Sunday, February 5, 2012

Etzatlán Adventure Part 5: The Shaft Tomb People

Display of Shaft Tomb contents in Etzatlán's Centro Cultural museum. Skeletons with typical grave goods are among the displays in this little gem of a museum. Most of the artifacts in the museum were recovered from grave sites called Tumbas de Tiro, or Shaft Tombs. One of most important of these tombs was found in 1955 on the former lands of the ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian (see Part 4 of this series). This posting, and the two that follow, will focus on three successive pre-hispanic cultures. The people of these cultures inhabited the area in and around Etzatlán beginning more than 2000 years before the Spanish arrived in 1524. There were other cultures in the area during that time, but these are the ones that left the most accessible traces, including tombs, pyramids, and palaces.

Shaft Tombs have been found in three of Mexico's western states. They lie in an arc extending from Colima in the south, up through the Lake Chapala area in Jalisco, and over to coastal Nayarit. The tombs are often found in groups, including as many 50 in a site. Using scientific measuring techniques, including radiocarbon dating, archaeologists have placed some of the tombs as early as 400 BC and others to as late as 600 AD. This 1200 year time frame stretches from the end of the Olmec era to the fall of Teotihuacan. In European terms, it spans the time between Classical Greece and the beginning of the Dark Ages. According to "Sculpture of Ancient West Mexico", published jointly by the Los Angeles Museum of Art and the University of New Mexico Press, Western Mexico's Shaft Tombs are unique in ancient Mesoamerica. 

El Centro Cultural

Statues of two Great White Herons grace the fountain in the Centro's courtyard. The museum is only one part of the Centro Cultural. Other parts include offices, an auditorium for lectures and performances,  and a display of more modern artifacts from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Live versions of the herons can be found wading and fishing in Lago de Magdalena, just west of Etzatlán (see Part 2). The museum is located in the Centro Cultural on Calle Escobedo, about a block east of the Presidencia Municipal (City Hall), and just around the corner from the Plaza Armas (also called Plaza Escobedo).

A small cannon sits next to the fountain in the courtyard. At first I thought it was a remnant of some 19th Century conflict. However, Sr. Carlos E. Parra Ron, our guide, told us that it was used to shoot up fireworks in fiestas during the old days. Sr. Carlos works at the Centro Cultural and is Etzatlán's official historian. The city provided his services as a guide for our party of 12 foreign visitors, as well as English-speaking translators since Sr. Carlos speaks only Spanish. To our astonishment, all this came free of charge. However, we tipped everyone generously for their hard work.

The ancient people: funerals and tombs

An ancient funeral procession. A corpse is carried on an elaborate palanquin by pall bearers accompanied by a small, four-legged armadillo-like creature. No one knows what these people called themselves, and almost the only traces left of their presence in the area are the contents of the Shaft Tombs. However, those contents provide us with a remarkable picture of how the people saw themselves, and how they conducted their daily lives. Unlike many other famous cultures of Mexico's ancient past, these people did not focus their sculptural efforts on gods, kings, and the nobility. Instead, their creations reveal the day-to-day activities of ordinary people. They show how they dressed and adorned themselves, and how they lived and interacted with one another, including funerary rites like those seen above.

Another of the museum's tomb displays. Found with the skeleton were numerous objects from daily life, such as a stone mano and metate for grinding corn and other seeds, seen at the upper left. Virtually identical manos and metates can be found in many small-town hardware stores in Mexico. These are sold as normal household utensils for the kitchen. I am amazed that this Neolithic technology is still in daily use, more than 5,000 years after it was invented. Also shown are various pots and dishes, a selection of obsidian cutting tools, and some small animal sculptures.

Design of a Shaft Tomb found near Etzatlán. As with most such tombs it was built with a vertical shaft (hence the name) cut down through volcanic tuff called tepetate. The depths of the shafts from the surface range from 4.6 meters (15 ft.) to more than 15 meters (50 ft.), and the number of chambers range from 1 to 5. The depth is particularly impressive given that the only digging tools available were sharpened sticks, rocks, and animal bones. In the tomb shown above, there are three large compartments connected by tunnels. After a burial, the shaft would be filled in up to the surface, and covered by a stone slab. At some shaft tombs, remnants of what may have been shrines were found covering the surface entrance. The Shaft Tomb found at ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian is about 7 kilometers (4.3 mi.) from Etzatlán and lies 16 meters (52 ft.) below the surface. The tomb chamber is 4.2 X 3.9 meters (14 ft. X 12.8 ft.) and is tall enough that a man could walk upright in it. (Design above from "Sculpture of Ancient West Mexico").

Skeleton of a child, found with one of the adult skeletons. The shaft tombs often contained more than one burial. Whether the tombs were periodically reopened for further burials is a matter of dispute among archaeologists. Sometimes a shaft tomb will have multiple chambers. Unfortunately, most have been thoroughly looted and the contents sold to collectors. Some of these collections are in Mexican museums, but many ended up in private collections in foreign countries. Because of the looting, it is difficult to establish time frames and contexts, and much of what we know about the Shaft Tomb people is limited by this. Ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian's Shaft Tomb contained the bones of nine adults (2 males and 7 females). In addition, the remains of 2 fetuses were uncovered, as well as a substantial amount of grave goods. The tomb was built somewhere between 100 BC and 100 AD, roughly the time of Julius Caesar and the life of Christ. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, visitors are no longer allowed to enter the tomb, but the museum does a good job in portraying its contents.

Burial arrangement of a Shaft Tomb in Nayarit. The vertical shaft represented by the square on the right is connected to the burial chamber on the left by a short tunnel. The bodies were arranged with their heads to the walls and their feet to the center of the chamber, like the spokes of a wheel. Remains of children were deposited in small piles. (Design from "Sculpture of Ancient West Mexico")

The people who built the shaft tombs

Seated warrior from Shaft Tomb near Etzatlán. The warrior wears a crested helmet, possibly of wood or wicker. Around his body he wears wicker armor, shaped like a cylinder. In his hands he brandishes a club or a short spear. A large replica of this warrior stands guard over the entrance road to Etzatlán from Highway 4. The stance, weapon and armor of the warrior are similar to many found through out the area of the Shaft Tombs. The number of warrior figures found, and the level to which they were armed and armored, indicates that this period in Western Mexico was not entirely peaceful.

"Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast." In addition to savage warriors, the museum displays figures playing a variety of musical instruments. One of these is the drummer shown above, seated with his instrument between his knees. He wears a crossed headband and multiple ear rings in each ear. Interestingly, the 1697 quote from William Congreave in "The Mourning Bride" speaks of the death of a king and his entombment. Some collections of tomb musicians I have seen could easily be mistaken for a modern jazz combo, with drummers, trumpets, and flutes. 

Two more seated figures, male on the left and female on the right. The male wears the crossed head band so often found on both sexes. He also has the long face, straight nose, and somewhat bulbous almond-shaped eyes that are typical of the features of tomb figures. Another interesting aspect is the seated posture. I have seen many Shaft Tomb figures in the Regional Museum of Guadalajara, and other museums in Mexico City, Puebla, and Colima. A very large proportion of these are seated singly, and sometimes as male-female couples. The couples are often shown cuddling a child or a pet dog. In many cases, one person's arm is draped affectionately around the other, providing a sense of humanity that easily crosses the centuries. Even the warriors are seated, although generally portrayed as alert and ready for battle. The reason that so many are in a seated posture is a mystery to me.

Female figure with typical shoulder decorations. The pattern of bumps seen on the shoulders of this figure marks it as a Western Mexico Shaft Tomb statue. The shoulder bumps are very commonly found on both male and female statues and appear to be for decorative purposes. At first I thought they were part of the material worn on the upper body. Later I found out that they are actually polished pieces of oval-shaped stone inserted under the skin as body decoration. This might seem remarkable, but viewers should remember the various methods of modern plastic surgery such as liposuction and breast enlargement. In every era, people do astonishing things in an effort to "enhance" their beauty.

Grave goods 

Obsidian core and flakes. Obsidian--volcanic glass--was an important natural resource for the production of tools, weapons, and jewelry. The possession of large deposits of obsidian in one's territory was the ancient equivalent of deposits of oil to modern societies. The area covered by the Shaft Tombs is highly volcanic and thick with obsidian deposits. The Tequla Volcano dominates the landscape of the area around Etzatlán, and there are numerous smaller cinder cones and lava fields everywhere. Obsidian glass is easily worked and can be brought to an edge sharper than modern surgical instruments.

Shells indicate an active trade network that included links to the Pacific Coast. Shells were used as tools, jewelry and other decorations, and musical instruments. Conch shells, like the one seen above, were often used as trumpets for music or, as with a military bugle, for signaling. Often such conch shells would be incised with designs.

Figure of a cat with an open mouth. This may be a representation of a jaguar or a puma. Such large cats were seen as very powerful with connections both to the living and the underworld. Dogs are also very often found among Shaft Tomb grave goods. The famous ceramic Colima Dogs were viewed as representatives of Venus, the Morning Star, which was associated with death and rebirth. In addition, the personal dog of the deceased was often killed and buried with him to help guide him through the underworld. 

This completes Part 5 of my Etzatlán series. Next we'll take a look at the unique circular pyramids called the Guachimontanes, only a few miles to the east of Etzatlán. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the section below marked Comments, or to send them directly to me by email.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Hello Jim:

    I am the Curator of Education at BYU's Museum of Peoples and Cultures. We are a small anthropology museum charged will providing hands-on museum experiences for students. We are currently planning an exhibition on Mexican masks, which will include a "workshop" area designed to teach about mask makers and methods. A student tasked with finding images to use in this display came across your blog post of 23 February 2010. Would it be possible for us to use some of the great images there? We will happily credit the images to you and reference your blog. Please contact me at Thank you for your consideration!

    Kari Nelson


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