Saturday, June 30, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 3: The North and South Plazas

Temple of Mictlantecuhtli, God of Death and Ruler of the Underworld. The temple is located in the Plaza Superior Sur, directly south of the Plaza Principal (see Part 2 of this series). In this posting, I'll show you the temples, altars, and other structures of both the Plaza Superior Sur and the Plaza Inferior Norte. The names of these two plazas refer to their location in relation to the Plaza Principal. Both of them border it, with the Plaza Superior Sur to the south and slightly above it on the slope, while the Plaza Inferior Norte is to the north and slightly below.

Plaza Superior Sur

Map of Plaza Superior Sur. The top of the map is oriented to the north. Just The God of Death's temple is in the upper left. It has three chambers, with a fire pit in the innermost section. Below it, and slightly to the left, is a single structure that is, in reality, three separate altars. In the center of the site map is a large square structure which may either be an altar or the base of a small temple. To the right is the Temple of Tlaloc, the Rain God.

Mictlantecuhtli's temple, viewed from the southwest. Carole is standing under the tree to the right, reading the explanatory sign. Mictlan means "The Place of Death", while Tecuhtli translates as "Lord". Hence, Mictlantecuhtli is the Lord of the Place of Death. Pre-hispanic people believed that the underworld had nine levels and heaven had thirteen. Your ultimate destination after death was determined not by the way in which you lived, but by how you died. For example, warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth both went to the House of the Sun, a place of great honor. The agony of giving birth was equated with the agony of a battle death. Interestingly, traders who perished while traveling on business also went to the House of the Sun, thus showing the importance of trade to pre-hispanic societies.

How the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli would have appeared. It was a one-story structure with a thatched roof and a broad staircase containing four steps and a short ramp just to the right of center. The God of Death had a wife named Mictecacihuatl, whose job was to tear the flesh off the bones of recent arrivals to Mictlan. The God and Goddess of Death dwelt in the ninth level of Mictlan, its lowest and darkest level. They are another example of the pre-hispanic belief in the duality of all things. Pre-hispanic people also believedthat the stars were swallowed by Mictlantecuhtli at the break of each day. Stars were not all that was swallowed. Some of the ceremonies in and around the temples of the God of Death involved ritual cannibalism .

Stone sculpture of Mictlantecuhtli. He is always portrayed with a fleshless skull containing large teeth. Sometimes the skull stands alone, but other times he is shown with a full body. When Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) defeated the Earth Monster and created our current world, they assigned the underworld to Mictlantecuhtli and his wife. Later, when Quetzalcoatl sought to populate the new world, he needed working materials. However, when he asked the God of Death for the bones of the gods of previous worlds, Mictlantecuhtli refused. Not deterred, Quetzalcoatl stole the necessary bones from Mictlan, and raced for the exit. However, the God of Death created a pit as a trap. Quetzalcoatl fell into it, breaking the bones into different sized pieces. Although he ultimately escaped with the shattered bones, the result was the creation of people in various sizes.

The three altars. As mentioned previously, these altars are shown on the site map as one structure. Why are there three? What ceremonies were performed on each?, What gods were honored? All this remains a mystery to me, because the altars lacked an explanatory sign.

The large central platform may have been either an altar or the base of a small temple. If there was a temple, it would likely have been constructed of perishable materials which have long since vanished. Once again, there was no explanatory sign.

Temple of Tlaloc. This structure is located on the east side of the Plaza Superior Sur, and faces west. This shows a relationship with the sun, as it both rises and sets. It also ties the temple to the planet Venus, a symbol of regeneration with which Tlaloc is closely associated. The Rain God was also the patron of agriculture and fertility. Worship of a rain or storm god is very ancient, harking back to the earliest days of plant cultivation. Similar to Mictlantecuhtli, Tlaloc had a female consort. Her name was Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Lakes and Streams.

How Tlaloc's temple once looked. Like the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli, it is a one-level, thatched-roof structure that sits on a platform. The broad staircase is divided by two ramps. The temple has two rooms and the inner enclosure contains a fire pit.

The inner sanctum. The roof was supported by two pillars, the stumps of which can be seen on either side of a fire pit. Archeologists discovered offerings in the inner sanctum, including a blue vessel, decorated by black lines, along with fragments of hematite and sulphur. Both of these minerals are related to fire. Chemical analysis showed that they were quarried at Popocatepetlthe nearby volcano that is one of the most active in Mexico. In addition to these artifacts, archeologists also found sea urchin spines and two beads made from a seashell. The combination of artifacts relating to both fire and water is another example of the pre-hispanic concept of duality.

Funerary urn decorated with the face of Tlaloc. The Rain God is easily identified by his bulging eyes and drooping fangs. Like the God of Death, Tlaloc has a connection to the dead. The Rain God ruled over Tlalocan, a lush, green, watery paradise which was the destination of those who died from drowning, lightning, and certain diseases related to water. Tlaloc's paradise was not part of the underworld, but was the 9th of the 13 levels of heaven. There is  a wonderful mural of Tlalocan at Teotihuacán, painted six hundred years before the Acolhua people founded Zultépec. This religious continuity was the result of less sophisticated newcomers adopting the civilized ways of those they settled among. The Acolhua were originally Chichimec nomads from the northern deserts. They adopted many of the cultural practices they found among the remnants of the Toltec civilization that had fallen prior to their arrival in the Valley of Mexico. The Toltecs, in turn, had adopted much of the cultural remnants of Teotihuacan, after that great city had been in ruins for centuries.

Plaza Inferior Norte

Map of the Plaza Inferior Norte. Once again, the top of the map is oriented to the north, while the bottom abuts the Plaza Principal. At the top of this map is a long, narrow structure called the Ceremonial Platform of Fire. On the left side of the map, the large, rectangular structure is the Salon of the Nobles. The open area of the plaza, which covers the eastern 2/3 of the total area, was probably a place for large civic/religious ceremonies, such as the New Fire Ceremony.

The Ceremonial Platform of Fire viewed from its south west side. The platform above contains several small fire pits, called thetlecuiles, in which copal and other fragrant materials were burned. The rising smoke was intended to please Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God. Since Paleolithic times, fire had been an extremely important part of human life. Control of it was the first great step in the development of human civilization. Fire was used for cooking, warmth, tool-making, protection from predators, signaling, and--increasingly, over the millennia--for religious and other ceremonial purposes.

The original appearance of the Platform of Fire. The long, narrow, rectangular platform is divided down the middle by a half-wall and was once covered by a thatched roof. There were many ceremonies practiced here, but the most important was the New Fire Ceremony. This religious event occurred not only in Zultépec but throughout the Aztec Empire and the rest of Mesoamerica. Pre-hispanic people were close observers of the natural world. They noticed the cyclical nature of astronomical events and, most importantly, how these tied to the seasons for planting and harvesting. Their astronomer-priests developed calendars to record and track the movements of heavenly bodies. The Aztecs, along with many other civilizations, followed two calendars, a 365-day secular calendar and a parallel 260-day religious calendar. The Aztec New Fire Ceremony was celebrated every 52 years, when the two calendars coincided. The end of the 52-year cycle was believed to be a time when the gods might choose to destroy the world (as they had done four times previously). The New Fire Ceremony celebrated the survival of the world and its new 52-year lease on life.

The Platform of Fire, viewed from the east end. Thetlecuiles were found only on the side of the platform facing the plaza. Five days before the New Fire Ceremony, every hearth in the Aztec Empire was extinguished. People also destroyed their everyday household goods and dumped the remains into rubbish pits. All unnecessary activity was suspended during these five suspenseful days. On the night of the Ceremony, astronomer-priests climbed the hill known as Huixachtlan, located on a peninsula near the Aztec's island capital of Tenochtitlan. They watched anxiously until the constellation Pleiades passed its zenith. This event established that the sun would rise again and the world would continue. To commemorate the moment, they removed the living heart from a sacrifice victim and lit a fire inside his chest. These flames were used to ignite a bonfire on the hilltop, visible for many miles. The victim's body was then tossed into the fire. Representatives from all over the Empire attended this ritual. Each lit a torch from the bonfire and carried it back to his home city or town. When Zultépec's torch bearer returned, he ignited a bonfire at the Platform of Fire. The Plaza Inferior Norte was already packed with the people of Zultépec, each with their own unlit torch. At the Fire Platform, they their lit torches and carried them home to re-ignite their hearth fires of their households.. Thus the cycle was completed and the world was renewed for another 52 years, no doubt with sighs of relief all around.

Xuihtecuhtli, the Aztec God of Fire. He is thought to be an updated, Aztec version of Huehueteotl, the Old, Old Fire God, who had been revered for millennia. However, while Huehueteotl is always portrayed as a very old man carrying a brazier (fire tray) on his head, Xuihtecuhtli is young and carries no brazier. Turquoise was the symbolic equivalent of fire and the Fire God was believed to live in a turquoise room located in the center of the earth. The center position was considered to be the most important of the five cardinal points (the other four being north, south, east, and west). Consequently, the sacred hearth in each Aztec home or temple was in its center, where a permanent fire was kept burning. Aztec emperors considered Xuihtecuhtli to be their patron and, when they were enthroned, they were thought to embody him. Interestingly, Xuihtecuhtli was also the patron of the long-distance traders, called pochteca. This, once again, reaffirms the importance of trade and the status of traders in ancient Mesoamerica.

The Salon of the Nobles is located on the west end of the Plaza Inferior Norte. No one knows what the people of Zultépec called this structure. "Salon of Nobles" is an archeologist's label. However, the building's purpose seems clear. Local rulers, priests and nobles met here to discuss problems and make decisions. In addition, elite astronomers made observations here in order to inform the leadership of the will of the gods. The broad plaza in front of the staircase would have been suitable for large civic ceremonies. To understand the role played by the elite group who met here, it is important to understand Zultépec's relationship with Texcoco, the great city to which it owed allegiance.  

Artist's conception of the Salon of Nobles in the Post-Classic Era. It is a large, rectangular platform with a broad staircase in front. The balustrades on either side of the staircase show the Talud-tablero architectural style inherited from Teotihuacán. The thatched roof was supported by six large stone pillars. The Acolhua people who lived in Zultépec were tribally related to those in Texcoco and were part of the constellation of cities and towns controlled by it. These communities paid tribute to the ruling family of Texcoco, either in goods or services, or sometimes both. Zultépec was far enough away from Texcoco that its tribute was most likely in goods. Texcoco allowed some of the cities and towns to retain their own ruling dynasties. However, in Zultépec and some others, Texcoco appears to have appointed local governors. Although they were sent by Texcoco's ruler, these governors could not have functioned without the support and cooperation of the local priests, warriors, and noble landowners. It was in this context that Zultépec's elite met in the Salon of the Nobles. Through Texcoco, this trading town became closely connected to the wider Nahuatl-speaking world, because Texcoco was one of the three great city states that formed the Aztec Triple Alliance.

Map showing the relationship between Zultépec and its parent city Texcoco. Notice how Zultépec (far right on the map) is almost equidistant from Teotihuacán, its Classic Era parent city, and Texcoco, the city state for which it performed the same function as a trading outpost during the Post-Classic Era. The Aztec Triple Alliance was a coalition of three Nahuatl-speaking city states: TexcocoTenochtitlán, and Tlacopan. Each controlled groups of cities and towns through colonization, marriage alliances, or conquest. Zultépec was one of the cities founded by Texcoco colonists. The dominant partner of the Alliance was the Mexica kingdom, based in Tenochtitlan, an island city in the south central part of Lake Texcoco. The junior partner was Tlacopan, a city on the central eastern shore of the Lake.

A note about terminology: The word "Aztec" does not appear until at least colonial times. Some believe it was an invention of Alexander Humboldt, a 19th century European explorer. It is unlikely that the participants of the Triple Alliance would have used it. In this series, I use "Aztec Empire" to describe the Triple Alliance as a whole. I also use "Aztec" as a catchall term for aspects of culture common among the Alliance, rather than the way it is often used, as a name for the Mexica, the tribe with which it is usually associated.

Interior of the Salon of Nobles. Two rows of pillars supported the roof. Between them, toward the back, is a large square fire pit. It probably served ceremonial purposes, because one fire could not have provided enough light or heat for such a large room. Low stone benches run along the north and south sides, as well as the back wall. The structure in the center of the back wall appears to occupy a position of  importance.

The podium. This is clearly the most important spot in the Salon of Nobles. There is a direct line-of-sight from the entrance, down a passage created by the row of pillars. The large fire pit in the central area stands closer to this structure than to any of the other seating areas. This structure probably served as a seat for the ruler, or podium on which he could stand to address the room. It is also likely that the most important of the priests and warriors sat on the benches to his right and left.

Seating bench along the south wall of the Salon of Nobles. The fire pits spaced along the bench provided light, as well as heat. Similar pits appear along the north wall's bench. Among the artifacts found in these hearths were incense, feathers, and rubber balls. Those gathered here probably discussed problems in managing the city and in handling the trade that passed through it. Other issues most likely concerned upcoming festivals and ceremonies, support for Triple Alliance military campaigns and, of course, how to satisfy Texcoco's tribute requirements.

A meeting in the Salon probably looked something like this. The example above comes from one of the surviving codices created by Aztec scribes. It shows a meeting between Mexica ruler Moctezuma II and his nobles. Meetings in Zultépec's Salon would have borne some similarities to this image. Everyone would have been seated on reed mats. The meeting participants would have faced the ruler, who would sit at the head of the room, in a place of honor like the Salon's podium. The participants would have been attired cotton tilmas, colorfully decorated with the embroidered borders allowed only to the elite. In the codex image above, the small bubbles in front of the ruler's mouth indicate speech. In Nahuatl, the word for a ruler is tlatoani, meaning "one who speaks".

This completes Part 3 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you 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

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 2: The main plaza and its temples

The Temple of Ehecatl, God of the Wind, overlooks the Plaza Prinicpal. In Part 1 of this series, I showed you some of the fascinating artifacts recovered from the period when this site was a Teotihuacan trading outpost (300 AD-650 AD). All of the structures you will see in Part 2 were built by native people called the Acolhua. They re-populated the ruins of the Teotihuacán town around 1250 AD, after it had been abandoned for 600 years. In this and succeeding postings, I'll walk you through Acolhua era ruins, beginning with a tour of the Plaza Principal. The Plaza is bordered on the west by the Temple of Ehecatl and on the south by the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. These were two of the most important gods during the Post-Classic Era (900 AD-1521 AD).

I should also comment on the town's two names. Both Zultépec and Tecoaque are Nahuatl, the language of the AcolhuaThey, along with the Méxica (Aztecs) and the Tlaxcalteca, were part of the great Chichimec invasion which followed the collapse of the Toltec EmpireZultépec, which means "Hill of the Quails", was the name the Acolhua chose for their city. Tecoaque means "Place where they ate the lords or the gods". It was only after the Acolhua town was destroyed by the Spanish that its ruins were given that name. For the sake of simplicity, from here on I will just use the name Zultépec,

Site map of Zultépec-Tecoaque. The map is oriented with north at the top. Just right of center is the large circular structure called the Temple of Ehecatl. To the east of the temple, in the middle of the Plaza, is a small square structure known as the Tzompantli. There are also two small altars to the north and east of the Tzompantli. South of the Tzompantli is a large, square structure with a small, circular enclosure attached to its south side. That is the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. There are also two other plazas which we will look at in future postings. South of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Superior Sur, which contains temples to Tlaloc, the Rain God, and Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death. To the north of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Inferior Norte, containing the Temple of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God, and the elite council-house known as the Salón de los Nobles. Finally, in the map's northwest quadrant are two large residential complexes where most of the population once lived.

Temple of Ehecatl, the God of the Wind

Temple of Ehecatl, viewed from the left, or southeast side. The temple is circular with four concentric levels. The flat top once contained another circular structure with a thatched, conical roof. In front of the circular structure is a broad, rectangular porch containing the stumps of pillars that once supported a roof. The temples to Mesoamerica's numerous other gods are square or rectangular. Because the wind can come from any direction, Ehecatl's temples are always circular. Other examples of this can be seen at pre-hispanic sites such as Calixtlahuaca and  Xochitécatl.

How the Wind God's temple once appeared. The temple faces east, the direction from which both the sun and the star Venus rise. The position of the temple in the west end of the plaza also symbolizes the setting of these astronomical bodies. They are both extremely important in pre-hispanic cosmology because the cyclical nature of their disappearances and reappearances represent renewal, regeneration, and fertility.

Small stone statues of Ehecatl and his temple, found at Zultépec. The Wind God is usually portrayed wearing a mask resembling a bird's beak, through which he blew the wind that cleared the way for rain. This wind also symbolized human breath which, along with blood, was one of the two essences of life. The God of Wind was associated with several other gods, most importantly with Quetzalcoatl, the famed Plumed Serpent. The relationship was so close that he is often called Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. The Wind God played a key role in the creation of the 5th World (our current universe), when the sun refused to move. Ehecatl stepped in and blew strongly to set the sun on its course. Because the rain is preceded by, and moves with, the wind, the God of the Wind was also partnered with Tlaloc, the Rain God. Finally, as Ehuecatl-Quetzalcoatl, he was the lover of Mayahuel, the Goddess of Maguey.

Almena recovered when the Temple of Ehecatl was excavated. Almenas are decorative elements placed in a line along the cornices of pre-hispanic buildings. They were usually covered in stucco and painted in bright colors.

Skeleton and maguey-shaped pulque cups recovered at Ehecatl's Temple. There was no sign in the museum indicating whether the person had been sacrificed, but the large, splintered hole in the side of the skull suggests a fatal blow. Mayahuel was a beautiful goddess who was hidden away in the clouds by her jealous grandmother, Tzitzímitl. Eventually, Mayahuel became very lonely and began to sing. Her alluring song attracted Ehecatl-Quezalcoatl, who helped her to escape. They made love in the sky and, in their passion, they fell to earth and became a maguey plant. Tzitzímitl discovered the plant when, angered by her granddaughter's escape, she followed the lovers. In her rage, she hacked the maguey to pieces, missing only one part, which Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl protected. His tears over the death of Mayahuel caused the maguey fragment to grow. The magnificent plant was found by the Acolhua people during their great migration from the north and it provided them with many useful products. The spines on the ends of its leaves became needles; the fibers were used for rope and sandals; and much of the plant was edible. Most importantly, they found that they could make pulque, an alcoholic drink, from the juice of the plant. Pulque was declared sacred and came to be used in many important ceremonies.

Temple of Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror God

The Temple of Tezcatlipoca shares the Plaza Principal with Ehecatl's Temple. It is situated on the south side of the Plaza and faces north, a direction with which Tezcatlipoca was closely associated. The proximity of his temple with that of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl is also significant. The relationship between the two gods is complex. In some creation myths, they are portrayed as great rivals, who each destroy one of the worlds created by the other. All of these worlds pre-date the creation of the 5th World, in which we currently live. However, in one of the many creation stories, the two gods cooperate to capture the Earth Monster, a giant crocodile who bites off Tezcatlipoca's foot in the struggle. The two gods use the body of the Earth Monster to create land, where before there was only sea. Because his foot ended up in the Earth Monster's stomach, Tezcatlipoca is usually portrayed with an obsidian mirror in place of the missing appendage. Often, smoke emanates from this mirror, giving him the name by which he is often known: "Smoking Mirror".

Tezcatlipoca, in full regalia, including his obsidian-mirror foot. Here, he actually wears several such mirrors. One is on his right foot and another, larger version, is suspended from his neck. A third is part of his head dress. His body is covered in black and his face is painted with two black stripes. The various mirrors that he wears are made from black obsidian. This color scheme refers to Tezcatlipoca's association with night and darkness. His totem animal is the jaguar, a powerful night hunter believed to be capable of moving freely between the world of the living and the dark underworld of the dead. Jaguars were also totems of royalty, power, and warfare, thus making Smoking Mirror a favorite of rulers. Thus those who worshipped Tezcatlipoca, by extension, worshipped their rulers.

How Tezcatlipoca's temple once appeared. The temple has a broad, 4-step staircase in front, leading up to a patio. On either side of the staircase is a balustrade with a sloping surface leading up to a vertical, rectangular surface. This architectural style is called talud y tablero and dates back at least to Teotihuacán, if not earlier. At the patio's far (south) end is a fire pit, which is situated directly in front of the narrow entrance to a circular stone room. The circular room was once topped by a thatched, conical roof. This was the inner sanctum, restricted to the priests of Tezcatlipoca.

The fire pit and the entrance to the circular inner sanctum. Like most of the important pre-hispanic gods, Tezcatlipoca was connected to the cycle of regeneration and fertility. As such, he was sometimes referred to as the "Giver of Life". Toxcatl, a ceremony held during the month of May, was the most important festival devoted to Smoking Mirror. During the previous May's ceremony, a handsome young man would be selected to impersonate Tezcatlipoca for the coming year. Usually, but not always, this was a captured enemy warrior. Over the following 12 months, he appeared as the god, dressed in finery and jade jewelry. People meeting him in the streets would worship him as if he really were Tezcatlipoca.

The inner sanctum contains two fire pits. During the last 20 days before the climax of the Toxcatl ceremony, the young "god" would be wed to four beautiful young girls who were themselves treated as goddesses. These last three weeks were filled with feasting, singing, and dancing. On the last day, the young man would climb the stairs of Tezcatlipoca's temple, to be greeted by the priests who led him into the inner sanctum.

Toxcatl sacrifice. In the inner sanctum, the young man would be seized and his beating heart carved out of his chest. After the sacrifice, the victim's body would be cooked and ritually consumed. Did he know what would happen to him at the end? Absolutely! The whole affair was considered by all, including the sacrifice victim, to be a great honor. I have not been able to determine the fate of the four young brides, but it is likely that they too were sacrificed.

The inner sanctum, seen from the rear, with Ehecatl's temple in the distance. The timing of the Toxcatl ceremony was significant. May is the end of dry season, and is followed by the seasonal rains which nourish the crops. The Toxcatl ceremony was therefore a celebration of the cycle of regeneration, upon which Mesoamerican civilization depended. The whole affair was intended to encourage Tezcatlipoca to fulfill his role as the "Giver of Life."

The Tzompantli and Other Plaza Features

The base of the Tzompantli is located in the middle of the Plaza. The Temple of Ehecatl stands in the background. If you were to draw a line from the center of Ehecatl's Temple toward the east, and another from the Temple of Tezcatlipoca toward the north, the point at which they would meet is this platform. Tzompantlis date back to the Toltecs (900 AD-1150 AD). They were a highly militarized civilization that dominated most of Mesoamerica, until they too declined and fell. The end of the Toltec Empire opened the way for invasion by the Acolhua and other fierce Chichimec tribes. These newcomers viewed the remains of the Toltec civilization with awe. They readily adopted key aspects of the its culture, including militarism and public displays of the results of human sacrifice.

Tzompantlis were racks used to publicly display the skulls of sacrifice victims. The skull racks had both religious and political purposes. Pre-hispanic people believed that many of their gods required human sacrifice and tzompantlis played a role in these rituals. However, they were also intended to overawe anyone--whether inhabitant or foreigner--who might consider challenging the ruling elite. The heads displayed were usually those of captured warriors, but not always. Sometimes they included women and even children, as was the case with some of the skulls at Zultépec.

This skull was at one time mounted on a tzompantli. Notice the large hole in the skull's left temple, through which the pole extended. During the Post-Classic Era, the use of tzompantlis became widespread in Mesoamerica. The Méxica (Aztecs) arrived in Central Mexico about the same time as the Acolhua, and later became their close allies. In their capital of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), the Méxica constructed an immense tzompantli platform and decorated it with carved stone skulls. Recently, archeologists digging around Tenochtitlán's Templo Mayor  uncovered a huge "skull tower" made up of more than 650 actual human skulls mortared together in circles. Another tzompantli can be found at Chichen Itza, a great Maya city in Yucatan with a strong but mysterious connection with the Toltecs.

View of Plaza Principal from atop the Temple of Ehecatl. In the foreground, you can see the stumps of some of the columns that supported the terrace in front of the temple. The tzompantli is in the center of the photo, with two altars to the north and east of it.

View of the Plaza Principal and the altar near its east end. Beyond the altar is the Plaza Inferior Norte with its Temple to the Fire God and Salon of the Nobles. We will visit this plaza and the one to the south of the Plaza Principal in my next posting.

This completes Part 2 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. 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

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 1: Outpost of the Teotihuacán Empire

Teotihuacán "theatre" censer found at Zultépec-Tecoaque. The incense was burned in the lower, hour-glass shaped part of the theatre censer. The upper part is an elaborately decorated lid shaped to resemble a temple. The surfaces of the lid were originally covered with brilliant paint and sprinkled with iron pyrite so they would sparkle. Theatre censers were manufactured almost exclusively in Teotihuacán (100 BC-650 AD), capital of a great trading empire. Zultépec-Tecoaque was founded in 300 AD as one of the Empire's trading outposts and was occupied until 650 AD, when Teotihucán fell. The name "Zultépec-Tecoaque" comes from the Nahuatl language of the Acolhua people. They did not arrive until about 1250 AD, when they reoccupied the site after it had been abandoned for nearly 600 years. No one knows the original name by which the Teotihuacano inhabitants called their settlement, so I have chosen to refer to it in this posting by the only name available: Zultépec-Tecoaque. The the ruins and their museum are located in the northwestern part the state of Tlaxcala, near its border with the state of Mexico. To find them on a Google map, click here.

Detail of the theatre censer. The face within the theatre/temple represents a god, probably associated with fertility. The large plaque hanging from his nose represents a butterfly, variously associated with renewal, transformation, fire, death and the military. The four circles on the headband above the face are chalchihuites ("precious things"), which were often used to represent drops of water, always precious in agricultural societies. The four square pieces hanging below the stage represent cloths used in a temple. Censers like this were manufactured at Teotihuacan in a State-owned factory in the North Palace of the Citadel next to the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. Clay molds were used to make the individual parts. These were then assembled in one of the very first uses of identical, interchangeable parts in a manufacturing process. To help fund Teotihuacán's theocratic government, the censers were sold both for domestic use and as trade items. This explains their presence in Zultépec-Tecoaque, an outpost established at the intersection of key routes to the Gulf Coast and southern Mexico. Theater censers are generally associated with the private altars of palaces and residential compounds, rather than with the altars found in temples and public plazas. They may have doubled as an altar in households of modest means which lacked one. The incense burned was usually copal, a sacred substance derived from the sap, or "blood", of the Torchwood tree. Smoke from copal was used for divinatory purposes, for preventive and therapeutic health care, and as an offering to the gods.

Figurillas with articulated limbs are another artistic feature associated with Teotihuacan. Although there was no sign in the museum indicating where in the settlement they were found, articulated figurillas often turn up in grave sites. They enable us see how Teotihuacanos adorned themselves, in this case with mult-strand necklaces, ear spools, and an elaborate head dress. In real life, the necklaces and ear spools would have been made from jade. While the figurillas are otherwise nude, their articulated limbs would  have allowed them to be dressed in various costumes, according to the ceremony in which they were employed. Teotihuacán depictions of the human face typically show it with long, narrow eyes set horizontally in a heart-shaped face with a slightly parted mouth. Archeologists believe that this uniformity of appearance was a strategy by the State to establish a sense of unity and common identity among a very diverse and cosmopolitan population.

Small sculptures of Teotihuacán women. Like the figurillas, these little pieces give us an idea of the appearance and styles of elite women of the Empire. While the exact status of women in Teotihuacán is unclear, the Empire's most important deity was the Great Goddess, also known as the Jade Goddess. The supremacy of the Great/Jade Goddess sets Teotihuacán apart, because the goddesses of other Mesoamerican civilizations are all subordinate to male deities.

Two Teotihuacán death masks and a small statue. Masks like this were used during funerals, when they were placed over the faces of the deceased. Like the figurillas, the masks bear the classic Teotihuacán facial appearance. Wherever Teotihuacán set up a military or commercial outpost, culture followed. This included styles of art, architecture, clothing, etc. The local people in areas around Teotihuacán settlements were often much less sophisticated. They readily adopted the new, "superior" culture and thus became assimilated into the Empire. Although Teotihuacan possessed a strong military establishment to protect its interests, the  expansion of the Empire seems to have been accomplished more through trade and commerce than through conquest. Zultépec-Tecoaque was established in 200 AD at an early stage of this economic and cultural imperialism.

The role of trade

Classic Era trade routes to the east of Lago de Texcoco. The towns shown on the map are modern, but many originated as pre-hispanic settlements. Zultépec-Tecoaque is slightly to the west of Calpulalpan, in the upper left quadrant of the map. Modern Mexico City now covers most of what used to be Lago de Texcoco (blue area marked "Estado de México"). It is hard to overstate the role of trade in ancient Mesoamerica. Cities and civilizations rose or declined based upon their ability to control important trade routes. Wars were fought over resources, such as obsidian, which could be crafted into valuable trade goods. Materials readily available in some areas, such as cotton and cacao in the Gulf Coast and jade in Guatemala, were profitably shipped to destinations where they were lacking, such as the Valley of Mexico. Teotihuacán's power came from its central position on multiple trade routes, its control over obsidian mines near Pachuca, and its vast capacity for manufacturing finished trade items from both local and imported raw materials. Another source its of strength was the willingness of the city's leadership to welcome immigrants from all over Mesoamerica to live and trade at the center of a great Empire. Whole neighborhoods were set aside for these people and they became one of the keys to Teotihuacán's success. There were Zapotecs from Oaxaca, Maya from Guatemala, people from Western Mexico's Teuchitlán Culture, and many from elsewhere. Zultépec-Tecoaque functioned as a last stop, before reaching the great metropolis. Heavily loaded caravans arrived from the Gulf Coast and southern Mexico bringing goods, immigrants, and new ideas, while other groups stopped on the way from Teotihuacán to points east and south. Zultépec-Tecoaque served as a place to rest, sort out goods, trade information about conditions on the route ahead and, no doubt, to socialize with other traders.

 A textile trader sets out with his porters. This mural, from Tlaxcala's Palacio Gobierno, depicts Tlaxcaltecas from the Post-Classic period. Although that was several hundred years after Zultépec-Tecoaque was abandoned by the Teotihuacanos, the traders and their goods from earlier times would probably have looked pretty much the same. Since large animals capable of carrying burdens or pulling wheeled vehicles didn't arrive until the Spanish Conquest, all transport throughout ancient Mesoamerica was by humans, on foot. Even so, these expeditions were highly organized and those who led them held high status in their societies. Traders from Cacaxtla, of the Epi-Classic Era (650 AD-900 AD), had their own god. Those of the Post-Classic Aztec Empire (1250 AD-1521 AD) were called pochteca and had powerful guilds and special laws that protected them.

Jade and shell jewelry found at Zultépec-Tecoaque. These items, worn by the elite, were especially valuable because they had to be imported from distant locations. Shells, packed either as finished jewelry or raw materials, would have passed through Zultépec-Tecoaque from the Gulf Coast. The distance from the Gulf to Teotihuacán is about 300 km (approx. 200 mi).  Jade was as highly valued by Mesoamericans as gold or diamonds were by Europeans. The main sources of jade were even farther than the Gulf. The jade mines along the Rio Motagua, in central Guatemala, lay more than 1000 km (650 mi) from Teotihuacán. Long distance traders favored these items not just because their scarcity made them valuable. Jade and shell jewelry are both light and compact, important considerations, given the long distances that had to be covered. The jade disks at the top, with the holes in their centers, are parts of ear spools. They were a form of personal decoration that was very popular among the elites of both sexes.

How an ear spool was worn. A hollow stone rod passes through both the disk and the ear. It is held in place by two beads, connected by a cord. Since all of these (except for the cord) were jade, a fairly heavy stone, this must have put a strain on the wearer's earlobe. I suppose modern people also wear uncomfortable items of personal decoration. What price beauty?

Two Teotihuacán-style pots. The style of the top pot is "Teotihuacán Thin-Orange". It sits on a tri-pod base that is also typical of Teotihuacán. Ceramics were a valuable trade item, in spite of their weight and fragility. Ceramics from Teotihuacán have been found throughout Mesoamerica, even as far away as the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. The great Empire's cultural influence was ubiquitous. The bottom pot is painted in an abstract style that is also characteristic of Teotihuacán.

More ceramics with a red, abstract design. The red paint may be specular hematite, an iron oxide flecked with mica that was highly favored by Teotihuacano artists. Notice the similarity in the color and painted design with the small pot in the previous photo. The larger pot is also decorated with a head wearing a typical Teotihuacán head dress.

Temples and Gods

Model of a temple, another typical Teotihucán feature. Very little of Zultépec-Tecoaque's original Teotihuacán architecture survived its 600-year abandonment. What may have been there when the Acolhuas arrived in 1250 was probably destroyed when they they built their city, sometimes using the materials from the older structures. One interesting item that archeologists did find is this model of a temple. It is very similar to others that have been recovered in Teotihuacán itself. Archeologists speculate that the models may have been used by ancient architects in the process of designing a full-scale building. Another possibility is that the models were used as altars. In fact, they may have been used for the second purpose after their original architectural function was done. In any case, this model does give us an idea of what the temples of this trading outpost may have looked like in the Classic Era.

Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old God". Control of fire was the first great step in the evolution of human civilization, long pre-dating the development of agriculture. Huehueteotl may be the oldest of the whole pantheon of Mesoamerican gods. If so, he well-deserves his name. He is always portrayed as a wrinkled old man, bent under the weight of the brazier (fire tray) on his head. His cult may have arrived at Teotihuacán with refugees from Cuicuilco, who were fleeing the volcanic eruption of 150 AD that destroyed their city. The arrival of the refugees coincided with the cultural explosion that resulted in the building of the huge Pyramid of the Sun and other great monuments. Interestingly, in 2013, the remains of a temple to Huehueteotl was discovered at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Given all this, his appearance at this Teotihuacán trading outpost should be no surprise.

Ceramic pot bearing the face of Tlaloc, the Rain God. He is identifiable by his "goggle" eyes and the two fangs hanging down from his mouth. Tlaloc is probably second only to Huehueteotl in the antiquity of his worship. This probably dates back to the beginnings of agriculture and the need for consistent rainfall. Tlaloc is a Nahuatl word, and we don't know what the Teotihuacanos called him. Archeologists have decided to call his pre-Nahautl manifestation the "Storm God". Interestingly, in the Classic Era this deity was not just associated with agriculture, but also with long-distance traders.

The Fire Serpent was yet another deity of great antiquity. The Fire Serpent was associated with warfare, fire, and time (or the calendar). He was also connected with Venus, a symbol of renewal and rebirth, possibly because a snake "renews" itself when it sheds its skin. His Nahuatl name was Xiuhcoatl (literally "Fire Serpent") but, once again, no one knows what Teotihuacanos called him. The Fire Serpent was a different deity than the famous Plumed Serpent. He can be readily distinguished from his feathered cousin by his curled snout. Both serpent gods appear on the facade of the famous Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent in Teotihuacan's Citadel. This particular sculpture is a solid stone block, carved on all sides except the base. On its top is a rectangular cavity that was apparently used as a receptacle for human hearts cut from living sacrificial victims.

The Teotihuacán outpost of Zultépec-Tecoaque helped spread the Empire's trade, culture, and influence for 450 years, In 650 AD, the ruling elite of Teotihucán was overthrown and driven out during an internal uprising. This political decapitation of the Empire resulted in chaos. Warfare broke out between city-states such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla, Cantona, and others. They were all scrambling to dominate the trade routes, now that the great Empire no longer controlled them. Along with this came a series of invasions from the north by fierce Chichimec nomads, long kept in check by Teotihuacán's military power. Since the Empire could no longer protect them, Zultépec-Tecoaque's population  drifted away. Gradually, the dust and vegetation of the high desert overcame the ruins of their once bustling community. It would be 600 years before the site was again occupied, this time by the Acolhua, a hardy new people who founded their own trading outpost.

This completes Part 1 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below.

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Hasta luego, Jim