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
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)