Monday, February 5, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 7a of 11: Museo Regional artifacts from the Pre-Classic to the Epi-Classic Eras

Priest of the Rain God Tlaloc. The molded-clay statue was created during the Epi-Classic era (650-900 AD). This was the period between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of the Toltec Empire. In Tlaxcala, a city-state called Cacaxtla arose in the western part of the state. It became an important regional power by dominating one of Teotihuacán's former trade routes. The priestly status of the figure above is indicated both by the "goggles" over the eyes--typical of Tlaloc imagery--and the sacred bundle held in his left hand. The priest wears an elaborate head dress, indicating a high status, his lower body is attired only with a loin cloth and ankle bracelets.

In this posting, we'll take a look at the Museo Regional and a selection of its treasures. The Museo is located in the old cloister (living area) of the Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, seen in the previous two postings. Because there are so many wonderful artifacts contained in the museum, I will show them in two posts. This one will cover the Formative (Pre-Classic) Era (2000 BC-100 AD), the Classic (100-650 AD) and Epi-Classic (650-900 AD).

Museo Regional

Scale model of the cloister, which now contains the Museo Regional. The cloister area has the orange roof and is entered through the three arches at the lower left of the photo. They lead into the atrium (open-air patio area) in the center. Parts of the left side of the cloister include administrative offices for the Catedral de Tlaxcala, which is the long rectangular building with the brown roof, along the right side of the cloister. Construction on the cloister began in 1537, following completion of the Catedral (originally called Templo de San Francisco de Assisi, after the founder of the Order). The cloister has housed the Museo Regional since 1985.

Atrium or patio of the cloister. In the middle is a fountain, surrounded on all four sides by arched portales which protect the open-air walkways on both floors. This architectural arrangement is very typical of convento cloisters in Nueva España. Within buildings such as these, the Franciscan friars lived and worked. Today, the lower floor houses exhibits from the pre-hispanic period up through the Conquest. The upper floor contains exhibits from the colonial and national periods.

Elaborately carved rafters within the cloister area. Notice the diamond-shaped cartouches along the top. Each of these contains a 4-petal flower. It is interesting to note that such flowers appear in many ancient pre-hispanic cities. The flowers symbolize the four cardinal points of the cosmos (north, south, east, west). These directions are sacred and each is associated with a different god. It is very likely that the craftsmen who carved these rafters were indigenous, and probably only recently converted. Ironically, they were incorporating pagan decorative elements into one of the earliest centers for evangelizing native people. This covert practice was common throughout Nueva España. It is not clear whether the Franciscans understood the connection at the time. However, when they ultimately figured out what was going on, they denounced the such images, calling them "idols behind the altars."

Wall murals were another form of early convento decoration. Again, the craftsmen were no doubt indigenous Tlaxcalans. While much of the luxuriant foliage has been worn away or painted over, enough remains to appreciate the skill of the artists.

17th century atrial cross, carved from cantera stone. Crosses like this were typically erected in a large, open atrium such as the one directly in front of of the Franciscan cloister and its church. To appreciate the size of this atrium, and its relationship to the other structures of the Convento, see the scale model in Part 5 of this series. These expansive areas were devoted to evangelization because they allowed the friars to gather large numbers of native people for mass conversions and religious education. Often, this education was delivered in the form of religious plays and processions. The indigenous masses were virtually always illiterate (at least in the European sense), so the crosses were often covered by easily understood symbols relating to the Passion of Christ (i.e. the events leading up to and including the crucifixion). The figure of the crucified Jesus was deliberately left off the cross. The friars wanted to avoid making any association between the crucifixion and the pre-hispanic practice of human sacrifice.

Formative or Pre-Classic Era

Storm God figurine found in the Tlaxcala area. The grinning figure holds what appears to be a writhing snake in his right hand. This small, molded-clay figure was created during the middle-to-late Pre-Classic Era (800 AD-100 AD). Agriculture had been practiced for thousands of years by this time. Increasing food surpluses allowed people to begin living in villages and, by the late Pre-Classic period, even in large towns. Storms were viewed as awesome events, with their thunder, lightning, torrential rains, and floods. On the other hand, rain was essential for the cultivation of maiz (corn) and other food crops. As a result, people began to worship deities, such as the Storm God (predecessor to Tlaloc), who were believed to control both the positive and destructive aspects of these natural forces.

Feminine figure. This little statue is of molded clay, with incisions and applications. Otherwise nude, she has a complex hairstyle, which may also be  some sort of head dress. Figures like this are believed to have been used as offerings in religious ceremonies. They are particularly interesting because they reveal how people saw themselves.

Ceramic head, found in Tlaxcala. It is not clear whether this was once part of a male or female figure, although I would bet on male due to the less elaborate hair style. Archeologists believe that figures like this and the previous female figure represent the ideal of beauty in the minds of their creators.

Olmec ball game yoke. This artifact was discovered in Tlaxcala, but originated in the Gulf Coast area dominated by the Olmecs. During the pre-hispanic ball game, leather or wicker yokes were worn around players' midriffs to protect them from the heavy rubber balls. A strike in an unprotected area of the body could cause serious injuries or even death. Stone yokes were symbolic imitations of the lighter versions the players actually wore. While few, if any, leather or wicker yokes have survived, those carved from stone have often been found in ancient tombs. They were placed there to commemorate a sacrificed player or a person who had some other important connection to the ball game. The Olmecs (1500-400 BC) have often been called the "Mother of Cultures." Through trade and colonization, they exerted strong cultural influences throughout Mesoamerica. Some of their trade routes passed through Tlaxcala. Many of the key aspects of later civilizations originated with the Olmecs. Examples include the ball game, stepped pyramids, human sacrifice, the ancient calendar, worship of the Plumed Serpent, and the earliest writing in the Americas.

The Classic Era

Classic Era ceramic pot in the shape of a reclining dog. This charming molded-clay pot was found in the village of Ocotitla, on the northeastern outskirts of the modern city of Tlaxcala. Notice the spout in the handle to make it easier to pour its liquid contents. Dogs were popular subjects for potters in the Classic Era (100-650 AD). They were one of a handful of animals domesticated by the ancient people. Some dogs were kept as pets but others served as a source of meat. Dogs also played a role in mythology as guides for the souls of the dead on their journey into Mictlán (the underworld). This one, found in a tomb, apparently was  intended for that purpose.

Ceramic olla patoja (lame pot). This pot is not dated, other than to the Classic Era. However, similar ones found around altars in the ruins of Teotihuacán date to 250-450 AD. This was a period when the great trading city's influence was spreading throughout Mesoamerica. One of Teotihuacán's key trade routes ran through Tlaxcala to the Gulf Coast. In fact, from 300-500 AD, the ancient town of Tecoaque, in eastern Tlaxcala, was a Teotihuacan military/trading outpost along this route. This fits rather nicely with the dating of the Teotihuacan ollas pantojas. Pots like these were manufactured in Teotihuacán and then exported for use in religious ceremonies elsewhere.

Jarra (pitcher or jug) from Teotihuacán found in the Tlaxcala area. The jarra is not dated except to the general Classic Era. It is another example of trade goods exported from Teotihuacán. I find it remarkable that a pot like this could survive a long journey, given that it is large and heavy, while also relatively fragile. The merchant/trader would have had to transport it along primitive footpaths on the back of one of his human porters.

Large pot decorated with an abstract design. The origin of this Classic Era pot is unknown, but it may also have come from Teotihuacán. A pot of this size and shape would probably have been used for cooking. Its beautiful design indicates that it would have graced the kitchen of a high-status home.

The Epi-Classic Era

Urn from Cacaxtla. Urns like this were used for ceremonial purposes and were often left in tombs as grave goods. The high-status individual on the side of the urn wears an elaborate head dress and stands with his arms raised in a ritual posture. Other decorations on the sides of the urn include musicians, plants and animals. The scenes may represent a ritual devoted to a particular god.  Cacaxtla is located in eastern Tlaxcala, near its border with the State of Puebla. It was an important regional power during the Epi-Classic Era (650-900 AD), which is the period between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of the Toltecs.

Carved stone statue of a warrior or priest. The sophisticated head dress, earrings, necklace and general posture indicate a high status individual. Between his hands he holds a circular object that may represent a chalchihuite (jewel or drop of water) or possibly a mirror used for divination. Archeologists are undecided about whether the figure is a warrior or a priest. My bet is a warrior, because the Epi-Classic was a time of instability, militarism, and invasions by Chichimec nomads from the north. Small, fortified city-states like Cacaxtla arose, along with  Xochicalco (south of Cuernavaca), and La Quemada (south of Zacatecas). These three were important regional powers that came to dominate sections of Teotihuacán's vast trade network after the empire collapsed. The relationships among the Epi-Classic regional powers shifted back and forth between trade partner and political/military competitor.

Small clay figures used in fertility rites at Xochitécatl. Within sight of the fortified hilltop city of Cacaxtla is another, much older, hilltop city known as Xochitécatl. This ancient site dates back to the middle of the Pre-Classic Era. Due to an eruption of the still-active Volcan Popocatépatl, Xochitécatl was abandoned in 150 AD. However, in 600 AD, it was reoccupied and its crumbling old pyramids were used as ceremonial sites by the newly arrived inhabitants of Cacaxla. Large numbers of these figurillas (little figures) were left on the grand staircase and top level of Xochitécatl's "Pyramid of the Flowers". They were apparently left as fertility offerings. These ceremonies also appear to have involved the ritual sacrifice of children. Notice the four-petaled flower in the center of each figure's head dress.

Another fertility offering left at Xochitécatl shows a baby emerging from the womb.  Fertility rites were sometimes aimed at ensuring a good crop but, in this case, the offering seems be about the fertility of a woman. Given the elaborate head dress of the figurilla, the woman in question was probably a high-status individual.

Epi-Classic child's toy, found at Xochitécatl. The figure of a dog has wheels on his haunches. There are holes in his shoulders showing where an axle went through to mount another set of wheels. Over the last ten years, Carole and I have visited many pre-hispanic sites and museums. During those visits, we have occasionally encountered wheeled objects, all of which seem to have been created as toys. Clearly Mesoamerican people understood the concept of wheels, but they never used them in any practical way. Why? The answer is simple: no draft animals. Why couldn't humans have been used to pull wheeled carts? Well, for that, you would have to create an extensive road system. Mexico is a very mountainous country where road-building has always been difficult. In any case, the number of people you would need to pull a cart full of goods would probably exceed the number you would need to simply carry those goods on backpacks. Further, with human porters, you could use existing footpaths.

Conch trumpet with holes, possibly for a carrying strap. Conch shells were the most important wind instrument in the Mesoamerican musical repertoire. While they must, sometimes, have been employed for simple entertainment, their most important use was in religious ceremonies and as signaling devices during military operations. Conch trumpets were often elaborately carved with religious symbols and decorated with feathers. Throughout Mesoamerica, conches appear on sculptures and in wall murals. At Teotihuacán's Palacio Quetzalpapalotl, wall murals show marching jaguars blowing conch trumpets. In 1521, during the siege of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, eyewitness Bernal Diaz del Castillo reported hearing the mournful wail of quiquiztli (conch trumpets) as he observed Spanish prisoners being marched up the steps of the Templo Mayor to be sacrificed to the Aztec War God Huitzilopochtli.

Stone relief carving shows two priests conducting rituals. Both have elaborate head dresses. The figure on the left wears large circular earrings and a jade belt, while the one on the right appears to be wearing a mask of some sort. The figure on the left holds a priest's sacred bundle in his left hand as he crouches to face the viewer. The priest on the right dances as he clutches a writhing snake in his right hand and a rattle in his left.

Toltec warrior holding a shield, or possibly a mirror. The attire and stance of this high-status warrior indicates he may be a general or governor. The Toltecs were an especially militaristic society who arose at the end of the Epi-Classic Era. Their capital was Tollan (modern Tula) in Hidalgo State, north of Mexico City. They may have originated as a melding of Teotihuacán refugees with Chichimec invaders. By 900 AD, the Toltecs had achieved considerable power. For the next 300 years, they extended their control over the central part of Mesoamerica, including the Tlaxcla area. However, they never approached the reach of Teotihuacán. The eclipse and disappearance of regional powers like Cacaxtla may have been due to the rise of the Toltec Empire. The Toltec period forms a chronological bridge between the end of the Classic Era and the first part of the Post-Classic. In my next posting, we'll look at artifacts from Post-Classic societies, the Conquest, and the Colonial and National periods.

This completes Part 7a of my Tlaxcala series. If you have enjoyed it, please leave any comments or questions 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