain and too much meat. Land ownership was such an administrative mess that the Crown decided to establish a system by which titles to land could be legitimated. The fees charged by the Crown to do this fattened the treasury and title legitimization allowed the Crown to collect taxes more easily. By the end of the 17th century, the hacienda system was well-established and on reasonably solid legal ground. However, land in Tlaxcala and throughout New Spain was increasingly held in fewer and fewer hands.

This statue of Spanish King Carlos III originally stood in the Capilla Real de Indios. The Royal Chapel of the Indians is located on the west side of Plaza de la Constitución (see Part 1 of this series). The chapel was built so that indigenous people would have a place to worship separate from their Spanish overlords. The statue shows Carlos III (1716-1788) in military garb. It was a way to impress the natives with his power and authority. King Carlos was part of the new Bourbon Dynasty that took power in Spain in 1700. He ruled at a time when absolute monarchy was taking hold all over Europe. Carlos viewed the independence of the Jesuit Order as a threat to his rule and, in 1767, he banished the Order from Spain and all its possessions. While Carlos was definitely an absolutist, he is also recognized by historians as a relatively enlightened man who was the most effective ruler of his time. He instituted a wide range of reforms and improvements beneficial to Spain. However, many of his reforms relating to colonial matters were disliked and covertly resisted in New Spain. Criollos (Spaniards born in the colonies) viewed these changes as a way of gradually chipping away at local autonomy and colonial rights. Ultimately, Carlos' colonial reforms became one of the fundamental causes of Mexico's War of Independence (1810-1821).

This completes Part 7b of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any comments 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