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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 7a: Museo Regional artifacts from the Pre-Classic to the Epi-Classic Eras

Priest of the Rain God Tlaloc. The molded-clay statue was created during the Epi-Classic era (650-900 AD). This was the period between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of the Toltec Empire. In Tlaxcala, a city-state called Cacaxtla arose in the western part of the state. It became an important regional power by dominating one of Teotihuacán's former trade routes. The priestly status of the figure above is indicated both by the "goggles" over the eyes--typical of Tlaloc imagery--and the sacred bundle held in his left hand. The priest wears an elaborate head dress, indicating a high status, his lower body is attired only with a loin cloth and ankle bracelets.

In this posting, we'll take a look at the Museo Regional and a selection of its treasures. The Museo is located in the old cloister (living area) of the Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, seen in the previous two postings. Because there are so many wonderful artifacts contained in the museum, I will show them in two posts. This one will cover the Formative (Pre-Classic) Era (2000 BC-100 AD), the Classic (100-650 AD) and Epi-Classic (650-900 AD).

Museo Regional

Scale model of the cloister, which now contains the Museo Regional. The cloister area has the orange roof and is entered through the three arches at the lower left of the photo. They lead into the atrium (open-air patio area) in the center. Parts of the left side of the cloister include administrative offices for the Catedral de Tlaxcala, which is the long rectangular building with the brown roof, along the right side of the cloister. Construction on the cloister began in 1537, following completion of the Catedral (originally called Templo de San Francisco de Assisi, after the founder of the Order). The cloister has housed the Museo Regional since 1985.

Atrium or patio of the cloister. In the middle is a fountain, surrounded on all four sides by arched portales which protect the open-air walkways on both floors. This architectural arrangement is very typical of convento cloisters in Nueva España. Within buildings such as these, the Franciscan friars lived and worked. Today, the lower floor houses exhibits from the pre-hispanic period up through the Conquest. The upper floor contains exhibits from the colonial and national periods.

Elaborately carved rafters within the cloister area. Notice the diamond-shaped cartouches along the top. Each of these contains a 4-petal flower. It is interesting to note that such flowers appear in many ancient pre-hispanic cities. The flowers symbolize the four cardinal points of the cosmos (north, south, east, west). These directions are sacred and each is associated with a different god. It is very likely that the craftsmen who carved these rafters were indigenous, and probably only recently converted. Ironically, they were incorporating pagan decorative elements into one of the earliest centers for evangelizing native people. This covert practice was common throughout Nueva España. It is not clear whether the Franciscans understood the connection at the time. However, when they ultimately figured out what was going on, they denounced the such images, calling them "idols behind the altars."

Wall murals were another form of early convento decoration. Again, the craftsmen were no doubt indigenous Tlaxcalans. While much of the luxuriant foliage has been worn away or painted over, enough remains to appreciate the skill of the artists.

17th century atrial cross, carved from cantera stone. Crosses like this were typically erected in a large, open atrium such as the one directly in front of of the Franciscan cloister and its church. To appreciate the size of this atrium, and its relationship to the other structures of the Convento, see the scale model in Part 5 of this series. These expansive areas were devoted to evangelization because they allowed the friars to gather large numbers of native people for mass conversions and religious education. Often, this education was delivered in the form of religious plays and processions. The indigenous masses were virtually always illiterate (at least in the European sense), so the crosses were often covered by easily understood symbols relating to the Passion of Christ (i.e. the events leading up to and including the crucifixion). The figure of the crucified Jesus was deliberately left off the cross. The friars wanted to avoid making any association between the crucifixion and the pre-hispanic practice of human sacrifice.

Formative or Pre-Classic Era

Storm God figurine found in the Tlaxcala area. The grinning figure holds what appears to be a writhing snake in his right hand. This small, molded-clay figure was created during the middle-to-late Pre-Classic Era (800 AD-100 AD). Agriculture had been practiced for thousands of years by this time. Increasing food surpluses allowed people to begin living in villages and, by the late Pre-Classic period, even in large towns. Storms were viewed as awesome events, with their thunder, lightning, torrential rains, and floods. On the other hand, rain was essential for the cultivation of maiz (corn) and other food crops. As a result, people began to worship deities, such as the Storm God (predecessor to Tlaloc), who were believed to control both the positive and destructive aspects of these natural forces.

Feminine figure. This little statue is of molded clay, with incisions and applications. Otherwise nude, she has a complex hairstyle, which may also be  some sort of head dress. Figures like this are believed to have been used as offerings in religious ceremonies. They are particularly interesting because they reveal how people saw themselves.

Ceramic head, found in Tlaxcala. It is not clear whether this was once part of a male or female figure, although I would bet on male due to the less elaborate hair style. Archeologists believe that figures like this and the previous female figure represent the ideal of beauty in the minds of their creators.

Olmec ball game yoke. This artifact was discovered in Tlaxcala, but originated in the Gulf Coast area dominated by the Olmecs. During the pre-hispanic ball game, leather or wicker yokes were worn around players' midriffs to protect them from the heavy rubber balls. A strike in an unprotected area of the body could cause serious injuries or even death. Stone yokes were symbolic imitations of the lighter versions the players actually wore. While few, if any, leather or wicker yokes have survived, those carved from stone have often been found in ancient tombs. They were placed there to commemorate a sacrificed player or a person who had some other important connection to the ball game. The Olmecs (1500-400 BC) have often been called the "Mother of Cultures." Through trade and colonization, they exerted strong cultural influences throughout Mesoamerica. Some of their trade routes passed through Tlaxcala. Many of the key aspects of later civilizations originated with the Olmecs. Examples include the ball game, stepped pyramids, human sacrifice, the ancient calendar, worship of the Plumed Serpent, and the earliest writing in the Americas.

The Classic Era

Classic Era ceramic pot in the shape of a reclining dog. This charming molded-clay pot was found in the village of Ocotitla, on the northeastern outskirts of the modern city of Tlaxcala. Notice the spout in the handle to make it easier to pour its liquid contents. Dogs were popular subjects for potters in the Classic Era (100-650 AD). They were one of a handful of animals domesticated by the ancient people. Some dogs were kept as pets but others served as a source of meat. Dogs also played a role in mythology as guides for the souls of the dead on their journey into Mictlán (the underworld). This one, found in a tomb, apparently was  intended for that purpose.

Ceramic olla patoja (lame pot). This pot is not dated, other than to the Classic Era. However, similar ones found around altars in the ruins of Teotihuacán date to 250-450 AD. This was a period when the great trading city's influence was spreading throughout Mesoamerica. One of Teotihuacán's key trade routes ran through Tlaxcala to the Gulf Coast. In fact, from 300-500 AD, the ancient town of Tecoaque, in eastern Tlaxcala, was a Teotihuacan military/trading outpost along this route. This fits rather nicely with the dating of the Teotihuacan ollas pantojas. Pots like these were manufactured in Teotihuacán and then exported for use in religious ceremonies elsewhere.

Jarra (pitcher or jug) from Teotihuacán found in the Tlaxcala area. The jarra is not dated except to the general Classic Era. It is another example of trade goods exported from Teotihuacán. I find it remarkable that a pot like this could survive a long journey, given that it is large and heavy, while also relatively fragile. The merchant/trader would have had to transport it along primitive footpaths on the back of one of his human porters.

Large pot decorated with an abstract design. The origin of this Classic Era pot is unknown, but it may also have come from Teotihuacán. A pot of this size and shape would probably have been used for cooking. Its beautiful design indicates that it would have graced the kitchen of a high-status home.

The Epi-Classic Era

Urn from Cacaxtla. Urns like this were used for ceremonial purposes and were often left in tombs as grave goods. The high-status individual on the side of the urn wears an elaborate head dress and stands with his arms raised in a ritual posture. Other decorations on the sides of the urn include musicians, plants and animals. The scenes may represent a ritual devoted to a particular god.  Cacaxtla is located in eastern Tlaxcala, near its border with the State of Puebla. It was an important regional power during the Epi-Classic Era (650-900 AD), which is the period between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of the Toltecs.

Carved stone statue of a warrior or priest. The sophisticated head dress, earrings, necklace and general posture indicate a high status individual. Between his hands he holds a circular object that may represent a chalchihuite (jewel or drop of water) or possibly a mirror used for divination. Archeologists are undecided about whether the figure is a warrior or a priest. My bet is a warrior, because the Epi-Classic was a time of instability, militarism, and invasions by Chichimec nomads from the north. Small, fortified city-states like Cacaxtla arose, along with  Xochicalco (south of Cuernavaca), and La Quemada (south of Zacatecas). These three were important regional powers that came to dominate sections of Teotihuacán's vast trade network after the empire collapsed. The relationships among the Epi-Classic regional powers shifted back and forth between trade partner and political/military competitor.

Small clay figures used in fertility rites at Xochitécatl. Within sight of the fortified hilltop city of Cacaxtla is another, much older, hilltop city known as Xochitécatl. This ancient site dates back to the middle of the Pre-Classic Era. Due to an eruption of the still-active Volcan Popocatépatl, Xochitécatl was abandoned in 150 AD. However, in 600 AD, it was reoccupied and its crumbling old pyramids were used as ceremonial sites by the newly arrived inhabitants of Cacaxla. Large numbers of these figurillas (little figures) were left on the grand staircase and top level of Xochitécatl's "Pyramid of the Flowers". They were apparently left as fertility offerings. These ceremonies also appear to have involved the ritual sacrifice of children. Notice the four-petaled flower in the center of each figure's head dress.

Another fertility offering left at Xochitécatl shows a baby emerging from the womb.  Fertility rites were sometimes aimed at ensuring a good crop but, in this case, the offering seems be about the fertility of a woman. Given the elaborate head dress of the figurilla, the woman in question was probably a high-status individual.

Epi-Classic child's toy, found at Xochitécatl. The figure of a dog has wheels on his haunches. There are holes in his shoulders showing where an axle went through to mount another set of wheels. Over the last ten years, Carole and I have visited many pre-hispanic sites and museums. During those visits, we have occasionally encountered wheeled objects, all of which seem to have been created as toys. Clearly Mesoamerican people understood the concept of wheels, but they never used them in any practical way. Why? The answer is simple: no draft animals. Why couldn't humans have been used to pull wheeled carts? Well, for that, you would have to create an extensive road system. Mexico is a very mountainous country where road-building has always been difficult. In any case, the number of people you would need to pull a cart full of goods would probably exceed the number you would need to simply carry those goods on backpacks. Further, with human porters, you could use existing footpaths.

Conch trumpet with holes, possibly for a carrying strap. Conch shells were the most important wind instrument in the Mesoamerican musical repertoire. While they must, sometimes, have been employed for simple entertainment, their most important use was in religious ceremonies and as signaling devices during military operations. Conch trumpets were often elaborately carved with religious symbols and decorated with feathers. Throughout Mesoamerica, conches appear on sculptures and in wall murals. At Teotihuacán's Palacio Quetzalpapalotl, wall murals show marching jaguars blowing conch trumpets. In 1521, during the siege of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, eyewitness Bernal Diaz del Castillo reported hearing the mournful wail of quiquiztli (conch trumpets) as he observed Spanish prisoners being marched up the steps of the Templo Mayor to be sacrificed to the Aztec War God Huitzilopochtli.

Stone relief carving shows two priests conducting rituals. Both have elaborate head dresses. The figure on the left wears large circular earrings and a jade belt, while the one on the right appears to be wearing a mask of some sort. The figure on the left holds a priest's sacred bundle in his left hand as he crouches to face the viewer. The priest on the right dances as he clutches a writhing snake in his right hand and a rattle in his left.

Toltec warrior holding a shield, or possibly a mirror. The attire and stance of this high-status warrior indicates he may be a general or governor. The Toltecs were an especially militaristic society who arose at the end of the Epi-Classic Era. Their capital was Tollan (modern Tula) in Hidalgo State, north of Mexico City. They may have originated as a melding of Teotihuacán refugees with Chichimec invaders. By 900 AD, the Toltecs had achieved considerable power. For the next 300 years, they extended their control over the central part of Mesoamerica, including the Tlaxcla area. However, they never approached the reach of Teotihuacán. The eclipse and disappearance of regional powers like Cacaxtla may have been due to the rise of the Toltec Empire. The Toltec period forms a chronological bridge between the end of the Classic Era and the first part of the Post-Classic. In my next posting, we'll look at artifacts from Post-Classic societies, the Conquest, and the Colonial and National periods.

This completes Part 7a of my Tlaxcala series. If you have enjoyed it, 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