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The Pre-Hispanic Ceramics of the Casas Grandes Culture in Northern Mexico

The Museum of Northern Cultures, among many other archeological finds obtained from the excavations of 1956, exhibits a wide range of pre-Hispanic pots. These belong to the cultural tradition of Casas Grandes, with Paquimé as the regional center during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This cultural tradition blended elements from Pueblo cultures in the North and the Mesoamerican civilizations towards the South.

The pre-Hispanic ceramics from Casas Grandes are widely recognized as they are very unusual compared with the ceramic traditions of the Greater Southwest. But their true splendor comes from what they reveal about the society which made them, as they allow us to discover more about one of the most important peoples in the region. The ceramics from the Middle Period have geometric designs painted in red and black on a pale background. The polychromatic styles from the Casas Grandes Culture include Babícora, Carretas (“Carts”), Corralitos (“Paddocks”), Dublan, Escondida (“Hidden”), Huérigos, Villa Ahumada (“Smokey Town”) and, the most dominant, Ramos Polícromo (“Polychrome Branches”), which seem to have been produced in the culture’s central area. Other types were made in remote areas. The potters were also exceptional in their creation of smooth ceramics, with styles known as Playas Red (“Red Beaches”) and Ramos Black (“Black Branches”). Few ceramics were imported, such as the El Paso Polychrome style which was the most commonly traded ceramic. This trade shows that contact existed with the villages of Jornada Mogollón in New Mexico.

The Casas Grandes ceramic tradition weaves together various aspects of life, both domestic and ritual. It is evidence of the development from functional ceramics to objects of art, with daring features, polychromatic geometrical designs and various shapes and decorations. The scientific studies undertaken to analyze the composition of the clay reveal that Paquimé was the center for specialized production in a large trade network which traded ceramics with other towns. The images represented on the pots tell the story of a society and its mythical tales by using symbols from the ancient cultures.

The vessels which use effigies are particularly interesting, representing shapes of animals, humans, and natural and supernatural beings. They have a rich iconography which is unsurpassed by any other ceramic tradition in the region. The symbolic importance of macaws and snakes is unequivocal. Snakes symbolize the great snake of the Southwest and the macaws symbolize life. The growth of a governing elite in the thirteenth century coincides with a huge increase in the production of attractively colored ceramics, heavy with symbolism. Some archeologists suggest that this was a political, economic and religious reinforcement of the values and interests of the governing classes. The increase in the influence and power of the elites allowed for a surge in specialized potters who were capable of creating vessels with spectacular art. Many of these examples appear throughout the three galleries of the museum’s exhibition, with strongest emphasis in the second.

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Sitio extraordinario por la preservación de sus edificios, la riqueza de su pintura mural y su emplazamiento frente al mar Caribe
The Walled City
An exceptional site with well-preserved buildings, ornate wall painting and a striking setting overlooking the Caribbean.
The walled city of Tulum is an exceptional archeological site. Each of its structures presents individual details which make a visit worthwhile and enriching. Building 16, also known as the Building of the Paintings or Temple of the Frescoes, is among the most outstanding buildings which can be seen today. Despite the fact that Tulum was one of the first places sighted by the Spanish conquistadors, the chronicles of the sixteenth century only mention El Castillo ("The Castle") and the structures visible from the sea. Juan José Gálvez mentioned the site to Juan Pío Pérez briefly in 1840, but the first description of the building we shall describe here was by John Stephens in the mid-nineteenth century, who described the building’s exterior decoration as well as the paintings inside, which he could not see properly because they are “green and covered in mold by the exuberant vegetation which was suffocating the building.” His fellow adventurer Frederick Catherwood, produced a beautiful engraving of the structure which was published in their book.

The lengthy indigenous rebellion known as the Caste Wars began shortly after the visit by Stephens and Catherwood. Tulum was inside rebel territory and by 1871 it was one of the sanctuaries of the Talking Cross, led by the priestess María Uicab. The next visitors after the end of the war were all members of the nascent discipline of archeology. Mention must be made of the visits by William H. Holmes in 1895, George P. Howe in 1911, William D. Parmelée, Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, and of course the celebrated Sylvanus G. Morley, who organized the first Carnegie Institution expedition in 1916, and others in 1918 and 1922. Morley was accompanied on these expeditions by a few notable academics and explorers such as Oliver Ricketson, Thomas Gann and Samuel K. Lothrop, who wrote a detailed study “Tulum: an Archaeological Study of the East Coast of Quintana Roo” (1924), which remains an essential reference for the region’s architecture. In this publication, the author presents a detailed description of Building 16 and its paintings, identifying some of the divinities shown, including gods D (Itzamnaaj), E (maize god), B and K, as well as intertwined snakes and the celestial motifs at the ends of the walls. Lothrop writes that the ground of these frescoes is painted in a “vivid blue-green, the color of the water seen from the cliff of Tulum.” On the architecture, he added that “structurally it is exceptionally interesting, because of its various periods of growth,” identifying up to five stages of construction. Enthused by its form, paintings and decorative elements, Lothrop said that Building 16 “probably reveals the splendor of Mayan architecture in its pristine state, better than any other hitherto discovered building.”

It is probable that the extensive clearing and cleaning by members of the Carnegie expedition between 1916 and 1922, with no accompanying conservation work, caused serious deterioration to the Building of the Paintings and other structures. When Miguel Ángel Fernández, an archeologist at the newly-created National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) arrived at the site in 1938 to work on reconstruction and excavation, he found that the priority was to stabilize the structures. This is why one of his first tasks was to restore the facade of Building 16, “one of the most beautiful temples of Tulum,” whose northeast corner had collapsed at least 10 years previously. Since archeological conservation techniques were in their infancy at the time, Fernández, who was a painter as well as an archaeologist, had to use hydrochloric acid to dissolve the accretion of carbonates which had developed over many years on the surfaces of the paintings.

In a joint publication with archeologist César Lizardi and artist Rómulo Rozo, Fernández stated that the Building 16 paintings were “freehand over a fine stucco ground, showing great skill, and they appear to have been done with a round brush. The background is black and the figures have green and brown lines. The rest of the frescoes, which is the part drawn by us, shows influence and methods from Nahua codices.” Regarding its interpretation, the authors comment that “they are images concerned with fertility, which seems to be indicated by the serpents’ heads and intertwined bodies, which form the frames and subdivisions of the fresco panels. Fruit and flowers such as green beans, as well as the stylized cobs and ears of corn abound in this painting, pointing to its agricultural and propitiatory significance.”

After Miguel Ángel Fernández, William T. Sanders arrived in 1960 to carry out the first archeological excavation at Tulum which aimed to establish a chronology. Not long after, in 1969, the paved highway between Carrillo Puerto and Tulum opened, then the highway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum three years later, heralding the era of tourism at Tulum, and its entry into that market. The early 1970s also marked the start of INAH’s stronger and more proactive role, both in terms of the custodianship of the site and the production of various research, conservation and maintenance projects.

In 1972, Arthur G. Miller began a research project looking at the mural painting tradition in the Tancah-Tulum area. As a result, the author proposed that in the Middle Postclassic, from approximately 1200 to 1400, the mural paintings of the site showed significant changes in relation to previous periods, such as the reduction in the scale of the figures and the adoption of a more linear style of presentation. The style of painting began during this period known as “codex style,” a name given by George Vaillant who in 1940 linked it to the Mixtec region of Oaxaca and Puebla because of the similarity of the lines of the region’s codices and ceramics with some Mayan manuscripts of the same period, especially the Madrid Codex. The mural paintings concerning us here have been identified with the so-called “international style” defined by Donald Robertson in 1970, since it shared certain iconographic elements with many different regions of Mesoamerica. It was also at this time that the now vanished mural paintings from the site of Santa Rita, in Corozal, Belize, would have been painted, as well as those in the Temple of the Paintings at Coba.

According to Miller, the development of the Late Postclassic mural technique represents a radical change because it demonstrates great richness in its artistic complexity and execution. There is superior control of the lines and better handling of color, which are probably indicative of improved paint brush design. The most notable feature of these murals is the good control and thickness of the lines, which makes for a high quality visual effect. Miller points out that Tulum’s Postclassic paintings show human or animal figures in profile, while objects such as glyphs, offerings and so on are represented face on. In both cases the positioning of the images aims to clarify the scene, for all elements to be recognizable and for the content of the images to be very evident.

According to this author, the iconography of the Building 16 paintings relates to ideological themes connected to birth and rebirth, as well as the crossing from the underworld to the middle earth, where Venus and the Sun also played very significant roles. Miller proposes that the Tulum sanctuaries would have been used for rituals in which pilgrims from various places participated, and these may have been associated with long-distance trade. In other words, Miller posits that at Tulum there was a very close tie between the sacred and the profane because trade would have been the economic foundation of the city that enabled it to become a great ceremonial center.

On the other hand, in one of the most recent studies, by Karl Taube in 2010, the emphasis is on the floral designs identified in the Tulum paintings, which are more than mere ornaments but represent the spirit of life and the paradise of the sun. According to this researcher, many of the elements of the murals, such as the intertwined plumed serpents, the quetzal feathers and the jade beads are references to the east: the direction of the sunrise and the source of the rains. The existence of the paintings hinges on the deeper symbolic meaning of Tulum’s setting on the east coast of the peninsula, and this would link to the “international style” and the use of a group of symbols identified as the Flower World Complex, which was widely dispersed across Mesoamerica.

Taube also proposes that the principal scene inside the Building of the Paintings shows a very elaborate Postclassic version of the witz monster (“witz” means mountain in Maya), which has two serpent’s heads with upward pointing jaws, ornamented with flowers and pumpkin heads. For this reason, Taube considers it is probably a "Flowery Mountain." The two mountains which frame the scene serve as the containers of a body of water which could well be the Caribbean Sea, since a ray and fish can be seen swimming in its waters. These elements could be a metaphor for the emergence of maize and of humans from the surface of the earth. According to the author “this mythical emergence event is repeated every day at Tulum, when the sun, the gods and the ancestors arise from the Flowery Way of the eastern waters of the Caribbean Sea.”

Taube’s conclusion on the Building of the Paintings and other important structures at Tulum is that even the external decoration reinforces the notion that the symbolism of the site is strongly linked to rebirth, since the flowers that adorn the facade of B-16 and the faces of the ancestors which frame its corners, turn the whole building into a Flowery Mountain.

It is difficult to be certain that the mural paintings of Building 16 have a cross-cultural aspect, or that they are really associated with an international style tied to the concept of worldwide systems. Whether or not the paintings are actually evidence of Tulum as a commercial or pilgrimage site, it is undeniable that the paintings of the Temple of the Frescoes are rich and beautiful, and that the intention of the artists was to represent the Caribbean Sea. Visitors should not forget that the mural paintings of Tulum’s Building 16 are the most complete and best preserved of the Mayan Late Postclassic period.
The History of the Tlaxcala People in a Remarkable Building

The Regional Museum of Tlaxcala is located in a magnificent building that was formerly the Franciscan monastery—Ex Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción—in the city of Tlaxcala. The building stands out as one of the first four monasteries to be built in the territory of New Spain after the Spanish Conquest led by Hernán Cortés. The complex is notable for the majestic atrium that still contains two “capillas posas” (simple chapel structures designed to cater to large congregations, positioned outside the main religious buildings in New Spain) and the chapel of the Holy Sepulcher. A parapet walk linking the monastery to a separate tower structure also remains.

The church (now known as the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) is one of the finest examples of Mudejar-style architecture to have been preserved in the Americas. The nave is an extraordinarily simple structure; a series of chapels were later added to it for the benefit of worshippers from Tlaxcala. The Chapel of the Third Order contains the pulpit where it is said that the first gospel was preached in New Spain, and the font in which the four lords or “tlatoque” (plural of “tlatoani”) from Tlaxcala were baptized. The superbly crafted principal altar is crowned by an eighteenth-century painting that depicts this baptismal scene.

The monastery building itself is unusually located to the left of the church, as normally it would be on the right-hand side. Over the years it has undergone several adaptations and been put to a number of different uses, including as a monastery, a school for the children of noblemen, a military barracks, a prison, and now as the Regional Museum of Tlaxcala.

The building houses interactive exhibits of the paleofauna found in the local area. The archeology galleries boast pre-Hispanic artefacts found during excavations, both at archeological digs and after having been recovered during excavations carried out for infrastructure projects. The galleries on the Conquest and viceregal period explain the role played by the Tlaxcalans during the Conquest and the territory’s evangelization after it became New Spain; there are also reproductions of a series of documents on the processes of change that led to the development of the Tlaxcalan people’s identity over the course of their history.

The San Antonio Gallery is of particular interest: its exhibition of large-scale paintings reveals the importance of Saint Anthony in the day-to-day life of the monastery, since the paintings used to be part of it. The next gallery takes visitors on a tour through the society, economy and power relations between the different levels of Tlaxcalan society, concluding with an exhibit on the Mexican Revolution that consists of a video and an impressive photomural of the Apizaco railway station.

On leaving the galleries, visitors can explore the upper cloisters and marvel at the wonderful octagonal fountain in the lower cloisters, as well as the garden located in the museum’s service areas. A sundial is located above the garden at the intersection of the south and west walls; although it is not original, its existence reminds us of the importance of measuring time in such a location. A font on the south wall, between the library and restoration workshop, was used to capture rainwater in the monastery, highlighting the importance of collecting this vital liquid for the inhabitants’ use and consumption. In the pre-Hispanic period the site was known as Chalchihuapan, a place of worship for Chalchiuhtlicue, goddess of the terrestrial waters and companion of Tlaloc.

The final stop on the tour of the museum is the Dr Andrés Angulo Library, which has a special collection of books on anthropology and history, and is located in the former galleries of the prison that functioned in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and where many fragments of mural paintings from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries still remain.

The Jorge “Ranchero” Aguilar bullring outside the museum is also notable; built in the first half of the 1800s, it is one of the earliest of its kind. The place where it was built was formerly used to receive pilgrims and as a center for the Hospital de la Encarnación, one of the oldest medical institutions in New Spain. The Calzada de San Francisco leads back to the center of the city, and is a magnificent connection between the magic and mysticism of the monastery and the hubbub of the city.

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The story behind the name
The name of Olintepec (“the hill that has tremors”), shows the importance that this settlement had for the groups living in Morelos. It was an altepetl (“Water Hill”), a fiefdom governed by a tlatoani who ruled over various towns which paid tribute to him.

As in other Mesoamerican towns, Olintepec derives its name from the patron god, which we can only speculate about today. The town’s glyph appears in the sixteenth century Mendoza Codex. It is the Movement glyph painted in a brown color and depicted on top of the hill. The sun is a movement deity, but the brown color of the glyph would seem to indicate that it represented a female deity, specifically an earth goddess, since the earth also moves through earthquakes. Hence it is likely to have been an invocation of the goddess Cihuacoatl, whose sanctuary must have been on the summit of the Cerro Olinche to the east. This is a reference to the temple of the god Tepoztecatl, in the neighboring Tepoztlan. Therefore the name Olinche could be a corruption of Olintzin (the “zin” is considered to be reverential), and hence it would read as “the Lady of the Tremors.”
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The Importance of "The Castle"
Without doubt Building 1, more commonly known as El Castillo (“The Castle”) is the most important building on the El Meco archeological site. It was documented for the first time by Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon in 1877, and subsequently by Teobert Maler in 1891. The latter described the serpent’s heads at the foot of the balustrades, which inevitably bring to mind the rather larger versions at El Castillo in Chichen Itza. Maler also mentioned that an older building could be seen at the rear.

William Holmes visited El Meco in 1895 as part of Allison V. Armour’s expedition and he recorded more detailed descriptions of the central building and other principal structures. Some time after, Arnold Channing and Frederick J. Tabor Frost came to the site in 1909 and documented the pyramid in detail. Samuel K. Lothrop came with the members of a new expedition from the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1918. He surveyed El Castillo, which by that time had been cleaned and whitewashed by the Mexican government in order to function as a boundary.

Around this same time, local inhabitants dynamited the back of the building to obtain stone for construction, thus exposing the majority of the substructure and destroying the facade of the temple above. Lothrop recognized that the building was erected over various phases of construction and that the style of the architecture had similarities to Tulum and other sites in the region, leading him to propose a distinctive "east coast” style, a term which is still in use today. Another member of the Carnegie expedition, Thomas Gann, was one of the first to suggest that the “castles” of El Meco and Tulum had been pilgrimage sites, a notion which took hold among twentieth-century archeologists.

The first archeological excavations at El Meco were carried out by William T. Sanders between 1955 and 1960, and they were continued by INAH staff in the 1970s, with Peter Schmidt leading the work on El Castillo. The conservation and strengthening of this building and of the principal group continued from 1979-80 under Elia Trejo and Rocío González. Luis Leira was involved in the 1990s, and it was then that the site finally opened to visitors.

Structure 1, or El Castillo, is not only important as El Meco’s most conspicuous building, and the tallest on the east coast, but because of its interest to architectural research in the Quintana Roo region. It is one of the few pyramids built during the Late Postclassic, a period in which emphasis was given to structures with columns and flat roofs and to palaces with two rooms and a porticoed entrance. Even more noteworthy is the fact that the first stage of this pyramid might have been built on a similar pattern in the Early Postclassic (1000-1250 AD). Information about the architecture of this period in the region is lacking. In fact there are only four known pyramids built in the Late Postclassic: one at San Miguelito, another at El Rey, El Castillo in Tulum and the one that concerns us here. Other examples of temples on bases built over older structures can be seen at Coba.

The plinth of Structure 1 at El Meco consists of four sections and a small platform from which a two-roomed temple rises. This had three entrances marked by two columns, possibly overlooked by niches. The faces of the plinth are smooth and vertical, unlike those from previous periods, and this characteristic is only shared with the plinths at San Miguelito and El Rey, but these are not so tall. It is interesting to point out that El Castillo in Tulum has a very different design, since its location took advantage of an older columned palace, which was used in place of the plinth.

El Castillo at El Meco is the sole Postclassic pyramidal building whose facade faces the sea and the dawn; it also looks right at the southern tip of Isla Mujeres where a building was erected in the same period, and which certainly had some link of a symbolic and ideological nature. Without doubt, this building and the El Meco group generally are especially interesting because of the architectural arrangement and the beauty of the setting.

Any visitor interested in finding out about the ancient history of Cancun and its area of influence will certainly enjoy the experience of a tour of El Meco.
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Xihuingo is an important settlement of the Classic period from 200 to 750, in the southeast of the state of Hidalgo. The rocky landscape enabled the ancient inhabitants to produce the rock carvings and paintings on the various outcrops, walls, rock shelters and mounds. A variety of messages have been carved into the rocks in the form of curvilinear and spiral designs, anthropomorphic figures, models, calendar signs and the so-called pecked crosses.

The cross motif was also found at Teotihuacan as well as in such distant places such as Huaxactun and Seibal in the Mayan region, and Cerro Chapín in the north of Mexico. Studies carried out by well-known researchers such as Anthony Aveni and Horst Hartung indicate that the pecked cross symbol had a calendrical or astronomical meaning, however given the great variety of pecked cross designs, there are other interpretations. They could, for example, have been used as games tables in the style of patolli, which was played by the Aztecs in more recent times.

With nearly 50 pecked crosses recorded at Xihuingo, it is the site with the highest incidence of this important graphic motif in Mesoamerica, hence the important status of pecked crosses within this branch of research.

The archeologist Matthew Wallrath has researched the subject of pecked crosses at Xihuingo since the end of the 1970s. He found 46, 38 of which are well preserved. Together with Jesús Galindo and Alfonso Rangel, Wallrath proposes that the concentration of pecked crosses in these three or four places is not by chance. Rather they were used by the ancient inhabitants in the arrangement of astronomical observation points, including for the observation of certain bright stars, as well as events such as the solar zenith, the summer solstice and to mark certain important dates in the Mesoamerican calendrical tradition.

Xihuingo stands out as an important center of astronomical observation and calendrical calculation within the Teotihuacan culture. It is nevertheless important to continue researching the rock drawings on the site and to carry out new excavations.
The Importance of the La Venta Site Museum

The La Venta site museum is unique in the southern Gulf coast region.

The building which houses the museum combines modern architectural elements and indigenous tradition. There are wide and tall roofs worked from palm leaves, supported by structures built from singularly beautiful mangrove stems. This combination creates fresh spaces protected from the sun and a worthy setting for exhibiting a sample of one of the most ancient cultural expressions of pre-Hispanic Mexico.

The content is also unique in the way it provides visitors with up-to-date information on Olmec civilization with a special emphasis on its expression at La Venta. The collection is made up of artifacts which have mainly come from the recent excavations of the site, with the addition of donations and loans from the National Museum of Anthropology. The museum ambiance is agreeable and enriched by a range of media including maps, information panels, photographs, models, dioramas and games alongside the collection of monumental and portable stonework, ceramics and stone tools.

Another significant factor in this museum is that it displays two imposing sculptural groups in Galleries 1 and 4, laid out exactly as they were displayed by the ancient Olmecs. No other museum in the world exhibits Olmec sculpture in this way. This museum also has Monument 25/26 which is the tallest stela from the site’s sculptural corpus, while Monument 53 in Gallery 1 is heavier than any other Olmec sculpture from La Venta.

El Templo de San Francisco Javier, Tepotzotlán
The Jewel in the Crown
The Church of San Francisco Javier, Tepotzotlán
The most representative work of the National Museum of the Vice-Regal Period (former home of the Jesuit College of Tepotzotlán) is the church of San Francisco Javier and its adjoining chapels: the House of Loreto, the Shrine to the Virgin and the Reliquary of Saint Joseph.

The church dates from 1682 and was paid for by Father Pedro Medina Picazo and his family, but the interior and facade were renewed in the mid-eighteenth century. The altarpieces of the chancel and the transept were designed and made by Miguel Cabrera e Higinio de Chávez, under the supervision of Father Pedro Reales, the college rector. The mural painting on the chancel vaults, as well as the paintings in the vestry, choir loft and choir were executed by Cabrera, while the facade was completed in 1762 by the architect Ildefonso Iniesta Bejarano.

The altarpieces, carved in cedar wood and decorated with gold leaf, are dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier (the church’s patron saint), Saint Francis Borgia, Saint Stanislaus Kostka, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Saint Joseph, the Virgin of Light, the precious blood of Christ and the patronage of the Virgin.

The first House of Loreto (a faithful copy of the original in Loreto, Italy) was built in 1679 as commissioned by Father Juan Bautista Zappa. The idea was to reproduce the house of Nazareth, the space where Saint Gabriel’s annunciation to the Virgin Mary had occurred. The House of Loreto which is currently preserved and the Shrine to the Virgin were opened in 1733. They were paid for by Manuel Tomás de la Canal.

Finally, the Reliquary of Saint Joseph was dedicated in 1738 and received its name because it housed a fragment attributed to the saint’s tunic. Its interior is decorated with stucco and paintings signed by José de Ibarra and Francisco Martínez. The floor of this group of chapels is covered in Talavera tiles.
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El ejemplo de Polé
Navigation and Trade
The case of Polé
The Maya navigated the rivers, lakes and sea in pre-Hispanic times. Although they only used the coastal waters for trade, the Mayan navigators still needed a good knowledge of the currents, changes in the weather, an understanding of the tides, how to orient themselves and of course the skills to handle a canoe using paddles. These boats were made from a single piece of wood, by hollowing out a tree trunk of a durable, buoyant species. There are graphic representations of the canoes and paddles used in those days in the mural paintings of the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza, on numerous painted vessels, carved from bone and in the pages of the Dresden Codex. Colonial-period sources also provide several references which add details to the picture.

The Maya developed coastal trade intensively during the Postclassic. To do so effectively, they needed certain supporting features, such as havens to shelter in during bad weather, which may have been coves or entrances to lagoons, and markers on the land which could have been used as geographical or territorial reference points. It was also vital to have visual reference points to know where to enter and leave reefs, where to find entrances to lagoons or inland channels which would make it easier or safer to row during sudden bad weather.

Over the years this knowledge of the water enabled the establishment of extensive trading routes for the control, distribution and trade of goods from different regions, and therefore also for the exchange of ideas. From the coast came important products such as salt, dried fish, conch and shells which could be exchanged for the products of other regions such as obsidian, green stone, flint, feathers, cotton blankets, honey and wax.

We know that the Maya had navigated since ancient times, since islands some miles from the coast had been inhabited since the Late Preclassic, from 300 BC to 300 AD. Water transport increased over the years and by the Postclassic there was already a large trading route encircling the Yucatan peninsula, from the Gulf of Mexico to the west and down to Honduras along the east coast of the Caribbean. Sea and river routes were combined with land routes to extend the range of products for exchange.

The port of Polé was an exceptional case, since it became a key point for journeys to and from Cozumel, where the sanctuary of the goddess Ixchel attracted thousands of pilgrims from various places. Without a doubt, the convergence of so many people turned it into an important port for passengers, as well as for the trade and exchange of goods.

This prolific indigenous trading route was curtailed during the colonial period, which radically altered the economic equilibrium and political organization for thousands of coastal and inland inhabitants. Polé even managed to retain its status during colonial times and a simple church was built there in the second half of the sixteenth century. Rather than having its own priest, the church depended on the priest in Cozumel to hold religious services.

Drastic change, including the diseases brought by the Spanish, decimated the population leaving just a few sparsely populated villages. By the seventeenth century the east coast of Quintana Roo was ravaged by numerous pirate attacks and Cozumel was one of the most frequent targets. Polé was not exempt and it suffered several pirate attacks which meant that around 1668, the few remaining inhabitants were transferred inland to Chemax and Boloná in the present-day state of Yucatán.
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Mural Painting as Political Propaganda
In the Epiclassic (650-900 AD), the elites of Cacaxtla-Xochitecatl were constantly seeking to manipulate the perception of the populace and other contemporary societies with regard to their political and military power.

Cacaxtla emerged as a powerful regional center around 650 AD, at a time of military conflict and political instability brought about by the decline of Teotihuacan and Cholula in the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley. It managed to maintain its dominance of the region for 250 years. The magnificence and complexity of the state apparatus have been revealed in the course of several site excavations.

Possibly the key attraction is a series of mural paintings which have been successfully preserved on the Gran Basamento (Great Plinth). This building is a type of acropolis, consisting of several buildings of different periods built one on top of another, with principally administrative, ceremonial and religious functions. These mural paintings are proof of the way in which dominant groups sought to amplify the hierarchy in relation to the rest of the population, and at the same time to show off their military prowess and political power to other contemporary societies. There could not be a better means than through imagery. Among the most interesting murals are those in the Red Temple, the Battle Mural, Building A and the Temple of Venus. If we look closely we can see that images fall into the categories of wars, sacrifices, piety, world view and power; all in the name of buttressing the power of the elite and shifting the viewer’s perspective.

We can imagine how people might have viewed this display of power as they passed through these spaces embellished with wall paintings. They must certainly have recognized at least one part of the narrative proclaimed by the elite in these paintings. This raises a question over the veracity of the depictions in the mural paintings. There probably were elements of truth, but other aspects of the narrative were exaggerated or glorified, such as to exalt the rulers to a supernatural status. This had been very common in the Mesoamerican martial tradition since the earliest times, and we often see it in sites of different regions such as Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Bonampak and Tajin. It is certain that the elite was constantly trying to promote an idealized view of the mundane world, a reality that they, as the leaders of the state, sought to attain. The vision they articulated was considered superior in their day, but it was very far from reality.

On many occasions the mural paintings and other representations, such as clay figurines, serve to communicate the artistic eclecticism of the societies. They also provide information which helps to trace influences on the ideas of the artists, making it possible to reconstruct the patterns of interactions with distant lands. We know that in the Epiclassic the architecture and mural paintings of Cacaxtla were mainly influenced by the ideas and techniques of the lowland Maya, while iconographic traits were also drawn from the Teotihuacan tradition. Other expressions, such as figurines for offerings, adopted and blended the iconography of several different regions. On the other hand the art of daily life, such as the pottery produced by the non-elite segment of society, drew on a material culture based on a centuries-old tradition within the region.

In summary, the art of Mesoamerica was one of the most influential means of influencing the opinions of the people. When visiting the Gran Basamento of Cacaxtla, it is worth looking carefully at the message the dominant groups wished to promulgate through their mural paintings. This raises an important question about the influence that these paintings actually had on how the people and rival societies thought. There is no evidence about this, but we may speculate as we gaze in wonder at these invaluable works of art today. This cultural heritage is conserved so that future generations may continue to study and enjoy it.
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o cómo los zapotecos innovaban constantemente su arquitectura.
The Triple Tomb of Yagul...
...or how the Zapotecs constantly innovated in their architecture.
One common feature in the architectural composition of Zapotec cities in the Classic period was the formal construction of stone masonry tombs. These tombs were generally located below the floors of the houses of both common and high-status people, and their material remains have helped archeologists to discern the funerary customs of the pre-Hispanic society.

The Triple Tomb of Yagul displays the innovations of the Late Classic period. It is actually three tombs whose entrances come together in an exclusive funerary space, forming together a kind of cube. John Paddock numbered them Tombs 30, 3 and 29. The complex lies in the center of Courtyard 4, a quadrangle bordered by four mounds that preserves the layout of plazas first established at Monte Albán.

The unusual facade of Tomb 30 stands out due to the profusion of decoration on a horizontal central tablet, which frames two panels of meander patterns carved in rectangular sections. There is a small human head carved in stone on the jambs to either side of the entrance. These heads are known as “nails” due to the long section embedded in the wall behind them. The antechamber has become the main space in this tomb, as it forms the “arms” of a cross, and the chamber is a lesser area at the back.

The facade of this tomb displays various esthetic motifs which are common in Mesoamerica, although they are rarely placed together on funerary architecture, as is the case for the xicalcoliuhqui or stepped meander pattern with vestiges of red paint, Zapotec panels and the aforementioned small faces. All of this has been achieved by the delicate stone-carving work, which gives it a unique character.

This set of tombs, and the exceptional stonework of its fine architecture, led John Paddock and Ignacio Bernal to believe that they were really constructions from the Mixtec cultural tradition, based on a supposed “Mixtec period” identified by Alfonso Caso at Monte Albán. This declaration sparked a debate on the Mixtec presence in the Valley of Oaxaca, which to date has not been fully resolved.

In any event, the Triple Tomb of Yagul represents novelty of construction and design in a city that was prepared to innovate on esthetic ideas that had their origins in Monte Albán centuries earlier. Its refined architecture and privileged place within the urban layout give us reason to visit this pre-Hispanic jewel and preserve it as part of the roots of the great cultures that emerged in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
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The Life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

The series of 19 easel paintings referring to the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola held in the Regional Museum of Querétaro were created by Miguel Cabrera, a celebrated eighteenth-century painter from New Spain and a favored artist of the Jesuit order, as he created countless works for its different churches.

The set of paintings was originally conceived to occupy the different spaces formed by the round arches in the lower cloisters, where the Royal College of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Francisco Xavier stood in the city of Querétaro, now known as Patio Barroco (“Baroque Courtyard”); since 1966, it has belonged the the Autonomous University of Querétaro.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, and as a result of the revolutionary events which had overtaken the country, the collection—together with other pieces from various religious sites—was moved to the Academy of Fine Art to become part of the artistic collection. The aim was to look after them and to protect them from destruction, as well as to spread local culture and to promote the Academy’s activities. A few years later, Germán Patiño, a protector and great visionary of the significance of culture—and founder of the Regional Museum in 1936—was successful in moving the majority of the Academy’s collection to this museum. Since then, the collection of paintings on the Life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola has continued to be exhibited there.

The Royal College underwent alterations in 1755, and Miguel Cabrera probably painted the works before this date so that they were ready to be hung on the opening day of the new building. It could be said that Cabrera based this series on the official biography of the Jesuit, written by Pedro de Rivadeneira, a contemporary of Loyola. As for the sketches, he was probably inspired by a series of 79 engravings referring to the early events in the life of the order’s founder. The sketches were done by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens and the engravings by the French artist Jean Baptiste Barbé. This Roman series was published for the first time in 1609 under the name “La vita beati p. Ignatii loiolae societatis lesu fundatoris” (“The life of blessed father Ignacio of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus”).

The purpose of the paintings was to encourage the Jesuit novices to live a life of spiritual dedication, example and work. We know that Saint Ignatius valued images as teaching tools because of the power of their impact, and when he died his disciples continued with this tradition.

Each scene takes up almost all of the semi-circular canvas. However, in five of the smaller canvasses, it is possible to see two scenes which capture continuous moments in the life of the saint, as if the artist intentionally made the most of the small space. The brushstrokes are extremely fine and applied onto a red background. The figures are depicted with great skill and it is possible to observe the sculptural quality of  the expressions and postures of the characters represented.

The thematic scenes tell the story of the most important moments in the life of Saint Ignatius: from his birth, the injury he suffered to his leg during the Battle of Pamplona against the French, and his spiritual awakening through reading books, to finding his vocation and establishing the Society of Jesus, where the theme of the Virgin dictating the book of spiritual exercises stands out, as well as his travels to Jerusalem and Rome, his continuous preaching and rapture, and ending in the representation of his death.

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“El lugar de las grandes aguas”
"The place of great waters"

Ever since its discovery at the end of the eighteenth century Palenque has been the subject of speculation about lost civilizations and antiquarian curiosity. Archeological investigations of the ancient city have stunned the scientific world for more than a century with the high quality of the architectural and sculptural works, as well as the well-preserved glyphic inscriptions and the discovery of one of the most important tombs found to date in the Mayan region.

Although the processes that led to the rise of Palenque have not been fully determined, the archeological data appears to indicate that at the end of the Terminal Preclassic or Protoclassic from 100 BC to 250 AD two small villages were established in the foothills of a mountain range covered in tall evergreen forest. The first of these had an area of 40 acres and it was located in the western part of the future city, while the second must have been erected around what we know today as the Great Plaza, and it attained an area of 20 acres. Over time the villages merged into one. Its inhabitants knew it as Lakamha, the “place of great waters,” probably because of the numerous streams which cross the city. After the Late Classic from 250 to 900 AD Palenque developed into one of the most important lowland Mayan cities of the northwest. It had an area of 0.8 square miles and established itself as the center of an important political, economic and religious unit of this period. Its influence extended to the city of Tortuguero to the west while the region surrounding Chinikihá, which marked its eastern limit, was known as the domain of B´aak.

Eight thousand people probably lived and worked in the city at its peak, in a densely built area surrounding the city center, where natural terraces were used as the site for 1,500 structures built on an east-west plan.

Many of these inhabitants were skilled artisans who produced a large variety of articles for both everyday and luxury use, although the majority of the people worked the fertile lands and nearby bodies of water, obtaining produce by hunting, fishing and cultivating corn and beans, which were the main crops in the vicinity of the city. It is clear that this ecological diversity offered sufficient resources to maintain its population and for the settlement to reach its maximum expansion, although to consolidate its power it also required other perishable and non-perishable products which could only be sourced by trading, as they were not available locally. Such products include jadeite, obsidian and cinnabar, which were of high material and symbolic value, and hence they were traded over great distances, making an important contribution to urban life.

Palenque is considered one of the most outstanding of the northwestern lowland Maya cities on account of its artistic, architectural and religious wealth. As a result, we must look after it and conserve it so that it may continue to speak of its indigenous past to future generations, offering a panorama of the most relevant aspects of its culture and way of life.

Arnoldo González Cruz
INAH Center, Chiapas

Slab from Xochicalco: an Example of Mesoamerican Writing
This is a stone carved in bas-relief, located in Room 4 on the first floor of the Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum. We start reading from the upper right-hand corner, where we can see a place name consisting of a U-shaped band with a straight base and sides. This probably represents the cross section of a river, or a container (as the inside does not have the glyph for water). There is a bird inside it, which could be a parrot due to the shape of its beak. Taken together, this reads as “the place of parrot river” or “the parrot container”, although I prefer the former. There is a house below this place name, which is read as “the town.” The date “3 monkey” is inside the house. There are two parallel lines below both the house and the “3 monkey” glyph, which have human footprints between them indicating “the path." There is a man walking on the path who carries a woman on his back. Her body is inside a bundle and her head can be seen on top of it. Codices and sources give an extensive description of how the bride is moved when she is to be married: she is carried to the groom’s house. The “3 monkey” glyph is probably the bride’s name.

This path leads to a location consisting of a figure with three straight sides (side, base and top) and one tiered side. It has the head of a turkey inside it. This place name would be the place “where the caged turkeys are” or the place “where they catch turkeys with traps.” It was probably the name of the city of Xochicalco. Above the place name is “a man sitting on a stela.” In front of him is the date “2 movement,” which is the name of this person, the future husband of the woman “3 monkey.”

On the top of the man “2 movement” is the representation of a house, which means the same as before, the town where the caged turkeys are or the place where they catch turkeys with traps. We can see “a man carrying half a ballcourt with half a sun inside it” in the upper central section. We know that the ballgame meant the universe to the Mesoamericans, as the celestial objects were in constant motion, so this could be interpreted as “the bearer of the universe.” Next to him is the date “2 movement.” We consider this to be the person’s name.

In the center of the slab is a date we shall read from bottom to top: year “4 house,” day “10 vulture”: surely the date on which the woman “3 monkey” set off on her voyage to her fiancé’s house. The second date indicates a day “6 leg,” a year “4 rabbit” and the day “9 A glyph,” which possibly corresponds to the day 9 grass.

It is common to find a certain imprecision as to dates in pre-Hispanic manuscripts, as is the case here, where two different days are given in the same year. What we can therefore read is as follows:

In the year “4 rabbit,” between the days “6 leg” and “9 grass,” the woman “3 monkey” from Parrot River arrived at the Place where the Caged Turkeys are for the purposes of a matrimonial alliance between both towns.

If we begin reading in the middle, the account would be as follows:

In the year “4 house” on day “10 vulture,” the woman “3 monkey” left the town of Parrot River to marry the man “2 movement,” Bearer of the Universe, great dignitary of the Place where the caged Turkeys are or where they catch Turkeys in traps. They were joined in matrimony in the year 4 between days 6 and 9.

This is why these records are cataloged as half-writing, and not as true writing.

Identification Record
Name or topic: Stela
Inventory Number: 10-344139
Type of object: Architectural Element
Raw material: Andesite stone
Shape: Square and rectangular
Manufacture technique: Carved
Decorative technique: High relief
Decorative motifs: Symbolic
Culture: Central Mexican Plateau
Period: Classic (200-900 AD)
Place of origin: Xochicalco, Morelos
Acquisition: Cuauhnahuac Regional Museum Collection
Location: Room #4 First Floor
Condition: Good
Length: 20.9 inches.
Width: 7 inches.
Height: 20.1 inches.
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In Moral Reforma, like in many contemporary Mayan cities, monumental sculptures formed an important part of the architectural landscape, displaying the human form as an ideal prototype with a strong symbolic character. Among the 44 fragments and complete sculptures recorded in Moral Reforma to date, some early examples have been found corresponding to the Late Preclassic period. These are sculptures which are assembled and superimposed or attached to buildings which were created by carving or sculpting combined with modeling in mortar or stucco.

Examples of this association and dependence between sculpture and architecture are the character represented on monument no. 34 and some human limb fragments modeled in stucco found in Buildings no. 2 and 14. These were possibly attached to the buildings between 300 BC and 350 AD, in a similar manner to that of the sculpture attached to the roof comb of Structure 33 in Yaxchilan. In Moral Reforma, the sculpture was later removed, cut into pieces and deposited as an offering during a change of leadership in the city. It was later covered by the subsequent building developments.

Nevertheless, the majority of the sculptures found at the site correspond to the altar-stelae complexes found across the central Maya region; these examples of carved sculptures marked the beginning of the physical separation from the architectural elements, although they continued to maintain a conceptual link with the respective building.

At the beginning of the Classic period, the Moral Reforma sculptors began to create smooth monuments, which gradually refined the geometric shapes, until they achieved rectangular stelae and circular altars with better defined contours and smooth surfaces.

The Maya called the stelae "lakamtun" which means “stone banner.” There are forerunners of these in the vertical banners which are seen in some Mayan graffiti. The stelae showed the history of the Mayan dignitaries, their military and divine power, their wealth and prestige. They devoted these monuments to themselves, and as a result they were replaced with each handover of power. By contrast, circular altars were also manufactured. These were possibly inspired by felled trees and perhaps functioned as sacrificial stones, thrones for leaders or ritual pedestals. In Moral Reforma, 22 circular altars and 16 stelae have been located to date, comprised of both complete pieces and fragments. Some examples of this pairing known as altar-stelae complexes are found close to one another and are mostly smooth monuments. Only seven stelae and one altar with inscriptions have been recorded in which anthropomorphic representations are shown corresponding to high dignitaries accompanied by glyphs which tell the story of their historical and political significance. For example, stele no. 4 which contains information on the political alliances of the ruler of the “Cráneo de Halcón” (“Hawk Skull”) site.

The smooth stelae and altars could have been plastered, painted, wrapped in fabric or raised during the interim “kines” (days) which were not recorded by the Mayans and therefore without inscriptions. However, they could also have been adorned with allegorical elements depending on the type of ceremony. In Moral Reforma, there is evidence of a stucco coating on one of the circular altars (Monument No. 36) located on the south facade of Building No. 14. A stucco layer can be seen which covers the smoothed surface of the carved limestone rock. Although the contemporaneity of these smooth monuments with the few examples of stelae and altars with inscriptions found at the site to date is not disputed, it is possible that the latter correspond to the Late Classic Period (Moral Era 600 - 800), a period in which the elite of Moral Reforma formed political alliances with the kingdoms of Calakmul and Palenque. These are referred to on Stele No. 4 and, according to Guillermo Bernal, this monument may have been the work of a Palenque sculptor, completed on the order of K’inich Kan B’ahlam, lord of Palenque, to celebrate the third enthronement of “Hawk Skull,” lord of Moral-Reforma, a day after the inauguration of the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque.
The Artistic Expression of Hermenegildo Bustos

Through his work, Hermenegildo Bustos (1832-1907) provided an artistic and historical testimony of the way of life of Purísima del Rincón society in the mid-nineteenth century. Bustos defined himself as indigenous and is characterized by his observational capacities, which he expressed in the natural phenomena that he painted. He is considered an extraordinary painter of portraits and the natural world by Walter Pach and Raquel Tibol, scholars of the history of Mexican art. 

Bustos’ academic training is a mystery, as no evidence exists to show that he took classes with the great portrait painter from Leon, Juan Nepomuceno Herrera. Certainly, he is considered to be self-taught and is acclaimed for his mastery of the paintbrush. His way of looking at the world is expressed in self-portraits, votive offerings, altarpieces and the diversity of his still life paintings. We can also enjoy his artistic legacy in his portraits, as well as in religious images and murals in the Parish Church of Purísima del Rincón in the state of Guanajuato.

Given his importance, the Alhóndiga de Granaditas Regional Museum of Guanajuato has dedicated a permanent gallery to Hermenegildo Bustos, which houses one of the richest collections of the distinguished provincial painter. This collection was amassed by José Chávez Morado, an exceptional Guanajuato painter, muralist, cultural promoter, and founder of the museum.

Portraits are one form of expression that are meticulously crafted in the oeuvre of Hermenegildo Bustos. According to Raquel Tibol, the hands are emphasized in certain pictures, accompanied by objects such as rings, books, rosary beads, prayer books and missals, among others, which reflect the traditions and customs of the people of the Bajío region. Furthermore, through the depiction of hairstyles, jackets, dresses, lace blouses, raw cotton shirts, broaches, earrings, necklaces, bows and hats, the artist adds to the historical memory of Mexico with the tastes of the people of Purísima del Rincón.

Families, children, women, men, the elderly, post-mortem portraits and marriages in the society of Purísima del Rincón are captured and described in the images, which reflect both indigenous and mixed race faces and depict all of his community without distinction. The highlighted aesthetic values are realism and sincerity, as he replicates physical characteristics, gestures and features in a natural way. His portraits vary between small and large sizes and his preferred mediusm were oil on canvas, oil on metal and pencil on paper, all of which can be seen in this permanent exhibition.

Bustos also tackled the recreation of natural events, such as comets and meteorological events, with sobriety, sincerity, respect and originality. These were atypical expressions in the painting of his time. These natural events are comprised of two elements: first, the visual record and, second, a brief description of the event depicted.

For example, the work "Fenómeno" (“Phenomenon,” 1883), painted on metal, replicates an event which occurs in the troposphere (the lower layer of the atmosphere closest to the earth’s surface) and reaches to approximately 14 miles in height. When it is hot and there is a little bit of humidity, evaporation occurs and water tends to rise to the top of the troposphere to form clouds. However, if it is cold, the vapor crystalizes into hexagon structures and the ice crystals alter the course of the sun's rays due to the morphology of the crystals. The sunlight passes through this layer of ice and we observe the physical phenomenon of light refraction, which Bustos depicted without fully understanding.

As for his work known as "Los Cometas" (“The Comets”), Hermenegildo Bustos painted four of these phenomena in oil on metal, which he observed from the rooftop of his house. Each one is accompanied by a note of the date, hour and place, as well as some comments from the artist himself. Miguel Ángel Trinidad Hernández, head of the Astronomy Department at the University of Guanajuato, stated in an interview with Gabriela Sánchez Villegas that it is admirable how Hermenegildo Bustos recorded the comets over 30 years. “I imagine that he didn’t know, but here he was depicting two phenomena which occur in relation to comets.” He refers to weak and strong comets.

A comet is made up of various chemical elements, including ice and dust, and when it is very far from the sun it cannot be seen. It is structured in three parts: the nucleus, which corresponds to the central part; the coma, which appears when the comet moves closer to the sun and, finally, the tail, which is the final, straight part. Strong comets are characterized by their intense shine and the weak ones by being less visible to the human eye.

Bustos had the good fortune of capturing Donati, a comet which was discovered by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati, who observed it for the first time in 1858. This comet is notable for its intensity, and the painting by Hermenegildo Bustos reveals his originality and sensitivity to the subject.

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The Terraces of Cerro de Trincheras

In the northeast of the state of Sonora, in the middle of the Magdalena valley and to the south of the present-day village of Trincheras, there rises a prominent volcanic mountain. It covers an area of more than 250 acres and rises up to 170m from the floor of the surrounding valley. This settlement from the Late Pre-Hispanic period (1300-1450, equivalent to the Postclassic in Mesoamerica), is named Cerro de Trincheras.

After more than two decades of research, it has been possible to identify it as the regional center of the surrounding villages belonging to what is known as the Trincheras Tradition. The name “the Trincheras phenomenon" has been ascribed to the group of Sonora desert farming communities that built terraces on the volcanic hillsides and other desert locations in the northeast of Sonora. These settlements were used for activities with economic, domestic, crafting, housing and specialized farming purposes. Although these structures also exist in pre-Hispanic communities in the neighboring states of Arizona and Chihuahua, not all of them are contemporaries of the Sonora Trincheras settements and none of their structures are as complex or have the same number of architectural elements as Cerro de Trincheras.

Cerro de Trincheras was a complex settlement that included farming infrastructure, districts of craftsmen who made ornaments from seashells from the Gulf of California, housing for the elite, ceremonial structures for both community and other more restricted uses, astronomical observatories, ritual enclosures and plazas. It had a population of more than 1000 inhabitants.

The most important characteristic of the site is the existence of nearly 900 terraces, some of which are more than 110 yards in length, with stone walls which vary in height from 4 inches to more than 10 feet. The majority of the terraces of the lower and middle thirds are platforms for residential use which contain the domestic complexes. At the very least, each of them comprised of a house in the style of a hut with an internal structure made of ocotillo poles and covered in mud (which is known locally as “ripiado” or “bajareque”), a branch shelter and sometimes a circular or square room. Each of the settlement’s domestic complexes may have occupied one or several terraces.

The most conspicuous and impressive architectural elements are the walls which form the terraces, although ramps, paths, and circular and quadrangular structures also exist. By building terraces, these desert farmers transformed a natural element into a man-made creation, demonstrating their social organization and religious beliefs. In this way, they obtained a high level of monumentality and distinction, as well as a dominant position among the other contemporary farming communities of the Magdalena valley and its surroundings.

The building materials, apparent fragility and temporary character of the domestic spaces allow us to deduce that they were constructed as a conscious response to the scarcity of materials, to the impact of the dominant geology, and to climatological factors. All of this shows that the people intelligently adapted to complex conditions and that they made the most of what they had.

Cerro de Trincheras opened for public visits in December 2011. It includes an interpretative trail and a visitor center, which allow the public who visit it to reexamine the pre-Hispanic occupation of the Sonora Desert and to support the need to protect these fragile pieces of evidence from the past.

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The Tombs of Monte Albán
Monte Albán, an archeological site occupying a central position in the Valley of Oaxaca, was the civic and administrative capital of Zapotec society for a period of nearly 1,300 years: from its founding in 500 BC to its decline as the valley’s ruling political entity at the end of the Classic period, between 800 and 850 AD.

The funerary practices of the Zapotec people are one of Monte Albán’s most interesting aspects, as most people were buried in different places within residential units. These places could be stone tombs, cists (graves consisting of four lateral slabs with a fifth as a lid) dressed with tiles and bricks, graves excavated from the bedrock, domestic spaces such as storage pits, ovens and dumpsites reused as funerary areas, or often in holes or pits in the floor surfaces of rooms.

Of the aforementioned examples, tombs were Monte Albán’s most representative type of funerary architecture. So far, a total of 249 tombs have been discovered in different sections of the archeological zone. These were formal constructions for housing the human remains of the most important individuals from each family. They have been classified into three types based on architectural analysis: 1) rectangular tombs, with adobe or stone walls on all four sides, accessed through the roof; 2) rectangular tombs with an antechamber and a main chamber, which have vaulted ceilings and niches in the walls around the chamber; and 3) cross-shaped tombs with flat ceilings whose main chamber sometimes has niches in its walls.

Moreover, the development of mural painting in Monte Albán focused on funerary architecture, which provided a canvas for displaying the complex system of religious beliefs associated with life and death. These murals generally depicted a procession of richly attired figures performing complicated funerary rites, who have in turn been interpreted as direct ancestors of the individuals deposited within the tombs.

Preserving these tombs is therefore extremely important, which is why they are unfortunately closed to the public. To compensate for this, a number of activities are programmed in order to display the mural paintings.

One noteworthy example of funerary architecture is Tomb 105. It was discovered by Alfonso Caso in 1937, during the sixth season of the Monte Albán Project explorations. The tomb lies in one of the archeological zone’s largest palatial residences, northeast of the main plaza. It corresponds to Period IIIB-IV (700-800 AD), and displays the same classic style of Zapotec pictorial representation that had already been consolidated in the murals of Tomb 104.

This is a cross-shaped tomb which has a chamber and a main antechamber that is accessed from the west, while the back faces east. As with Tomb 104, the funeral chamber was excavated from the bedrock of the hill, which was smoothed and covered with a stucco coating that served as a support for the paint, although in this case the surface of the walls is not regular but has a rougher finish.

The tomb is mainly decorated inside the funeral chamber, where pigments have also been applied to the ceiling and floor, although the main motifs were painted on the side and back walls, creating a general scene that can be divided into three horizontal sections: 1) the upper section repeats a rectangular panel that recalls a double scapulary panel, typical of Zapotec architecture, below which lies the motif of the “celestial jaws,” which serves to contextualize the scene within a sacred space; b) the central section shows 18 richly attired individuals who share certain characteristics: all are shown with their torsos facing forwards and their faces in profile, and all (bar one female figure) appear to be elderly, as they are depicted as wrinkled or toothless; the women are barefoot and wearing quexquémetl (shawls) and skirts; the men are wearing sandals and holding sticks, bags of copal or grain which they are scattering on the ground; in front of each individual there is also a calendar glyph that probably corresponds to the figure’s name; 3) finally, the bottom section consists of a border decorated with pairs of rectangles with rounded corners that alternately rise and fall.

Based on the context and the scene reproduced in the mural painting, some scholars have interpreted the figures depicted as ancestors belonging to a high social class, who are carrying out a religious ceremony or a funerary rite, and are related to the individual who was originally deposited within the tomb.
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The Palatial Units of Atzompa
The monumental site of Atzompa has two residential units whose architectural characteristics and elements tell us about the different social positions of their inhabitants.

The East House consists of 18 adobe rooms and a central courtyard. This complex has an area probably for servants which was connected to the main residence via a stucco corridor. The outstanding characteristic of this unit is that it has a Mesoamerican ballgame court to the south (the third one on the archeological site). The dimensions of its architectural spaces and the decoration tell us that its inhabitants enjoyed high status, whilst the chambers for accommodating their servants were smaller in size.

The House of Altars, located in Plaza B, has a total of 18 rooms. The interior walls of the central courtyard are decorated with double-scapular cornices. These in turn frame meander patterns bearing the characteristics of Cocijo, the Zapotec deity related to water.

It is necessary to pass through building 8 to access this residential unit, which leads us to infer that passage was restricted. One detail about the House of Altars is that it is connected to the economic activity of pottery, as there is an oven on one side of the complex. As with the East House, access to the interior is through a blind side entrance, which in this case is three feet wide.

Both architectural complexes were designed to reaffirm the social conditions of their inhabitants.
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Legacy of a trading people

The province of Acalan-Tixchel must have been very important in the pre-Hispanic period. The papers of Pablo Paxbolom Maldonado list 76 towns in the earliest years of the Spanish conquest, which would indicate its importance at that time. Based on the work of Scholes and Roys, and other surveys, 148 archeological sites have been discovered in the province.

The survey was divided into five sub-regions named as follows: the Coast, Lower and Middle Candelaria, Upper Candelaria, the Caribe river and the San Pedro river, each with a principal site as center of local government. This is how El Tigre was identified as the capital and San Román, Santa Clara, Salto Grande and El Anonal as the regional centers, all surrounded by third-tier archeological sites typified by the presence of mounds of a certain prominence around the plazas, plus other structures. Fourth-tier sites are residential areas with platforms and low structures. Finally, fifth-tier sites are on lake shores and river banks, but situated at strategic points for the monitoring and control of the movements of canoes, people and commerce along the length of the Candelaria river, the Laguna de Términos and other tributaries.

As is often the case with the centers of monument complexes, El Tigre has a principal ceremonial center in which the site’s most prominent buildings surround the most important plazas. In the ceremonial center of El Tigre, Structures 1, 2, 3 and 4 are built around two large plazas, with each of the buildings serving a distinct function.

When looking at the plan of the ceremonial center of El Tigre, it is apparent that the E-group is aligned with Structure 4, which has been called triadic on account of being composed of three closely linked structures. This structure was modified during the Classic and Postclassic. In the majority of cases, triadic buildings are situated to the east of E-groups, set on the same axis as the central buildings and generally marking out a second plaza adjacent to the preceding group, which is the case at El Tigre. The relationship described above is reproduced with the same orientation and with the central axis of Structures 2, 3 and 4 nearly perfectly aligned in an east-west direction.

Another variant related to the blueprint of plazas with E-groups is the presence of large buildings situated to the south, which commonly form part of the plaza, although spatially distant from it. At El Tigre, Structure 1 stands on the south side of the first plaza, but this is separated from Structures 2 and 3 which make up the E-group.

Ballcourts are always associated with ceremonial centers. At El Tigre there are three of these; the first in the principal plaza is oriented east-west; another to the north of the plaza but not within it has smaller dimensions and a north-south orientation, and a final one lower down and outside the ceremonial center which is reached by a sacbe. Only the ballcourt within the great plaza has been excavated, and this is notable for its lack of enclosed end zones. The proximity of the ballcourt to the E-group is also worth noting, since the former is reached by a one-mile-long avenue running from the lower sites.

The Chontal Maya of El Tigre erected Structures 1, 2, and 3 at specific points, since if we draw an imaginary line along its east-west axis, it would cross the axis of alignment at precisely the midpoint between the other two. The spatial layout of the site was based on clear geometry. This alignment corresponds to the rising and/or the setting of the sun, particularly common sun-related orientations in the early period of these buildings. As a result of the excavations of the two structures we can conclude that they were were built in the Late or even in the Middle Preclassic.

Cosmological, astronomical, political and economic factors played a very important role in the construction of the buildings at El Tigre, and this is evident in the architecture of the ceremonial center. Without a doubt the heart of the site is defined by the E-group in the two principal plazas and the triadic set, all of which was planned in the Preclassic and modified in the Classic and Postclassic.

Zona arqueológica
La ciudad de Cobá es producto del esfuerzo físico, intelectual, técnico y artístico de miles de personas a lo largo de cientos de años.
What Lies Behind Our Assumptions
The city of Coba came about as a result of the physical, intellectual, technical and artistic endeavors of thousands of people over hundreds of years.
When we visit the archeological site for an ancient settlement, we rarely stop to ask ourselves how many years it took to erect the imposing buildings or how many people took part in the process. We need to consider what was involved in terms of the social and religious control of the inhabitants, the physical labor, knowledge and specialization in engineering, mathematics, physics, architecture, and astronomy, not forgetting artistic skills.

In the case of Coba, it seems to have started with small villages around the lakes, which guaranteed a water supply in a region with scarce surface water, since this vital resource runs in subterranean rivers and only occasionally comes to the surface when the ubiquitous layer of limestone collapses.

The building of Coba was a complex and difficult task, considering just how uneven the ground was. The many changes in level challenged the stability of the buildings, so the first requirement was to level out the land on a very large scale in order to lay the foundations of the most important buildings. Thousands of workers were needed for this task: to quarry the stone, to cut it and shape it, to obtain the sascab (decomposed limestone), water bearers, selectors of stones for lime production and mortar makers. It sounds everyday and ordinary enough work, but we must remember that they only had stone tools, since they had no knowledge of metal, and nor did they have the wheel or pack animals. Everything had to be hauled on people's backs, sometimes over enormous distances. The masons who set the stones in place, those who prepared the lime, the plasterers, those who painted the walls red and those who prepared the paint, the women who prepared the food for the workers, the sculptors, the potters and the farmers and hunters who produced the food. We have to imagine all of this in a situation with extreme environmental conditions, where the soil for crops is very shallow and rapidly exhausted. New land needs to be found, but even here humans are constantly battling the vegetation which always grows up rapidly.

Let us examine the raised roads (sacbeob) as an example of the construction works at Coba. These have been categorized according to their length. There are local roads for communication within the city, then longer ones reaching what we might call the suburbs, in other words, the not too distant settlements between 1 and 4 miles away, and finally what are considered regional roads, since they link Coba with other distant regions, such as Yaxuna, which is over 60 miles away. Labor beyond the city of Coba's capacity was certainly needed to build the regional roads and this must have come from the regions which the roads served, which is an indicator of political control and regional hegemony. Building these roads was a challenging job since they crossed marshy land prone to flooding, which is why some sections needed to be raised to a considerable height above ground level. The roads were planned and routed in a highly efficient manner, with a gradient for water to run off and leveled with stucco to give a smooth surface, making it comfortable for walking long distances and making the transport of goods and people more efficient.

So when you visit an ancient city, look beyond the surfaces, use your powers of observation and imagination. Think and ask questions. We should not forget that we are looking at the results of a tremendous joint effort by men and women over hundreds of years, which cost blood, sweat and tears, and it is now our responsibility to look after and preserve what has been left.
Zona arqueológica
Su élite bien establecida participaba en actividades económicas con regiones distantes
The Ancient Maya
The well-established elite were commercially active in a number of regions.

The occupation of the pre-Hispanic site of Chicanná can be partially traced back to the Middle and Late Preclassic periods, although it was not until the Early Classic period that the stone constructions were built. However, Chicanná began to grow in earnest during the Late Classic and Postclassic; in other words, the site’s most notable structures date from these periods and the number of pottery artefacts and stone tools are more abundant than in the preceding epochs. This points to a community in expansion, especially in terms of its economy, political structure and population growth.

Many scholars believe that this site was a center for the Río Bec region’s ruling elite by the end of the Classic period, even if it did not achieve the monumental grandeur of the buildings of Becán or other archeological sites in the area. It is thought that Chicanná was the residence of a second-rank lineage that nevertheless held significant power in the region and enjoyed many political and financial privileges. Indeed, Becán is located less than two miles away and stands out as the dominant center of power over the Río Bec region. In addition, a large number of valuable imported goods have been found at both Becán and Chicanná.

Unlike the vast majority of settlements in the region that were largely abandoned in the Late Classic, human activities continued to thrive at both Chicanná and Becán during the Postclassic period and may even have experienced a revitalization, as evidenced by the discovery of material evidence showing they were involved in trade networks. These sites received luxury products from remote parts of Mesoamerica, for example fine ceramic vessels from the central Usumacinta region and lead-glazed vessels from Guatemala’s Pacific coast, as well as alabaster, volcanic millstones, and prismatic obsidian knives from the volcanic regions.


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