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 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. My Spanish is poor but your blog post is answering our questions and helping us appreciate the Mascota Archaeological Museum much more fully. I appreciate the quality of this information!!


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