July 11, 2011

Two Ancient Artefacts Unearthed in Mexico

This has been a great week in Mexican archaeology, as two important artefacts have been uncovered, in different locations in the country.

The first was in the Maya ruins of Tonina, Chiapas. The 5 foot (1.5 meter) figurines depict cross-legged warriors, with their hand tied behind their backs. They are carved from limestone blocks and date from 695 CE. Fortunately, much of the guesswork about their purpose is removed, as the statues include inscriptions. They show prisoners, who are destined to become offerings to deity, alongside fire and incense, on the field of battle.

These findings have provided intriguing evidence that the city of Copan allied with the Maya tribes of Palenque at this time. It is a fact that has been long suspected by historians, as a lot of circumstantial information exists pointing to such a partnership. The aim of these series of battles was control of the powerful Tonina area. It was a prize that was important enough for human sacrifices to be made.

Tonina today exists as ruins. It has a series of pyramids, rising in terraces above a central plaza. The site includes a ballcourt and 100s of carved monuments. The famous stucco sculptures are here. There are also several mysteries; like why a design of statue exists here, dating from the 9th century CE, which hadn't previously been in evidence since the much earlier Olmec people reigned supreme.

Tonina is the central of a huge archaeological project, seeking to shed more light on this vital period in Maya history. This was the Late Classic, when the last widely marked Long Count of their calendar ended. The date is etched into many of the monuments here.

During this time, the Maya people lived in staunchly independent city states; however, the seeds of political and economic unity, across the Maya world as a whole, had been cast. It was also an era of warfare, as each tribe battled for supremacy in the widening social structure; hence the appearance of the statues of the warrior-prisoner sacrificial victims.

However, experts have cautioned against leaping to the conclusion that Copan tribes were involved in the fight for Tonina. The inscriptions, on the newly discovered figurines reference the inauguration of a new ballcourt in the city. They may turn to have nothing to do with these critical wars after all.

The Tonina complex is open to the public. The nearest modern town is Ocosingo, in the state of Chiapas. As well as the impressive structures, there is also a site museum providing a context to its history. A large selection of artefacts, uncovered in Tonina, are on display here.

This week's second artefact discovery is Aztec in origin. It is a sixty tonne monolith, depicting a currently unidentified rain god, which was dug up further west, in the state of Morelos.

Construction workers were preparing land for a shopping center, beside a main highway leading out of Cuautla City, when their diggers uncovered the stone. Work immediately ceased, as the archaeologists moved in to complete the unearthing; and to take steps to preserve the carved artefact for future study. It has been found in the general vicinity of the historical Aztec site of Xochicalco, so may well have been linked to the people there.

Early speculation is that the deity shown, in carved markings on the stone, is a god of corn and water. Amidst the large number of hieroglyphics, there are a lot of symbols relating to agriculture and rain accompanying His image. The known Aztec god, Tlaloc, accompanies the unidentified god on the stone. Tlaloc has been associated with many things. He is the God of rain, fire, fertility, crops, agricultural, storms, thunder and lightning, leprosy and the south.

Raul Gonzalez, an archaeologist called to the monolith, reports, "These signs on the rock are fundamentally associated with agriculture and water. We think it's highly probable that it was used during rituals to ask for rain and it was placed in a position facing Popocatepetl."

Popocatepetl is one of Mexico's active volcanoes. Standing at 17,802 ft (5,426 m) high, it is clearly visible from Mexico City to the north. The popular tourist town of Puebla nestles just below its eastern slopes. This violent volcano has a long history of major eruptions; 15 of them have occurred during the past 500 years, with the latest at the beginning of last month. In 2000, tens of thousands of people were evacuated from residences within its range, as a huge eruption was signalled.

The third and last time it truly blew its top was in 800 CE. This event would have seen a massive Plinian eruption; resulting in an unstoppable pyroclastic lava flow, which would have filled the basins below for miles around.

It is thought that the creation of the monolith, facing Popocatepetl, happened just a century before. The great-grandchildren, of those carving and raising it, would have witnessed that cataclysmic explosion. It seems fitting that their monument as been uncovered, just as the volcano has been building up its greatest displays in 1,200 years. If it transpires that the unknown deity is an Aztec god of volcano appeasement, then the discovery is also lucky. We might just need Him again!

The gigantic Aztec monolith is currently roped off, in situ, though it is clearly visible from the main highway connecting Cuautla and Xochicalco. It's too soon to be certain what the future holds for its care, though the land developers are naturally still hoping for their shopping center on the site.

If the monolith is moved, then it is likely that will be to the the UNESCO listed World Heritage site of Xochicalco. The same people, after all, almost certainty created both it and the structures there, often during the same period of time. This remarkable place of impressive Aztec history is open to the public.

Whatever happens to the artefact, it is sure to increase our knowledge of the ancient Aztec people, as those hieroglyphics start to be translated in their entirety.

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