Sunday, August 13, 2017

Teotihuacan: The military academy at Palacio Atetelco

Mural of a "net-jaguar" consuming a human heart. This mysterious creature gets its name from the net-like lines on its body, which may suggest transparency, even magical invisibility. Net-jaguars are unique to Teotihuacán. Unlike many other aspects of Teotihuacán culture, net-jaguar images were not copied or imitated either by contemporaneous societies or those arising in the centuries following Teotihuacán's fall, like Xochicalco, the Toltecs, or the Aztecs. The net-jaguar above wears a feathered head-dress, indicating an elite status, and has a curving speech-scroll rising from its mouth. This image contains strong military connotations, as do many others in Palacio Atetelco's murals. The creature appears to be eating a human heart from which three drops of blood fall. This symbolism relates to both warrior cults and human sacrifice. Taken altogether, Palacio  Atetelco's murals suggest that it may have been a military academy. The compound is located near Tetitla, seen in the last posting. They both lie just outside the perimeter of the main archeological site of Teotihuacan. For a Google map pinpointing Palacio Atetelco's location, click here.


The view from above. The various structures of Atetelco are grouped around several courtyards. The Red Courtyard is the largest and can be seen just left of center in photo above. It contains a large altar in its middle. In the upper right corner of the complex is another, smaller courtyard, surrounded on three sides by roofed structures. This one is called the White Courtyard and is the oldest section of the complex. My main focus will be on the structures and murals associated with these two courtyards because they are the most important areas of the complex. (Photo from of INAH, Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History)

Artist's conception of Palacio Atetelco while it was occupied between 250 AD and 650 AD.  The Nahuatl name of the complex means "On the stone wall next to the water." Of course, this was from the language of the Aztecs, who stumbled upon Teotihuacán over 600 years after it was abandoned. We have no idea what Teotihuacanos called this place. In addition to its bright colors, the apartment compound was decorated with the almenas (decorative battlements) you can see along the cornices of the buildings. Just below the almenas are rows of green circles, called chalchihuites. The word means "jewel" and refers to something precious. Teotihuacan is unusual among pre-hispanic civilizations for the 2000+ apartment compounds that made up its urban area. These well-built, and sometimes even luxurious, structures consist of sets of rooms grouped around multiple courtyards, with the whole compound surrounded by a high wall. All the compounds were oriented to the north-south-east-west grid pattern of the city. They were separated from each other by narrow lanes following the same pattern. Construction began shortly after the completion of Teotihuacán's three great pyramids. Most of the compounds were inhabited by multiple families, probably related by kinship. However, compounds like Atetelco appear to have served a purpose different from simple extended-family living space.

The White Courtyard

The White Courtyard, seen from one of the three temples that surround it. The White Courtyard was built approximately 300-400 AD and was the first section of the complex. In the center of the courtyard, you can see a small, square altar. A screen is draped over the front of the temple on the far side of the courtyard, in order to protect the wall murals on the inside.

 An anthropomorphic eagle, dressed as a warrior carrying an atlatl (spearthrower). This is a reproduction, based on fragments found on the temple wall. The fragments are indicated by the irregularly shaped areas enclosed in black lines with numbers in them. Apparently, and eagle was the totem of one of the warrior societies based at Atetelco. The bird is a powerful predator and was much admired by warriors. The atlatl is a weapon which long pre-dates the development of the bow and arrow. It consists of a short stick with a hook on one end where the butt of a spear or dart is placed. The effect of the atlatl is to increase the leverage of the arm and to give much greater force and distance when throwing. Properly used, an atlatl can project a dart at speeds over 150 km/h (93 mph) to a distance of over 100 m (328 ft). These devices have been used since the Early Paleolithic Era (30,000 years ago). In fact, anyone visiting a modern city park may see people using a plastic version of the atlatl to throw tennis balls to their dogs. The projectile is different, but the principle is exactly the same.

Coyotes march along the base of a wall. The coyote was the totem of another important military society. The feathered head dresses again indicate an elite unit. More feathers line their spines and the backs of their legs and tails. Speech scrolls rise from their mouths, possibly indicating a warrior chant. Another interesting detail is the circular emblem with three diagonal lines that each coyote wears on his side. Similar emblems appear in the border area around the animals. These are called chimalli in Nahuatl, and they carry symbolic meanings not unlike coats-of-arms on medieval battle shields. Further military symbolism can be seen in the line of projectile points leading from left to right between the emblems.

A human warrior/priest wears an eagle-crested head dress. On his back he carries a round shield decorated with a chimalli. The feathered ends of a quiver of arrows protrudes from behind the shield. This image may approximate the actual appearance of Teotihuacán's elite Eagle Warriors. Once again, a speech scroll indicates a chant or prayer. The warrior/priest is surrounded by a border that is part of a pattern extending across the wall, somewhat resembling a chain-link fence. A similar figure appears in each of the openings in the "fence".

This mural fragment may be about a deformed god.  The figure's body is covered with sores and his limbs are disproportionate to the rest of his body, indicating deformity. People with such deformities were not shunned in pre-hispanic societies. Instead, they were honored as people possessing special powers. The Aztecs adopted a great deal of their culture and religion from Teotihuacán. The god shown above appears to be a predecessor of the Aztec deity Nanahuatzin (Nahuatl for "Filled with Sores"). He was a deformed and sickly god who courageously sacrificed himself in order to create the sun of the Fifth World--the era when humanity appeared. The placement of this mural at a military school is significant because courage and sacrifice were key elements of the military ethos of Teotihuacán (as well as that of every other military organization in history).

Carole walks toward the passage from the White to the Red Courtyard. The opening is small, formed by the corners of two of the four temples that surround the Red Courtyard.

The Red Courtyard

The Red Courtyard was built in a later period than the White Courtyard. Archeologists estimate that this area was constructed around 450 AD and continued in use until 650 AD. It is also much more spacious than the White Courtyard and contains a large altar in its center that mimics temple architecture. If Palacio Atetelco was a military school, this would have been the place to assemble and review cadets and to conduct military-related ceremonies.

The altar in the center of the Red Courtyard models the style of a temple. Whether it was used architecturally as an actual model is unknown. Each of the three stepped levels displays the ubiquitous talud y tablero style. The edges of the level on which the miniature temple sits are lined with almenas in the shape of stepped temples. When the Red Court was excavated, a statue of Huehueteotl  ("Old, Old God") was found just outside of the little temple on top. He was the Fire God worshiped throughout Mesoamerica from the earliest times. In fact, he may be the most ancient god of the entire pantheon. In the lower right corner of the photo is a small depression filled with water. There is an identical depression on the opposite side of the altar. The purpose of these was not clear, but they could be fire pits used to light the altar for nighttime rituals.

One of the four temples that face onto the Red Courtyard. The temples are almost identical. They are each entered through a short but broad staircase and each has two pillars at its entrance to help support a flat roof (now gone). At one time, the walls of the insides these temples were covered with murals showing spear-carrying warriors and other martial themes.

Another possible fire pit is located in the corner of one of the temples. There was another pit in the corner behind me when I took the shot. The floor of the temple was once covered by a layer of limestone stucco and you can see the remains of it around the fire pit. The stucco was created by burning limestone, a process that necessitated large quantities of firewood. The use of stucco on pyramids, temples, and apartment compounds resulted in large scale deforestation around Teotihuacán. According to some theories, the deforestation caused increasing aridity in the local climate which, in turn, resulted in repeated crop failures. This would have discredited the priestly elite, whose job it was to intercede with the gods (primarily Tlaloc, the Rain God) to ensure adequate precipitation and good harvests. Their failure may have led to a revolt that overthrew the city's elite around 650 AD. Lending credence to this theory is the fact that only the elite areas were sacked and burned at that time. Conquest by a rival city, or invasion by Chichimec barbarians from the north, would have resulted in a general conflagration. Instead, the areas of the common people remained untouched and they continued to live in the undestroyed remainder of Teotihuacán for another hundred years. However, the city's population gradually diminished and by 750 AD Teotihuacán was empty and overgrown.

Maya influences at Atetelco

Maya glyphs from the walls of one of Atetelco's Red Couryard temples.  The white glyphs are painted on red specular hematite (iron oxide with sparkling flecks of mica), over a layer of lime plaster stucco. The glyphs have been interpreted as the Maya word puh, which means place of reeds or rushes. This is a common metaphor for the concept of people united in civilization, or "city". Teotihuacán had strong trading links with the Classic-Era Maya cities within Yucatan and Chiapas, as well as those in Guatemala such as Tikal, and in Honduras like Copán. In addition, there was a large Maya district within Teotihuacán itself.

The design of this pot shows additional evidence of Maya influence. The beautiful container has designs incised in the Maya style on its sides and skulls around its base. The pot may have arrived through the trade networks or could have been created by a  craftsman residing within Teotihuacán's Maya district. Since the distance separating the city from the Maya areas is long, and the pot seems relatively heavy (and fragile), I would bet on a local origin.

Residential/Administrative area

A complex of rooms fills the area of compound outside of the two courtyards. There are additional small patios associated with some of the rooms. The exact function of these spaces is unclear. Some were probably residences for military officials of the academy. Others may have been barracks for the cadets. Still others probably served administrative or storage purposes.

Obsidian spear points and arrowhead. These are typical of the "business end" of the weapons used by the warriors trained at Atetelco. The mining of obsidian (volcanic glass) and the manufacture of valuable objects from it was central to Teotihuacán's economy. Obsidian was obtained primarily from deposits near Pachuca, about 49 km (30 mi) northeast of Teotihuacan. Various objects were manufactured from obsidian "cores" about the size of a modern football. These items included edged weapons and tools, but also figurines, jewelry and other luxury goods. All were very valuable as trade items because of their beauty, usefulness, and particularly their light weight. A Mesoamerican city's control over large obsidian deposits would be equivalent to a modern nation's control over substantial oil fields. Wars have been fought over control of both forms of mineral wealth.

At Palacio Atetelco, an elite warrior class received the training that underpinned Teotihuacán's military might. It was this military capacity that kept the Chichimec raiders at bay, protected the empire's trade routes from civilized competitors, ensured access to vital resources like the obsidian of Pachuca, and even waged long-range campaigns to install Teotihuacán rulers in remote places like the Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala's Petén jungle.

This completes my posting on Palacio Atetelco. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email them to 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, August 3, 2017

Teotihuacan: Murals of the Palace of Tetitla

The Jade Goddess is one of the stunning murals decorating the walls of the Palace of Tetitla. Like all the murals here, this one is painted on a red background of specular hematite, a pigment that includes tiny specks of mica. This gives it a subtle sparkle. The color red was associated with courage and was used on residences, temples and pyramids throughout Teotihuacán. The Jade Goddess is also referred to as the Great Goddess or the Spider Woman and she may have been the city's chief deity. Tetitla is one of five major palaces that have been discovered outside the perimeter of the main archeological site, although still well within the confines of the original ancient city. During our 2017 visit, we stopped by three of these sites, all of which contained spectacular murals. In this posting, I will focus on Tetitla.

Artist's conception of one of Tetitla's several courtyards as it looked in ancient times. A priest lays an offering on an altar while a nearby female sits reverently. The walls are vividly painted with murals and other symbols and the roof is decorated with pyramid-shaped almenas. Notice the rows of circles below the almenas and on the platform bases. These are called chachihuites, which represent something precious, such as water or jewels. Tetitla was built during the Tlamimilopan Phase (250-350 AD) of Teotihuacán's history and appears to have been occupied into the final Metepec Phase (650-750 AD).

Diagram of Tetitla's layout. It was an apartment compound for multiple families connected by kinship. The rooms are arranged around central, open-air patios that sometimes contain altars, like the one seen the artist's conception. The patios are set at levels below the surrounding rooms and contained drains that drew away rainwater that collected in them. The various individual compounds were connected by corridors. 

One of the courtyards, as it looks today, with the remains of an altar/fire pit in the center. At its earliest stage, Tetitla was actually composed of two independent groups of structures. Over time, they spread out until they merged into the single architectural unit we see today. Tetitla was once surrounded by a high wall, with narrow roads separating it from other structures in the neighborhood. When we arrived, I got so involved with taking photos that I neglected to watch my step. Consequently, I tumbled off a platform and plunged into the corner of a wall, landing virtually at the feet of the security guard. As I lay stunned, he rushed to help me. Fortunately, I was not seriously hurt, although my arm and leg were bleeding freely from some pretty good nicks. The guard immediately retrieved his first aid kit and patched me up, as gently and skillfully as a trained nurse. I was glad he was there to help, but I felt pretty foolish. His assistance is typical of the Mexicans I have encountered when in need of help. Great people!

Ancient architectural sketches of two temples. Each shows staircases leading up to wide porticos with pillars in the entrances. The yellow-colored vertical rectangles are almenas. Teotihuacán's architects used sketches like this to design their buildings.

Model of a temple. Other methods used by the architects included models like this. This structure stands about 1.25 m (4 ft) tall and has a similar length in width at the base. The model is located in the middle of the largest patio and appears to have been used as an altar after its original purpose was served.

Room of the Nine Old Men. The mural at the base of the wall shows the profiles of nine old men, spread around the walls and all marching toward the back of the room. In the center of the back wall (left of photo) is another figure, facing front, but mostly obliterated. The room is square, roughly about 3.5 x 3.5 m (12 x 12 ft), and has a hard, stucco floor.

One of the Old Men. He is seen in profile with his arms crossed over his chest. The Old Man wears a cloth draped over his neck and carries a bag suspended between the two ends of the cloth. Archeologists speculate that the bag contains copal incense. The Old Man's ears are decorated by large jade ear plugs and speech balloons emerge from his mouth. Their shape indicates a flowery chant, perhaps in honor of the central figure he and the other eight Old Men are reverently approaching. The meaning of the ritual portrayed is just another of Teotihuacán's many mysteries.

Another patio, with four sets of stairs leading to separate rooms. The walls of the room at the far side of the patio contain another mural, this one related to Teotihuacan's near obsession with water and fertility.

Symbols representing water, fertility, and speech alternate along each wall. The curled pairs of symbols represent speech balloons emerging from a toothy mouth. The speech balloon may indicate a word, a chant or a prayer. Between each two pairs of speech balloons is another symbol showing two bivalve sea shells from which drops of water descend.  Taken together, all this may represent a fervent prayer for regular rain and a good harvest.

Diver putting a shell in a net. This is yet another water-related mural. In it a swimmer holds a shell in his right hand, preparing to place it in the net that is attached to his neck. The diagonal and horizontal white lines represent water ripples. This is one of the few murals at Tetitla that simulate movement. Behind the swimmer are three shells, one of them a scallop. Outside the white lines that border the swimmer are a series of symbols representing conch shells. While the mural illustrates Teotihuacán's focus on water, the seashells also highlight the importance of long-distance trade. Teotihuacán is located hundreds of miles from either the Gulf or Pacific Coasts.

A corridor is lined with rooms, including one with a bird and conch mural. The mural room, in the upper left, is connected both with the corridor and with the room to its right. 

The Bird and Conch mural. The bird is shown in profile, perching on a conch shell trumpet. A speech balloon emerges from the trumpet's mouth, indicating a musical sound. There are two of these images on each wall, each facing another.

Room of the Eagles. This is a large square room with entrances from rooms on either side and one from the corridor. The fourth side contains an eagle with spread wings as well as several eagle heads. From the corridor entrance to the eagle mural, a sunken area runs the length of the room.

A fierce eagle spreads its wings. There has been some dispute about what sort of bird this represents. Both owls and quetzals have been suggested. However, zoologists have identified them as eagles. These were very powerful totems throughout Mesoamerican history. In fact eagles and jaguars were the totem animals of the two most important warrior cults in the later Toltec and Aztec empires. These eagles indicate a very high status family lived here, possibly including powerful military figures. 

One of several eagle heads surrounding the bird with outstretched wings. The gaze is steady and piercing. Red drops pour from the beak, possibly indicating blood from a kill. This seems to reinforce the military interpretation.

Yet another corridor in the maze of rooms, patios, and courtyards. The layout is a bit confusing because there have been so many alterations over the 300-500 years of Tetitla's occupation.

These Jade Goddess murals are located in the patio with the temple model/altar. Her portraits also appear in other areas of Teotihuacán, including the Palace of Tepantitla (to be shown later) and the Jaguar Palace, as well as on ceramics. The archeological consensus is that she was the most important deity of this ancient civilization. This is another of Teotihuacán's many unusual aspects. The leading deities of all other major Mesoamerican civilizations were male, although goddesses often played subsidiary roles. The Jade Goddess was the deity of corn, earth, vegetation, and fertility. Although she was the paramount deity, she appears to have been a distant and somewhat ambivalent figure. As such, she would have provided a unifying structure for this multicultural city with its multiplicity of gods.

Artist's drawing of the Jade Goddess. The figure wears a lavishly feathered head dress which includes a bird's head, with what appears to be the twisting body of a serpent extending out from either side. The goddess' face is covered with a mask through which extend three fangs. Around her neck are several necklaces, including one with large, diamond-shaped jewels. The ears contain large jade spools. From the hands on the Jade Goddess' outstretched arms, water pours in two torrents. Contained within the water are various objects, including seeds, figurines, and shells. Conch symbols line the edges of the water streams. Her face mask, her jewelry, and the feathers and bird in her head dress are all green, a color which indicates water. Despite the fangs, the over impression is one of benevolence.

More narrow, twisting passageways. The colors and images on the corridor walls were too faded to make anything out, but clearly these were not neglected in decorating the palace. The twists and turn of the passageways continue the sense of wandering through a maze.

Dogs played an important part in life at Teotihuacán. Dogs, along with turkeys, were primary among the few domesticated animals in prehispanic times. These hairless and relatively small canines were called Xoloitzcuintli by the Aztecs. How the Teotihuacanos referred to them is unknown. Dogs were relished as a delicacy and were often served as a special dish at pre-hispanic weddings and funerals. In addition to food, the xoloitzcuintli played an important role in rituals related to death. Sacrificed dogs have been found in burial sites at Teotihuacán, as have ceramic pots in the shape of canines. The dog's role in the afterlife was to guide the dead into the underworld.

Felines were regarded as mystically powerful, particularly through their connection to the underworld. This feline is one of six found on the walls of a room. The elaborate head dress has long feathers and a headband that resembles a snake skin. This link to the sacred Plumed Serpent is probably not accidental. Dripping from the fanged mouth are bleeding hearts, the food of the gods. As night hunters, felines were believed to move between the worlds of the living and the dead. The bench on which the cat's belly rests has been interpreted as a kind of throne, indicating an especially high status. Because of their strength and predatory natures, felines were revered by warriors. Along with the murals of the eagles, the feline murals indicate the strong military connection of the family occupying the Tetitla Palace.

This completes my posting on the Palace of Tetitla. I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Teotihuacán: The elite living areas along the Avenue of the Dead

How the Teotihuacanos saw themselves. This greenstone funerary mask is one of many found at Teotihuacán. At one time, the eyes may have been filled with conch or abalone shell, giving the face an uncannily realistic appearance. The mask's full, parted lips and wide, narrow eyes represent a distinct style, recognizable by anyone familiar with this civilization. The Avenue of the Dead, between the Citadel and the Pyramid of the Sun, consists of a succession of long, rectangular plazas, each raised above the one before, leading toward the Pyramid of the Moon. Both sides of the Avenue are lined with small temple platforms and elite residential compounds. In this posting, I'll walk you through this area and show you some artifacts typical of those that would have been used by the elite figures who lived here. For a Google satellite view of this section of the Avenue of the Dead, click here.

Northwest San Juan River Complex

Small patio within the large complex. The view here is to the southeast. The Northwest San Juan River Complex is located along the west side of the Avenue of the Dead, just north of where it crosses the San Juan River. The river is lined by the trees you see at the top of the photo. The complex is laid out following the general design of Teotihuacán itself: north-to-south and east-to-west. The mixture of residences with small temples and other ceremonial areas reflects the nature of a society where religion was interwoven with all aspects of life. For a Google satellite view of this complex, click here.

Almena showing water droplets. The Spanish word almena translates as "battlement". However, in the pre-hispanic context, almenas were decorative features that lined the cornices of buildings. They often contained symbolic elements, such as these water droplets. Water was crucial to all aspects of pre-hispanic life, especially for growing the staple food, maiz (corn). The Northwest San Juan Complex appears to have been the site of festivities relating to the rain or storm god Tlaloc and other deities related to agriculture.

The remains of a plastered wall still show signs of red paint. The insides of elite dwellings were plastered with lime and then painted, with red being one of the most popular colors. The red paint most often used was specular hematite, which includes tiny particles of mica to add a muted sparkle. Sometimes the walls were covered with murals containing religious themes. Archeologists believe that the Northwest Complex was built between 150-200 AD, during the Miccaotli Phase when the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon were being constructed.

Remarkably realistic bust of a male Teotihuacano. Again, we see the lips and eyes that make this style so distinct. However, a non-Teotihuacán influence may also be present here. Only a few pre-hispanic civilizations ever mastered the technique of sculpture-in-the-round. Arguably, none were better at this than the Maya. Teotihuacán had strong trading links with the Maya world and there was a Maya presence within the city itself. The purpose of this sculpture is not clear, but it may have been used as a censer to burn copal incense.

Raised platform showing Teotihuacán's signature talud y tablero style. Another famously recognizable Teotihuacán style is called talud y tablero, seen on the sides of the platform above. This style was expressed as a vertical, recessed, rectangular space (the tablero), paired with a sloping wall below (the talud). You will find these features everywhere in Teohuacán. They can also be found in every place where Teotihuacán's influence reached, even as far away as the ancient city of Tikal in northern Guatemala. The pyramidal structure seen in the upper left, in the distance, is the south side of the Pyramid of the Sun.

Water pot, drinking cup, and small clay face. The clay pot is typical of those used to store water in residential areas. The cup may have been used to dip water from a pot like this. The small face appears to have been mass-produced in a Teotihuacán workshop by artisans using a mold. Little clay faces like this were manufactured and sold to be used as ritual offerings.

This sunken space within the complex may have been a cistern. I found several similar spaces within the complex. None of them had steps leading down inside, so they wouldn't have been used as living areas. The most likely purpose would have been to store water. Teotihuacán's builders created a sophisticated system of channels and drains to capture and channel rain runoff. The cistern may have been kept full in this way. Clay water pots, like the one seen previously, would have been filled here to supply the residents living in the immediate area.  The remains of two columns stand in front of the room on the left. These appear to have supported a roof which once shaded a small terrace overlooking the water pool.

Plaza C

This is the largest of the Avenue of the Dead's several plazas. The surface covers 7595 sq m (8306 sq yd). In the center is the stone base for a temple once made of perishable materials, but long since disappeared. There are three platforms on the west (right) side. On the east (left) side, there are four, including one that is a small pyramid. The size of the plaza, the central temple/altar, and the number of temples surrounding it, all clearly indicate an important ceremonial space. I took this shot from atop the staircase at the north end of Plaza C, looking toward the south.

Small ceramic pot used for offerings. The pot has been dated to the period between 250-450 AD, called the Tlamimiolpa Phase. During this time, the Citadel was constructed and Teotihuacán expanded its influence throughout Mesoamerica, both by peaceful trade and conquest.

Temple platform on the west side of Plaza C. The Avenue of the Dead is lined with temple platforms like this for its entire length between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Citadel. Various reasons have been proposed for this large number of roughly similar structures. One theory relates to Teotihuacán's ethnic makeup. It was a multi-cultural society, with enclaves of Maya, Zapotecs and other groups. At least some of these structures may have been devoted to gods particular to those groups.

Plaza B

Plaza B, the next in the string, has no central temple or altar. The view here is from the southern end of the plaza, looking north. The Pyramid of the Sun can be seen in the top center. In the upper left, at the base of the mountain, you can just make out the Pyramid of the Moon. In addition to lacking a central altar or temple, this plaza differs in other ways from those to its north and south. First, Plaza B is the smallest of the plazas, measuring 3723 sq m (4072 sq yd). Second, it is bordered with what appear to be residential spaces, rather than temples and pyramids. Plaza B is reached by climbing the broad staircase that forms the north end of Plaza C.

Ball player, suited up for a game. He is bare-chested and wears a short, skirt-like garment around his hips. The ball game could be rough, particularly if a player was hit in an unprotected part of his body by the heavy, hard-rubber ball. Injuries were common and death not unknown. The player's waist and hips are protected by heavy leather, as are his lower legs. Mysteriously, no ball courts have ever been found at Teotihuacán, unlike virtually every other important Mesoamerican city. Objects like this statue have been found, however, as well as stone markers for the ball game and other items related to it. It strikes me that Plaza B would be an excellent location for games. Its size would allow considerable range for the players and the temples and staircases that surround it would be perfect seats for spectators.

The north end of Plaza B is spanned by another broad staircase. Beyond it is Plaza A, followed by two additional plazas, and then the Plaza del Sol in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. Rather than continuing on to the north, Carole and I decided to explore the West Plaza, which occupies the area just west of Plaza B. We left the northern plazas, with their additional temples and pyramids for another visit.

The West Plaza

The West Plaza is reached by way of an enclosed walkway. The steel grid path and chains prevent damage to the surrounding structures but, unfortunately, also obstruct close inspection of the residential dwellings lining each side. According to a nearby sign, this small plaza is "the finest example of space distribution in Teotihuacán." It includes a central altar with temples on three sides. The largest temple (seen in the background) faces across the altar to the open side and the entrance pathway. This physical arrangement has an architectural history that dates back to the very beginnings of urbanization at Teotihuacán. The approach to the West Plaza would have been along this street, lined on both sides by columns supporting covered terraces and behind them sumptuous residences. The patches of white on either side of the path are the remains of lime-based stucco pavement that once covered the area.

Residential structures line the west side of Plaza B.  Habitations extend north and south of the entrance walkway of the West Plaza. Above is a corridor that runs parallel to Plaza B, and perpendicular to the entrance walkway, connecting the rooms and apartments. Note the remains of the plaster on the walls in the foreground, along with patches of the red paint that once covered them. These were the residences of important individuals and their families.

A priest/noble of TeotihuacánArcheologists label figures like this "high-status individuals." Their elaborate head dresses and jewelry indicate authority and wealth. Like many pre-hispanic societies, Teotihuacán was a theocracy, run by a priestly ruling class. The power of these people was based in their deep knowledge of the cyclical movements of celestial bodies. They used this knowledge to calculate the change of seasons and to predict the coming of the rains and the correct times for planting and harvesting. The power of prediction provided them with awesome authority, because it positioned them as intermediaries between the common people and the gods. This ensured their wealth and political position. The knowledge that underpinned of all this was closely held within the families of the elite class. They perpetuated their rule by passing it on generationally and by placing restrictions on who had access to the most important rites and ceremonies related to the celestial movements. This was why there were walls surrounding the Pyramid of the Sun and the Citadel.

One of the interior patios contains a household altar. The altar can be seen in the background, between two pillars. Altars like this were used to worship family deities. However, they were also employed for other purposes.

Family altar containing a buried child. The 12 to 14 year old youth was buried in a bent posture within this altar. This was not a sacrifice, but the burial of a family member who died from disease or accident. Burials like this were common practice. It was also common to take the bones of family members and shape them into buttons, combs, spatulas, and many other small tools, all for daily use. Special tools were used to deflesh the relative's body soon after death, before the bones became too brittle. While all this seems macabre and even disrespectful to modern sensibilities, these practices appear to have been a way to maintain a connection with those who had passed into the afterlife.

The West Plaza altar and two of the three temples. The altar is square and uses the talud y tablero style on its sides. The main temple is in the upper right of the photo. The temple on the left is matched by its twin, facing it across the plaza, but out of sight in the photo. The focus of all three temples is the central altar, apparently the site of important ceremonies. However, there is more here than meets the eye. During the early Classic period (150-250 AD), known as the Miccaotli Phase, the plaza's level was several feet lower. Excavations have shown that the stairs of the main temple extend below the current level of the plaza, and the balustrades on either side of the stairs end in dramatic snake heads.

Snake head at the bottom of the left balustrade. Because they were below ground for most of the last 1,800 years, the snake heads have remained remarkably intact.The forked tongue extends down to the original level of the plaza. The plaza's current level is less than 1 m (3 ft) above the snake's head. The features are remarkably sharp and clean and some of the paint which once covered the head can still be seen. It is likely that the eyes were filled with obsidian (volcanic glass) at one time, making them glitter in the sun and in firelight. The stairs themselves were once painted with green circles, outlined in black, over a red background. Such circles are called chachihuites (jewels) and were used to represent water or precious objects such as jade. Archeologists left a hole in the surface of the plaza so that visitors can see the lower level with its snake heads.

Jaguar head on the right side balustrade at the current level of the plaza. This one shows much more wear, due to its long exposure to the elements. This above-ground head used to be that of a snake like the ones that were buried. However, the modification of the plaza during the later Tlalmimilolpa Phase (250-450 AD) included refashioning the snake heads at this level into jaguars. Significantly, the change in the plaza and the snake heads coincided with the building of the Citadel and the radical modification of the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpents. The serpent heads on the pyramid were destroyed or covered over by the addition of the Adosado Platform. Apparently something happened in which serpents were out and jaguars were in. See my posting on the Citadel for more on this.

Elaborate ceramic censer used in elite ceremonies and rituals. A human head, adorned with large ear spools, peers out from the middle. Atop the head is an incredibly elaborate head dress, which includes the beaked heads of birds on either side. I have seen very similar censers in various museums displaying Teotihuacán artifacts. The details differ somewhat, but the general design is the same. Apparently this type of censer was mass produced in pieces which were then assembled. Only the wealthiest and most elite people could afford a censer like this.

The West Plaza's left temple. It is likely that a perishable structure once existed on the temple's top level. Before the plaza was modified and raised, the left and right temples each had three stepped levels. The lowest levels are now below the floor of the plaza. The two levels shown above are in the talud y tablero style. The vertical panels of the tablero contain the remains of a low-relief sculpture of a figure wearing a large head dress containing birds and snakes. The figure, which is duplicated on several of the plaza's temples, carries in its hands budding shoots and flaming bundles. There is some dispute about the identity. Most likely, it is the storm god (Tlaloc) and, also very likely, he was the deity worshipped at the West Plaza.

Beautiful painted pot with tripod feet, reconstructed from fragments. Pots such as this had many functions. One of these was to receive the freshly extracted heart of a sacrifice victim. While human sacrifice at Teotihuacán was not practiced on the industrial scale of the Aztecs, it was not at all uncommon. Human blood was viewed as one of the essential substances of the universe. Presenting a fresh, bloody heart to a deity such as the Storm God was considered be especially pleasing to him.

This concludes my posting. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. If so, please leave any questions or thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim