Saturday, May 23, 2020

Mascota Part 3 of 6: Sculpture, ceramics, & tools of the ancient people

This seated figure was unearthed in a shaft tomb in the Valley of Mascota. The tomb is located in an ancient cemetery known as El Embocadero II. Approximately 800 BC, a sculptor living in the Mascota Valley crafted the statue. He was part of the Capacha culture whose influence extended from Guerrero in the south to Sinaloa in the north. The statue, which is 21cm (8.25in) in height, portrays a man seated in a very natural posture with his arms crossed over his knees. When found, the figure was resting between the legs of a skeleton. Analysis of the bones reveals that they belonged to a man 45+ years old. In his childhood, he had been relatively well-nourished and healthy. The unusual number and variety of grave goods in the tomb, along with his healthy upbringing, indicate he was a person of high status in the community.

In this posting, I will show some of the grave goods recovered from four ancient cemeteries: El Embocadero II, Los Coamajales, El Pantano, and Los Tanques. These sites represent some of the earliest examples of the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb Tradition. The first section will focus on sculptures of people and animals. The second will show various ceramic vessels and discuss their possible uses. The final section will display various tools and items of household use. Altogether, these artifacts create a window into the far-distant past. Throughout the posting, I will provide information about the Capacha Culture which produced these artifacts, as well as some insight into the archeological techniques used to interpret these specific finds.

Dr. Joseph Mountjoy led the archeological work at the four cemeteries. Above, he carefully removes dirt from the surface of a pot unearthed at a tomb in the El Pantano site. Dr. Mountjoy is an expert on the ancient sites in this part of Mexico. He has published two papers on these particular cemeteries, including "Excavation of two Middle Formative Cemeteries in the Mascota Valley", and "From the living to the dead: connecting the ceramic figures with the people of the shaft and chamber tomb culture." Most of the information I present here came from these papers. They were invaluable in helping me understand the people who lived in the Mascota Valley 2800 years ago. When my information comes from other sources, I will provide a link. (Photo by Nick Corduan in Pinterest)

Sculptures of people and animals

Pairs of male and female statues have been found in several of the tombs. All of the tombs containing the pairs were located in El Pantano cemetery. According to Mountjoy, the pairs represent two deities, Father Sun and Mother Earth. Another interpretation is that they represent the "Original Pair" who came together to produce humans, a sort of pre-hispanic Adam and Eve.

You may notice some significant differences between these figures and the seated man seen previously. Unlike the relaxed, natural posture of the seated man, the two above are very formal and stylized. These differences in style separate the human figures found in the tombs into two groups. The natural figures tend to be seated, in various relaxed postures. In contrast, the stylized ones all stand erect, with their feet apart, their shoulders slightly hunched, and their hands clasping their stomachs. Why the two groups are so different is something I have yet to determine.

However, the human figures also possess similarities. Figures representing gods are found in both groups. All of the figures, natural or stylized, have narrow, squinting eyes, tiny mouths, and all are nude, or nearly so. In almost every case, gender can be determined by the small, high-set breasts of the females and the substantial genitalia of the males. An exception to this is an androgynous figure, with no overt sexual characteristics. It was found buried with a high status child whose bones were so deteriorated that the child's gender could not be determined.

This cheerful little dog with a striped coat was found in El Pantano cemetery. I couldn't help smiling when I saw it. It looks as if it is chuckling at an amusing joke. Pre-hispanic people kept dogs both as pets and for food. The presence of ceramic dogs in the tombs is significant. The dogs provide evidence that, even at this early date, people viewed dogs as guides and companions for the journey into the death. When the Spanish arrived, almost 2300 years later, the Aztecs were worshipping Xolotl, a dog-god whose role was to guide the dead through the perils of the underworld. While most of the dog sculptures found in the tombs are hollow containers, this one is solid.

The contents of the tombs tell us a good deal about the Capacha Culture as it existed in the Mascota Valley. There was some social differentiation, but nothing like the highly stratified societies found in other areas of Mesoamerica. Social status in the Mascota Valley was fairly fluid and a man could rise above a humble beginning. The Capacha built no great cities, nor did they construct pyramids, temples, or palaces. Village populations in the Mascota Valley ranged in size from 100 to 500 people. The economy was based primarily on the cultivation of corn and beans and the hunting of wild animals, particularly deer and turtles.

This seated figure embodies aspects of two gods who later became very important. The holes across the face are for the insertion of hair to create a beard. This connects the figure to the bearded god who taught humans about corn. In later eras, he was called Quetzacoatl (Feathered Serpent). The grooves on the neck, chest and legs suggest flaying, which is the process of cutting and peeling human skin. This is a link to the "Flayed God" who was later known as Xipe Totec. Both Quetzalcoatl and Xipe Totec are related to fertility and the cycle of the seasons. Rather than sitting on the ground, the figure is seated on a bench, a position of power.

Because the Capacha Culture never developed monumental architecture, there is minimal above-ground evidence of their presence. Our understanding of the culture comes overwhelmingly from the contents of the shaft tombs. Unfortunately, a great deal of information has been lost because many tombs have been looted, including some within the four cemeteries of the Mascota Valley. However, other tombs have been discovered intact and, even in the looted areas, some grave goods and bones have been recovered.

A dog with a man's face. Sculptures like this are called anthropomorphic, because they display both animal and human features. The body is that of a long-necked dog, but the face has the narrowly slitted eyes and tiny mouth found on the human statues. The statue is a hollow container and the top of the head is open, forming the spout. While the sculptures can tell us a lot about culture, social status and religious beliefs, the bones also provide an important trove of information.

Osteoarcheology is the study of ancient skeletons. From their bones we can tell a lot about the physique of the people, their lifestyle, diet, ailments, lifespan, and sometimes the cause of death. Analysis of the teeth can reveal whether they were well-fed or malnourished as children, an indication of the social status of their parents. Teeth can also reveal whether the people lived their lives near where they were buried or came from some distant location. That, in turn, tells us whether the community was isolated or connected into the larger world of its time.

Woman sitting with an infant in her lap. This is another of the relaxed-posture human sculptures. She sits on the ground with one leg resting across the other, while cradling her baby against her right arm. Her face seems calm and serene, unlike the glum expressions of the women with the dead infants seen in Mascota, Part 2.

Like the other hollow dogs, this one has a spout at the top of its head. The figure conveys a sense of energy and impending movement, as if the dog is gathering itself to leap into someone's lap. As with the long-necked dog, the face of this one resembles those of the human figures.

A crying woman with tattoos. She stands in the same posture as the other statues in the stylized group. The dots on her face represent tattooing, an indication of social status. Below the dots are four slanted lines, two on either side of the nose. On another statue, Mountjoy describes similar lines as tears.

Possible predecessor of the famous Colima Dogs? This chubby little creature resembles the  "Colima Dogs" found in shaft tombs near the city of Colima. However, this statue pre-dates them by a thousand years. The much-later Colima Dogs are more finely crafted and do not have anthropomorphic faces.

Ceramic containers

A "snuff/lime dipping vessel" found in a looted area of Los Coamajales. The vessel is about the size of a shot glass. It had been discarded by looters who considered it worthless. To the archeologists who retrieved it, the vessel was an important find. Similar vessels have been found at Capacha sites near Apulco in western Jalisco and El Opeño in Michoacan. The vessels at all three sites have, in turn, been linked to similar vessels found in Peru. This helps confirm the existence of very early trade route between western Mexico's Capacha Culture and South America's ancient Pacific Coast civilizations. Among these was the Andean culture known as the Chavin.

Los Coamajales cemetery was in use from around 1000 BC to 800 BC. In the Peruvian Andes, at that time,  the Chavin Culture (900-200 BC), was also developing. The Chavin liked to snort llipta, a kind of snuff made from lime and ground-up coca leaves. They crafted small snuff containers, similar to the Capacha vessel seen above, to hold the snuff

The Chavin lived on the slopes of South America's Andes, the natural habitat of the coca plant, and llipta may have been a very distant ancestor of cocaine. Chavin priests or shamans used llipta ritually, in order to put themselves into an hallucinatory state. It is possible that this vessel arrived in the Mascota Valley along the trade routes from Peru, but it is more likely a Capacha copy. In addition to vessels like this, it is likely that coca leaves made the same journey from the Peruvian Andes.

A "water-cover pot" is actually two pots in one. The mouth of the larger pot is covered with the base of the smaller one. This appears to produce a steaming process when it is used. Although a sign near the pot mentioned the cooking of frijol (beans), I have since discovered a different possibility. While Googling for this posing, I came across a research article about the possibility of alcohol distillation in the pre-hispanic Americas. This is a controversial issue. It has long been believed that pre-hispanic people never developed an alcohol distillation process, although they did ferment agave to produce the mildly alcoholic drink called pulque.

The researchers, who are called "experimental archeologists", used reproductions of Capacha-style pottery of various kinds to see if they could distill alcohol with them. They were careful to use only the techniques and materials that would have been available in western Mexico at that time. These included fermented agave and Capacha-style ceramics, including water-cover pots, crafted by Mexican potters using locally-obtained clay. After much experimentation, the researchers succeeded in producing ethanol containing distillates. While this doesn't conclusively prove the case, it certainly establishes that alcohol distillation was possible at that early time and provides a basis for further research.

Long-necked pottery in the shape of a gourd. The earliest containers used by archaic hunter-gatherers were made from materials such as hollowed-out squashes and gourds. Since they moved around constantly, and had no draft animals (at least in North America), everything they carried had to be light. However, once people settled down in farming communities, clay pottery came into use. It makes sense that their ceramics would mimic the shapes of the light-weight containers used by their wandering predecessors.

"Stirrup spout" bottles like this provide another connection to the Chavin Culture of South America. The bottle gets its name from its similarity to the stirrup attached to European saddles. Since I was unable to find mention of this piece of pottery in Dr. Mountjoy's excavation report on El Embocadero II and Los Coamajales, it must have been recovered from a shaft tomb at either El Pantano or Los Tanques. Stirrup spout bottles have been found in Chavin Culture sites, once again connecting the Capacha settlements of the Mascota Valley with Northwestern South America.

These containers would have been difficult to make and therefore expensive. It is likely that they would have been the prized possessions of elite figures in the community. Archeologists believe they were not used for household purposes. Instead, their probable use was for religious rituals and funerary rites. Outside of the El Pantano shaft tombs, no bottles of this sort have been found anywhere else in the Mascota Valley. In fact, when similar bottles were discovered in the Chavin context, nearly all came from tombs. Had they been intended for common household use, many would have been found in residential contexts, but almost none were.

Ceramic pot made in the shape of a squash. A pot that may well be the same was found in a shaft tomb at El Embocadero II. This is the tomb from which the statue of the sitting man (first photo) was recovered. You can see a photo of the tomb in my Mascota Part 2 posting. This is another example of how the traditional gourds and squashes were largely supplanted by ceramic pottery when people adopted a sedentary lifestyle.

There are several reasons for this. Pottery fashioned from clay can be given specialized shapes to suit a wide variety of needs. With natural gourds and squash, you must use what you can find. In addition, ceramic containers hold water well and can be used over a cooking fire. Further, they offer much more protection from rodents and micro-organisms. Since sedentary people are not moving around constantly, the weight of the pots and their relative fragility are of much less concern.

A pot with a colander? I was fascinated by this pot and its possible uses. The upper part has a series of holes of various sizes that are aligned in a precise, geometric order. Could this be an ancient colander, used to strain water from cooked food? Was it another part of the alcohol distillation process? Whatever its purpose, this device certainly seems sophisticated for a stone-age people living 2800 years ago.

I was also intrigued by the pattern of the holes, which suggest the four Sacred Cardinal Directions. The lip of the pot has been damaged. This may have been from a collapse of the tomb chamber's roof. On the other hand, it might reflect the practice of "killing" a piece of pottery so that it could enter the underworld with its dead owner. In fact, deliberate breakage has occurred with other ceramics found in the cemeteries.

Decorations on Capacha ceramics often include incised markings. The parallel grooves are an example of this sort of decoration. The purpose of the four pairs of knobs is less clear. However, they could have been used to hold cords in place if the pot was intended to hang from the ceiling. This was a common practice to prevent rodents, insects, and wayward children from getting into the contents. The ability to add knobs and other features to a container is another example of the usefulness of ceramic pots, as opposed to hollowed out gourds or squashes.

Tools and household items

Obsidian spear points were used to tip an atlatl dartObsidian is volcanic glass which is easily chipped into tools or weapons, as well as jewelry. The edge of an obsidian flake can be sharper than a surgical scalpel. Consequently, volcanic glass was an extremely valuable resource to pre-hispanic people. The Mascota Valley has many sites where it can be obtained. In addition to local use, obsidian was an important trade item. Those with ready access could exchange it for valuable goods brought from other areas.

"Atlatl" is a Nahuatl word, from the language of the Aztecs. An atlatl is a device used to propel a dart or short spear with much greater force than can be obtained with the throwing arm alone. It is a Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) technology, dating back at least 17,000 years. To use it, the dart is propelled forward from the atlatl handle, using an overhand motion. To understand this action, go to any large park. There, you will find someone throwing a ball to his dog using a flexible plastic rod about 46cm (18in) long with a cup at the end to hold the ball. This is the same technology used by people 17,000 years ago to propel their darts.

Dugout canoe. This ancient dugout would have been used to travel on rivers and lakes in the area in order to fish or transport goods. Dugout canoes are one of the earliest methods of water transportation and are still used by remote tribes today. Such a boat only requires a tree trunk of the correct diameter, cut the desired length.

Using stone tools, a groove was cut along one side of the trunk. Fire embers were placed in the groove to slowly burn away the wood of the interior. Using their stone tools, the craftsmen gradually cut away the burned wood until the interior was hollowed out. The prow of this particular boat was originally shaped in the form of an eagle. The dugout was found at Laguna de Juanacatlán, a lake not far from the town of Mascota.

Mano and metate, essential tools of the pre-hispanic kitchen. The mano is the oval grinding stone on top of the four-legged stone tray, called the metate. Similar devices were used by the pre-agricultural Paleolithic people to grind the wild seeds they gathered. Of course, once corn was domesticated around 8,700 years ago, the mano and metate became essential for grinding the corn kernels into masa, or dough, from which the first tortillas were made. Metates can still be found in Mexican hardware stores. They are not sold as tourist trinkets, but for use in Mexican kitchens.

Seat of power. In a previous photo, the figure who represents the early predecessors of the gods Quetzalcoatl and Xipe Totec can be seen sitting on a stool very similar to this.

Ancient turtle shell. Turtle meat was an important part of the diet of the people in the Mascota Valley. They had local access to freshwater turtles, but could also hunt sea turtles on the Pacific Coast, only 82km (51mi) away. From its size, this is probably an ancient sea turtle shell.. In addition to consuming the meat, pre-hispanic people used the shell as a percussion musical instrument.

This completes Part 3 of my Mascota series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, please 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, May 12, 2020

Mascota Part 2 of 6: Ancient petroglyphs and shaft tombs of the Mascota Valley

Ancient petroglyph found on a rock face near Mascota. A petroglyph is a design chipped into a smooth rock face. The figure above appears to be a man lustily blowing some sort of horn. I have nicknamed him "The Musician". Archeologists filled the chipped areas with chalk to make the design more visible. This is one of a large number of such designs found on boulders in the Mascota Valley. Several of these boulders and numerous photographs of others are displayed in the Museum of Archeology in Mascota.

This is one of the best small-town archeology museums I have encountered. It is worth putting on your "must see" list if you visit Mascota. In addition to the petroglyphs, the museum displays artifacts from several important archeological digs in the area. These were conducted at three ancient cemeteries containing shaft tombs that date back as far a 1000 BC. This posting and the one that follows will focus on the petroglyphs and the results of those digs. (Photo taken at the Museum of Archeology)

Excavating the shaft tombs

Archeologists explored the area using rugged old jeeps. The rocky mountain slopes can be tough going and it takes a vehicle like this to get through. Three ancient cemeteries have been explored, dating from 1000 BC to 800 BC, a  period called the Middle Pre-Classic Era. The timing makes the cemeteries contemporary with the Olmecs, the first great Mesoamerican civilization. However, the Olmecs were centered on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, 1652 km (1027 mi) away and there is only a little evidence of Olmec cultural influence on the people of the Mascota Valley.

The Los Comajales cemetery dates from 1000-850 BC, while El Embocadero II and El Pantano both date from 800 BC. Each of these sites was named after the local rancho on which it was found. The artifacts uncovered in the tombs, called "grave goods", show a strong relationship with the Capacha Culture. That culture was centered in the area of Colima, about 262 km (163 mi) to the south and extends along the Pacific Coast of Mexico from Sinaloa in the north to Guerrero in the south. The Capacha Culture developed almost entirely on its own and was, in many ways, very different from the cultures in central and eastern Mexico.

What makes these discoveries important is that no one expected to find anything from that early period in this remote mountain valley. The excavations came about after the owners of the El Pantano Ranch reported finding some artifacts on their property in 1997. In 2000, archeologist Joseph B. Mountjoy became interested and, supported by the National Geographic Society,  he organized a dig on the ranch. Later, while this dig was in progress, items looted from tombs on other ranchos in the area came to his attention. Mountjoy then expanded his focus to include the cemeteries at Los Comajales and El Embocadero ranchos. All these projects continued through 2005. Although the looters had destroyed some grave goods during their treasure hunting, some fragments survived. Other artifacts were recovered intact through careful archeological processes. The items discovered showed similarities to those of the Capacha culture, as did the shaft tombs in which some of them were found. (Photo on display at the museum)

Drawing of a shaft tomb similar to those found in the Mascota cemeteries. A shaft tomb gets its name from the vertical shaft that was dug from the surface straight down for several meters. At the bottom of the shaft, at least one horizontal chamber would be carved out. Each chamber would typically contain one or more individuals, along with offerings including pots, statues, jewelry, and tools.

The contents of a tomb tell us not only how the people of that time treated their dead, but how also they saw themselves and their culture. Further, since some of the artifacts originated as far away as Guatemala and Ecuador. they provide information about very early trade networks. Western Mexico's shaft tombs have been found in a wide arc that passes through the states of Michoacan, Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit. (Schematic above from "Excavation of two Middle Formative Cemeteries in the Mascota Valley, Jalisco Mexico" by Joseph B. Mountjoy)

Contents of a shaft tomb at El Embocadero II. The remains are of an individual of indeterminate sex but judged to be between 12 and 18 years old. The skeleton indicates that the person was about 160 cm (5' 3") tall. The body had been placed in the chamber on its back in an extended position. A variety of objects were placed on and around the remains. These included several pots; a statue of a seated man; some tools including a basalt axe and a pick made from a deer antler; and several pieces of jewelry made of iron pyrite, quartz, and amazonite.

Although this tomb was discovered intact, all too often sites like this have been looted before they could be carefully studied. During such treasure hunting, anything of apparent value will be stolen. Even worse, artifacts like pots are broken to get at the contents. Pieces are scattered about and lost. Anything intact that may later be recovered will have lost its "context", i.e. the original geographic location and the object's exact physical position and relationship with other artifacts. To archeologists, context is extremely important. Without it, the task they face is like trying to understand a story where all the words are mixed up in no particular order and some are missing. (Photo on display at the museum)

An archeology student carefully brushes dirt away from artifacts. Since these objects are 2800 years old, they tend to be fragile. Careful handling is a must. Using a small paint brush, the student is gingerly removing the dirt around three statues of seated women. Near the statues are several pots. The one just above the statues has a "water cover" which is a smaller pot fitted into the mouth of a larger one. To the left  are two more pots, one with a large mouth and the second with a long cylindrical neck ending in a narrow mouth.

Sometimes, when the contents of a pot are studied, archeologists can find the residue of what the pot once contained, such as food, or perhaps cremated human remains. Scrapings from the inside surface of the pot can help establish whether it was ever used for cooking or was specifically created for use as a grave good. (Photo on display at the museum)

The three seated women seen in the previous photo. Two of the three women have a dead infants in their laps and all three appear to be in mourning. They were found in the tomb of a young woman who was buried with a child. This suggests that they were intended to accompany her as mourners. I am always fascinated by the sculptures of the ancient people of western Mexico. They are very different from the sculptures found in central or eastern Mexico, or in the Maya areas of Yucatan, Chiapas, or Central America. In the latter areas, the sculptures tend to be very formal and elaborate. They usually portray gods, royalty, priests, warriors or other members of the elite. Often they are so elaborately dressed and bedecked with jewelry and feathers that it is difficult to discern the human features.

In contrast, the ancient sculptors of western Mexico tend to portray ordinary people. The figures will be relatively unadorned and in relaxed postures. The activities in which they are engaged are easily understandable to the modern eye. In the photo above, the women appear to be quietly mourning their loss. Other sculptures that I have seen show seated couples with their arms affectionately draped around each other. Still others may be shown playing with a living child or a pet dog. Looking at these sculptures is like looking through a window into a long-vanished world, but one to which I can immediately relate. Indeed, many of the activities are similar to those in which I have participated myself, thousands of years later. I find this personal connection to be magical. (Photo taken at the Museum of Archeology)

An archeologist digs out a small statue from among bundles of skulls and bones. Burials in the three cemeteries were handled in a variety of ways. In some, the body was laid out full length as seen in a previous photo. In other cases, the remains were cremated, placed in a pot, and buried. In still others, bodies were de-fleshed and then the skulls and bones were bundled together and wrapped in textiles. The last method was apparently used in the burial seen above.  In the photo, several bones and a skull are visible just below the hole that contains the small statue. (Photo on display at the museum)

Bundled skull and bones. The white material surrounding the bundle appears to be plaster of paris, used to protect the integrity of the bundle. De-fleshing as part of a burial ritual is also called excarnation and the practice has been used by ancient cultures all over the world. Sometimes the flesh was removed from the bones by exposing the body to the elements and animals. Other times, the body was butchered and the flesh scraped away by hand. Which method was used on the bones in the bundle seen above is not clear. (Photo taken at the Museum of Archeology)

Another young archeology student works on a pit filled with bones and grave goods. Some of the graves found in the cemeteries had been created on top of previous graves. In such cases, archeologists must be extra careful to separate one from the other and to determine which occurred first. Sometimes burial practices change over time and there also can be subtle changes in pottery styles. These factors can help establish approximate dates. In a shallow pit on the far right of the photo, you can see a large pot which appears to have a smaller pot in its mouth, forming a water cover. (Photo on display at the museum)

Squash shaped pot with a water cover. The earliest containers used by archaic people were made from the natural materials available around them. These included gourds and hollowed out squashes. When ceramic pottery developed, it was natural that the potters would use familiar forms as their models. In my next posting, I will show a number of pots shaped like gourds and squashes. (Photo taken at the Museum of Archeology)

An archeologist carefully works with an artifact in the chamber of a shaft tomb. The circular base of the vertical shaft can be seen at the bottom of the photo. The chamber in which the archeologist is working extends off from the side of the shaft. The passage between the shaft and the chamber is blocked up by stones, similar to the schematic seen previously. The artifact on which the archeologist is focused is known as the Jaguar Vessel. This is one of the few possible links with the Olmec civilization.

The Olmecs were centered in the coastal lowlands and jungles along Mexico's Gulf Coast. That was the natural habitat of jaguars and they were especially venerated by the Olmecs. The highlands of western Mexico were far outside the natural range of jaguars at the time the pot was made. Therefore the image of such an animal had to have been transmitted from a culture near the big cat's jungle habitat. The Olmecs maintained extensive trade networks and were contemporaries of the Mascota Valley culture and they are therefore the most likely source of the jaguar imagery. (Photo above from "Excavation of two Middle Formative Cemeteries in the Mascota Valley, Jalisco Mexico" by Joseph B. Mountjoy)

The Jaguar Vessel is a pot in the shape of the great cat. Jaguars are the third largest of the great cats, only exceeded in size by lions and tigers. They are night hunters of great skill and power. To pre-hispanic people, the jaguar's propensity to hunt at night suggested a mysterious relationship with the dark underworld. Jaguars were believed to easily move back and forth between the world of the living and that of the dead. Olmec imagery includes human infants who were half jaguar, called "were-jaguars". (Photo taken at the Museum of Archeology)

The jaguar faces down, as if looking at its image in a pool of water. The museum placed a mirror so that visitors could see the snarling teeth and fierce eyes. In many later Mesoamerican civilizations, the spotted pelts of these great cats formed important parts of royal costumes. During the Classic and Post-Classic eras, elite military cults used the jaguar as their symbol. The existence of the Jaguar Vessel creates a possible link to the distant Olmec civilization. This jaguar imagery is even more striking because these people probably never encountered a jaguar in their lives. (Photo taken at the Museum of Archeology)

The Petroglyphs

Petroglyph showing symbols representing the sun and water. In the center, a large solar symbol can be seen in the set of concentric circles surrounded by rays. A slightly smaller solar symbol can be seen on the left. These probably represent the sun god. In addition, a number of smaller circles called pocitos (little wells) surround the large solar symbol. The pocitos are thought to be water symbols. There is also a faint stick figure to the right of the large solar symbol which may represent a human. While a wide variety of symbols appear on hundreds of different rock faces, three types predominate: those related to the sun, water, and fertility.

To date, a total of 339 rocks containing more than 11,000 petroglyphs, have been discovered in the Mascota Valley. A handful of them have been found near the three ancient cemeteries, but it is not clear that there is any connection. In fact, the petroglyphs may have been created as much as 1000 years later than the cemeteries. This would place them in the Early Classic era (200 AD-500AD). However, the age of the rock designs is very difficult to determine, because there is no way to carbon-date a rock. Stratigraphy is also used to set dates by examining the contents of successive layers of soil. However, most of the rock slabs containing petroglyphs were discovered above or just below the ground surface, so stratigraphy isn't much help. Sometimes, dates can be inferred by the different styles of petroglyphs, but it is still quite difficult. (Photo on display at the museum)

A boulder displayed in the museum contains many different symbols. Two of the symbols are recognizably human: a foot print (oddly, with six toes) and a hand print forming a familiar modern gesture. Three of the hand's fingers are extended while the tips of the thumb and pointer-finger are pressed together. The modern meaning of this sign is that "everything is OK". Who knows what the ancients meant by it? There are also several spirals, which are the most common design on rock art in the Western Hemisphere. Joseph Mountjoy, author of Petroglyphs of West Mexico, suggests that the spirals may be prayers for rain. Other archeologists have suggested that the spirals' meanings may include lakes, springs, mountains, wind, gods, or the cycle of birth and death.

To me, the most interesting symbol on this boulder contains two concentric circles with a cross in the middle, a design found on petroglyphs throughout western Mexico. The symbol may indicate a connection with the culture of Teotihuacán, which was reaching the height of its power and influence around 500 AD. This is the same time frame in which the petroglyphs were created. The cross within the symbol represents the four sacred cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west). Archeologists who have studied the symbol have also speculated that it may represent a solar calendar, reflecting the movement of the sun, stars, and the solstices and equinoxes. However, all agree that more research is needed on this. (Photo taken at the museum)

Two human figures appear on this rock, at least one of which may relate to fertility. The larger figure possesses a very prominent phallus, which symbolized fertility and power to the ancient people. For some reason, the artist also took great pains to emphasize all the digits on the hands and feet of this figure. The rest of the figure shows little detail, except for the phallus. The smaller figure possesses neither a phallus nor clearly defined digits. Two more symbols, a circle and a "U" shape with a tail, stand on either side of the figure with the phallus. Their meaning is unknown at this time. (Photo on display at the museum)

A large reptilian figure stands beside another solar symbol, along with a possible bird. The four-legged creature has a long tail and a head with prominent jaws. This may represent a crocodile, an animal with which the people living in the Mascota Valley would probably have been familiar. Mascota is only 98km (61mi) from the Pacific Coast where the estuaries and lagoons abound in crocodiles. To many pre-hispanic cultures, crocodiles symbolized fertility, rain, and lightning. The symbol below and to the left of the solar sign may be a stylized bird with its wings extended in flight. The meaning of the symbol just above the solar sign is unknown. (Photo on display at the museum) 

This completes Part 2 of my Mascota series. I hope you have enjoyed it! Next time, I will show more of the fascinating grave goods displayed in the Museum of Archeology. If you have any thoughts or questions, please leave them 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 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Mascota Part 1 of 6: Historic town in the heart of Jalisco's Coast Range

Early morning light bathes Calle Hidalgo, one of the principal streets of Mascota. In the distance, you can see the steeple of Parroquia Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, the main church of the colonial-era town. In the fall of 2017, I organized four carloads of my friends for a visit to this mountainous area, well-named as "the Emerald of the Sierra."

In addition to Mascota, we also spent some time in the picturesque old silver-mining town of San Sebastian del Oeste and visited Talpa, famous for the annual pilgrimages to its ancient churches. In total, we spent three days on this wonderful trip, including driving time. That is the minimum time I would recommend for anyone considering a visit to the area. As you will see from this series on our trip, we saw and did a great deal. However, there is still much left for future visits.


This was our route from Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, to the pueblo of Mascota. The map indicates that the drive will take 3 hours and 48 minutes. However, while the road is well-maintained blacktop, it has only two lanes and passes through various small towns along the way. Traveling west from Ameca, the route winds through the coastal mountain range. Buses and trucks are difficult to pass on the twisting roads and can slow your progress considerably. In addition, you will want to take rest breaks, admire the lovely vistas, and take photos. Given all that, I would allow between 4.5 and 5 hours for the drive.

Mascota nestles in a lush valley surrounded by heavily wooded mountains. The town is shaped like an arrowhead, with the point aimed at the Pacific Coast. The seaside resort town of Puerto Vallarta is about 97km (60mi) further west along Highway 70. All of that is along mountain roads, so expect a 2 hours drive if you want to see the ocean. The view above is toward the west. I took the shot from a vista point on a hill overlooking the valley. Mascota's altitude is 1,267m (4,157ft), giving the area a moderate year-round climate. Temperatures generally top out in the high 20s Celsius. (mid-80s F) during the day. At night, they drop to the high teens Celsius (mid 60s F).

We visited in October, which is the end of the rainy season. However, there were only intermittent showers, generally in the afternoon. During most of our visit, particularly in the mornings, the skies were clear and sunny and the air was cool and refreshing. As you can see in the photo above, the rains have turned the country lush and green. At this time of year, you should bring shorts and t-shirts for the warm parts of the day, and long pants and a light jacket or sweater for the evenings. And, of course, some rain gear for the occasional showers. Good walking shoes are essential, especially since all the streets are cobblestone.

Our group prepares to order at Mascota's Restaurant La Navidad. The fifteen of us arrived in town about lunch time. Anticipating this, I had planned ahead and Googled up a nice place about half way between the two hotels I had lined up. Since some of our group have a bit more disposable income than others, I had picked the moderately priced Posada Santa Rita and the somewhat more expensive Mesón Santa Elena. People made their own choices and about half of us stayed in each place. However, even the more expensive place was still fairly modest in cost compared to something equivalent north of the border.

Because I stayed at Mesón Santa Elena, I only have photos from there. However, the folks who chose Posada Santa Rita gave good reports about their stay. The arrangement proved convenient, because two hotels are each about 3 blocks from El Centro, the area where most of the town's interesting sights and activities are to be found. In addition to the two inns we used, there are a number of other hotels in town with various price ranges.

Mesón de Santa Elena

Mesón Santa Elena is located on Calle Hidalgo, about 3 blocks west of Plaza Principal. The terms "mesón" and "posada" are both Spanish words meaning "inn". The white blotches on the side wall are from fresh plaster. Walls in Mexico need touching up every year because of the mineral salts that leach into them, causing them to blister and peel. We arrived just before the plaster had dried enough for the painters to finish their work.

The rather austere exterior of the hotel belies the elegance within. When I post blog stories about places I have visited, I ordinarily devote little, if any, space to the hotel where I stayed. Usually they are comfortable but unremarkable. However, Mesón Santa Elena deserves special mention.

My friend Jim B. views some of the interesting artifacts in the zaguan. In colonial-era casonas (mansions) and the casas grandes (big houses) of haciendas, the entrance foyer is called a zaguan. These passageways lead from the main door through to the inner courtyard. Typically, zaguans are decorated with photos and objects meant to impress a visitor. Anyone walking into Mesón Santa Elena's zaguan would immediately sense the elegance and grace of the establishment. I had discovered Mesón Santa Elena several years before, while visiting the area with my wife Carole. While out for a stroll, I had peeked into this zaguan and immediately thought "this is where I want to stay the next time I visit!" So here I was, at last.

After passing through the zaguan, you enter the courtyard. As you can see from the wet tiles, it had begun raining soon after we arrived in town. There are rooms under covered arcades on either side of the courtyard, as well as others accessed through the impressive facade at the rear. Each morning, the Mesón staff served us complimentary hot breakfasts on tables under the arcades. No breakfasts are served at Posada Santa Rita, so some of the folks staying there joined us here, at their own expense. The others chose among the many restaurants Mascota has to offer.

The courtyard's arcades also offer comfortable sitting areas like this. Mesón Santa Elena was originally built in the 18th century as a casona or town mansion for wealthy Spaniards. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out much about it, although it is always described as "historic." Sumptuous homes like this one were built by the colonial-era owners of haciendas, mines, and mercantile establishments. These people preferred the pleasures and conveniences of town living versus the more rustic lifestyle found on their farms or at the mine sites.

Over the centuries, ownership of the casonas would typically pass from one wealthy family to another. However, after the Revolution, many wealthy people lost their fortunes and were forced to give up their casonas and other properties. These places were then used for a variety of other non-domestic purposes and, as a result, suffered considerable deterioration. In recent decades, casonas like  Mesón Santa Elena have been restored and turned into boutique inns. An association called Casonas y Haciendas de Jalisco, includes a couple of dozen of these lovely old places. Over the years, I have visited many of them and stayed overnight at a few. It has always been a special experience.

The dining room. We never actually ate here, since our breakfasts were served in the courtyard. We had lunches and dinners at one or another of the many local restaurants in the area. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, this dining room was probably the site of many a glittering dinner party attended by local notables.

People of that class were often heavily involved in the great political struggles that took place between the beginning of the Independence War in 1810 and the end of the Cristero War in 1929. It is certainly possible that meetings were held here to ponder strategies and deal with crises related to those tumultuous times.

The fireplace room. We gathered here in the cool of the evening to share our experiences of the day and swap tales about our other adventures around Mexico. Lubricating the conversation were several bottles of locally-purchased raicilla. This liquor is sometimes called "tequila's older brother" or "Mexican Moonshine". There is a slight fruitiness in its taste and, at 100 proof, it provides quite a buzz.

Raicilla is made from a variety of different species of agave and is technically a member of the mezcal family. Tequila, on the other hand, is made only from blue agave, which is not used for raicilla. Although, it is little known outside of western Mexico, efforts are currently underway to promote the liquor. Raicilla may eventually make its way onto the shelves of US or Canadian bars that offer a wide range of beverages.

Comfortable nooks can be found in many corners of the hotel. Like the floor in the dining room, this one is probably original. Some of the lovely furniture may be genuine antiques, but I am somewhat doubtful that any of these pieces are original to this particular casona. It is likely they were collected from antique stores and estate sales when the casona was restored.

Stairway to the second floor mirador. A mirador is literally a lookout point. Several rooms are also accessed using these stairs. The courtyard from which the stairs rise is lush with plants and fruit trees. The one by the stairs is full of ripe persimmons.

View from the mirador. The red tiled roofs in the foreground are part of the hotel. In the background you can see nearby fields filled with rows of ripening corn. Beyond them, early-morning clouds float over the heavily wooded slopes of the mountains that surround Mascota.

Plaza Principal

This fountain forms the centerpiece of the Plaza Principal. The eight frogs sitting around the rim each spout water toward the basin in the center. Mexican plazas, even in the smallest towns, can be delightful. They are full of art, sculpture, lush gardens, and benches shaded by large trees. A plaza and the streets immediately around it are generally known as El Centro (The Center). The oldest and most architecturally interesting buildings of a town will nearly always be found in this area.

This is because of a decree issued in 1573 by King Phillip II of Spain (the nemesis of England's Elizabeth I). He required that all towns in Nueva España should be built in a grid pattern around a central plaza bordered by the local church and the government building. Buildings around a plaza, particularly those with commercial purposes, were required to possess open-air arcades along their fronts. King Phillip's idea was to create spaces where vendors could conduct business out of the rain or hot sun. Five hundred years later, this pattern remains in place nearly everywhere and the arcades are still full of street vendors.

A reminder of Mascota's pre-hispanic past. This plaque, set in the tiles of the plaza, reproduces a petroglyph (ancient rock carving) found in the area. One of the many attractions near the plaza is a small but excellent archeological museum, which I will show in a later posting. Its displays include some of the boulders on which similar petroglyphs are carved. In addition there are many artifacts called "grave goods" found in tombs, including ceramics, sculptures, and jewelry. Also found in the tombs were human remains of the ancient people who once occupied this area as early as 800 BC.

These arches, called portales, support one of the arcades bordering the plaza. They are in the Moorish style which dates back to the era when Spain was dominated by the Berber tribesmen called Moors who invaded Spain from North Africa. The Moors, who were Muslim, were finally expelled from Spain when Granada fell in 1492. Christopher Columbus cooled his heels in the camp of the Spanish Christian army during the final siege. He was waiting to see King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to request their support for his voyage of discovery The fall of Granada ended more than 700 years of Muslim rule over Spain, but also launched Columbus on his epic journey. 

When the Moors arrived in Spain in 711 AD, they quickly conquered the Visigothic kingdom they found there. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, had themselves arrived in the former Roman province of Iberia only about 200 years before. They settled down, adopted Christianity, and prospered for a couple of centuries. However, because of internal divisions, their kingdom collapsed in the face of the Moorish onslaught. The long fight to retake Spain from the Moors was called the Reconquista (Re-Conquest). During that 700 year struggle, the Spanish Christians adopted many Moorish customs, particularly architectural styles. These styles were then imported from Spain to the New World after its discovery by Columbus. 

Café con Leche is a small coffee house near the Plaza. I stopped here just long enough to take a photo and didn't sample the coffee. However, the place was very clean, cozy, and inviting, so I will probably sample a cup on my next visit. The drink called café con leche, for which this place is named, consists of mixture of strong coffee and a substantial amount of scalded milk. Sugar or sweetener is added according to taste.

Parroquia Nuestra Señora de los Dolores borders the south side of the Plaza Principal. The original church that was built here was erected in 1649It was replaced by this church, which was begun in 1780 but not finished for another hundred years. I will show the Parroquia in detail in a later posting. The tall steeple provides a landmark that can be seen from as far as the vista point shown earlier in this posting. As you can see above, the heavens were about to open for another drenching when I took the photo. I decided to seek shelter under one of the arcades that King Phillip II had so thoughtfully provided.

Street scenes

A pair of sombreros hangs on an impressive set of bull horns. A stroll along the arcades provides opportunities to discreetly peek into shops and the occasional private home. A visitor is often rewarded by discoveries like this. The word "sombrero" comes from the Spanish noun sombra, which means shade. Such a hat is a therefore a "shadower". 

The exact origin of sombreros is unknown, but they were probably adopted in the late 16th century by the Mestizo (mixed blood) cowboys of central Mexico. They were called vaqueros, which derives from vaca, the Spanish word for cow. The vaqueros needed such headgear while herding cattle under the fierce Mexican sun. A sombrero may be as simple as a high-crowned broad-brimmed hat made of straw, or as elaborate as the elaborately embroidered plush-felt versions used by singers in mariachi bands.

Some of us discovered another way to stay out of the rain--Café Napoles. After lunch, we checked in at our hotels and then scattered to explore El Centro. When the showers started, I found my way here and discovered that others had arrived before me with the same idea. Cafe Napoles serves excellent Italian coffee and has a limited lunch menu. It is located on Calle Hidalgo, about half way between Mesón Santa Elena and Plaza Principal.

This fine old casona is located directly across the street from Cafe Napoles. It is probably a private home, since it lacks any sign or other indicator of government or commercial use. The structure occupies about one fourth of a city block, making it quite sizable. Although I didn't see inside, it very likely follows the usual plan for houses like this, with a zaguan leading into a central courtyard surrounded by various rooms. When towns like Mascota were laid out, the wealthier inhabitants generally lived close to the plaza in casonas like this, while workers and artisans lived on the outskirts.

A peek into another doorway revealed these two fine saddles. Each is equipped with a long machete in a scabbard on its left side. The Mexican saddle evolved from the Spanish saddle, which arrived with the first Conquistadors under Hernán Cortéz. The main difference is that the original Spanish saddles didn't have a horn in front of the rider. 

The horns developed after the indigenous people taught the Spaniards to braid and throw braided leather ropes called lassos. Without such a horn, a vaquero who roped an uncooperative cow would soon find himself unhorsed and facing an angry bovine. The horn provided a place to wrap the lasso securely so that the weight of the horse could be used to stop the cow in its tracks. The main differences between a Mexican saddle and the typical western American saddle are that the Mexican version has a wider seat and bigger horn.

Yet another arcade lined with portales. These are great places to chat with friends or just hang out and watch the world go by. It is possible that this may have once been a fashionable casona, or a commercial store. In fact, it may have been both, since wealthy colonial-era merchants often lived on the second floor above their ground-floor stores. A good example of this can be seen at the family home of Ignacio Allende, the Independence War hero, which is located on the main plaza of San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato.

A dog of indeterminate breed enjoys the sun-warmed sidewalk. My dad, who grew up in south Texas, would have described this pooch as 100% Mexican dog. Although he wears no collar, he is well-fed and his coat is sleek, so it is likely that he has a family that looks after him. Mexicans, particularly in the smaller towns and villages, tend to let their dogs run free on the streets. Like this one, they often wear no collars or tags. 

Letting them run loose can be dangerous for them in areas with lots of traffic and it is not unusual for dogs and other animals to be hurt or even killed. However, the ones who survive develop a lot more of "street smarts" than dogs who have been penned up in yards or closely restrained on leashes. In addition, it has been my observation that Mexican dogs tend to be a lot more relaxed and less neurotic than north-of-the-border dogs. I attribute this to their having the ability to move away from other dogs or people who make them uncomfortable. 

On a side street, I paused to peek into this zaguan. This is another example of a typical casona, built around an inviting courtyard garden. I would have liked to check out the courtyard, but I didn't want to invade the privacy of the family who lives here.

A local tortilla maker plies her trade. This is a scene common throughout Mexico. Tortillas are the basic, all-purpose food in this country. They are eaten on their own, or as a side dish, as a wrap around tacos and burritos, and in many other ways. Tortillas are made from either maiz (corn) or trigo (wheat), but more usually the former. The corn is first soaked in a mixture of lime and water to break down the protective layer around the kernel. Traditionally, the kernels are then ground up on a stone tray called a metate, using a cylindrical roller called a mano. The result is a powder which, when mixed with water, forms a dough called masa

Tortillas are formed from the masa either by hand or through the process seen above. The woman pictured has placed a small, cookie-sized lump of masa on a wooden press. The gray material keeps the masa from sticking. She then lowers the top of the press down and uses the lever to force the masa into the large circular shapes that you see cooking on the griddle. 

In the traditional (and very ancient) process, the tortillas would be shaped by hand, the griddle would be made of clay and the heat provided by a wooden fire. Except for the modern innovations like the wooden press, the metal griddle, and the gas heat, the scene above would be perfectly familiar to anyone from 2000 years ago. Also familiar would be the sex of the person making the tortillas. In thirteen years of living in Mexico, I have never seen or heard of a man making tortillas.

This completes Part 1 of my series on our Mascota trip. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, please 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 too, so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim