mercoledì 16 marzo 2016

The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico - Part I

Megalithic Teotihuacan

Profile of  the main stairway of the pyramid of the feathered serpents in Teotihuacan, decorated with colossal serpent heads [Photo by Author]
               Mexico does not possess the impressive megalithic ruins of Peru and the Andes of South America, nor does it boast evidence of monumental architecture dating as far back as Caral and the other ceremonial sites in the Supe Valley of coastal Peru (dating as far back as 2,600 BC). Nevertheless, it certainly bears the footprints of equally enigmatic civilizations that prospered and vanished on its soil over several thousands of years, starting from the mysterious Olmecs, down to the Mayas, the Toltecs and finally the Aztecs.    
          
I have moved to Mexico last year from my natal country of Italy, and this has given me the chance to explore deeper the mysterious past of this ancient land.
Compared to the megalithic architecture of Peru, with its hair-tight joints and almost supernatural precision, ancient Mexican construction appears rather crude even in its most monumental expressions. For even the most impressive Maya pyramids, such as El Castillo of Chichen Itzá reveal a core of rubble and an outer casing of small quarried stones with loose joints, bound together with cement.
For this reason, it is even more so surprising to find among the rubble of dilapidated pyramids and temples some highly polished and perfectly finished megalithic stones. Almost invariably, these surprising megalithic findings do not seem to fit well with the rest of their surroundings, as if they belonged to an entirely different age and civilization.

Because of their apparent oddity, these megalithic remains have been largely ignored by the public and by specialists at large. Hardly a tourist stops in front of these strange megalithic relics, whenever they are not utterly inaccessible or restricted to visitors.
This is even the case in one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world, receiving as many as 100,000 visitors per day – Teotihuacan.

City of the Gods

               The ruins of what has been often called the Rome of America, Teotihuacan, lie a mere 50 Km North-East of modern day Mexico City.  At its peak, around 200 AD, Teotihuacan counted with a population of well over 125,000, hundreds of temples and palaces and three massive pyramids named after the Sun, the Moon and the Feathered Serpent (itself a symbol of the planet Venus). It is not my intention here to describe the ruins of this ancient city into any more detail than what is required by the subject of this brief dissertation – that is megalithic architecture in ancient Mexico.

The idea of starting a series of posts on megalithic architecture from a site which (rather obviously, even for the distracted tourist) does not boast any such examples would appear quite odd. Yet Teotihuacan does possess megalithic architecture, and on a colossal scale too; one just needs to walk slightly off the beaten path in order to find traces of it.  

For how impressive the Teotihuacan pyramids look from a distance, this impression of monumentality quickly dissipates as soon as one gets closer to the base or approaches the obligatory climb to the top. Not only are the pyramids not built of cut stone (and in this respect, they differ significantly from the Egyptian pyramids, to which they are so frequently equated), but they appear to consist of no more than cemented rubble and adobe (a kind of mud brick). That is, even if one ignores for a moment the rather imaginative early 20th century reconstructions.

But was it always the case?

The pyramid of the Sun as seen from the air, with the pyramid of the Moon in the background. The sheer impression of monumentality quickly vanishes as soon as one approaches the pyramid from close up. Unlike the Great Pyramid of Egypt, the Teotihuacan pyramids are not built of cut stone, but rather of a mix of cemented rubble and adobe. However, many hints suggest that they once similarly possessed a cut stone outer casing, which would have been later stuccoed and plastered to give it a smooth appearance. The pyramid of the Sun shares almost the exact same base measures as the Great pyramid of Giza, but has only half the height, resulting in a ratio of 4-´pi between the perimeter and the height. [Photo by Author]
Aerial photo of Teotihuacan, as seen from the Ciudadela. The pyramid of the feathered serpents is in the front, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in the background. [Photo by Author]
Interestingly, Dupaix, one of the early pioneers of Mexican archaeology in the late 18th Century, and among the first to publish a sketch of the Teotihuacan pyramids in the West, still shows the pyramid of the Sun covered with a very regular cut stone casing (“revestido de piedras esquadradas” he would write in his report published a few years later). [1]

By the time Bullock visited the site in 1824, most of the casing stones were already gone, as he says that the outer faces of the pyramid were littered with pieces of “lime and cement…mixed with fallen stones”. He did however notice some “enormous stones” near the base of the great pyramid, including one “covered with sculptures” and another “with a hole in the middle”, which he suspected could have served as a sacrificial altar. [2]

Still to this day one finds several interesting stone blocks scattered in no apparent order around the main approach to the pyramid. Several of these carved stone blocks show very fine, polished surfaces, with sharp corners. Undoubtedly, they were once part of the outer casing of the pyramid of the Sun, and the ornamentations still visible on the stones portray the typical motifs of Teotihuacan art: figures of jaguars, circles, stars and sea shells.  

Several other finely carved stone blocks are scattered in a small sculpture park ("Parque escultorico") between the pyramid of the Sun and the Ciudadela - the vast walled compound that hosts in its center the pyramid of the feathered serpents. It is unclear where the stones originally belonged, but the variety of limestone, basalt, marble and even granite is quite impressive, as well as the very accurate finish of some of the stone blocks.

One needs however to reach the pyramid of the feathered serpents to find the first real and most compelling examples of megalithic architecture at Teotihuacan.

Detail of the ornamentation of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, with its characteristic serpent heads. From the picture above, it is possible to appreciate how far each stone extends inside the pyramid masonry. Each serpent head, including the body, is nearly 2 meters long and has an estimated weight of over 4 tons. [Photo by Author]
Another detail of the elaborate ornamentation of the pyramid, following the classic Talud-Tablero style of Teotihuacan architecture. The facade alternates serpent heads to giant masks interpreted to be the effigy of the rain-God Tlaloc, showing serpent-like as well as feline features. [Photo by Author]
The pyramid is today mostly hidden behind the so-called “adosada” platform, which was added to it towards the end of the 4th Century AD and covered much of the earlier structure. It was thanks to this later addition that the beautiful stone façade of the pyramid could be preserved along its western side, allowing a glimpse into how the Teotihuacan pyramids would have looked like had their stone casing been spared centuries of looting and quarrying.

The façade itself consists of beautifully carved stones, jointed and fitted together without mortar in the usual Teotihuacan Talud-Tablero style. The fantastic figures on its sides allude to the cosmic serpent, and alternate feathered serpent heads with masks of the god Tlaloc, amidst seashells and other marine symbols clearly related with water and the ocean (perhaps suggestive of the emergence of the sacred mound from the primordial waters of creation) In the few places where individual loose stones are visible, the very high quality of their workmanship can be fully appreciated, exhibiting sharp edges and perfectly planar surfaces unlike anything to be found elsewhere at Teotihuacan.   

In early February, I received from a friend some very intriguing pictures of large megalithic stones lying scattered in a vast area located immediately at the back of the Ciudadela and apparently coming from excavations conducted around the main pyramid itself. This area has now seemingly been fenced off, but was accessible at the time of this friend's visit in February.

To access it, one would need to walk along the entire perimeter of the Ciudadela until reaching its opposite (Eastern) side from the Avenue of the Dead. There, a ramp leads across the massive outer perimeter wall into the esplanade where the megalithic stone blocks are to be found.  

Not only are these possibly the largest stones ever to be found at Teotihuacan, but they are also the most finely cut and polished – to a level comparable to the ones forming the façade of the pyramid of the feathered serpents itself. 

As it can be seen from the pictures below, most of the stones are limestone and would have once formed part of a continuous façade not unlike the portion that is still preserved underneath the “adosada” platform.  Many of the larger stone fragments seem to belong to the familiar snake heads and masks that must have decorated the pyramid on each one of its four sides, but others also bear decorations of a different kind - not found on the other sides of the pyramid wherever its sculptured decoration has survived the ravages of time.

What is perhaps most striking is that these examples of megalithic architecture are almost invariably found in the oldest layers of construction of the ancient metropolis, and we would not rule out the possibility that they might have once formed part of even older, now vanished megalithic structures – perhaps later reemployed by the builders of Teotihuacan of the historical period for their constructions.

An overview of the area behind the pyramid of the feathered serpents, with many of the large megalithic stone blocks lying scattered around its base, each one weighting multiple tons. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
A detailof the state in which many of the stones are to be found, partially embedded in the now demolished filling of the "adosada" platform. Not the curious U-shape of some of the larger blocks. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
More megalithic stone blocks scattered around the base of the pyramid, some of which bearing the same ornamentation as the blocks found on the main facade of the pyramid, to the sides of the monumental stairway. See for instance the large serpent head in the foreground. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Some of the stones appear to be badly eroded or deliberately damaged, while others exhibit perfectly smooth surfaces and straight angles. One is left to wonder as the reason why these stones ended up being scattered and reused in the filling of the "adosada" platform. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Echoes of the fifth sun

In the legends and myths of the Aztecs, Teotihuacan was the place where the gods convened to give birth to the Fifth Sun of our era, after a previous world age had ended in darkness. It is in that remote age that we need to look for the unknown megalithic builders of Teotihuacan.

According to a story that was told and copied by Bernardino de Sahagún soon after the conquest:

They say they came to this land to rule over it…they came from the sea on ships, a multitude of them, and landed on the shore of the sea, to the North…from there they went on, seeking the white mountains, the smoky mountains…led by their priests and by the voice of their gods. Finally they came to the place that they called Tamoanchan…and there they settled for some time…but it was not for long, for their wise masters left, took again to their boats…bringing back with them all their holy books and their sacred images[3]

If we are to believe the informers of Sahagún, the builders of Teotihuacán-Tamoanchan had come from the sea, and had brought with them the principles of all arts and sciences. Did they also bring knowledge of megalithic architecture with them?

The beginnings of Teotihuacan are obscure. Monumental architecture on the site sprung almost immediately, in a single spree of construction that resulted in the general layout of the site as we appreciate it today, with its three main pyramids distributed along the 3-miles stretch of the Avenue of the Dead.     

New constructions were added on top of the older, but always following the same grand plan drawn by the original unknown founders of the city, perhaps centuries or even thousands of years earlier.

Perhaps these scattered megalithic remains are all that is left of the original City of the Gods.

References:
[1] From a Drawing in BNAH, inv. 58, 21x30.7 cm
[2] William Bullock, Six months Residence and Travel in Mexico, p. 416 (London, J. Murray, 1824)
[3] Bernardino de Sahagún, Codice Matritense de la Real Academia, folio 191,192

A detail of a large monolithic serpent head from a complex of buildings along the Avenue of the Dead. All over Teotihuacan and ancient Mesoamerica, the most sophisticated architecture is always found in the lower occupational layers. In this case, the floor level was raised when a new platform was built on top of the already existing one, thus covering and preserving its beautiful stone ornamentation. [Photo by Author] 
From this other perspective of the same building, it is easy to appreciate how the older construction (below the later floor level) exhibits a much superior workmanship and architectural technique, with the use of larger, sometimes even megalithic stones. [Photo by Author]
One of many architectural fragments preserved in the "Jardin Escultorico" of the site. This one in particular bears a very elaborate ornamentation and might have been part of a larger sculptured monolith, of which it is the only surviving fragment. [Photo by Author]
More interesting sculptural fragments from the "Jardin Escultorico". This one is carved in a way similar to the crown of feathers placed around some of the giant serpent heads that decorate the facade of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, a few hundred meters to the South. [Photo by Author]
Slightly off the beaten path, one finds literally hundreds of fragments of sculptures, with varying degrees of finish and polish. Unfortunately there is no information provided on the provenance of these fragments. [Photo by Author]
Some of the architectural fragments aligned on one side of the inner courtyard of the Ciudadela, near the pyramid of the feathered serpents. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
More of the elaborately carved stone blocks lying in the courtyard of the Ciudadela. Not the very fine polish and finish of some of the larger stones in the foreground. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
This picture, taken from one side of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, clearly shows the exposed nucleus of the pyramid , with its elaborate architectural ornamentation, with the remains of the "adosada" platform clearly visible to its left. The empty space between the two is a result of  20th Century restorations. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
A particular of the sculptured decoration of one of the outer faces of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, where large and carefully fitted stone blocks are clearly visible embedded in the more incoherent masonry that constitutes the core of the pyramid. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Some of the large megalithic stone blocks lying in the esplanade behind the pyramid of the feathered serpents. Not the large serpent head and body in the foreground, as well as the many other beautifully carved and sculptured stone blocks. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed] 
Another view of the chaos of megalithic stones lyng around the base of the pyramid of the feathered serpents. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Of the several sculptured fragments lying around the base of the pyramid, many are found still partially embedded in the masonry fill of the pyramid, as if they had been simply dumped there after the demolition of the original construction. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
This enormous stone, one of the largest on the site, was probably part of a continuous frieze. No similar ornamentation exists on any one of the other preserved stone blocks that decorate the main facade of the pyramid. This stone might belong to an entirely different construction. Perhaps it formed part of the temple that would have originally stood on top of the pyramid and of which no other trace survives to this day. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed] 
Even this comparatively small fragments shows the very fine quality and workmanship of some of the stones, all apparently carved in complex tridimensional patterns as part of a gigantic architectural composition. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
A curious mask carved on a large megalithic stone block. An almost identical carving is found in the site Museum of Teotihuacan. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
More of the very large megalithic stone blocks still lying in their original position  where they were dumped into the masonry fill of the "adosada" platform (now demolished). Are we looking at the remains of deliberate destruction, a kind of damnatio memoriae, or was perhaps a cataclysm responsible for the collapse and ultimate abandonment of these structures? [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Another view of the same area with more of the large megalithic stone blocks still partially embedded in the later masonry fill of the pyramid. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Particular of a stone block with a motif resembling a crown of feathers or petals like the ones that encase the serpent heads placed on the main facade of the pyramid. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Another of the large U-shaped stone blocks lying above a broken serpent head still embedded in the later masonry fill. The serpent head block would have originally been inserted amidst two U-shaped stone blocks forming a crown around it. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]  
Particular of a stone block with a motif resembling a crown of feathers or petals like the ones that encase the serpent heads placed on the main facade of the pyramid. Note the very fine workmanship of the tridimensional pattern on the stone. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Another view of the chaos of megalithic stones lyng around the base of the pyramid of the feathered serpents. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Another view of the chaos of megalithic stones lyng around the base of the pyramid of the feathered serpents. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]
Particular of one of the few other areas of cut stone architecture at Teotihuacan, this time a stairway leading to a palatial building on one side of the Avenue of the Dead, near the Plaza of the Moon. The quality of the stone architecture visible here is a very sharp contrast to the poor construction of the building behind. An older layer of construction is also visible in the background under the later masonry filling. [Copyrighted picture - No reproduction allowed]