Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Colima Part 2: Regional Museum's ancient treasures

"What have I done?!?" Humorous pre-hispanic pottery in Colima's Museo Regional. In my Part 1 post, we looked at the central plaza of Colima called Jardin Libertad and some of the wonderful old buildings that surround it. One of those buildings is the Museo Regional, an archaeological and historical museum facing the Jardin. The expressive little bear above, found in the Museo, immediately drew my attention. The humor of the ancient potter echoed through the centuries. I imagine it drew the same laugh from those who viewed the bear's comical expression many hundreds of years ago that it drew from me, a 21st Century observer. I decided to focus this whole post on the Museo, because it contains such a wealth of artifacts from the prehispanic and Conquest period, and because I could use these artifacts to outline some of the rich history of the area.

The Museo Regional occupies most of the south side of the Jardin Libertad. It sits directly opposite, across the park, from the Hotel Ceballos where we stayed on the Jardin's north side. The moorish style-arches are called the Morelos Portales and extend the full length of the block. Constructed as a private residence in 1848, the building later served as the Hotel Casino before its conversion to a museum in 1988. Fourteen display rooms are arranged around two levels of a traditional central courtyard. The arrangement of the rooms takes you from archaic times through the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1921. Material explaining the displays is available in English. The Museo is open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:00 AM to 6:30 PM.

Colima's volcanos have played a central role in its environment, culture, and history. Above, the god of the still-active Volcan de Fuego demonstrates his power, while the female god of the dormant sister volcano Nevado de Colima sleeps under its snows. Gods of the sun and moon are also important in this mural,which can be found in the main stairwell of the Museo. The sides of the Volcan de Fuego (volcano of fire) eroded into great arroyos from which flowed the three principal rivers of Colima: Rio Marabasco, Rio Armeria, and Rio Naranjo. Added to the rich volcanic soil, this abundant water produced a wealth of plant and animal life, which in turn supported the indigenous people. As they began to develop and utilize agriculture, they were able to produce sufficient surpluses to enable the development a high level of artisanship and eventually rich and powerful cultures with great temple complexes.

Early archaic pottery shows simple grace. There is some evidence of South American cultural influences on the early Colima area cultures. The earliest of those is called the Capacha Culture, which thrived between 1800-1500 BC, about the same time as the ancient Egyptians. The Capacha Culture of Colima overlapped and interacted with a contemporary culture in Michoacan called El Opeño. There has been a long-standing relationship between the peoples of these two areas, which has sometimes led to warfare, as we shall see later in this post.

Later pottery shows more decorative elements. The bulbous protrusions on this piece may represent flowers, or perhaps squash. It was clearly from a more advanced culture than the previous simple pot. The people who followed the Capacha Culture in later centuries were influenced by the Mesoamerican cultures such as that of the Olmecs, of Teotihuacan, and the Toltecs, Aztecs and Purepecha.

Dogs were the most important animals in Colima pottery. Indigenous people raised dogs such as the one above for various purposes, including food and rituals associated with death. The most recognizable symbol of Colima is the fat, hairless, and short-legged dog shown above, largely raised for food. Pottery dogs were created in a huge variety of postures, including dancing with other dogs (see Colima Part 1). A different sort of dog, more slender and graceful, with longer legs, was called Xolotzcuintli. Xolotl was brother to Quetzalcoatl, the great plumed serpent god of numerous Mesoamerican cultures including the Aztec and Maya. Xolotl was associated with the planet Venus, which periodically disappears from view for 8 days before re-emerging to become the "morning star". To the indigenous Colima cultures, this disappearance and re-emergence bore a strong relationship to death and re-birth. The belief grew that one could not be reborn in the afterlife unless the departed was accompanied by one or more of the clay Xolotzcuintli dogs in the tomb. Ultimately, this became more important to achieving a satisfactory afterlife than having been a good person. "Going to the dogs" had a completely different meaning in those days.

A fat, snarling creature demonstrates a lively artistic culture. He may be some sort of a bear or dog, or just a whim of the artisan.

Another toothy pig-like creature bares his fangs. This may be a javelina or peccary, which looks somewhat like a pig, but actually is related to deer. It could not represent an actual pig, because that animal arrived with the Spanish, long after this little piece was created.

Still another expressive animal. I knick-named this odd creature "Curious George" because of the inquisitive expression on its face. Except for the short legs, it vaguely resembles a llama of the South American Andes. The ancient sculptor could have seen one, or it could have simply been a figment of his imagination. The humanity of these ancient people continues to leap out at me in their playfulness and sense of humor.

Ancient boy totes a jug with a technique still in use. With a strap across his head, the boy is supporting a large and heavy jug. This is called a "tumpline". The technique has been used for centuries and I have seen indigenous women in Mexico using it to transport their groceries, and men to carry firewood.

Colima sartorial style. The three men above are seated comfortably, wearing the clothing and personal decoration popular in their time and culture. Colima has year-round warm temperatures, running to hot in the summers. Little clothing was needed other than loincloths for modesty. Jewelry consisted of bracelets on the upper arms and wrists, and heavy necklaces. It was not clear to me whether the headgear was some sort of turban, or possibly represented braided hair.

"Kickin' back" in Colima. I liked this figure for the relaxed, informal posture. The artist had a real sense of the human body and how it appears when in this position. This guy looks like he definitely had a good day at the office and is waiting for his wife to bring him the local version of a cold beer. Like the three seated men, he wears little other than a loin cloth and some arm and ankle bracelets.

Personal adornment is common to nearly all human societies. Above, a clay bowl is filled with various necklaces, pendants, earrings, and other ornaments. The interior of the bowl shows some fine work with the swirling vortex of lines. The more successful a culture's food producing efforts, the more time is available to devote to pursuits like pottery and personal adornment.

More leisure-time activities. Any modern jazz musician would relate to this three-piece combo. While much music was devoted to religious rituals, there appears to have been a considerable social aspect to the musical scene.

Beautifully worked wooden flutes. Modern indigenous people still make, and sometimes sell, flutes like these. The instruments above are unusual because Mesoamerican flutes are usually made from clay, not wood. Music was another indication of the success of the Colima area cultures in creating leisure time.

Realism distinguishes this figure. Many of the pieces in the Museo Regional are stylized rather than realistic. What makes this figure different was not just the high level of skill of the artisan, but his keen awareness of the physiology of the human body. Notice that every finger and toe-nails is defined. This could well be a representation of a actual person, a sculptural portrait.

Dressed for war. The leather straps on this figure's head represent part of an ancient war helmet. The people in the Colima area in the late prehispanic era were known as Tecos. They had to fight off numerous attempts to subdue them prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Museo contains a considerable collection of very determined-looking warrior figures. A decade or so before the Spanish came on the scene, the Teco kingdom fought what became known as the Salt War. The Purepechan (also known as Tarascan) Empire sought to make the kingdom pay a tribute of salt. The Purepechans were based in Michoacan at a capital city called Tzintzuntzan on Lake Patzcuaro. They almost completely lacked sources of salt in their area, and coveted the salt deposits around the lake beds to the north of Colima. The Teco kingdom, under its leader Colimotl (also known as Coliman), survived the onslaught and finally drove the Purepechans from the area.

Spanish crossbow fired a powerful iron dart. In addition to guns, the Spanish brought medieval crossbows, still an extremely formidable weapon at the time. It could fire an iron dart a considerable distance and penetrate steel armor. Indigenous body armor was made to protect against wood, stone, and sharp obsidian weapons. It offered little protection against Spanish weapons like the crossbow, steel swords and pikes, and guns.

Teco warriors under Colimotl fiercely resisted the Spanish. The Spanish arrived in 1522, only a year after they destroyed the Aztec Empire. A conquistador named Juan Rodriguez Villafuerte rashly, and without permission from Hernan Cortes, attempted to conquer the Tecos. Much to his and the Spaniards' surprise, Colimotl led the Tecos to victory, just as he had recently defeated the Purepecha Empire. Rodriguez Villfuerte was recalled and punished by Cortes. A later expedition under Gonzalo Sandoval--this time authorized--finally defeated the Tecos in 1523. The people of modern Colima have erected a large statue to Colimotl in honor of his skillful, and nearly successful, efforts to defend his people against the Spanish invaders. Villa Colima was established by Gonzalo Sandoval near the Teco capital of Caxititlan. In 1524, Cortes sent Francisco Cortes, one of his innumerable relatives, as the first mayor. Later, in 1527, the site was moved to the present location of Colima.

Spanish armor stood at the apex of what was then technologically possible. The Spanish developed their military technology during a 700 year struggle to re-take Spain from the Moors. They succeeded just before Columbus sailed. Armor such as this was the height of military fashion for the well-heeled. Common soldiers were not as well armored, but still were far better protected than their indigenous adversaries.

Leather-bound chest awaits its load of conquered treasure. This beautiful chest covered by hand-tooled leather may well have contained jewels and doubloons in its day.

Late medieval astrolabe. This device appears to be an astrolabe, a mechanism for determining the position of the sun and stars. The earliest astrolabes were invented in the Helenistic world of 150 BC. In the 9th Century AD, the Arabs greatly improved upon the design. The Spanish may well have copied designs from the Moors and brought them to Mexico, where this one ended up in Colima.

Sextant was the computer of its age. No well-equiped mariner left port without one. The sextant, developed in the 17th and 18th Centuries, was a major advance over navigational tools of previous centuries, allowing a much higher degree of accuracy. Training on the sextant continued for sailors and naval officers well into the 20th Century. As a great exploring nation and naval power, Spain had a definite need for these instruments. The importance of Colima to Spain rested, in great part, on its strategic position as a way station on the route between the Pacific Coast ports and Mexico City, and from there to Vera Cruz and Spain.

Beautifully lacquered chest from China. Cortes understood the importance of the west coast of Mexico as a door to the riches of Asia. He won permission to send exploratory expeditions in 1532,1533,1535 and 1539 along the Pacific Coast and over to what is now known as Baja California, resulting in the founding of the port of La Paz in 1535. Today, the body of water between Baja California and the Mexican mainland is still known as the Sea of Cortez. However, all of this was just staging for the main event: the conquest of Asia.

Intricately carved ivory fan from China no doubt fluttered the heart of a Spanish lady. In 1564, Lopez de Legazpi launched the conquest of the Philippine Islands from the Pacific Coast port of Barre de Navidad, not far from Colima. He sailed with 5 ships and 500 men and seized the Philippines which remained in Spanish hands until the 1898 Spanish-American War. With the Philippines as a major Spanish base and trading center, the riches of the Orient poured back across the Pacific, through Colima, and ultimately to Spain, making it the greatest power of the 16th and much of the 17th Centuries. Through it all, Colima continued to prosper in its strategic role.

I hope you have enjoyed this little trip through the long and fascinating cultures and early history of Colima. The Museo Regional should not to be missed on a visit to Colima. However, there were quite a number of other delights to be discovered on our trip. We will cover those in the next several posts. If you would like to comment, please use the comments section below or email me directly. If you ask a question using the comments section please leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego! Jim

1 comment:

  1. great commentary. spent the day in these areas with a nice guy that knew nothing about the local history... thanks for filling in the blanks


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim