Sunday, September 11, 2016

Calixtlahuaca Part 3: Artifacts of a lost culture

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

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


Other ancient religious images

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Daily Living at Matlazinco / Calixtlahuaca

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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