Friday, September 23, 2016

Taxco Part 1: Silver City in the Mountains


Parroquia Santa Prisca is surrounded by one of Mexico's most charming colonial towns. Santa Prisca was constructed in the 18th century by an eccentric silver baron who nearly went broke building and decorating the spectacular church. After our visit to the ancient ruins of Calixtlahuaca (see previous 3 postings) Carole and I headed south from Toluca to Taxco, in the State of Guerrero. Most of this route can be driven on one of Mexico's fine cuotas (toll roads). When traveling long distances by auto, we nearly always use a cuota when we can. These high-speed, usually 4-lane, divided highways are nearly always smooth and well-maintained. Because of the tolls, traffic tends to be light. For hassle-free, long-range driving in Mexico, cuotas can't be beat.


A deep canyon cuts through the mountains of northern Guerrero. For the first hour of our 3-hour drive, we passed through the lush green farmland of the Toluca Valley. Then we began to climb into rugged, heavily forested mountains cut by deep gorges. Until Mexico began to build modern highways in the last part of the 20th and the early 21st centuries, this region was relatively inaccessible, except for a handful of poorly maintained roads. Ever since the 1810 War of Independence, insurgents, rebels, and revolutionaries have staged lightning raids followed by retreats up little-known paths into these mountains.


Taxco sprawls across mountain slopes. After traveling along winding mountain roads through stunning scenery, we finally rounded a curve and caught a full view of Taxco de Alarcón. The city was founded in 1529 and has a current population of just under 40,000. In spite of the mountainous location, the climate here is quite mild, with an average high of 27C (81F) and a low of 17C (63F). This makes Taxco a very popular tourist destination for Mexicans. We saw very few people from the US, Canada, or Europe during our visit.


Ahead of us, we could see our road cutting along the base of an impressive bluff. Located atop this bluff are Hotel Monte Taxco as well as a number of expensive private homes. The top of the bluff can be reached by a road, a hiking path, or an aerial tram.


View of the bluff from the balcony of the Angel Inn restaurant. The cliffs fall vertically for several hundred feet, providing an impressive backdrop. Hotel Monte Taxco can be seen at the top the bluff in the upper left corner of the photo. During our Taxco visit, we rode the tram up and lunched on the hotel's balcony. I'll show photos of the view from there in a subsequent posting. The colonial-era church in the center of the photo above is part of the former Convento de San Bernardino de Siena. Behind it is another church called Iglesia Chavarria. Both of these will be covered in detail in future postings.


One of the high-end homes on the bluff perches precariously on this cliff.  While most of Taxco is not quite this precipitous, buildable land has been scarce since the city was founded almost 500 years ago. New construction must often be done on the steep slopes and up the sides of arroyos. As a result, the street map resembles a bowl of spaghetti.


Hotel Loma Linda sits high on a ridge over a deep arroyo. I counted seven stories in this hotel. One advantage of building on a slope like this is that nearly every room has a spectacular view. As a popular Mexican tourist destination, Taxco is loaded with hotels. Many are not only charming and comfortable, but very inexpensive. For example, a double room at Hotel Loma Linda costs only $666 pesos / night ($34.00 USD).


More multi-story hotels stack up, one behind the other. At some of these places, the street entrance is actually the top floor. With so many hotels, it is relatively easy to find accommodations except during major fiestas. Most hotels and B&Bs can be reached through one of the on-line booking sites.


A huge statue of Christ stands on the summit of the highest hill overlooking Taxco. We were going to check out the view from there but didn't get around to it. However, there are so many dramatic vista points in and around this town that I don't think it mattered.


Parroquia Santa Prisca's elaborate dome and twin steeples, seen from the rear. This shot gives a feel for how the city's buildings are packed together on the steep hillside. We like to walk, even when the streets are steep. For those whose mobility is more limited, there are many taxis and and their fares are low. The taxi fare for a ride clear across town costs about $30 pesos ($1.53 USD). Fares are even cheaper for shorter runs. In addition, there are passenger vans called collectivos that cost less than 1/2 of a taxi ride, if you don't mind frequent stops and sharing the ride with others.

The dome of Santa Prisca, dramatically silhouetted against the sky. I took the shot from one of the several balconies and terraces of the Angel Inn. We ate our most expensive meal here, with a total dinner price for two of about $450 pesos ($23 USD). This might not seem high to someone from the US, Canada, or Europe, but it's fairly steep for Mexico. We seldom paid over $200 pesos total ($10.20 USD) at other places with equally good food and views just as dramatic.


Hotel Los Arcos

Hotel Los Arcos, where we stayed, is just around the corner from Plaza Borda. Hotel Los Arcos was originally a 17th century convent. It is conveniently located near many interesting locations, including the main plaza. The brown building on the right of the photo is the Viceregal Museum, which displays artifacts from pre-hispanic times up through the colonial period. I will feature it in a future posting. When picking hotels, we always look for one that is close to a town's historic center. That way, we can keep our car parked in the hotel's garage and just stroll about, soaking up the atmosphere. In a town like Taxco, with its extremely narrow and crowded streets, you don't want to do much driving in any case.


The Sotavento Restaurant Bar is part of Hotel Los Arcos. Some Mexican hotels with on-site restaurants provide breakfast as part of the tarifa (room charge), but Los Arcos does not. However, our double-room tarifa was only $666 pesos ($34.00), and there are many excellent and inexpensive breakfast spots in the area, in addition to Sotavento. We like variety, so this worked well for us.


Hotel Emilia Castillo is across the narrow, cobblestone street from Los Arcos. This hotel contains a sushi restaurant that we were going to try, but we never got around to it. So many restaurants, so little time! Hotel Emilia's rates are very close to those of Los Arcos.


Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moorslayer) trampling the heads of Moors. The relief carving above may be an original colonial work, but there wasn't any sign, so I can only guess. Santiago was the patron of the conquistadors who seized the New World from its indigenous inhabitants.



Like most colonial buildings, Los Arcos is built around a central, open-air courtyard. The patio is surrounded by pillared arcades called portales. On the opposite side of the patio, you can see the old stone staircase that leads up to our room on the second floor.


A stone monkey fills the bowl of a small fountain in one of the charming little side patios. The monkey is an example of Mexico's typically quirky sense of humor. Los Arcos contains many little nooks where a guest can find a bit of solitude. 



View from the third floor down to the central courtyard. The branches of a huge old tree provide shade for the courtyard. Our room was large and comfortable and contained most of the usual hotel amenities. What it did not have were screens for the two windows. Given the mild climate, few places here provide air conditioning but we still like to keep the windows open for circulation. This resulted in occasional dive-bombing by mosquitos, the price of colonial ambiance.


Restaurant Sotavento is located just off the courtyard. The ambiance is inviting and the food is excellent. This surprised me a bit. Usually, hotels with restaurants seem to feel that they have a captive clientele. This often results in mediocre food and unduly high prices. Not so with Sotavento! We liked it so much that we ate dinner here regularly.


A praying Aztec figure found on the wall of Los Arco's courtyard. This beautiful little figure is made of hammered copper. He wears a feathered head-dress, a loincloth, and jewelry, all made of silver set with abalone shell. The little designs coming up from his mouth were the pre-hispanic way of indicating speech, much like the speech balloons of modern cartoons. 

This completes Part 1 of my Taxco series. In the next part, we will explore Plaza Borda, the town's colonial center. If you would like to leave a question or a comment, please do so 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


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Calixtlahuaca Part 3: Artifacts of a lost culture

Xiuhtecuhtli, Lord of Fire and Volcanos. He is the Aztec version of Huehueteotl ("Old, Old God"), who had been revered throughout Mesoamerica from to the earliest times. Xiuhtecuhtli sits, with his arms crossed. He wears a head dress which includes projections beside his ears and a head band decorated with circular emblems. These elements are typical of how the Aztecs portrayed their Fire God. Control of fire was one of the earliest and most important human innovations, occurring long before the development of agriculture. Ancient people quickly discovered the many uses of fire. These included cooking, lighting, heating, protection against predators, and the production of tools and weapons. However, it could also be a dangerous force, if not respected. Its most awesome form appears during volcanic eruptions. Some of the earliest statues of the Fire God yet unearthed were recovered from the ancient city of Cuicuilco (700 BC - 150 BC). Apparently, the inhabitants lacked sufficient reverence, because Cuicuilco's final destruction occurred when the nearby Ixle volcano erupted.

This is the third and final part of my Calixtlahuaca series. In it, I will provide information about the archaeological site's museum artifacts and will also trace the region's history from the earliest times to the Spanish arrival.


Other ancient religious images

Chicometeotl, Goddess of Maiz, wearing a huge and elaborate head dress. Chicometeotl's head dress, when she was portrayed in religious celebrations, would have been made of sticks covered with amacalli, a paper the Aztecs made from the bark of the amate tree. She was the "goddess of the unripe maiz" (corn) and was believed to make the kernels turn into thriving plants. In line with the Mesoamerican concept of duality, she had a male counterpart named Centeotl who represented the harvested maiz.

The first evidence of agricultural settlements around Calixtlahuaca dates to 1200 BC, although hunter-gatherer nomads had roamed the area for thousands of years previous to that.  The people lived in small communities around the volcanic slopes of the small, extinct Cerro Tenismo, located about 2 km from modern Toluca. They supplemented their agricultural production with hunting and fishing. Their homes were made of perishable materials, but they did make decorated pottery, as well as small, clay, female figures. These may have represented a fertility goddess, perhaps an early version of Chicometeotl. These settlements were contemporaneous with the Olmec Civilization (1500 BC - 400 BC)Archaeologists have found a number of Olmec-style sculptures in the area, including chubby children with jaguar faces. These artifacts may indicate a trading relationship with the Olmec centers along the Gulf Coast, or possibly an actual Olmec presence. During the succeeding 2700 years, long-range trading networks were established that continued to function, up through the Spanish era. Some of the old trade routes have survived as 21st century roads.


Cihuateteo the divine spirit of women who have died in childbirth. This statue was found in the area of the tzompantli (skull rack) in the Tlaloc Complex seen Part 2 of this series. Its discovery helped trigger speculation that the structure was not a tzompantli at all but an altar dedicated to childbirth and fertility. The Aztecs considered childbirth the equivalent of battle and a woman's death in childbirth was honored as much as the battle death of a warrior. A woman who died in this way became a Cihuateteo, a divine spirit. While dead warriors accompanied the sun from its rise until mid-day, at noon the Cihuateteo took over the escort through sunset. These divine female spirits were sometimes considered dangerous because they lurked at crossroads to steal children and seduce men into adultery.

For several hundred years after the Olmec Civilization disappeared, no other great civilization dominated the area. Then, around 100 AD, in the area northeast of modern Mexico City, Teotihuacan arose. Its appearance launched the pre-hispanic period's Classic Era. Like the Olmecs, Teotihuacan was a great trading civilization. Its capital city was very cosmopolitan and eventually reached 200,000 inhabitants, larger than any European city of its time. Teotihuacan became the dominant force, economically and militarily, throughout Mesoamerica. During the Classic Era, groups from Teotihuacan arrived in the Valley of Toluca. Vases, figurines, and sculptures in the Teotihuacan style begin to appear during this time, some possibly made locally. Before long, trade items that were definitely made in Teotihuacan began to arrive, including pottery, ceramics, and obsidian tools and jewelry. In return, the local people sent corn, lime, wood, and the products of the lakes and forests to Teotihuacan. The earliest phases of the Calixtlahuaca's Palace, the Tlaloc Complex, and the Temple of Ehecatl were built on the slopes of Cerro Tenismo in the Teotihuacan fashion. 


Sacrificial altar covered with Aztec designs, from the Temple of Ehecatl. This altar was found at the base of the temple by Calixtlahuaca's first archaeologist, José Garcia Payón. He inferred from its upside-down position and proximity to the temple that the altar had originally sat atop the temple. Apparently it had been cast down by the Spanish when they took over the area and suppressed "devil worship". My friend Javier Urcid teaches archaeology at Brandeis University and his specialty is the interpretation of stone relief carvings. I asked him to decypher the altar markings for me. According to Javier, the altar "dates to the 15th or early 16th century AD. It is carved in the Aztec imperial style when the Mexica (Aztecs) had political control of Calixtlahuaca...the monument may have originally been a circular platform for placing offerings and perhaps used as a sacrificial stone...the carvings on the monument include the iconic representations of a jade bead...These generally conveyed the notion of preciousness." Thanks again Javier!

Approximately 650 AD, the Teotihuacan Empire suddenly collapsed, possibly due to an internal revolt related to crop failures triggered by droughts which were, in turn, caused by deforestation. The period that followed, called the Epi-Classic Era  (650 AD - 900 AD), is roughly equivalent to Dark Age Europe after the Roman Empire collapsed in the face of internal strife and external invasions. One effect of Teotihuacan's collapse was the dispersal of the huge city's population throughout the Valley of Mexico and beyond. A substantial number of these refugees settled on the slopes of Cerro Tenismo. Archaeologists digging on Cerro Tenismo have found double the number of Teotihuacan artifacts during the Epi-Classic compared to the Classic Era. Another effect of the collapse was a power vacuum into which tribes of fierce nomadic warriors from the north--the so-called Chichimecs--surged into the fallen empire's territory. The Matlazinca were one of these tribes and they took over the central part of the Toluca Valley, including the Teotihuacan town located on Cerro Tenismo. It eventually became their capital. The newcomers utilized the structures already there, sometimes building new temples over the old Teotihuacan versions. The Matlazinca town came to be known as Matlazinco, a name that it kept until the Aztecs destroyed it in the 15th century and built Calixtlahuaca atop of its ruins.


Relief carving of the Calixtlahuaca Bird. Even though the carving is worn, you can clearly see the two feet with curled talons at the bottom. The tail extends to the left and the head is at the upper right. Arizona University archaeologist Michael Smith has dubbed this the "Calixtlahuaca Bird". The same bird figure has been found in other sculptures, leading to speculation that it may be the sign, or totem of the city. 

During the Epi-Classic Era, after a period of consolidation, Matlazinco and other up-and-coming city-states began to compete, both in trade and war. Existing Mesoamerican communities, along with others established by new arrivals, began to fortify themselves against further waves of barbarians. They also began to expand their economic spheres of influence by dominating key trade routes. Cacaxtla, in Tlaxcala State, north of modern Puebla, was a contemporary of Matlazinco. A mural at Cacaxtla shows a ferocious battle typical of the conflicts of the time. When the rising city-states weren't warring with one another, they were actively trading. Another Cacaxtla mural, painted in the Maya style, portrays a trader with his pack of goods propped up behind him. Archaeologist Michael Coe* believes this figure may be the Maya god L (Ek Chuah), the patron of merchant-traders. Along with other murals at Cacaxtla showing Maya influence, Coe believes the trader image indicates that group of Puuc Maya from Yucatan and the southern Gulf Coast were penetrating the former Teotihuacan Empire's territory from the south, even as the Chichimecs moved down from the north. 
*See Michael D Coe, Mexico, From the Olmecs to the Aztecs.

Artist's rendering of the Bird of Calixtlahuaca from the relief carving. This bird symbol also appears in other carvings on the shields of warriors. Michael Smith speculates that the bird may be a North American turkey, one of the few animals domesticated by pre-hispanic people. The recurrent appearance of this symbol may indicate that it represents the ruling dynasty. This could possibly be one of the earliest references to political figures as "turkeys."

By the end of the Epi-Classic period (900 AD), the invasions had tapered off and strong, militarized city-states like Matlazinco and Cacaxtla dotted the map of Mesoamerica. Perhaps the most important was Tollan, (Tula, in modern Hidalgo State). Tollan was the capital of the Toltecs, an amalagam of Chichimecs and refugees from Teotihuacan who had settled in the area north of modern Mexico City around 700 AD. In an era when war and human sacrifice were glorified, the Toltecs stood out. They were the Spartans of their time, extremely militarized and aggressive. The Toltecs may have been among the earliest to employ the tzompantli, a skull rack used to display the heads of decapitated war prisoners. By 900 AD, they were strong enough to begin the conquest of surrounding areas. Within 200 years,, the Toltecs had become the strongest kingdom to emerge out of the old Teotihuacan Empire. They dominated a widespread trade network and Toltec artifacts and architecture began to appear in Matlazinco. 


The city market may have been located on the lower slope of Cerro Tenismo. Just as they do in modern Mexican towns, local vendors and traders from distant places would come to a market like this and set up stalls to display their goods. Markets like this were an extremely important part of Mesoamerican economic life and were the channel through which both goods and culture spread. On the slopes above the market, you can see homes, temples, and public structures on terraces carved into the side of the volcano. (Artist Michael Stesinos' conception of the market, based on the work of the Calixtlahuaca Archaeological Project of Arizona State University)

The Toltec kingdom fell somewhere around 1175 AD, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Instabiliity caused by leadership divisions among Toltec elites may have been a factor. Revolts by subject cities against tribute collection may have played a role. Finally, prolonged droughts in north-central Mexico about this time provoked a southward movement of nomadic groups into better-watered areas. This caused constant military pressure on the northern frontiers. Tollan's ultimate fall created a power vacuum which accelerated migrations by the fierce northern nomads, hungry for land and plunder. Among these groups were the Aztecs, or Mexica as they called themselves. According to their migration legend, they set out from Aztlán, a place that some believe is the island community of Mexicaltitán in the modern state of Nayarit. For over a hundred years the Mexica wandered, stopping along the way at the ruins of Tollan and the even more ancient Teotihuacan. The great and mysterious palaces and pyramids were crumbling and overgrown by then. Even so, the nomadic wanderers were suitably impressed, particularly by Teotihuacan (which they mistook for a Toltec city). The Mexica called it "the place where the gods were born." Eventually the tribe reached Lake Texcoco, a lush paradise that was, unfortunately for the newcomers, already surrounded by powerful and well-established city states.

Daily Living at Matlazinco / Calixtlahuaca

Typical home as it may have looked on the slopes of ancient MatlazincoThe house is of the mud-and-wattle adobe style with a thatched roof. It is typical of those used in the residential areas by common people. In front of the house, a man works on an obsidian "core" to produce tools, blades, or weapons while his son looks on. A core is a chunk of obsidian about the size of a softball from which large flakes are chipped to create razor-sharp implements. Interestingly, more than 2/3 of the obsidian implements found on or around Cerro Tenismo originated elsewhere. Archaeologists know this because they can determine, from the chemical structure, the exact origin point of the volcanic glass. This means traders may have brought finished tools to Matlazinco. Three quarters of these artifacts were of gray obsidian and 56% of these originated in Ucareo, Michoacan, indicating a lively trade with the Tarascan Empire. A small amount of green obsidian came from Pachuca, north of Mexico City. Traders may also have brought the cores and created the implements on site, or sold the cores to local people like the man above.  (Illustration by Michael Stasinos of the Calixtlahuaca Archaeological Project)

The Mexica were despised as uncouth barbarians by the settled and civilized people. At first, they drifted around the Lake Texcoco area, hiring themselves out as mercenaries in the incessant wars between the lakeside city-states. Eventually, the tribe settled on a swampy island off the southwestern shore of the lake, where they founded their capital, Tenochtitlán. The traditional date for this is 1325 AD. Desperate to shed their image of low-life country bumpkins, they adopted the culture, symbols, and art of the now-semi-mythical Toltecs. Most importantly, the Mexica imitated the Toltec's militarized social structure, which fitted nicely with their own fierce warrior culture. Over the next 150 years, their rise to power was meteoric. 


A tripod bowl, in the Matlazinca style. The Matlazinca design can be seen in the network of straight and diagonal lines on the interior and exterior surfaces, as well as the red-over-cream color scheme. Most of the intact objects recovered by archaeologists at Calixtlahuaca, or anywhere else in Mesoamerica for that matter, have come from tombs and burial sites. These "grave goods" were carefully and reverently placed in these tombs, which were then covered over and mostly forgotten for centuries or even thousands of years. Unfortunately, intact pottery and sculpture have become highly valued by private collectors, resulting in large-scale grave robbery. Often, artifacts considered less valuable are discarded or destroyed. Even if the best pieces survive, the destruction of the context in which they were discovered is usually lost. Context is extremely important in understanding ancient cultures. It relates to the position of the object when found in relation to other artifacts or structures. Understanding these relationships can help decipher the use or meaning of the piece. The stratum or depth at which the discovery occurred can affect its dating. When the artifact is removed or destroyed without proper documentation, all this is lost. Mexico has strict laws about the handling of ancient artifacts, but all too often these or ignored or circumvented. The often desperately poor people who do the actual looting are less guilty than the wealthy Mexican or foreign collectors who are looking for attractive additions to their mantlepieces.


A Matlazinca pot with a small handle near the lip. The pot, about the size of a basketball, may have been intended to hold water, or to store food. I was struck by its resemblance to an ancient Greek amphora. I am often bemused by the similarity between widely separated cultures in the shapes of the objects and structures they create. For example, there is a close resemblance between Mesoamerican step pyramids and those of early Egypt. Contact between the societies was extremely unlikely, although some folks fantasize that it may have happened. The answer to the mystery is likely to be much simpler: first, form follows function. Second, there are general principles of physics and engineering that apply, no matter where you are or what you are trying to build. Ancient people were no less intelligent that those living today. Through trial and error, people separated by vast distances, even oceans, came to similar solutions when faced with similar problems.

In 1428, the Mexicas joined with the kingdoms of Texcoco and Tacuba to form the Triple Alliance. This powerful federation began a campaign of conquest which ultimately brought much of Mesoamerica under its control, with the exception of the Chichimecs to the north, the Maya kingdoms of the south, and the Tarascan Empire to the west. For almost 50 years after the Triple Alliance began its program of conquest, Matlazinco maintained its independence and flourished. The city carried on a lively trade with surrounding areas, including both the kingdoms of the Triple Alliance and their bitter rival, the Tarascan Empire. The Tarascans dominated the territory of modern Michoacan State, plus portions of Guerrero, Colima, Querétaro, and Jalisco. The politics of pre-hispanic Mesoamerica were complex, but it appears that the Matlazincas may have staved off both of the empires by playing them off against each other. 


This small, graceful pitcher looks quite modern. I could easily envision this on my kitchen counter, or in my refrigerator. Long ago, someone decided to create a container shaped for pouring liquids. S/he came up with this solution and modern people are still using it.

The Matlazinca, as previously noted, acquired most of their obsidian for tools, weapons, and jewelry from the volcanic glass deposits around Ucareo, in Tarascan territory. Other Tarascan imports included copper objects, such as bells and small tools. In turn, the Matlazincas provided the Tarascans with corn from their famously rich farm lands. It was the desire to acquire the food from these lands, as well as jealously over the Matlazinca-Tarascan relationship, that led Axayacatl, the Mexica Tlatoani (ruler), to provoke a war against the Matlazinca. The pretext was a failure to provide materials for a temple the Mexica wanted to build. At first the Matlazinca were able to stave off the invasion. One of their generals, Cuextapalin, managed to wound the Mexica ruler with a stone from a sling and almost captured him. Axayacatl withdrew, but the Mexica never gave up easily and he soon returned with an even larger army. 

Some smaller artifacts recovered include shell jewelry, copper rings, and clay malacates. The shells probably came from the Pacific Coasts of Guerrero and Michoacan, both under Tarascan control. It is likely that the copper rings also originated within the Tarascan territory. Malacates are called whorls in English, and they are used in spinning fibers, such as cotton, into thread. Even though they are an ancient technology, I have seen them used in the remote mountain villages of Puebla State.

Axacayatl came back in 1474, intent on completing the conquest and avenging his previous loss. He may have had personal motives as well, since the wound he had received from the Matlazinca general crippled him for life. This time he was successful, and took 11,070 prisoners when he seized the city of Matlazinco. These unfortunates were marched to Tenochtitlán to be sacrificed in a grand celebration of his victory. Executing all those Matlazinca warriors also prevented further uprisings for the moment and opened up their lands for resettlement by people from the Triple Alliance. While the Matlazinca chafed under Mexica rule, they also prospered because trade with the far-flung Triple Alliance Empire (which had become the Mexica Empire by now) radically increased. Mexica demands for tribute, as well as their general arrogance, led to two great uprisings by the Matlazinca. The first lasted from 1482 to 1484 and was finally crushed by the Mexica ruler Tizoc. He marked his victory on a great stone disk used for human sacrifice. In retaliation for the revolt, Tizoc ordered the temples in Matlazinco destroyed, as well as the usual sacrifice of war prisoners. Another influx of Mexica settlers arrived, further changing the character of the city. 


Malacate, with its spindle and thread. Mesoamerican weaving dates back as far as 3000 BC. Use of a backstrap loom began in South American around 1800 BC and soon the technique migrated north to Mexico. Indigenous women still use the backstrap loom in many places in Mexico, including the pueblo of Ajijic, where I live. In ancient times, spinning thread and weaving cloth was a woman's task and, at birth, a female child would be presented with the tools seen above. Even today, every person I have seen using a malacate and spindle, or a backstrap loom, has been a woman.

After another Matlazinca revolt in 1510, the Mexica ruler Moctezuma II finally lost patience. He ordered the general destruction of Matlazinco and its rebuilding into a Mexica-style city, populated by Mexica settlers and re-named Calixtlahuaca. The Matlazincas fled west and were given asylum by the Tarascan ruler. They were resettled where they could act as a buffer between his kingdom and the Mexica. Calixtlahuaca soon became the third largest city in the whole Empire. Then, less than 10 years after the final defeat of the Matlazinca, the Spanish arrived. Soon the Mexica Empire was itself overthrown and in ruins. Unlike many other large Mexica cities, Calixtlahuaca was never settled by the Spanish and remodeled in their own style. Within a generation after the Conquest, Calixtlahuaca was an unpopulated ruin. What happened to its population is somewhat of a mystery. Archaeologist Michael Smith speculates that the inhabitants were victims of the Spanish policy of "congregation". This was a technique for political control that involved the displacement of a native population and its resettlement in another area. The modern city of Toluca may be where the Calixtlahuacans ended up, but the old records have disappeared so no one knows for sure. The Spanish colonial town of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca was founded many years after the depopulation of the old city and it was built on the plains below Cerro Tenismo, not on its slopes.

This completes the last part of my Calixtlahuaca series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, that you leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email them to me directly. If you leave a question, PLEASE provide your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Calixtlahuaca Part 2: The Tlaloc Temple and the Palace

One of the rooms in the Palace Complex, with an impressive platform in the background. In front of the large platform, you can see part of the Palace Complex's broad, grassy plaza. This complex is one of a number of ruins scattered across the slopes of Cerro Tenismo, the small, extinct volcano on which ancient Calixtlahuaca was built. Because of our limited time, and the distance between the sites, we only visited the three most important, including the Temple of Ehecatl (see Part 1), the Tlaloc Complex, and the Palace. One of Calixtlahuaca's unique features is that these ceremonial structures are all so scattered. In other Mesoamerican cities, these kinds of structures are grouped together centrally into a single elite district. Archaeologists were also surprised that they could find almost no buildings or artifacts beyond the base of the volcano. At Calixtlahuaca, both the ceremonial and the residential areas were built on terraced platforms cut into the slopes of Cerro Tenismo, rather than on the flatter land that surrounds the hill. By contrast, the Spanish colonial town of Calixlahuaca was built on the flat lands below the hill, long after the abandonment of the ancient city.



Monument 4: The Tlaloc Temple Complex

The Tlaloc Complex includes three structures: a temple, a low platform, and a tzompantli. José Garcia Payón was the archaeologist who originally unearthed ancient Calixtlahuaca. The Tlaloc Complex was one of his primary areas of excavation. He associated the temple (left side of photo) with Tlaloc, the Rain God, because he found several statues of the god on or around the structure. All three structures of the complex are arranged around a stone patio. The entire complex rests on a broad, man-made terrace cut from the side of Cerro Tenismo. The Tlaloc Complex is oriented to the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), considered sacred as far back as the time of the Olmecs.


Censer decorated with the face of Tlaloc. Many Mesoamericans cultures used containers called censers to burn copal incense during religious ceremonies. The Tlaloc statues Payón found are not kept in the site museum, and I have been unable to find any photos of them on the internet. In order to give you an idea of how the ancients viewed their Rain God, I am using a photo I took of a censer unearthed at the great Aztec pyramid called the Templo Mayor, in Mexico City. The "goggles" around Tlaloc's eyes are his most typical and distinctive feature. In addition, he is almost always shown with fangs hanging down from both corners of his mouth, with his tongue drooping between them. Tlaloc was one of the most important of all the many gods of the various Mesoamerican civilizations. This is not surprising, since all these societies were dependent upon agriculture, for which rain is always the critical element. He was so important to the Aztecs that they gave him equal billing, along with their War God  Huitzilopochtli. Temples devoted to both gods sit side-by-side atop the Templo Mayor, a pyramid that marked the center of their world.


The Tlaloc Temple The temple's only staircase is located on its east side. At one time, the temple was topped by a structure made of perishable materials, which did not survive the centuries.  Tlaloc ruled over the four sacred directions and he occupied a position in the center where the directional lines cross. The Rain God, called by various names over the centuries, is one of the most ancient Mesoamerican deities, probably dating to the birth of New World agriculture. The only god to exceed him in antiquity would have been the God of Fire, Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old God". Human awareness of the mystery, power, and usefulness of fire, as well as its dangers, long pre-dates agriculture.


Two small, square structures stand on either side of the staircase. They are each about 1 m sq (3' x 3') and about .3 m (1 ft) tall. Their function is not clear, but they may have been bases for statues or perhaps sacrificial altars. Tlaloc was married to Chalchiuhtlicue, the beautiful Goddess of Lakes and Streams. The Rain God was assisted by four helpers, called Tlaloque, who were dwarf-like beings. One of their key jobs was to smash great clay urns full of water, thus creating thunder as the rain was released. Tlaloc was closely associated with Ehecatl, the Wind God. Since strong, gusty winds often precede a rainstorm, the ancient people believed the rain was being pushed by the Wind God.


The north side of the Tlaloc Complex plaza is filled by a low platform. A sign at the site says that it probably served as the base for four rooms, but the purpose of these rooms is unclear. They might have housed priests of Tlaloc, or they could have provided space for materials and devices employed during ceremonies, or possibly both. The faint outline of a circle on the grassy surface may be the remains of an ancient ceremonial fire pit.


A unique cruciform (cross shaped) structure sits directly to the east of the Tlaloc Temple. Nothing else like it is known to exist in Mesoamerica. It is draped with yellow tape to warn visitors not to climb on it. Archaeologists disagree on the structure's purpose. Payón, the site's discoverer, believed that this was a tzompantli, or skull rack, used to to display the decapitated heads of sacrificial victims. To support his view, Payón pointed to a series of stone projections set at regular intervals around the sides. Four of these projections still have carved stone skulls attached to them. Similar stone skulls are found on the tzompantli adjacent to the Templo Mayor, as well as the one at Chichen Itza near the great ball court. Other archaeologists assert that this may be a site for fertility rites where a pregnant woman would lie with her head in the circular area with her arms outstretched on either side. However, the skulls attached to the sides, along with the well-known association between human sacrifice and Tlaloc, incline me toward the tzompantli theory. Even the proponents of the fertility theory admit that a person positioned as they describe would also have been ideally placed to have his/her heart cut out.


Monument 17: The Palace Complex

The Palace Complex, as displayed on a site marker. The Palace Complex was organized as a long rectangle around a large central plaza. A warren of residential rooms occupies one end, with a long, high platform along one side and several low platforms on the other. The design above shows structures at the end opposite the residential area that are now gone or possibly not yet excavated.


View of the Palace Complex from the top of the Tlaloc Temple. I took this shot with my telephoto zoom, so it is further away from the Tlaloc Complex than it appears here. Modern Calixtlahuaca structures surround the Palace site. Payón believed that this complex was a calmecac, or elite school which provided religious and military training to the sons of Aztec nobles. Further investigations by later archaeologists revealed the site to be a palace, probably of the ruler of Calixtlahuaca. They drew this conclusion, in part, because it closely resembles palaces in other parts of the Aztec Empire. For a Google satellite view of the Palace Complex, click here.


View of the Palace Complex from the left rear, near the residential area. In the upper right of the photo you can see the long, high platform with three grand staircases leading to its top. Archaeologists believe that the top was once occupied by the ruler's throne room. The area immediately behind the maguey plant in the foreground contains large rooms and low platforms that were probably the ruler's living area.


View from atop the throne room platform. This shot looks directly back to where the previous photo was taken. The long platform's grand staircase is in the immediate foreground. Below, you can see the broad plaza which contains a large altar at one end. Behind the altar is the residential area. Part of the ruler's living area can be seen in the upper right. In the upper left, you can see the rising slope of the Cerro Tenismo volcano.


Close-up of the altar in front of the residential area. This one is considerably larger than any of the altars we saw at the Ehecatl or Tlaloc temples. The size of the plaza indicates that a large number of people could be assembled here for religious activities. An altar like this would surely have been a focal point for ceremonies.


One of the low platforms across from the temple that were part of the ruler's area. These platforms may have contained perishable structures used for ceremonial or residential purposes. Carole is standing on a slight rise behind the platform. The platform above has particularly interesting architectural features on either end of the stairs


This tabla y talud shows a definite Teotihuacan influence. In Spanish, tabla y talud, means "panel and slope". The upper part is the tabla and the lower, sloping area is the talud. This architectural feature was widely employed throughout the Teotihuacan Empire (100 AD - 650 AD). The ruins of its capital are located a few miles to the northeast of Mexico City. Teotihuacan exerted a strong influence over the area around Calixtlahuaca during the Classic Era, 800 years before the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico. Either this staircase is a remnant of that earlier Empire, or the Aztecs copied the Teotihuacan style when they re-built the Palace after conquering the previous inhabitants. The Aztecs admired everything about Teotihuacan, believing it was "where the gods were born". They imitated many of the artistic and architectural features they found in the ancient city, even though it had been in ruins for many centuries.


View of the residential area from the right rear. This area is a maze of narrow corridors and rooms of various sizes. Some of these rooms were the residences of nobles and warriors, while others were used to store food, weapons, and treasure. Still others were workshops for the production of sculpture, feather art and other luxury items desired by the ruler and his court. A few rooms contained shrines for rituals.


Flagstone covers the floors in some of the rooms. These were the luxury apartments of their day, and thus the floors would not have been the packed earth found in commoners' homes. Notice the niche seat in the upper right of the photo. The thick stone walls would have kept the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.


Stucco made from lime plaster surfaced other floors in the complex. The stucco was produced by burning limestone, grinding up the resulting material, and then mixing it with water and sand. The Aztecs and other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations also used stucco to coat both the interior and exterior walls of stone buildings. The flat surfaces were then painted with vividly colored designs. Often, the need for massive amounts of wood to burn the limestone resulted in deforestation. This caused droughts and may have contributed in the decline of civilizations such as Teotihuacan and the Maya city states of the Classic Era.


One of the larger rooms in the residential area contained this square fire pit. This fire pit is similar to many found in the residential rooms. Archaeologists found charcoal remains in many of the pits. In addition to heating and cooking, the fire pits may have played a role in rituals conducted in some of the rooms.

This concludes Part 2 of my series on Calixtlahuaca. In Part 3, I will show you some of the artifacts found at the various sites and some of the history of the area from the early nomadic period to the arrival of the Spanish. If you enjoyed Part 2, and would like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim