Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cantona Part 4 of 4: Where and how the ancient people lived

View of an elite neighborhood from atop one of the pyramids on the Acropolis. In this posting, we'll take a look at Cantona's elite and middle-class neighborhoods, as well as some of the artifacts recovered from them. I don't have many photos of working-class neighborhoods. Even though they amount to as much as 90% of Cantona's structures, the working-class areas have, so far, received little archeological attention. However, this Google satellite photo  shows the working-class neighborhoods west of the Acropolis. In the picture above, an elite neighborhood stretches out toward a pyramid in the distance. This area contains a large number of closely-packed household compounds. Each of the compounds contains one or more platforms which formed the foundations of houses made of perishable structures of wood and thatch. In front of some of the platforms are patios paved with cobblestones. Surrounding each compound are stone walls and between these walls are narrow, cobblestone lanes allowing passage between compounds and from one part of the neighborhood to another.

Cantona's middle class neighborhoods

One of Cantona's many unique aspects is its complex network of paved streets. Although we don't know this street's ancient name, it has been dubbed Calzada (Avenue) #2 by archeologists. It is one of more than 500 avenues, streets, lanes, and alleyways that connect all parts of what was once a densely packed city of 90,000. The point where I took this shot, at the bottom of the ridge that rises up to Cantona's Acropolis, was once a working class neighborhood. The stairway leads up to the middle class and elite areas. A person's social status was roughly equivalent to the altitude of his/her home. At the bottom level, both socially and in terms of terrain, were the working class, the largest group in the population. Higher up the slope lived the middle class, comprised of  lower-level priests, warriors, highly skilled artisans, and the merchants. The elite lived on or near the top-level mesa called the Acropolis. They were the high priests, military leaders, nobles owning large estates, and probably the wealthiest merchants. All of the social classes lived in walled compounds. These, along with the narrow  streets separating them, made Cantona one of the most defensible cities in Mesoamerica. This may explain its amazing 1,650 year lifespan (600 BC - 1050 AD). Over more than one and a half millennia, Cantona managed to outlast several great empires and multiple invasions from the north by the fierce Chichimec nomads. In the end, Cantona was abandoned because of climate change, not conquest.

Building tools and equipment made from basalt stone. The builders of Cantona were skilled masons and architects. Among the items shown above are polishers used for tamping, plumb bobs to accurately measure incline, and hinges for doors. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Mesoamerica, the people who constructed this city used no mortar to secure the stones in their walls and other structures. They simply cut them to size, placed them carefully, and used smaller stones to ensure their stability. Amazingly, some of these structures survived for more than 2,500 years! Again, unlike everywhere else, the stone walls were not covered with lime plaster and then painted with colored designs or murals. Instead, Cantona's architects left the stone surfaces in their natural state. However, to create pleasing decorative effects, the builders arranged different types and colors of stone in contrasting patterns.

Another street, called Calzada #1, passes through a middle class neighborhood. To the left is a short stairway leading into a residential compound. In the distance are terraces that lead up to the Acropolis, which contains elite residential areas, pyramids, palaces, and ball courts. Calzada #1 is typical, in that its narrow passage allows for only two people abreast. It is easily defensible, since attackers could be assailed from all sides by warriors sheltering behind the walls of the various compounds and on the terraces above.

View of a house platform, with multiple terraces rising to the Acropolis. Geologically, Cantona's terrain was created by a series of superimposed lava flows. When they cooled, these formed several natural terraces, each about 3m (10 ft) high. The last, topmost, flow created the mesa on which Cantona's architects built their Acropolis. Over a millennia and a half, the ancient architects used these natural features to construct their city, adding 3000 man-made terraces to fill in the slopes between the natural ones. The city's 8000 residential units were constructed on these terraces.

Located within the site museum is a reconstructed working class home. The walls are made of upright wood poles, with the gaps plastered in mud to keep out the wind. The thatch roof would have provided shade and shelter from seasonal rains, while still allowing smoke to escape from interior fires. Structures like this would have been used primarily for sleeping and during bad weather. Daytime activities would have been conducted outside, in the patios and on the steps of the various levels of a compound. Middle class structures and those of the elite would have been larger and probably somewhat more artfully constructed than this one. However, since everyone was limited to the same basic materials and tools, there is no reason to believe the style of house in higher class neighborhoods would have been substantially different. In addition, the platforms of the different neighborhoods are quite similar, except that the higher class versions tend to be a bit larger and sometimes have more stepped levels. 

View of a middle class compound. The two step platform in the foreground has a cobbled patio in front. This is one of several platforms in the compound, with the others seen in the distance. At Cantona, middle class compounds typically have several platforms, sometimes partially separated into subcompounds by internal walls, but still connected through passages. This suggests either extended families, or possibly several different families with something in common such as an economic activity. The central feature of Cantona's economy throughout its history was the manufacture of obsidian objects for trade. These included various kinds of cutting tools, as well as weapons such as arrow and spear heads. Although the nearby Oyameles-Zaragoza obsidian mines may have been state-controlled, it appears that the manufacture of useful objects from the volcanic glass was accomplished by households. So far, more than 300 obsidian manufacturing sites have been discovered in Cantona's neighborhoods. It should be remembered that only 10% (possibly only 1%) of the city has been excavated. There must be many more sites, given the size of the population and the importance of obsidian to the economy.

Various stone tools. At the top are three axes made from basalt and two pieces of obsidian. One of the obsidian objects is a large blade and the other is a "core". A core is a chunk of volcanic glass from which pieces are struck to create useful objects such as tools or weapons. At the bottom are more axes and tools for pounding. The purpose of the three disks with holes in their centers is unclear. However, I have seen tools like this elsewhere that were used to smooth and straighten the shafts of arrows.  All of these tools are fairly simple and, except for the obsidian, materials to make them are available almost everywhere in Mesoamerica. The basalt axes were probably not intended for long-distance trade because of their weight and the lack of draft animals in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica. Instead, they were probably made for personal use or for sale within Cantona itself. It appears that households often crafted multiple kinds of items for internal and/or external trade, according to changes in demand. In a multi-family compound, each family may have specialized in particular items, while also cooperating with the other families in the manufacture of obsidian or other high-value items. There are two reasons why the vast majority of the population appear to have been engaged in home-based manufacturing and artisanship. First, few people appear to have been farmers since there is little productive land immediately around the city. There was arable land some distance away, but it would have been worked by people living close to their fields. Second, Cantona was, above all, a trading city. It was located on important routes between the Gulf Coast and the Valley of Mexico, as well as others leading to Oaxaca and the Maya country to the south. In fact, obsidian objects originating from the Oyameles-Zaragoza mines have been found in all these areas and even as far away as Guatemala.

Assorted bone tools. These appear to be awls and punches, probably for working animal skins. After the hides had been scraped with basalt or obsidian tools to remove the hair and then cured, these wooden tools would have been employed to make holes for stitching. All of these activities, as well as work on other craft items, would have occurred in the patios and open areas of the compounds, with several generations participating together. Close analysis of bone tools has revealed that some of them were made from human bones. It is not clear to whom the bones belonged. However, it was not uncommon in Mesoamerica to craft the bones of deceased relatives into household utensils as a way to maintaining a connection with those who have passed into the next world. Although this may seem ghoulish to a modern sensibility, I imagine that many of our social practices would seem pretty bizarre to ancient people.

In another multi-family compound, two platforms share a patio. Visible in the center of the patio is a fire pit. The proximity of these two platforms, one with a single-level, the other with two steps, suggests a close family relationship. They would have shared the patio for work, private religious rituals, social occasions, and the preparation and consumption of meals. In addition to small patios, suitable for family gatherings, Cantona has one hundred plazas. Thirty of these are associated with the pyramid and ball court complexes on the Acropolis level. The other seventy are scattered throughout the city's residential areas. They would have been used by the inhabitants of the several compounds grouped around them, essentially forming neighborhoods. Plaza activities would have included religious, civic, and social events. In addition, they may have served as small marketplaces for the exchange of goods manufactured for local sale.

Ancient kitchen equipment. The various pots would have been used for storing, preparing, and cooking different kinds of food. The curved object at the bottom is a metate, or grinding tray, with its mano or hand grinder lying across it. These were employed primarily to grind maiz (corn), but also various kinds of seeds. Analysis of human teeth found at Cantona indicates a diet high in these carbohydrates. Other kinds of cultivated plants included beans and squash. Wild foods such as nopal cactus and maguey were also gathered. For animal protein, dogs and turkeys were domesticated. In addition, wild game including deer, rabbit, birds, and other animals were hunted in the desert and nearby mountains.

Plates, platters and bowls used in serving meals.  Many are quite similar to those that might be found on a modern table. Another of Cantona's unique features is its remarkable consistency in ceramic styles, with little difference between the earliest pottery and that of later centuries. Since pottery fragments are one of the primary tools archeologists use in dating ancient societies, this has made it more difficult to clearly identify the time frames of other objects found closeby. One possible explanation for this unusual consistency is that the city-state was never conquered and, in fact, strongly resisted outside cultural influences--particularly those of its great rival, Teotihuacán. However, Cantona was also intensely involved in long-distance trade, which normally would have included imports of foreign ceramics, which might be expected to influence local styles. That it did not happen is just another of this ancient city's many mysteries.  

Residences of the elite

The remains of a grand staircase leads up to the elite level. This is one of a limited number of entry points to the Acropolis. This area covers 88 hecatares (217 acres) and contains not only residential compounds but other civic and religious structures such as Ball Game Cluster #7 and the Plaza of Fertility, both seen in previous postings of this series. This is the most defensible area of a city built for defense. The Acropolis was the final redoubt, the bastion where a last stand could be made against either an external invader or a social uprising. 

Guard post at the top of the Calzada #1 staircase leading to the Acropolis. Even without any identifying information, I immediately recognized the purpose of this structure. There is  a birds-eye view of the surrounding area and alert sentries could detect any hostile movement coming from the west. From the guard post, warriors could rain down arrows and spears on attackers trying to squeeze up the narrow staircase, or scrambling up the multiple terraces on the slope below. In addition, there are other fortified areas on the Acropolis, including the one attached to Ball Court Cluster #7, which I showed in a previous posting.

Obsidian arrowhead of the kind used by Cantona's warriors and also for trade. Obsidian can be sharpened to a razor edge and skilled artisans could manufacture large numbers of arrow and spearheads in a relatively short time. No doubt, a guard post would have been heavily stocked with arrows, spears, and hand weapons in times of crisis, all using razor-sharp obsidian. Cantona's ready access to large deposits of the volcanic glass may have given the city-state an armaments edge over potential opponents without such access and contributed to its long life-span.

Scattered among the pyramids, plazas and ball courts are neighborhoods like this. In the foreground is a compound with an open area, surrounded by a stone boundary wall. Inside the wall is a single, double-stepped platform with a cobblestone patio immediately in front. While this is very similar, in overall composition, to the middle class compounds, there is at least one important difference. There are fewer house platforms in the elite compounds, although it is also true that their overall surface area is somewhat less than their middle class counterparts. This indicates that elite compounds like the one above are not multi-family living areas. Even in elite compounds that have more than one platform, they tend to have less than in middle class counterparts. One conclusion that can be drawn is that the elites did not need to have several families living together for economic purposes. Simply put, they could afford to live in smaller groups. In addition, the middle class may have needed some of their extra compound space for small food gardens and/or to raise animals like turkeys. Once again, the elites had the resources to avoid this necessity. 

Decorative stone work. Elite compounds also tended to have more decorative stone work. The fragment above appears to represent the tail feathers of a bird. 

Sellos, or decorative stamps, were used to print designs on various surfaces. Artisans used sellos to create luxury goods for sale to the elites. The stamps would have been dipped in a plant and/or mineral-based pigment and then pressed on a surface, such as cloth, to create a repetitive design. There is also some speculation that sellos were used for body decoration. However, there is no solid evidence for this, one way or another. Such designs would have been fairly quickly washed or worn off and, in any case, very little human skin has survived for archeologists to examine for such traces. 

Another luxury item was jade, a form of greenstone. Above is a necklace arranged around an ear plug or flare. Jade jewelry was an elite luxury item and often associated with warrior cults and the military. Neither jade, nor any of the other forms of greenstone are naturally found in the area around Cantona. The only way to obtain them was through long-distance trade. The pieces above originated in what is now the state of Guerrero on the Pacific Coast. They probably arrived at Cantona through trade routes controlled by Xochicalco, an Epi-Classic competitor. Another source of jade were the Maya mines in Guatemala. Because greenstone is hard to obtain, anything made from it was highly valued. When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, they discovered that the Aztecs considered jade far more valuable than gold. In addition, greenstone--and particularly jade--was considered to have a religious connection with water. The goddess of rivers, streams, and seas was called Chalchihuitlicue ("She of the Jade Skirt"). Her name comes from the Nahuatl word chalchihuite, meaning "jade jewel" or "drop of precious water". 

Elongated skull of a woman belonging to the elite class. High status families wrapped the heads of newborns in such a way that the skull became elongated as the bone hardened. An elongated head immediately identified a person as a member of the elite. This method was common throughout Mesoamerica. The delicacy of the facial structure is such that the skull likely belonged to a young woman. Lifespans at Cantona averaged 25-35 years, with a particularly high mortality rate for children and women of child-bearing age.

Sunken patio of an elite compound. This compound also had only one house platform, the edge of which can be seen on the left. The patio is quite large and has an excellent view of Cerro de Águilas (Eagle Hill). In the middle ground, past the far edge of the patio, are the tops of trees growing among the middle class compounds on the terraces below. The size of the patio is unusual, indicating that a person of particularly high status may have lived here.

Pots for drinking pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant. Pulque is mildly alcoholic, on the level of beer, and was the preferred drink of the elite. One can imagine the homeowner from the previous photo throwing a party for a large group of his friends and retainers. They might have sat around the cobbled patio on their metates (reed mats), drinking pulque, and listening to the music of drums and flutes as dancers whirled about to entertain them. Meanwhile the middle class folks living on the terraces below would gnash their teeth that they had not been invited to party with the rich and famous.

Relief carving of a night heron with wings extended, superimposed over a rattlesnake. The accompanying sign dates the relief to 150 BC and indicates that the stone slab on which it is carved may have been used to collect offerings. Rattlesnakes are common desert creatures and night herons can be found in the nearby Laguna El Salado. I was not completely satisfied with this brief description, so I emailed the photo to my friend Javier Urcid, who specializes in Mesoamerican rock carvings as a Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. He has never visited Cantona, nor had he ever seen this carving, so he was delighted to receive it and quickly replied.

Analysis of the "Sun-Fire" Bird. On the upper left is Javier's rendering of the carving. In the next two drawings on the upper level, he has disarticulated the original image to show the bird and the snake separately. Here are his comments:

"Two of the features in the serpent make it clear that it refers to the 'Fire Serpent'. The attributes in question include the upward retroflexed nasal appendage and the 'stepped' elements in the tail (features highlighted in gray above). The early date attributed to the slab is strongly supported by another Late Formative representation of the 'Fire Serpent' emblem from Ticuman, Morelos (see lower left drawing). In this case however, the emblem emphasizes its crocodilian version, but the 'stepped' elements in the tail are the same. 

Regarding the bird, it may be the case that this is an early variant in the Central Highlands of the symbol of the Sun. A most elaborate and much earlier example (ca. 400 BC) appears several times in the murals from San Bartolo, Guatemala. This Maya emblem is usually referred to as 'the Principal Bird Deity.'

The glyphic compound from Cantona may stand for a logographic couplet that perhaps reads as 'Sun-Fire', and its function could have been as an ephithet or personal name of an important personage."

The Aztecs believed the 'Fire Serpent', whom they called Xiuhcoatl, carried the sun across the sky. He was associated with young warriors and rulers. Therefore, "Sun-Fire" may be either the title or personal name of a military leader who lived during Cantona I (600 BC - 50 AD), the earliest stage of the city-state's development.

View from an elite house platform on the southern edge of the Acropolis. I hope my series has conveyed how unusual Cantona is. It had unique methods of construction, a complex network of paved streets, far more ball courts (27) than other prehispanic cities, a huge population of 90,000--bigger, during its period of occupation, than any contemporary pre-hispanic city except Teotihuacán, and finally, a 1,600 year lifespan. 

This completes Part 4 of my Cantona series and also completes the series itself. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts 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

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