Sunday, December 11, 2011

Puebla Part 14: The vivid murals of ancient Cacaxtla

Even after 1300 years, Cacaxla's murals are amazingly vivid and full of life. Carole and I had read of spectacular murals in some ruins to the north of Puebla. When it was time to depart for home, we decided to visit them on our way. The photo above is a detail from a large mural in the Red Temple at ancient Cacaxtla (pronounced Ka-kash-tla). This ancient complex of temples and palaces is only a short distance across a ravine from the ruins of Xochitécatl (see Part 13 of my Puebla series). For a Google map of Cacaxtla, click here.

The Nahuatl word Cacaxtla means "place of the merchant's pack". The site was named after the scene in the mural above. The figure shown is a rich merchant who may, or may not, be a god. That he is a merchant can be seen by the pack leaning behind him on what is apparently his walking stick. He wears a cloak made from a bear skin with the head still attached as kind of a hood. His nose and the top half of his face are painted green. That he is rich can be seen in his adornments, including earrings, a necklace with a large pendant, and bracelets. These are all apparently of green jade, a very precious substance in ancient Mesoamerica. Strapped to the frame of his backpack are various objects of trade including a plant in a pot. The blue-green color used in this and other murals is called Maya blue, one of a number of indications of heavy Maya influence on Cacaxtla.

Overview of the Cacaxtla site

Artist's conception of ancient Cacaxtla. The complex sits on top of a volcanic knob, one of two on the crest of a mountain surrounded by lush valleys. The other knob contains the much-older Xochitécatl, about 1 kilometer (.62 mi.) away. Cacaxtla is built upon a platform 200 meters long (656 ft.) and 25 meters high (82 ft.), called the Gran Basamento.The north end of the complex is on the upper right of the photo. The original main entrance was the great stairway located in the middle of the east side. It gave access to the broad plaza in the center of the complex. There are structures to the north, south, and west of the plaza containing temples, living quarters and administrative areas. The site pictured above is the only part of Cacaxtla to be completely excavated. Much more remains unexcavated  in the area surrounding the top of the volcanic knob on which it sits.


Cacaxtla today is protected by a huge metal roof. Without the roof, the murals would soon deteriorate and the world would lose a treasure. Although archaeologists did some initial work in the 1940s, real excavation was not begun until after looters discovered the extensive murals in 1974 and word reached the government of a major discovery. Still, it was not until the 1980s that the Gran Basamento was excavated. All this delay means that the wonderful murals have been protected and kept on site instead of being moved to Mexico City or elsewhere as they might have been in earlier years.


Scale model of Cacaxtla, looking south. In the foreground, or north end, of the complex is the sunken plaza used for elite religious rituals. Immediately behind the sunken plaza is a row of truncated pillars that look like broken teeth. Out of sight below the pillars is a long mural with a series of battle scenes. On the right hand (west) side of the great plaza is a temple which contains both Teotihuacan and Maya architectural styles, and two colorful murals on pillars. Just beyond the great plaza on the upper right is the Red Temple, containing the mural of the merchant seen in my first photo. The upper left area above the great plaza contains the Plaza of the Three Temples and the residential area for the priests and nobles who lived in the complex.


Sentinel pyramid, guarding the approach to Cacaxtla. The tractor in the foreground provides a sense of scale. There was no sign at this structure, so I dubbed it the Sentinel pyramid. This pyramid, and another unexcavated one just out of sight on the right, straddle the path leading to the grand staircase, Cacaxtla's main entrance. Along with these pyramids, there are a number of defensive structures and ditches around Cacaxtla. The city grew up in a time of great turmoil, immediately after the collapse of the Teotihuacan Empire in 600 AD. The disappearance of that great central authority allowed the emergence and growth of numerous smaller regional entities such as Cacaxtla, but also meant there would be intense conflict among them.

View of Volcan Popocatépatl to the west. The rolling volcanic knobs give way to a broad, flat, lush valley. In the distance, with its peak shrouded in clouds, the active Popocatépatl volcano broods, quiet for the moment. The people who settled Cacaxtla were Olmeca-Xicalancas who moved there from the Maya area of the southern Gulf Coast. This is one reason for the strong Maya influences at Cacaxtla. The Olmeca-Xicalancas also moved into the Cholula area around that time, and they may have had a hand in the fall of that great city in 650 AD. From around 650 AD to about 900 AD, Cacaxtla was the power that ruled the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley area. That the people saw their domain as the product of the desperate conflicts of their time can be seen in the great battle murals in their capital. In the end, Cacaxtla itself fell to the Toltecs around 900 AD. Those grim militarists launched their armies from their capital at Tollan (Tula), not far to the northwest and, by conquering cities like Cacaxtla, built another of Mesoamerica's long succession of great empires.


Plaza of the Three Pyramids

View from the top of the temple on the north end, looking south. A sense of scale can be gained from the line of people in the background. After the Toltec conquestCacaxtla lingered on for a time, but by 1000 AD the site was abandoned and all the glory and power that was Cacaxtla disappeared under tangles of vegetation. The mists of prehispanic history closed over the site and its rediscovery would have to wait almost another 1000 years.


Bedoom in "The Palace". Modern people would not consider the rooms large, but the thick walls would have meant warmth in the winter and coolness in summer. Notice the raised sleeping platform in the corner of the room. Another reason for the rooms' small size is that Mexico's climate in this area allowed people living at Cacaxtla to spend most of their days outside in the public areas like the plaza.


The faces of Cacaxtla. This collection of carved stone heads starts with that of a child in the upper left, then a boy in the upper right, with an adult male on the lower right and an old man on the lower left. I found it extraordinary to look upon these faces and consider that they might have been modeled from actual people in that long-ago time.


Even mundane details can provide interesting insights. The groove carved in the floor above was a water channel in The Palace. It leads to a covered drain. A system of channels and drains allowed rain water to run off and be collected efficiently. Since the ruins are on top of a mountain, it must have been important to collect any available water. It would have taken considerable effort to bring it up from the valley below.


Jade relief carving. The man pictured wears an elaborate head dress, earrings and a necklace. He is bare-chested and has somewhat of a pot belly. A loin cloth hangs between his legs. Something about this little object tweaked by memory. I later looked back through my photographs from Tollan, the Toltec capital. There I found a similar jade carving, showing a similarly dressed man in much the same posture. Was the object above brought to Cacaxtla by the Toltecs during or after their conquest? Perhaps the carving I saw in Tollan arrived there as an item of trade prior to Cacaxtla's fall? Maybe both items originated from some unknown third source? They seem too similar for there not to be a connection. I guess it's just another of ancient Mexico's little mysteries.


Some of the many stumps of pillars found throughout the complex. The pillars lined a sunken courtyard next to The Palace. Notice the plaster remaining on the stumps, still covered by the original red paint. A consistent color scheme is found all over Cacaxtla, with of red bands along the bottoms of pillars and walls, topped by white paint above, .


Lifelike human torso. This statue is of a man wearing fine clothing, including an elaborate collar around his neck. He also has a rather unusual belt and appears to be wearing shorts. The realistic portrayal of the human form is a striking aspect of Cacaxtla sculpture. Many cultures, such as the Toltecs and Aztecs used very stylized forms, appearing in the same postures again and again. Perhaps it was the Maya influence on Cacaxtla that brought about the realism in its sculpture. Maya sculpture is among the most exquisitely realistic in all Mesoamerica.


The sunken courtyard next to The Palace. This was a place for rituals, as can be seen by the small altar in the lower left of the photo. The use of the pit in the stone floor just behind it was unclear. Perhaps it was for ritual fires. The stairway in the background leads up into a temple.


Governor's Rooms

The Red Temple was part of an administrative area. The most striking discovery here was the mural seen in the upper left of the photo. The first photo of this posting is a detail of this mural. This part of the complex is still being restored by archaeologists, as you can see by the wooden forms they have erected to protect the area.


Perhaps the ruler himself? This figure was clearly a person of great significance. He wears a gorgeously feathered head dress, with an embroidered collar and a tunic that extends to his knees. On his feet are sandals that extend up to mid-calf. In his left hand he holds what may be a purse or (in modern terms) a briefcase. Once again, lacking an explanatory sign, I was left to speculate.


Mural of the merchant in the Red Temple. The representation of the merchant in the Red Temple is significant. The fall of both Teotihuacan and Cholula left Cacaxtla occupying one of the most strategic geographic locations in Mesoamerica. It was astride the trade routes from the Maya regions of the southern coast, as well as from Tajin, the newly emergent power in the northern coastal area. Trade from the Zapotec and Mixtec areas around Oaxaca also passed through here as well from the altiplano, or high plateau country, to the north. Merchants might carry conch shells from the Gulf Coast to be used as musical instruments, or bird feathers as well as live birds and other animals from the jungles of the Yucatan. Jade and obsidian were widely prized and were also light and compact and thus easy to carry. Such merchants were carriers of culture as well as goods. Cacaxtla thus became a crossroad of cultures, and this can be seen in its variety architectural elements.


The left portion of the merchant's mural. Maize (corn) was essential to the food economy of Mesocamerica. As such, it occupied a central place in the ancients' religious mythology. The Hero Twins, the most important figures in the Maya creation myth, were closely associated with maize. The plants shown above include not only maize, but also cacao, from which chocolate is made. Chocolate was an important ritual drink and was usually restricted to the elites. Notice the lizard climbing up the border of the mural, and the birds flocking in the plants. The mural is full of such exquisite little details. The colors on this mural are amazingly vivid after so many centuries.


West side of Cacaxtla

A feature called the Latticework adorns the west side of the complex. This feature is clearly Maya in origin. However, the exterior of the room contains the tablera and talud style typical of Teotihuacan. Even though Cacaxtla and the other regional powers only emerged because of the fall of Teotihuacan, that great empire was remembered with respect and even awe for centuries afterward.


Stuccoed wall relief on the west side of the complex. This relief carving is of unbaked clay over stucco. All that remains of this relief are the lower body and feet of the person originally portrayed. The lower legs are covered by a garment on which the weaving is intricately displayed. Sprouts of maize and cacao grow up between the toes of the sandaled feet.


More painted pillars line the west side of Cacaxtla. The rectangular framing on the side of the pillars is a Teotihuacan style. This is another example of dominant color scheme. A red base with white paint above is the style seen throughout the site.


Ancient tools held a mystery for me. These devices seemed to be tools, but for what purpose? Like so many other strange objects I have encountered in Mexico's museums, there was no sign to explain them. Then I compared them to a photo from the west side of Cacaxtla.


The strong residual influence of Teotihuacan is clearly displayed here. The vertical rectangular panel, with a sloping wall underneath, can be found nearly everywhere Teotihuacan's influence touched. The small circular objects bordering the rectangle on the right are called chalchihuetes (jewels). In the panel above, these were made out of stucco. The tools in the previous photo seem perfectly suited to form chalchihuetes like theseMystery solved? Perhaps.

This completes Part 14 of my Puebla series. My final part (at last, you say!) will show the remainder of Cacaxtla, including the famous battle murals. I hope you have been enjoying this series. I found Puebla and these ruins an absolute delight. If you ever have a chance to visit, you should definitely try. If you would like to comment on this or any other of my blog postings, please either do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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