Friday, November 4, 2011

Puebla Part 9: Artifacts of Cholula's lost civilization

Mask worn in religious rites by an ancient inhabitant of Cholula. Across the street from the Great Pyramid is a small but well-designed museum full of artifacts from Cholula's ancient times, including the carved wooden mask shown above. Masks like this have been worn from Mesoamerica's earliest times until the present day. Because of lighting conditions in the museum, I was only able to take a handful of good photos. I decided to combine these with some shots of Aztec dancers we encountered on our way back from our visit to Cholula. The Aztecs (who actually called themselves Mexicas) dominated Cholula at the time that the Spanish arrived. My thought was to mix the action of of the dancers with the static beauty of the ancient artifacts.

Two Aztec dancers compare notes during a break. Note the mask worn by the dancer on the right. These dancers take considerable pains with the authenticity of their attire, music, and performances. Both dancers wear rattles on their lower legs and ankles. The rattles are made strings of nutshells containing small pebbles or corn kernels.

A frog-faced pot with a full set of teeth. The bulbous-eyed creature provides visitors with a toothy grin. Mesoamerican pottery is often shaped to resemble real or mythical animals. The pot is about 45 centimeters (18 in.) tall and 30 centimeters (12 in.) wide. The area around Cholula contains some of the finest potting clay in Mexico.

A pretty dancer shows her full spread of feathers. A head dress like this is called a penacho. The most famous penacho is the one brought back by Cortés as a gift for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who was also King of Spain. Still on display in a museum in Vienna, Austria, the head dress may have belonged to Moctezuma himself, overthrown and imprisoned by Cortés during the Conquest. Moctezuma's penacho was made with as many as 500 feathers from the quetzal bird, an animal of great religious significance throughout Mesoamerican history. In fact, the creator-god Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent) was himself adorned with the feathers of the quetzal bird. The possession by Austria of Moctezuma's penacho is a subject of on-going dispute between that country and Mexico.

Finely crafted buttons from the clothing of wealthy Cholulans of prehispanic times. Buttons like these were  made of wood or fired clay and then painted in delicate designs. Inhabitants of Cholula were famous as gifted craftspeople in ancient times. Because of Cholula's strategic geographical position at the intersection of the north-south and east-west trade routes, many beautiful products from Cholula found their way throughout the Mesoamerican world.

Aztec warrior armed with a spear and shield wears head dress with feathered jaguar. The jaguar was an animal imbued with great mystical power not only by the Mexicas, but all the way back to the Olmecs, 2000 years before the Spanish arrived. The combination of quetzal feathers with a jaguar head would indicate a warrior of very high status. As professional soldiers, the Spanish conquistadors highly respected the bravery, skill, and discipline of the Mexica warriors they encountered. Almost certainly, if they had carried steel weapons, and been protected by steel armor like the Spanish, the Mexica could have crushed Cortés' small force. As it was, they had already conquered the largest empire in prehispanic Mesoamerican history, including the city of Cholula.

A prosaic but well-crafted cooking implement. This device, a sort of colander, would have been used to stir food as it cooked in a large pot. Then, when ready, the food would have been dipped out, with the liquid draining off through the holes in the bottom of the scoop. The implement is about 1 meter (3 ft.) long, and the bowl-shaped scoop with the holes is about 45 centimeters (18 in.) across. When I encounter homely objects like this, I am often jolted by a sense of connection with the ancient person who utilized it.

Female dancer wears a dress adorned with images of Quetzalcoatl. The people Cortés encountered were beautifully attired with embroidered cotton robes and togas. Feathers were often woven into the fabric as additional decoration. Clothing like this was often demanded as an item of tribute from the Mexica's subject peoples. The dancer carries a hand rattle in her left hand, and a bundle of turquoise colored feathers in her right.

"At dawn, we began to march and the Caciques and priests and many other Indians came out to receive us, most of them were clothed in cotton garments made like tunics. They came in a most peaceful manner and willingly, and the priests carried braziers containing incense with which they fumigated our Captain and us soldiers who were standing near him." Bernal Diaz del Castillo, on the conquistators' entrance into Cholula.

Quetzalcoatl appears again. There is a remarkable similarity between the Plumed Serpent shown on this plate and the one on the front of the dancer's dress in the previous photo. As I stated earlier, the dancers take pains to maintain authenticity. The ancient ceramics of Cholula are considered by some to be the most beautiful in Mesoamerica. It is said that Mexica Emperor Moctezuma himself refused to eat off any dishes except those made in Cholula.

Fringes flying, an older dancer whirls gracefully. I found it surprisingly difficult to get good photos of the dancers in motion. Their constant whirling meant that by the time my shutter clicked, I was often facing their backs. In addition, those long wonderful feathers often blocked my shots. Still, with patience,  and careful positioning, I could sometimes catch the beautiful sense of motion and color they created.

Double-handled pitcher, decorated with a feathered monster sporting a toothy grin. The spout of the pitcher is formed in the shape of a face with an up-turned nose. When I first began examining Mesoamerican artifacts, their design and decoration often seemed alien to my modern sensibilities. Now I am developing an appreciation for the quirky sense of humor of these ancient people.

Male dancer, armed with a gourd rattle and a colorful shield. The loin cloth worn by the dancer appears to contain the image of Tlaloc, the rain god.

This lovely pot once hung from the ceiling of a wealthy prehispanic Cholula home. Notice the small handles ringing the pot. Woven cords would have been hooked to these so that the pot could be dangled from a roof beam. The pot contains a lively mixture of abstract and zoomorphic designs. The figure in the center of the pot may be another Plumed Serpent.

This completes my posting on the artifacts of Cholula. My next posting on Cholula will focus on the colonial town that begins just below the Great Pyramid, and particularly on the huge Monastery of San Gabriel. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would 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


  1. Amazing that these pots have survived all these years intact. I wonder what the hanging pot with the handles all around was used for. And I wonder how those feathered headdresses were stored when they weren't in use. They would take a huge amount of space, but they would look stunning on a wall. Does the quetzal still survive, or are the modern headdresses made of some other feather? They're astonishingly long.

  2. Dear 1st Mate,

    Many pots like this have survived intact because they were recovered in tombs. I suspect the hanging pot may have contained something that the owners didn't want contaminated through contact with critters from the floor, perhaps food of some sort. Hard to say, though.

    Many of the temples had special rooms for storage of things like the feathered head dresses. Quetzal birds do, indeed, survive in the more jungly areas of Mexico and Central America. I believe that some of the feathers in the costumes came from quetzals, but others came from other birds.

    Thanks for your interest, Jim

  3. Wonderful post, you provide so much detailed historic info about a museum we also enjoyed! We loved our stay in Cholula a couple of years ago. I strolled town a week after Mardi Gras and walked into a fabulous parade with dancers and men in medieval costumes firing a sort of blunderbuss. I posted about it, a wonderful chance encounter...


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