Sunday, July 24, 2011

La Rusa's Gold Mine

There's gold in those Ajijic hills. My friend R. (he prefers to remain anonymous) is a retired mining engineer from South Africa. Above, he carefully inspects the roof of the mine tunnel for signs of instability. The rusty old ladder behind him leads to an upper chamber of the mine. I invited him to help me explore this abandoned gold mine in the mountains that overlook Ajijic's North Shore. The same day, we also visited the lakeshore ruins of the old gold mill that processed the ore. Long before our excursions to the mine and mill, hints of an old gold rush had intrigued me. At first, place names and an occasional story were my only indications of the gold frenzy that gripped Ajijic during the 1930s. Then, in a short period of time, I found one of the mills that processed the ore, then the mine itself, and finally the story behind La Rusa's gold mine. As I put the puzzle together, I realized I had found genuine treasure. It was not the gold itself, but a story so colorful and astonishing that I had to tell it here.

Ajijic's gold rush

Scene of Ajijic's gold rush. Above, you see the topography of the North Shore. A ridge crosses the center of the map from left to right. The high point on the ridge reaches 2400m or 8000 feet. Ajijic and the other villages line the narrow strip of shore at 1524m or 5000 feet. Running down from the high ridge to the shore (the tan area of the map) are long "finger ridges", separated by deep arroyos. On these ridges and in the arroyos, prospectors found gold in the mid-1930s. The location of the mine we explored is about 1/3 of the way up one of the ridges in the middle of the map. However, before I ever visited the mine, I found the old mill where the mine's ore was processed. My friend Jesus Lopez Vega volunteered to show me the old mill.

Jesus Lopez Vega with a work-in-progress. Jesus is a very talented local artist. He grew up in Ajijic and attended the Neill James art school. James was an American woman who first came to Ajijic in the 1940s and never left. Among her many good works, she set up the art school for local children. Today, Jesus not only creates beautiful paintings and stunning murals, but is himself a teacher at the art school where he began. Chatting with him one day, I mentioned my curiosity about old gold mines in the area. "Oh, yes," he said, "there were gold mines here. Have you ever visited the old gold mill down by the lake?" Ruins of a gold mill? Jesus had my immediate attention. From his description of the location, I realized I must have unknowingly walked by the ruins many times. A few days later, Jesus took me for a short visit to the mill. I was hooked! I had to find out more. Near the mill sat an old man, dreamily resting by the lake. I asked him if he remembered a gold mine in the area. "Si, señor," came the quick reply. "Where?", I asked, holding my breath in anticipation. In response, he gestured rather vaguely at the mountains looming above us. My thought at the moment was "this was going to be more difficult than I anticipated." Only later did I realize he had pointed almost exactly to La Rusa's mine. 

A visit to an old gold mill

90-year adobe walls need a little help to keep standing. Someone had braced the walls with old rafters from the fallen roof so that (hopefully) the whole thing wouldn't tumble down on his head. This was apparently part of the administrative offices of the mill. A Mexican family currently lives in the ruins. Whether they were owners or squatters I couldn't determine, but they allowed us to wander around and take photos. As Jesus showed me around the mill, it came to me that I had no idea what I was looking at, nor anything about gold mining for that matter. I needed expert help. My hiking friend R. has worked all over the world in the mining business and I decided to recruit him into the project. I suspected that his adventurous spirit would be piqued by the challenge. R. was amenable, and not long after he accompanied me on my second visit to the mill. His help turned out to be invaluable.

The mine manager's office. We decided this must be the boss' office because of its size and the graceful entrance arch, but also because of the artfully decorated fireplace against the far wall. The floor was thick with fallen bamboo leaves, and the ceiling was open to the blue sky above. 

Closeup of the fireplace. Notice the graceful scrollwork on the face of the fireplace. Little touches like this gave us the impression that somebody important to the operation worked here. Although the climate at Lake Chapala is generally very mild, there are times when a crackling fire is welcome to ward off the chilly mid-winter dampness from the nearby Lake. All was silent in the old mill, except for the muffled crunching of the tinder-dry bamboo leaves under our feet. 

Faint echos from a bygone era. The weathered wood and chipped green paint formed a perfect backdrop for these rather odd items I found in the offices. One appears to be a 19th Century bust imitating an old Roman style. The two large egg-shaped objects are plaster renderings of some sort of squash. To whom did they belong? What is their origin? It was all part of the mystery of the place.

In the end, nature always wins. Above, a roofless wall of adobe is still partially covered by old plaster. Bamboo now grows out of the wall. Adobe, after all, is only dried mud. Sometime in the future, the mud will crumble back into the earth and only a few traces of the old mill will remain.

A hint of elegance. This window in the old mill is protected by iron bars, artfully wrought.  The artistry lends the window a touch of elegance. The green wooden shutters behind the bars swing with the same smooth silence as on the day they were installed so many decades ago.  

A ramp leads up to the milling area. Burros pulling ore carts would have trudged up this ramp, carrying their loads to the crusher. 

At the top of the ramp, traces of a ghost. The concrete footings in the foreground stand like the footprints of a ghost--the huge, long-gone ore crusher. The footings would have secured the base of the crusher as it pounded the ore and reduced it to fine pebbles and dust so the gold could be washed out.

A water tank hides among the flowers. Now overrun by flowering vines, the water tank was once fed by a still-functioning well behind the mine manager's office. Running water was a critical part of this process, just as it was when the "49ers" squatted in mountain streams, panning for gold in California's High Sierras. Water was pumped from the well to the tank, and then ran down through pipes to the crusher operation below.

A rusting iron valve plugs the end of a pipe below the water tank. Once again, the artistic sensibility of the time shows in the handle of the valve. Such a valve today would be much more utilitarian. The name "Powell" on the valve indicates an origin probably in the US or Britain.

A 21st Century satellite dish adorns an early 20th Century pillar. Apparently the family living in the ruins not only has electricity but enjoys satellite TV. I love the juxtapositions of old and new I encounter all over Mexico. 

A window on the past. Through this adobe window you can see Ajijic's mountains in the background. Somewhere up there is the gold mine that fed this mill.

Looking for a gold mine

View from Rancho del Oro in West Ajijic toward Mt. Garcia across the lake. In the the foothills of the mountains overlooking the western part of Ajijic is a wealthy development named Rancho del Oro (Ranch of Gold). One of our favorite hiking trails begins in this development at the end of a street named De las Minas (From the Mines). These were my first hints about the presence of a gold mine in the area. Of course, I also knew that developers often invent names like "Ocean View" for projects that aren't within 100 miles of saltwater, so I wasn't overly impressed at first. However, there were additional hints. A friend living in an adjacent development had built his house on property that had contained another old gold mill. He told me a very funny story about construction workers prospecting for gold among the old tailings when they should have been building his tennis court. After asking around, I found another hiker who mentioned that he had seen the entrance of an old mine high up in Rancho del Oro. At the next opportunity, we visited briefly, took a few photos, but didn't enter the mine. I knew that I would need expert help before any more exploration.

The mine entrance. The mine can only be found if you know where to look. Since it is a dangerous place, I have decided not to describe its location further. The entrance and first few feet inside the mine are made of brick. Beyond that is a tunnel carved through solid rock. 

Welcome to the mine. The sign says: "DANGER. Do not enter this mine. Do not expose yourself to rock falls and noxious gases. Do not become another of the statistics." The skull and crossed bones need no translation. Being sensible and cautious people, we plunged right ahead.

R. in the mine shaft. My mining engineer friend had suggested that I bring a length of rope. Seeing my raised eyebrows, he said that the person in front should be tied to the rope with the far end held by someone walking a distance behind him. That way, if the front person fell unconscious from "noxious gases" the people in back could pull him to safety. As the mine expert, he chose to take the lead. He got no argument from me. At the top of the old iron ladder, you can see the opening to an upper shaft. 

R. pried loose a small handful of ore. He showed me various formations that might hold more gold. At $1600 per ounce, I asked him whether there might be enough gold here to work the mine again. He didn't seem overly impressed by any of the ore he found, but allowed that a profit might be possible, at the cost of a lot of work and considerable expense. 

End of the line. Continuing into the bowels of the mountain, we arrived at this rather rickety-looking wooden bridge spanning an abyss of unknown depth. At least, I couldn't find the bottom with the beam of my flashlight. I suddenly recalled a second sign outside the mine entrance. This one mentioned 2 deaths in the mine. Apparently a couple of young guys ventured into the shaft unprepared and fell down just such an abyss as this. Discretion being the better part of valor, we decided to turn back. 

So, now I had explored both the mine and its mill. But who had owned and worked the mine? What was their story? There had to be a story! At that point another piece of the puzzle fell into place. When I mentioned my interest in the mine and mill, a friend named John said he owned a book that might help. It was called "Quilocho and the Dancing Stars." According to John, a good part of the book was set in Ajijic and he recalled some mention of a gold mine. As soon as I could, I borrowed the book. Not only did it provide many answers to my questions, but it contained one hell of a story.

Who was La Rusa?

La Rusa, dressed as "Russia" for one of her famous dance performances. La Rusa (The Russian Woman) was Ayonara Zara Khyra Alexeyeweh St. Albans. She was the daughter of Angela Welles, who was a descendent of Gideon Welles, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. Angela married the noble son of Princess Sophia of the Czar's Court, and moved to Russia with him. La Rusa called herself Zara or Khyra according to the occasion, but she is consistently called Khyra in the book, so that is the name I will use. She spent the first part of her childhood in the rarified atmosphere of the Czarist aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th Century. Or so goes the story in the book. I have been cautioned that some facts in the book may have, shall we say, a shaky foundation. "Quilocho and the Dancing Stars" was written by Frances de Brundige, almost certainly a pen name for Khyra herself. While the book may not be entirely factual, important parts of it are supported by the testimony of people who knew her in her later years, and there are artifacts of her life on display at the Nueva Posada's restaurant in Ajijic. In fact, one of those who knew her personally is Michael Eager, owner and manager of the Nueva Posada Hotel. He very kindly described his memories of this extraordinary woman and showed me some of the artifacts. 

Holger Mehner, Khyra's long-time dance partner, dressed as a Russian Czar. Holger was the son of one of Princess Sophia's ladies-in-waiting. His mother was from the Danish aristocracy. He and Khyra met as children at Court and both had an attraction to dance. At one point, as children, they even performed a duet for the Court. Khyra and Holger parted ways when Khyra's father was arrested by the Czar's secret police for some injudicious remarks at a party. He died on the way to prison in Siberia. Khyra and her mother returned to the US where they lived in New York and Khyra continued her dance studies. Holger and his family returned to Denmark where he also continued to dance. The two had parallel careers until they finally met again in 1922 in Vienna where Khyra, now a beautiful young woman, was performing. They teamed up and continued to work together until Holger's untimely death by accident in the 1930s.   

Playbill from a performance at Guadalajara's Teatro Degollado. Khyra and Holger performed to wild acclaim all over Europe and South America for a number of years. Theirs was a relationship like that of brother and sister. In fact, Holger may have been gay and was certainly a cross-dresser. There is a full-length portrait of him in the Nueva Posada restaurant, dressed in a beautiful ball gown. On one of their tours, they visited Guadalajara, dancing at the famous Teatro Degollado. It was apparently during this visit that they somehow acquired an interest in a gold mine. The mine was called La Miseriecordia (The Mercy). It was located in a ravine to the west of Ajijic called La Guadalupe on a ranch that became known as Rancho del Oro. Unfortunately, the dancing stars seemed to be a magnet for swindlers. Both were artistic, unworldly and prone to make impulsive decisions. After they returned to Europe, they attempted to start a new tour in Italy, but it fell through. They turned to the idea of working their gold mine to raise funds for future tours. Gold rushes attract crooks like bees to honey and Ajijic's was no different. Khyra and Holger's Mexican partners in the venture tried in every way possible to cheat them. They even claimed at one point that Khyra was dead so that they could appropriate her share of the mine's profits. Although Holger was only mildly interested in the mine, Khyra was a fiery and determined young woman. When the swindle became obvious to her, she began to fight back legally. The swindlers decided to replace the mine manager with someone Khyra might trust but whom they could control. So they hired Quilocho Retolaza, a maneuver they everlastingly regretted.

Quilocho as a dashing young officer under Pancho Villa. He was the son of Amador Retolaza, a professional hacienda administrator. At the end of the 19th Century, few haciendas were operated by their  owners. They preferred to live comfortably in city mansions and only occasionally visit their country properties. A hacienda administrator was therefore an important figure in the society of that time. Quilocho's childhood was idyllic and he enjoyed his life in the beautiful rural area around Guadalajara.  Unfortunately, Amador died relatively young and left the family's finances in disarray. About this time the Mexican Revolution exploded across the country. At age 16, Quilocho ran off to join Pancho Villa's forces. Because of his education, training, and innate leadership ability, he rose rapidly in rank and soon was the youngest officer in Villa's army. An excellent horseman, he is pictured above on his rearing steed, carrying a Mexican flag with a bandolier draped across his chest. His adventures during the war were countless, and he narrowly escaped death many times. Once, after he was captured, he was almost executed but managed to slip away. However, he finally grew disillusioned with Villa's cause and left the army to return to Guadalajara.

Quilocho as an older man. The young ex-soldier cast about for employment and decided to take up his father's career. He was quite successful, at least in managing the properties, but he was often at odds with the owners. Quilocho was a scrupulously honest man and objected to the casual way the hacienda owners cheated and otherwise mistreated the campesinos and indigenous people they employed. He did not hesitate to express his opinions to the owners, and that assertiveness often resulted in dismissal. After a while he tried his hand as a miner and mine manager, and learned every aspect of the business. When La Miseriecorida's swindlers approached him about managing the mine, he accepted, but quickly figured out their game. He felt great sympathy and admiration for the beautiful young dancer who co-owned the mine. Soon, Quilocho joined forces with Khyra.

Khyra, as remembered by many in Ajijic when she was an older woman. Above, dressed in a black cape and wearing her famous black sombrero, she rides her huge black horse, . Her home was behind the white wall just beyond the 2-story tan house in the background. The house, which has a plaque proclaiming it "Casa La Rusa," still stands on Calle Independencia, a couple of blocks west of Calle Colon. Quilocho and Khyra waged a titanic and ultimately successful struggle to gain control of the mine from the swindlers. Several times the crooks attempted to assassinate Quilocho, but through luck and good sense he always foiled them. Even after they won that battle, they faced other dangers. Bandits infested the mountains around Lake Chapala. The leader of one gang made a secret arrangement with a maid in Khyra's house.With the maid's help, they laid a trap. The bandits captured Khyra as she was returning from the mine and demanded a large ransom. However, Quilocho was suspicious of the maid and laid his own trap. When two of the bandits tried to meet with her, Quilocho and the local federales captured them. By threatening an immediate hanging, Quilocho and his allies persuaded the bandits to reveal the location of the gang. Khyra was rescued in a hail of bullets. The gang leader was promptly dispatched to his final reward, but the maid, reputed to be a witch, escaped and was never seen again.

Were Quilocho and Khyra lovers? Perhaps, but most likely the relationship was platonic and he was simply her protector. After their victories over the swindlers and bandits, the mine operated for a few more years but then closed, possibly because the ore played out. In any case, it would probably have been nationalized when other mines and oil fields owned by foreigners were taken over in 1938. About this time, Holger was killed in an accident, and Quilocho drifted away. Khyra, however, lived on in Ajijic for many years. Michael Eager remembers that "she used to ride around Ajijic on her beautiful horse dressed all in black...she would pull up outside the main door of the Old Posada Hotel, never dismounting, and demand that someone come out to talk. La Rusa, would point out, in her thick New York Bronx accent, that the grass was growing up around the cobblestones, or some other small problem, and urge that something be done about it." La Rusa lived into her 80s but, sadly, she died penniless, fooled again by another swindler.

This completes my posting on La Rusa. If you would like to comment, please do so 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

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guatemala Part 10b: Quirguá's Acropolis and intricately carved stone altars

Stairway to Heaven.  Above, the north staircase to Quiriguá's Acropolis stands out against the background of thick jungle surrounding the ancient Maya city. Unlike Quiriguá's Great Plaza (see Part 10a) with its many beautifully carved stelae, the Acropolis was not intended for public access or large gatherings. Maya acropoli were raised platforms, often superimposed over many previous layers. On Quiriguá's Acropolis stood palaces, temples, administrative centers and residences for the elite class of nobles, warriors, and priests. The rituals and other activities conducted here were meant to be shielded from the view of commoners. Most of the ruins of the Acropolis we see today were constructed by Jade Heaven (800-810 AD), Quiriguá's last ruler before the city succumbed to the general collapse of Maya civilization in the 9th Century.

In my first posting on Quiriguá, I focused on the Great Plaza and Cauac Sky, Quiriguá's greatest ruler. He took power in a coup d'etat against 18 Rabbit, his overlord from the powerful city-state of Copán, only 48k (30 mi) to the south. In this posting, I will show the Acropolis area and the great zoomorphic sculptures, many of which are found along its north side. I will also present a picture of the power relations and political landscape of the Classic Era Maya world that allowed the ruler of a relatively minor principality to seize and behead the king of a great state--and get away with it! For a map of the Maya world as it existed at the time of Quiriguá, click here. Quiriguá is located in the southeast corner of Guatemala, just north of the border with Honduras and a bit inland from the Caribbean Sea.

The Acropolis area.

Model of Quiriguá's plazas and Acropolis area. The open rectangular area in the background is the Great Plaza, seen last week. To the left center is a pyramid that faces due south toward the great staircase of the Acropolis. In between the pyramid and the staircase are parallel structures that form the two sides of the Ball Court.  The area around the Ball Court, bounded by northward thrusting arms of the Acropolis, is called the Ball Court Plaza. For an interactive map showing this area and some additional photos of the various sculpures, click here.

Although there were quite a number of Maya city states during the Classic Era (250-900 AD), the four most important were Tikal, Calakmul, Copán, and Palenque. Quiriguá was client-state of Copán, established as a commercial crossroad on the important trade routes along the Motogua River (west to east) and between Tikal and Copán (north to south). The two most powerful states ("superpowers" in modern terms) were Tikal and Calakmul, intense rivals for hundreds of years. Calakmul was the older power and claimed political and cultural descent from the great Pre-Classic Maya civilization based at El Mirador just south of Guatemala's present-day border with Mexico. El Mirador flourished from 600 BC to 100 AD, falling into a jungle ruin shortly before the beginning of the Classic Era. Some archaeologists believe that Calakmul was settled by elites who migrated there from the fallen El Mirador. If you check the Maya World map on the link, you can see that El Mirador lies approximately 1/2 way between Calakmul on the north and Tikal on the south.

Pyramid facing the Ball Court and the Acropolis' north staircase. This pyramid, known as structure 1A-3, is 7m (23 ft) high and measures 82.5m (271 ft) by 20m (66 ft). For unknown reasons, it was never finished. As with many of Mesoamerica's ruins, much of Quiriguá has yet to be uncovered.

Tikal arose during the El Mirador period and came into its own after that civilization fell. The rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul apparently intensified after Tikal's conquest by an army from faraway Teotihucan, north of present-day Mexico City. In 426 AD, a generation after that conquest, the ruler of Tikal sent an army south to take control of the areas north and south of the Motagua River near the present-day border between Guatemala and Honduras. These areas had been settled as early as 400 BC by non-Maya people. Their new rulers were "Mexicanized Maya" or may even have been full-blooded Teotihuacans. DNA from bones in an elite tomb in Copán that dates from this period shows that the ruler was of a different ethnicity from the local indigenous people. In addition, artifacts from his tomb show warriors dressed in the Teotihuacan style. The lord of Quiriguá was installed as a sub-ruler or vassal of the new Maya/Teotihuacan king of Copán three days after the Copán king took power. Thus began the long period of Quiriguá's political and economic subservience. Both Copán and Quirguá were part of the constellation of allies and subject cities accumulated by Tikal as part of its superpower rivalry with Calakmul.

The Great Staircase and northeast corner of the Acropolis, looking south from the Ball Court. The building on top is named Stucture 1B5 and was subdivided into elite residences. 1B-5 was constructed very late in Quiriguá's history, during the reign of Jade Heaven, the last recorded king.

Just as Tikal was establishing a complex set of alliances, either by warfare or diplomacy, so was Calakmul. In fact, that city followed a consistent policy of encircling Tikal with a hostile network of allies. Various of these allied cities changed hands, and elite groups were driven out or returned to power, all over a long period of time. Palenque, a Tikal ally in present-day Mexico's Chiapas State to the west, was seized by Calakmul several times. In 562 AD, Calakmul dealt Tikal a decisive defeat and the latter city was eclipsed for 130 years. Tikal eventually revived, and in 695 AD delivered a defeat to Calakmul from which it never fully recovered. Even so, it continued as a powerful and dangerous enemy to Tikal well into the Post-Classic era. Any student of the long struggle between ancient Carthage and Rome, or of Renaissance Italy during Machiavelli's time, or even of the modern political machinations between the United States and the old Soviet Union, will find much of this ancient Maya history startlingly familiar.

The Great Staircase and the Acropolis' platform 1A-1. The Great Staircase leads up to an enormous platform that forms the northern part of the Acropolis complex. The platform measures 100 by 85 meters (300 by 279 ft). The platform was built over a period of 20 years by Cauac Sky. It was constructed from cobbles from the Motogua River and paved with stone slabs.

While Copán itself was not subservient to Tikal, it was definitely an ally. Calakmul sought a way to weaken Tikal by weakening Copán. The man ruling Copán at the time was Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, also known as 18 Rabbit. He was the 13th ruler of the dynasty established when Tikal's army had conquered the non-Maya inhabitants of Copán back in 426 AD. 18 Rabbit reigned from 695-738 AD and was Copán's greatest king. He was very powerful in the southern Maya area of that time. 

Acropolis plaza (looking south from the north Acropolis platform). The plaza is surrounded by palaces, temples, and administrative complexes. The plaza's grassy rectangle is set down .5m (2 ft) into the Acropolis' surface, with several steps leading down into it. At the south (far end) are the ruins of the palaces of Cauac Sky and Quiriguá's last ruler, Jade Heaven. A broad stairway leads up to the palaces, separated in two places by fenced-off areas.

In 724 AD, 18 Rabbit appointed K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky) as Quiriguá's ruler. Cauac Sky, you will remember from Part 10a of this series, was the man whose face appears on most of the beautiful stelae at Quiriguá. 18 Rabbit was getting old at this time, and he may not have paid close enough attention to how ambitious this young man really was. 

Cauac Sky's earliest claim to fame. Commissioned in 734 AD, the large stone sculpture seen above, called Altar M, is the earliest known monument dedicated by Cauac Sky. The script on the shell of the turtle/crocodile contains the title k'ul ajaw. This was Cauac Sky's first use of this title for himself, and it was an important political statement.

Cauac Sky apparently chafed at his subordinate role as ajaw (lord), and lusted to become k'ul ajaw (holy lord) a title indicating independent rulership. In fact, after 10 years in office, in 734 AD, he began using the emblem for k'ul ajaw, a fact that no doubt would have brought a swift reaction from 18 Rabbit in his younger days. Nothing was done to curb Cauac Sky, however. 

A sloping wall called a "talud" separates sections of the staircase up to Cauac Sky's palace. On the talud are the remains of a relief sculpture, a pair of wings separating an emblem of some sort, possibly that of Cauac Sky. The talud itself is an architectural feature of Teotihuacan, perhaps a survival of a style imported hundreds of years before from there, via Tikal.

As his ambitions grew, Cauac Sky realized that he could never, on his own, defeat powerful Copán and gain his independence. In true Machiavellian fashion, he looked around for an ally and protector whose interests would be served by the humbling of Copán, but who also would be too far away to threaten the independence he so desired. Calakmul, seeking to weaken Tikal, was happy to undermine Tikal's ally, Copán. In 736 AD, two years after usurping the title of k'ul ajaw, Cauac Sky invited the ruler of Calakmul to pay him a visit. Since arrangements for a state visit like this don't happen overnight, it is possible that he initiated contact with Calakmul not long after he declared himself to be k'ul ajaw.

On the west side of the Acropolis plaza are three structures. They are reached by the broad 8-step staircase that surrounds the plaza on three sides. The these structures are 1B3 on the left, 1B4 on the right, and a much older wall between them, now covered by a corrugated metal roof. This wall contains a mosaic frieze with depictions of the sun god, Kinich Ahau.

While nothing specific is known of the talks between Cauac Sky and Wamaw K'awiil, the ruler of Calakmul, the results suggest an agreement that Calakmul would supply troops to support an action against Copán, and in addition would offer protection against any later retaliation. Such a deal was typical of political alliances Calakmul arranged while constructing its encirclement of Tikal.

Structure 1B-5, located on the raised platform on the north end of the Acropolis plaza. This may have contained elite residences, or administrative offices. The door shown above was very low, requiring a hands-and-knees approach. However, the bottom of the doorway may be buried well below the surface.

Although elderly by now, 18 Rabbit was still active enough to lead an expedition whose purpose was to gather captives for sacrifice back at Copán. Apparently he wanted to celebrate the completion of a new ball court. He set off in April of 738 AD, but seems to have been ambushed by Cauac Sky with the possible help of warriors from Calakmul. Several of Copán's wooden deities, typically carried into battle on palanquins, were captured and burned. That was a significant psychological blow to Copán, but the real disaster was the capture of 18 Rabbit himself.

A shrine to the ancestors containing an elite tomb, east side of the Acropolis plaza. The structure above is called 1B-6. Such shrines were typical of Tikal, a further indication of that city's influence on Quiriguá. In the tomb, archaeologists found the skeleton of a man with jade-inlaid teeth. A bead of jade was in his mouth. Ceramic offerings place the tomb in the Early-Classic period. Behind the shrine, thick jungle rises.

18 Rabbit was dragged back to Quiriguá and publicly beheaded in the main plaza 3 days after his capture. Such an event would no doubt have entailed a great ceremony with warriors in full dress and thousands of people in attendance. Cauac Sky had won independence from Copán, but could he keep it? Would 18 Rabbit's successor react in fury and destroy Cauac Sky, and Quiriguá with him, for the killing of Copán's greatest ruler in such an underhanded manner by man who was supposed to be a loyal follower?

A humble drain performed an important function. The general area around around Quiriguá is low and swampy. The climate is humid and rainfall can be heavy. At least once in its ancient history, Quiriguá was flooded by the Motagua river, which left behind several feet of silt. The ancient engineers who built Quirguá needed to ensure the runoff of excess water, and drains like this helped.

The death of 18 Rabbit paralyzed Copán. His successor, K'ak' Joplaj Chan K'awiil was not installed until 39 days after 18 Rabbit's death. In fact, very little is known of the successor or of this period because all new building, particularly that of monuments with inscriptions, ceased for 17 years. Oddly, Cauac Sky did not go on to seize power in Copán. He remained in Quiriguá and there is no indication of any physical damage to either city as a result of his coup d'etat. In addition to the internal chaos caused by the death of 18 Rabbit, his successor probably feared retaliation from Calakmul should he attempt revenge upon Quiriguá. Cauac Sky's Machiavellian diplomacy seems to have paid off.

The Zoomorphs and their Altars

A snarling face, with eyes bulging and teeth bared, graces the north end of Zoomorph O. A zoomorph is a large boulder carved in the shape of a mythical monster, usually combining two or more animals. Zoomorph O is part crocodile and part mountain lion. Notice that the headdress of the face and all the area around it are covered by Maya text. This zoomorph was dedicated in 790 AD by Sky Xul, Cauac Sky's successor who ascended to the throne in 785 AD.

Copán suffered a significant decline after 18 Rabbit's execution. Not only did it lose its most illustrious ruler, it lost economic control over the vital crossroads that was Quiriguá. Rich beds of jade existed upstream on either side of the Motagua River. Jade was the most valuable commodity in the Mesoamerican world, and traders traveled down the river to the Caribbean, passing through the southern outskirts of Quiriguá. In addition, Copán lost its direct northward trade route to Tikal, that also passing through Quiriguá. The severe reduction of revenue may have played a role in the 17-year cessation of monument building in Copán. The flip side of this coin was that Quiriguá gained everything that Copán lost: an illustrious and long-lived ruler and great wealth.

In front of some zoomorphs are altars. The the low flat stone of the surface of this altar--relating to Zoomorph O--is carved with text and a beautifully rendered dancing figure. This relationship between zoomorphs and altars is found especially at the base of the Great Staircase leading up to the north side of the Acropolis.

Cauac Sky decided to make Quirguá the showplace of his rulership. He began a building campaign that lasted throughout the 47 years he ruled after his triumph over 18 Rabbit. He created the immense Great Plaza, the largest in the Maya world. The Acropolis was expanded and he built fine structures on top. At the end of every katun (five year interval on the Maya calendar) he put up another stelae, celebrating his rule, boasting of his accomplishments, and tying his reign to great figures of the past. He also commissioned zoomorphs and altars, although the best of these appear to have been the work of his successor Sky Xul. 

Detail on Altar to Zoomorph O. Notice the fluid and graceful movement of the dancer and the intricate details of his clothing and jewelry. Carvings like this represent the height of Maya skill and creativity.

Cauac Sky and his successors also commissioned many of the Zoomorphs at Quiriguá. The style used is distinctly that of Copán, indicating that he may have captured some of 18 Rabbit's craftsmen, or perhaps he and his successors lured them away from Copán with promises of lucrative work. In any case, it indicates Quirguá's continued strong cultural identification with its former overlord city.

Zoomorph G is part jaguar, part snake. The inscriptions on the top and sides are carved in panels that may represent the scales of a snake. The text describes the death and burial of Cauac Sky. Sky Xul, his successor, dedicated it to his illustrious predecessor. The great Cauac Sky appears to be emerging from the mouth of the jaguar face. The jaguar is the third largest of the world's great cats, exceeded in size only by the African lion and the Indian tiger. It is a powerful predator and, not surprisingly, became a great religious and political symbol to people in the Mesoamerican world, all the way back to the Olmecs, the "Mother of Cultures".

Cauac Sky had only two known successors, Sky Xul (785-800? AD) and Jade Heaven (800-810 AD). After the long rule of Cauac Sky, these were relatively short reigns. Sky Xul ordered the creation of the greatest of the zoomorphs and altars, while Jade Heaven made some alternations in the Acropolis. 

Zoomorph P (south side). This huge 20-ton boulder contains what is perhaps the masterpiece of zoomorph carving at Quiriguá and one of the great masterpieces of Mesoamerican art. It was commissioned by Sky Xul in 795 AD, not long before his death. The intricate carving covers the whole of the surface, excepting the base.

Throughout the long reign of Cauac Sky and during that of Sky Xul, Quirigua continued to enjoy the benefits of its control over the trade crossroads it occupied. However, clouds were gathering over the Maya world. Incessant wars, soil exhaustion, deforestation, overpopulation, disease, and occasional earthquakes or other natural disasters all combined to weaken the Maya city-states, including Quiriguá. 

Zoomorph P (north side) Sky Xul celebrated his own rule with this carving of himself sitting erect between the jaws of a hybrid crocodile monster. Archaeologists have discovered traces of pigment on this sculpture, leading them to believe that it was originally painted red, as were many of the monuments and structures in Quiriguá.

Quiriguá depended not only on its own resources, but on the trade along the Motagua River between the interior of what is now Guatemala and the Caribbean, as well as that which flowed north and south between Tikal and the other cities of the Petén and Copán. As those cities successively went through collapse and abandonment, trade dried up, and with it Quiriguá's main reason for existence.

Altar to Zoomorph P. Close by Zoomorph P is the altar. It shows, among other intricately carved subjects, a god figure leaping from a crack in the earth. Text on this altar and on the zoomorph itself describe the founding of Quiriguá in 426 AD, shortly after the Maya/Teotihuacan conquerers established Copán.

After Jade Heaven's short, 10-year reign, no other rulers are recorded for Quiriguá. The materials used in Jade Heaven's monuments appear to be inferior to those of his predecessors and his stelae are stunted. Quiriguá managed to maintain its independence from Copán during this period, possibly because Copán was undergoing similar decline. Relations between the two cities were apparently good. In 810 AD, when the last known inscription in Quiriguá was carved, it recorded the visit of the ruler of Copán who helped celebrate the ending of a five-year katun. After that came the silence that engulfed all of the Classic-Era Maya world of the 9th Century. Soon, the ravenous jungle began to creep over the ruins of Quiriguá, Copán, and all the rest. The only sounds remaining became those of the birds and the howler monkeys in the forest canopy above.

This completes my postings on Quiriguá and on Guatemala. It's been a long run, and if you followed the whole series, I appreciate your patience. I hope you have enjoyed Guatemala as much as we did when we visited in March. If you'd like to comment, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Guatemala Part 10a: The stunning stelae of Quiriguá

Massive, beautifully-carved stone monuments led to Quiriguá's World Heritage Site status. Quiriguá's Stela F shows the face and elaborate headdress of K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yopaat, also known as Cauac Sky, Quiriguá's greatest ruler. The stela was erected in 761 AD. Standing 7.4m (24 ft.) above the current surface, it is the second tallest monument in Quiriguá. After our visit to Tikal, our Caravan Tour stopped at the ruins of this ancient Maya commercial crossroads. But before we get into Quirguá's wonderful sculptural remains, a word about our journey.

Getting there

Sunset over Pentenchel lagoon, near Lago Petén Itza. After our tour of Tikal (see previous 2 postings) we returned to Hotel Villa Maya for dinner and a night's rest before embarking on the all-day journey back to Guatemala City. The hotel sits on the bank of the lagoon and provides a wonderful view of the water and abundant wildlife. We had arrived in the pitch-black jungle darkness the previous night, so this was our first (and last) sunset over the lagoon. It was worth the wait.

Folklorico dancers entertained us after dinner at the hotel. Jorge, our Caravan Tour Director, arranged for a local group of high school students to perform a series of traditional dances. This sort of performance is called a Ballet Folklórico, and is very similar to acts we have seen in Mexico. Despite their youth, the dancers were well-practiced and gave a beautiful show.

Where continents collide. This rather mundane-looking bridge actually marks a very significant spot in the world. It crosses the Sarstoon River, the bed of which is part of a fault line system. The fault line running under the bridge marks the spot where the North and South American continents collide. This fault line system is the reason why southern Guatemala is thick with volcanoes and subject to massive earthquakes. The bridge was a little bumpy, but fortunately nothing else rocked us as we crossed.

Rio Dulce marina. Rio Dulce (the "Sweet River") empties Lago Izabal and runs to the Caribbean in southeastern Guatemala. Sailboaters travel up the river to Lago Isabal, just as pirates used to during the 16th-18th Centuries. A small fort still stands where the river joins the lake, to protect what used to be an important colonial trade point. Our tour was originally scheduled to stop here on the way to Tikal, but a lengthy labor dispute on the highway prevented this. The town of Fronteras, sitting at one end of the bridge spanning the river, is an important vegetable market for the local area. Many Maya farmers still paddle their product to the market in dugout canoes called cayucos.

Dining (literally) on the river. A pier juts out over the water, covered by individual palapas. Under each palapa is a table for diners. Steps leading down to the water allow those inclined to take a dip while waiting for their food.  Rio Dulce has become famous among Caribbean boaters for its hospitality and laid-back lifestyle. After crossing the river, we continued south, almost to the border of Honduras. The lush, flat land was covered with banana plantations. This is United Fruit Company territory (or Chiquita Brands as it is now known). You will recall that they were the company that played such an important role in fostering the 1954 CIA coup d'etat that ousted a democratically elected government and installed a brutal military junta that eventually murdered 200,000 people, most of them innocent Maya. United Fruit banana groves surround Quiriguá on all sides. To the company's credit, they created an archaeological zone around the ruins when they bought the land more than 100 years ago.

The Great Plaza of Quiriguá

Quiriguá's Great Plaza was the largest of the ancient Maya region. The Great Plaza is the northernmost of 3 plazas. It measures 325m (1,066 ft.) from north to south, and 150m (492 ft.) east to west. Above, you are looking north from the Acropolis, which lies on the southern end of the plaza. The embankment seen in the background below the trees marks the northern limit of the plaza. The embankment itself is one of the oldest features in Quiriguá. The tall palapa in the center foreground, and those in the background, were built to protect stelae and the other stone sculptures located here. This vast plaza was created late in Quiriguás history by the ruler Cauac Sky, just after he had won independence from the great Maya city of Copán, 48k (30 mi.) to the south. In fact, most of what can be seen in Quiriguá today was created during Cauac Sky's 61-year reign.

A huge ceiba tree stands in the middle of the Great Plaza.  Ceiba trees have been sacred to the Maya from the earliest times, representing the connection between the underworld (the roots) and heaven (the canopy). In this photo, you are looking south toward the Acropolis. Cauac Sky created his huge plaza to display his power to the thousands of people who gathered here. However, the city's population was relatively small, raising many questions about where these throngs came from. Archaeologists speculate that Cauac Sky stitched together a political patchwork of alliances among other towns and cities around Quiriguá in his bid for independence from Copán. He would have used this plaza to bring together people not only from Quiriguá but from all the allied communities.

The Stelae of Quiriguá's Great Plaza

The image of Cauac Sky appears on most of the stelae in the Great Plaza. Above, you see the north side of Stela D, built in 766 AD. He is holding a manikin scepter in his left hand and a shield in his right. Nearly all of the stelae have twin--but not identical--faces, one on the north side and one on the south. The east and west sides are used for Maya script or depictions of the gods.

Beautiful panels cover the sides of Stela D. These carvings of various Maya gods have been described as among the finest Maya relief sculpture ever made. The style of the carvings and stelae are distinctly that of Copán, leading archaeologists to speculate that Cauac Sky may have captured some sculptors when he defeated Copán's king and gained Quiriguá's independence.

Stela D also contains this odd panel. In the upper right quadrant, a king seen in profile seems to peer out of a modern television screen. He wears a rather modest headdress, but has elaborate earrings. His gaze is directed toward what appears to be a human leg being consumed by some sort of snake monster.

Stela E is the largest stone monument of its kind in all the Maya region. The shaft rises 8m (26.5 ft) above ground and extends another 2.6m (8.5 ft.) beneath the surface. This gives it a total length of 10.6m (35 ft.). It is all of one piece, made of sandstone, and weighs 65 tons. Even beyond the wonderful sculpture that covers it, one must consider the feat of engineering accomplished by these 8th Century AD people. The stone originated in a quarry many kilometers away and had to be cut in one piece without the use of metal tools. Then, without the use of draft animals or the wheel, it had to be moved to its present site and raised to a standing position. Archaeologists think that the Maya may have floated the huge stone down the nearby Motagua river on a raft. Even with that, getting it to the river and then from the river to the final site must have been a mindbogglingly difficult task. Of course, many difficulties can be overcome if you are a ruler with the power to order human sacrifices.

Not all the stelae were of such staggering dimensions. Stela J is of more modest proportions but it still rises 5m (15 ft.) above the surface. This stela portrays Cauac Sky as beardless and younger, perhaps because it was erected in a slightly earlier period, 756 AD. Later stelae show him with a goatee beard and headdresses that get more and more elaborate as the years go by. Cauac Sky raised new stelae at 5 year intervals according to cycles in the Maya calendar called "katuns". The sides of Stela J are covered with Maya script detailing the capture and execution of 18 Rabbit, the great Copán king he seized in an apparent surprise attack in 738 AD. In modern terms, we would describe what happened as a coup d'etat rather than a war. Cauac Sky brought 18 Rabbit back to Quiriguá and ordered him to be publicly decapitated in the plaza, thus ensuring Quiriguá's independence. Interestingly, 18 Rabbit was the very overlord who, in 724 AD, had appointed Cauac Sky to his job as ruler of Quiriguá. Apparently one should pick one's subordinates carefully. Stela J also mentions that Cauac Sky was the 14th ruler in his dynasty. There were 17 in all, before the general Maya collapse and cities like Quiriguá were abandoned.

Stela U is one of the older monuments. It is not clear when the stela was erected, but the date 480 AD is mentioned in the monument's script. From the decyphered date, it is possible the king pictured above may have been the one known as Turtle Shell, the third in Cauac Sky's dynasty. There is also a reference in the script to a ceremony presided over by the king of Copán, indicating that the stela pre-dates Cauac Sky. In addition to the natural erosion on the face, the stela was broken at the knees by some unknown enemy who attacked Quiriguá after the stela was raised. Destroying or defacing stelae like this was typical of the war practices of the time. The style of the stela comes from Tikal, showing how far south the influence of that great city stretched. In fact, both Quiriguá and Copán are believed to have been originally settled by Maya elites from Tikal who moved into the area and came to dominate a local population the majority of whom were non-Maya. The original height of the stela was 2.7m (9 ft.).  

Erected in 775 AD, Stela C was one of Cauac Sky's later monuments. The Maya script on the side panels contains a considerable amount of information. The are references to the date 455 AD and to a king named Tutuum Yohl K'inich, who may have been the 2nd in Cauac Sky's dynasty, 300 years before. The script also references the date August 13, 3114 BC, when--according to the Maya calendar and mythology--the current creation was begun and the gods placed in order. The Maya calendar runs in cycles with each successive creation destroyed at the cycle's end. Some people believe that the Maya calendar shows that the current cycle will end December 21, 2012 at 11:11 AM. This may be a problem if you have any holiday parties planned for later that month. My own suspicion is that the 2012 date will have something less of an impact than the disaster we all remember occurring when Y2K finally rolled around.

Profile of a big-nosed monster-god on the base of Stela C. Many of the stelae contain monster faces on their bases. I was impressed by the elaborate detail and graceful carving even on elements that were not central to the overall sculpture.

Stela A, another portrait of Cauac Sky, stands near the entrance of Quiriguá. It was erected in 775 AD and dedicated on December 29 of that year, the same day that Stela C was dedicated. This is one of the latest of Cauac Sky's stelae and the king is shown wearing a goatee beard and an incredibly elaborate headdress. 

Maya script from the side of Stela A. The inscription on the side of the stela indicates that Cauac Sky was in his "5th Katun of life", meaning that he was between 79 and 98 years old at the time. This was quite elderly for a period when commoner's lifespans were probably in the 40s. He came to power in 724 AD and died in 785, an extraordinary 61-year reign. 

Detail from the script on Stela A. Notice the symbol of the hand with the thumb and forefinger pressed together. The 3 dots to the right of the hand are part of the Maya number system, which was based on dots (indicating "1") and horizontal bars (indicating "5"). Unlike the modern number system based on 10 digits, the Maya counted by 20s. Their mathematicians made a major advance with the invention of the concept of "0". Western civilizations did not achieve this until after the the end of the Classical Maya period, when Arabs built their Middle Eastern empires in the 8th Century. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks ever came up with the concept of "0".  Maya script was a combination of abstract symbols and pictographs and contained elements that were both phonetic and symbolic. The combination made it very difficult for archaeologists to decypher the script. It was not until the 1970s that the Maya code was finally cracked. Many Maya inscriptions remain undecyphered.

Cauac Sky, up close and personal. Fragments of paint pigment remaining on some of the stelae indicate that they were probably painted blood red, the color of fertility and sacrifice. Although most of the stelae have at least one portrait of Cauac Sky and sometimes twin portraits, the carvings are not identical, even on the same monument. Headdresses vary greatly and different gods are emphasized on different monuments. Although the stelae are wonderful works of art, they are best understood as political posters with a message. 

A modern Maya altar is shaded by the large ceiba tree in the Great Plaza. Maya still perform ceremonies here. These usually involve chanting, singing, playing musical instruments, and the burning of copal incense and other offerings. Although Maya religious practices have changed since the ancient days, many beliefs persist, including reverence toward the sacred ceiba tree. Human sacrifices are rare, mostly of random tourists who straggle off the main paths (just kidding...).

This concludes the first of 2 postings on Quiriguá. The next part--the last of my Guatemala series--will take a look at the Acropolis area and some of the huge, exquisitly-carved boulders that portray various natural and mythical animals. Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim