Thursday, September 1, 2016

Calixtlahuaca Part 2: The Tlaloc Temple and the Palace

One of the rooms in the Palace Complex, with an impressive platform in the background. In front of the large platform, you can see part of the Palace Complex's broad, grassy plaza. This complex is one of a number of ruins scattered across the slopes of Cerro Tenismo, the small, extinct volcano on which ancient Calixtlahuaca was built. Because of our limited time, and the distance between the sites, we only visited the three most important, including the Temple of Ehecatl (see Part 1), the Tlaloc Complex, and the Palace. One of Calixtlahuaca's unique features is that these ceremonial structures are all so scattered. In other Mesoamerican cities, these kinds of structures are grouped together centrally into a single elite district. Archaeologists were also surprised that they could find almost no buildings or artifacts beyond the base of the volcano. At Calixtlahuaca, both the ceremonial and the residential areas were built on terraced platforms cut into the slopes of Cerro Tenismo, rather than on the flatter land that surrounds the hill. By contrast, the Spanish colonial town of Calixlahuaca was built on the flat lands below the hill, long after the abandonment of the ancient city.

Monument 4: The Tlaloc Temple Complex

The Tlaloc Complex includes three structures: a temple, a low platform, and a tzompantli. José Garcia Payón was the archaeologist who originally unearthed ancient Calixtlahuaca. The Tlaloc Complex was one of his primary areas of excavation. He associated the temple (left side of photo) with Tlaloc, the Rain God, because he found several statues of the god on or around the structure. All three structures of the complex are arranged around a stone patio. The entire complex rests on a broad, man-made terrace cut from the side of Cerro Tenismo. The Tlaloc Complex is oriented to the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), considered sacred as far back as the time of the Olmecs.

Censer decorated with the face of Tlaloc. Many Mesoamericans cultures used containers called censers to burn copal incense during religious ceremonies. The Tlaloc statues Payón found are not kept in the site museum, and I have been unable to find any photos of them on the internet. In order to give you an idea of how the ancients viewed their Rain God, I am using a photo I took of a censer unearthed at the great Aztec pyramid called the Templo Mayor, in Mexico City. The "goggles" around Tlaloc's eyes are his most typical and distinctive feature. In addition, he is almost always shown with fangs hanging down from both corners of his mouth, with his tongue drooping between them. Tlaloc was one of the most important of all the many gods of the various Mesoamerican civilizations. This is not surprising, since all these societies were dependent upon agriculture, for which rain is always the critical element. He was so important to the Aztecs that they gave him equal billing, along with their War God  Huitzilopochtli. Temples devoted to both gods sit side-by-side atop the Templo Mayor, a pyramid that marked the center of their world.

The Tlaloc Temple The temple's only staircase is located on its east side. At one time, the temple was topped by a structure made of perishable materials, which did not survive the centuries.  Tlaloc ruled over the four sacred directions and he occupied a position in the center where the directional lines cross. The Rain God, called by various names over the centuries, is one of the most ancient Mesoamerican deities, probably dating to the birth of New World agriculture. The only god to exceed him in antiquity would have been the God of Fire, Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old God". Human awareness of the mystery, power, and usefulness of fire, as well as its dangers, long pre-dates agriculture.

Two small, square structures stand on either side of the staircase. They are each about 1 m sq (3' x 3') and about .3 m (1 ft) tall. Their function is not clear, but they may have been bases for statues or perhaps sacrificial altars. Tlaloc was married to Chalchiuhtlicue, the beautiful Goddess of Lakes and Streams. The Rain God was assisted by four helpers, called Tlaloque, who were dwarf-like beings. One of their key jobs was to smash great clay urns full of water, thus creating thunder as the rain was released. Tlaloc was closely associated with Ehecatl, the Wind God. Since strong, gusty winds often precede a rainstorm, the ancient people believed the rain was being pushed by the Wind God.

The north side of the Tlaloc Complex plaza is filled by a low platform. A sign at the site says that it probably served as the base for four rooms, but the purpose of these rooms is unclear. They might have housed priests of Tlaloc, or they could have provided space for materials and devices employed during ceremonies, or possibly both. The faint outline of a circle on the grassy surface may be the remains of an ancient ceremonial fire pit.

A unique cruciform (cross shaped) structure sits directly to the east of the Tlaloc Temple. Nothing else like it is known to exist in Mesoamerica. It is draped with yellow tape to warn visitors not to climb on it. Archaeologists disagree on the structure's purpose. Payón, the site's discoverer, believed that this was a tzompantli, or skull rack, used to to display the decapitated heads of sacrificial victims. To support his view, Payón pointed to a series of stone projections set at regular intervals around the sides. Four of these projections still have carved stone skulls attached to them. Similar stone skulls are found on the tzompantli adjacent to the Templo Mayor, as well as the one at Chichen Itza near the great ball court. Other archaeologists assert that this may be a site for fertility rites where a pregnant woman would lie with her head in the circular area with her arms outstretched on either side. However, the skulls attached to the sides, along with the well-known association between human sacrifice and Tlaloc, incline me toward the tzompantli theory. Even the proponents of the fertility theory admit that a person positioned as they describe would also have been ideally placed to have his/her heart cut out.

Monument 17: The Palace Complex

The Palace Complex, as displayed on a site marker. The Palace Complex was organized as a long rectangle around a large central plaza. A warren of residential rooms occupies one end, with a long, high platform along one side and several low platforms on the other. The design above shows structures at the end opposite the residential area that are now gone or possibly not yet excavated.

View of the Palace Complex from the top of the Tlaloc Temple. I took this shot with my telephoto zoom, so it is further away from the Tlaloc Complex than it appears here. Modern Calixtlahuaca structures surround the Palace site. Payón believed that this complex was a calmecac, or elite school which provided religious and military training to the sons of Aztec nobles. Further investigations by later archaeologists revealed the site to be a palace, probably of the ruler of Calixtlahuaca. They drew this conclusion, in part, because it closely resembles palaces in other parts of the Aztec Empire. For a Google satellite view of the Palace Complex, click here.

View of the Palace Complex from the left rear, near the residential area. In the upper right of the photo you can see the long, high platform with three grand staircases leading to its top. Archaeologists believe that the top was once occupied by the ruler's throne room. The area immediately behind the maguey plant in the foreground contains large rooms and low platforms that were probably the ruler's living area.

View from atop the throne room platform. This shot looks directly back to where the previous photo was taken. The long platform's grand staircase is in the immediate foreground. Below, you can see the broad plaza which contains a large altar at one end. Behind the altar is the residential area. Part of the ruler's living area can be seen in the upper right. In the upper left, you can see the rising slope of the Cerro Tenismo volcano.

Close-up of the altar in front of the residential area. This one is considerably larger than any of the altars we saw at the Ehecatl or Tlaloc temples. The size of the plaza indicates that a large number of people could be assembled here for religious activities. An altar like this would surely have been a focal point for ceremonies.

One of the low platforms across from the temple that were part of the ruler's area. These platforms may have contained perishable structures used for ceremonial or residential purposes. Carole is standing on a slight rise behind the platform. The platform above has particularly interesting architectural features on either end of the stairs

This tabla y talud shows a definite Teotihuacan influence. In Spanish, tabla y talud, means "panel and slope". The upper part is the tabla and the lower, sloping area is the talud. This architectural feature was widely employed throughout the Teotihuacan Empire (100 AD - 650 AD). The ruins of its capital are located a few miles to the northeast of Mexico City. Teotihuacan exerted a strong influence over the area around Calixtlahuaca during the Classic Era, 800 years before the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico. Either this staircase is a remnant of that earlier Empire, or the Aztecs copied the Teotihuacan style when they re-built the Palace after conquering the previous inhabitants. The Aztecs admired everything about Teotihuacan, believing it was "where the gods were born". They imitated many of the artistic and architectural features they found in the ancient city, even though it had been in ruins for many centuries.

View of the residential area from the right rear. This area is a maze of narrow corridors and rooms of various sizes. Some of these rooms were the residences of nobles and warriors, while others were used to store food, weapons, and treasure. Still others were workshops for the production of sculpture, feather art and other luxury items desired by the ruler and his court. A few rooms contained shrines for rituals.

Flagstone covers the floors in some of the rooms. These were the luxury apartments of their day, and thus the floors would not have been the packed earth found in commoners' homes. Notice the niche seat in the upper right of the photo. The thick stone walls would have kept the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.

Stucco made from lime plaster surfaced other floors in the complex. The stucco was produced by burning limestone, grinding up the resulting material, and then mixing it with water and sand. The Aztecs and other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations also used stucco to coat both the interior and exterior walls of stone buildings. The flat surfaces were then painted with vividly colored designs. Often, the need for massive amounts of wood to burn the limestone resulted in deforestation. This caused droughts and may have contributed in the decline of civilizations such as Teotihuacan and the Maya city states of the Classic Era.

One of the larger rooms in the residential area contained this square fire pit. This fire pit is similar to many found in the residential rooms. Archaeologists found charcoal remains in many of the pits. In addition to heating and cooking, the fire pits may have played a role in rituals conducted in some of the rooms.

This concludes Part 2 of my series on Calixtlahuaca. In Part 3, I will show you some of the artifacts found at the various sites and some of the history of the area from the early nomadic period to the arrival of the Spanish. If you enjoyed Part 2, and would like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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