Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Traces of Mexican history

An often neglected archeological site is mysteriously fascinating Chalcatzingo, known for its rock and cave carvings.  An easy day trip from either Mexico City or Cuernavaca it’s a perfect location for a day of walking, picnicking -- under giant amate trees -- and imagining how this amazing place came to be.  

On a clear day you can see Chalcatzingo’s peaks from the Mexico City-Cuernavaca highway -- off in the distance -- beyond Cuautla.   Cerro Jantetelco, Cerro Delgado and Cerro Chalcatzingo rise a formidable 300 meters straight up from the Amatzinac valley floor.  On the drive from Cuernavaca to Puebla the mountains are tantalizingly close.  Geologically it is actually a submerged mountain; we see only the three highest protrusions.  The rest of the mountain is below ground.  

A beautiful little museum is at the entrance to the site and one can often find people from the nearby village more than willing to walk with you and help you locate the various archeological findings.  I encourage you to accept the offer of their services -- it's important that the community see preservation of the site as a source of income.  However, you can be very well prepared for the visit by doing some reading in advance.  Ancient Chalcatzingo (1987), edited by David Grove, is still the definitive book about the place.  The 571-page tome has extensive maps, drawings, and photos.  It can be either a heavy, or a light, read.  Each chapter can be read independently and each is summarized in Spanish; some are summarized in English as well.  Best of all, you already have the book.  In a tremendous act of generosity Professor Grove negotiated with the University of Texas to buy the copyright and he has put the entire volume online in its original format; you can scroll through it at <www.famsi.org/research/grove/chalcatzingo/index.html>. On a self-guided excursion, it is helpful to print out those pages describing the various carvings to use as reference. 

Chalcatzingo is nahuatl meaning “the revered place of the Chalcos” or alternatively “revered place of the sacred water.”  A spring on the mountain may be the reason for much of what we see at Chalcatzingo today. 
Several years ago I had the privilege of sharing a long dinner with Professor Grove and he wife.  He was the chief archeologist in a decades long INAH project at Chalcatzingo.  We talked at length about the possible origins of Chalcatzingo.  He pointed out -- as he has written -- that it is on the simplest trade route between the Pacific and the Valley of Mexico, which would account for it being a major hub and, in addition to that, it is such a grand setting that it called out for sacred meaning.    
Chalcatzingo artifacts go back to the Formative or Preclassic era (2500 BC – 200AD) a time period when the key elements of Mesoamerican civilization developed, large-scale ceremonial architecture, building of temple mounds, cities, permanent village farming, writing, human sacrifice, the ball game, jaguar-worship, complex calendar, along with other elements of religion.  During this period the Olmecs developed along the Southern Gulf Coast, flourished, and declined -- towards the end of it Teotihuacan arose in the Valley of Mexico, the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and the Mayas in Guatemala and the Yucatan. There was constant trading of resources and ideas between these cultures.

Major stone carvings and wall paintings at Chalcatzingo bear strong resemblance to Olmec work of the same period.  However, smaller artifacts found onsite are more similar to those found at Teotihuacan. 
There are dozens of well-preserved carvings and wall-paintings to be seen on the sides of the mountains.  The most well-known of these is El Rey, a side-perspective, bas-relief of a full-size man in elaborate headdress, seated on a throne in a circular niche. Grove, speculates that this scene was an early depiction of agricultural fertility and possibly an ancestor god of Tlaloc, god of rain.  Above the niche are rain clouds and ceremonial rain falling in the form of exclamation (!) points.  Out of the mouth of the niche are large speech-like loops or scroll elements that may represent thunder.  Above the niche is an oval eye motif serving to identify the niche as an earth-monster mouth, a symbol usually representing a cave.  Corn-like plants are depicted on and outside the cave walls. 

While you’re walking be on the lookout for caves.  The caves of Chalcatzingo are legended to have figured prominently in the Mexican Revolution; used for hiding corn, animals, people, even some of the major figures of the Revolution.  The mountains also served as excellent lookout stations for the revolutionaries.  If you run into one of the local guides they’ll happily provide colorful stories about the role of the nearby village during the Revolution.  

The village is known for making miniatures of the corn granaries -- cuexcomates -- used since ancient times and still used today.  Throughout the village you will see large cuexcomates in the patios or yards of many of the homes.  If lucky you may pick up a miniature to take home with you as a souvenir of your day.

On another matter:  Remember that tonight you're invited to Una Memoria Combativa -- Homenaje a John Ross in the Teatro de la Ciudad, Donceles 36, 7:00 pm, free admission. A top rate array of speakers will share their stories -- Journalists Blanche Petrich, Jaime Avilés, and Elizabeth Mistry; Human Rights specialist Pablo Romo; and Mexico City's Secretary of Culture Elena Cepeda.  Larry Russell and Carlos Gallegos will play the jazz John liked so much; Oscar Gomezcesar will play a special request of John's on his saxophone.  John's children Dante and Carla will speak.  The City government will host the toast at the conclusion of the event.  More information about this is posted at <www.homenajejohnross.com>.  See you there!

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