Sunday, August 13, 2017

Teotihuacán: The military academy at Palacio Atetelco

Mural of a "net-jaguar" consuming a human heart. This mysterious creature gets its name from the net-like lines on its body, which may suggest transparency, even magical invisibility. Net-jaguars are unique to Teotihuacán. Unlike many other aspects of Teotihuacán culture, net-jaguar images were not copied or imitated either by contemporaneous societies or those arising in the centuries following Teotihuacán's fall, like Xochicalco, the Toltecs, or the Aztecs. The net-jaguar above wears a feathered head-dress, indicating an elite status, and has a curving speech-scroll rising from its mouth. This image contains strong military connotations, as do many others in Palacio Atetelco's murals. The creature appears to be eating a human heart from which three drops of blood fall. This symbolism relates to both warrior cults and human sacrifice. Taken altogether, Palacio  Atetelco's murals suggest that it may have been a military academy. The compound is located near Tetitla, seen in the last posting. They both lie just outside the perimeter of the main archeological site of Teotihuacan. For a Google map pinpointing Palacio Atetelco's location, click here.


The view from above. The various structures of Atetelco are grouped around several courtyards. The Red Courtyard is the largest and can be seen just left of center in photo above. It contains a large altar in its middle. In the upper right corner of the complex is another, smaller courtyard, surrounded on three sides by roofed structures. This one is called the White Courtyard and is the oldest section of the complex. My main focus will be on the structures and murals associated with these two courtyards because they are the most important areas of the complex. (Photo from of INAH, Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History)

Artist's conception of Palacio Atetelco while it was occupied between 250 AD and 650 AD.  The Nahuatl name of the complex means "On the stone wall next to the water." Of course, this was from the language of the Aztecs, who stumbled upon Teotihuacán over 600 years after it was abandoned. We have no idea what Teotihuacanos called this place. In addition to its bright colors, the apartment compound was decorated with the almenas (decorative battlements) you can see along the cornices of the buildings. Just below the almenas are rows of green circles, called chalchihuites. The word means "jewel" and refers to something precious. Teotihuacan is unusual among pre-hispanic civilizations for the 2000+ apartment compounds that made up its urban area. These well-built, and sometimes even luxurious, structures consist of sets of rooms grouped around multiple courtyards, with the whole compound surrounded by a high wall. All the compounds were oriented to the north-south-east-west grid pattern of the city. They were separated from each other by narrow lanes following the same pattern. Construction began shortly after the completion of Teotihuacán's three great pyramids. Most of the compounds were inhabited by multiple families, probably related by kinship. However, compounds like Atetelco appear to have served a purpose different from simple extended-family living space.

The White Courtyard

The White Courtyard, seen from one of the three temples that surround it. The White Courtyard was built approximately 300-400 AD and was the first section of the complex. In the center of the courtyard, you can see a small, square altar. A screen is draped over the front of the temple on the far side of the courtyard, in order to protect the wall murals on the inside.

 An anthropomorphic eagle, dressed as a warrior carrying an atlatl (spearthrower). This is a reproduction, based on fragments found on the temple wall. The fragments are indicated by the irregularly shaped areas enclosed in black lines with numbers in them. Apparently, and eagle was the totem of one of the warrior societies based at Atetelco. The bird is a powerful predator and was much admired by warriors. The atlatl is a weapon which long pre-dates the development of the bow and arrow. It consists of a short stick with a hook on one end where the butt of a spear or dart is placed. The effect of the atlatl is to increase the leverage of the arm and to give much greater force and distance when throwing. Properly used, an atlatl can project a dart at speeds over 150 km/h (93 mph) to a distance of over 100 m (328 ft). These devices have been used since the Early Paleolithic Era (30,000 years ago). In fact, anyone visiting a modern city park may see people using a plastic version of the atlatl to throw tennis balls to their dogs. The projectile is different, but the principle is exactly the same.

Coyotes march along the base of a wall. The coyote was the totem of another important military society. The feathered head dresses again indicate an elite unit. More feathers line their spines and the backs of their legs and tails. Speech scrolls rise from their mouths, possibly indicating a warrior chant. Another interesting detail is the circular emblem with three diagonal lines that each coyote wears on his side. Similar emblems appear in the border area around the animals. These are called chimalli in Nahuatl, and they carry symbolic meanings not unlike coats-of-arms on medieval battle shields. Further military symbolism can be seen in the line of projectile points leading from left to right between the emblems.

A human warrior/priest wears an eagle-crested head dress. On his back he carries a round shield decorated with a chimalli. The feathered ends of a quiver of arrows protrudes from behind the shield. This image may approximate the actual appearance of Teotihuacán's elite Eagle Warriors. Once again, a speech scroll indicates a chant or prayer. The warrior/priest is surrounded by a border that is part of a pattern extending across the wall, somewhat resembling a chain-link fence. A similar figure appears in each of the openings in the "fence".

This mural fragment may be about a deformed god.  The figure's body is covered with sores and his limbs are disproportionate to the rest of his body, indicating deformity. People with such deformities were not shunned in pre-hispanic societies. Instead, they were honored as people possessing special powers. The Aztecs adopted a great deal of their culture and religion from Teotihuacán. The god shown above appears to be a predecessor of the Aztec deity Nanahuatzin (Nahuatl for "Filled with Sores"). He was a deformed and sickly god who courageously sacrificed himself in order to create the sun of the Fifth World--the era when humanity appeared. The placement of this mural at a military school is significant because courage and sacrifice were key elements of the military ethos of Teotihuacán (as well as that of every other military organization in history).

Carole walks toward the passage from the White to the Red Courtyard. The opening is small, formed by the corners of two of the four temples that surround the Red Courtyard.

The Red Courtyard

The Red Courtyard was built in a later period than the White Courtyard. Archeologists estimate that this area was constructed around 450 AD and continued in use until 650 AD. It is also much more spacious than the White Courtyard and contains a large altar in its center that mimics temple architecture. If Palacio Atetelco was a military school, this would have been the place to assemble and review cadets and to conduct military-related ceremonies.

The altar in the center of the Red Courtyard models the style of a temple. Whether it was used architecturally as an actual model is unknown. Each of the three stepped levels displays the ubiquitous talud y tablero style. The edges of the level on which the miniature temple sits are lined with almenas in the shape of stepped temples. When the Red Court was excavated, a statue of Huehueteotl  ("Old, Old God") was found just outside of the little temple on top. He was the Fire God worshiped throughout Mesoamerica from the earliest times. In fact, he may be the most ancient god of the entire pantheon. In the lower right corner of the photo is a small depression filled with water. There is an identical depression on the opposite side of the altar. The purpose of these was not clear, but they could be fire pits used to light the altar for nighttime rituals.

One of the four temples that face onto the Red Courtyard. The temples are almost identical. They are each entered through a short but broad staircase and each has two pillars at its entrance to help support a flat roof (now gone). At one time, the walls of the insides these temples were covered with murals showing spear-carrying warriors and other martial themes.

Another possible fire pit is located in the corner of one of the temples. There was another pit in the corner behind me when I took the shot. The floor of the temple was once covered by a layer of limestone stucco and you can see the remains of it around the fire pit. The stucco was created by burning limestone, a process that necessitated large quantities of firewood. The use of stucco on pyramids, temples, and apartment compounds resulted in large scale deforestation around Teotihuacán. According to some theories, the deforestation caused increasing aridity in the local climate which, in turn, resulted in repeated crop failures. This would have discredited the priestly elite, whose job it was to intercede with the gods (primarily Tlaloc, the Rain God) to ensure adequate precipitation and good harvests. Their failure may have led to a revolt that overthrew the city's elite around 650 AD. Lending credence to this theory is the fact that only the elite areas were sacked and burned at that time. Conquest by a rival city, or invasion by Chichimec barbarians from the north, would have resulted in a general conflagration. Instead, the areas of the common people remained untouched and they continued to live in the undestroyed remainder of Teotihuacán for another hundred years. However, the city's population gradually diminished and by 750 AD Teotihuacán was empty and overgrown.

Maya influences at Atetelco

Maya glyphs from the walls of one of Atetelco's Red Couryard temples.  The white glyphs are painted on red specular hematite (iron oxide with sparkling flecks of mica), over a layer of lime plaster stucco. The glyphs have been interpreted as the Maya word puh, which means place of reeds or rushes. This is a common metaphor for the concept of people united in civilization, or "city". Teotihuacán had strong trading links with the Classic-Era Maya cities within Yucatan and Chiapas, as well as those in Guatemala such as Tikal, and in Honduras like Copán. In addition, there was a large Maya district within Teotihuacán itself.

The design of this pot shows additional evidence of Maya influence. The beautiful container has designs incised in the Maya style on its sides and skulls around its base. The pot may have arrived through the trade networks or could have been created by a  craftsman residing within Teotihuacán's Maya district. Since the distance separating the city from the Maya areas is long, and the pot seems relatively heavy (and fragile), I would bet on a local origin.

Residential/Administrative area

A complex of rooms fills the area of compound outside of the two courtyards. There are additional small patios associated with some of the rooms. The exact function of these spaces is unclear. Some were probably residences for military officials of the academy. Others may have been barracks for the cadets. Still others probably served administrative or storage purposes.

Obsidian spear points and arrowhead. These are typical of the "business end" of the weapons used by the warriors trained at Atetelco. The mining of obsidian (volcanic glass) and the manufacture of valuable objects from it was central to Teotihuacán's economy. Obsidian was obtained primarily from deposits near Pachuca, about 49 km (30 mi) northeast of Teotihuacan. Various objects were manufactured from obsidian "cores" about the size of a modern football. These items included edged weapons and tools, but also figurines, jewelry and other luxury goods. All were very valuable as trade items because of their beauty, usefulness, and particularly their light weight. A Mesoamerican city's control over large obsidian deposits would be equivalent to a modern nation's control over substantial oil fields. Wars have been fought over control of both forms of mineral wealth.

At Palacio Atetelco, an elite warrior class received the training that underpinned Teotihuacán's military might. It was this military capacity that kept the Chichimec raiders at bay, protected the empire's trade routes from civilized competitors, ensured access to vital resources like the obsidian of Pachuca, and even waged long-range campaigns to install Teotihuacán rulers in remote places like the Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala's Petén jungle.

This completes my posting on Palacio Atetelco. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email them to me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you. That is a very valid point you bring up. Thank you for sharing this very informative and well explained post with us


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