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.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

No comments:

Post a Comment

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