Apr 19, 2017

El Tajin – Thunder or Lightning?

Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.

Jon Sinclair

People of the Corn - Mexicans
This archeological site is so well-known that the license plate of the state where it is located, Veracruz, has its famous silhouette depicted on it.


It is also the centerpiece of a huge mural in the nearby town of Papantla, just below the Church of Assumption, next to the main square.  We see its distinctive shape depicted in many stores, restaurants, calendars, menus, etc.

We arrived just as it opened, hoping to beat the crowds, which we did for about 1.5 hours.  After that, busloads upon busloads of students filed in one right after the other.  Thankfully we were nearly finished when they arrived and could still enjoy the peace of the furthest ruins until we completed our tour. 

Although the real pyramid of niches is now missing most of its seventh level,
it is often represented with a seventh floor based on descriptions dating back to 1785. 
Erosion has had the best of the top of this pyramid. 
Today, with acid rain coming from oil platforms and refineries, it is degrading even faster
The mural is 84 meters (275 feet) long by 4 meters (13 feet) high.  It was created in 1979 by Maestro Teodoro Cano Garcia.  It is an homage to the local Totonac culture and represents its past, present and future development.  It is a haut-relief and one night as we were walking in the main plaza looking toward the mural we saw an all-black squirrel deftly jumping from parts of the mural to other parts of the mural as if from tree branches to other branches to finally enter inside the ear of a cow.  It had found a way to nest inside the mural. 

Left side or beginning of the mural - the past.  The ear of corn at the very beginning.
Part of the right side or future development.  Notice the cow and ear? 
Our squirrel friend lives in there. 
There are more than 150 pyramids on the site, with 41 excavated. An estimated 20,000 people lived there at its height.  El Tajín is considered one of the best preserved ancient sites in southern Mexico.

The famous Pyramid of the Niches – Use of niches is unique to El Tajin. 
Try to imagine this painted red with all niches black.  Pretty striking.
The use of niches is unique to El Tajin… UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1992. 

In constant need of repairs.  Dogs know it’s lunch time for the workers. 
They are quick to beg for their portion.
Even after the fall of El Tajin, sometime around 1200 AD, locals, probably out of respect, kept the temple clear.  Somehow, the local Totonacs managed to keep the site a secret from the Spanish conquistadors and later colonial officials. This lasted until 1785, when a local bureaucrat discovered it while searching for clandestine tobacco fields. 

Buildings at El Tajin are made of sandstone (some weighting up to 8 tons!) so tightly fitted that little to no mortar is needed.  Archaeologist José García Payón believed that the stones were quarried some thirty-five or forty kilometers from El Tajín and then floated there on barges. 

El Tajin was first settled around 600 CE, and the city underwent twelve distinct building phases up to the 12th century CE when it was destroyed by fire, presumably set by an invading force. It is unclear who built El Tajín. Some believe it was the work of the Totonacs; others argue in favor of the Huastecs, known to have occupied the region at the time.

Niche within niche with small columns
El Tajin was a large and prosperous city full of magnificent temples, palaces, pyramids and ball-courts with architecture unseen anywhere else in Mesoamerica. The name El Tajin was given in honor of the old Mayan god of thunder and lightning who, as the locals believe, still dwells in the city ruins.  Architectural influences came from as far as Copan and Uxmal. 

The surrounding fertile land was, and still is, perfect for the cultivation of maize, cacao, vanilla, tobacco, and banana, with associated apiaries, an ideal basis to support a prosperous trade center. Even in an area considered to receive a fair amount of rain, water was always an issue as there are no lakes, no springs or wells.  Praying to the thunder/lightning gods was to ask for rain, the life force of this region.   

A notable aspect of the construction at El Tajin is the use of poured cement in forms to make slab roofs. Surviving roof fragments from The Tajín Chico section is an example of cement roof construction. That concrete lasted approximately 900 years! Due to the lack of beams or other materials to prop it up, this roof had to be very thick to support itself. To lighten the load and to bind the layers of cement, pumice stones and pottery shards were mixed into the cement. The cement could not be poured all at once but rather in successive layers. 

It has been suggested that the buildings were filled with earth to support the roof as it was being poured and dried.  Upon completion of the roof, the room had to be emptied again.  The finished roofs were nearly a meter thick and almost perfectly flat. While this kind of cement roof is common in modern times, it was unique in the Mesoamerican world. Impressions of baskets, tamale wrappers and other items have been found in the dried cement. 

Ball-court glyphs
There are 17 ball-courts at El Tajin, an unusually high number, which has led historians to speculate that the city may have held great sporting festivals much like those at Olympia in Ancient Greece. Indeed, El Tajin seems to have been a repository for rubber which was used to make the solid black balls used in the Mesoamerican ballgame.  Through special machines archeologists know three more ball-courts are underground waiting to be unearthed.

Even though we’ve already visited several Pre-Colombian archeological sites in Mexico, this one sported enough of a different type of architecture to make it worth a detour to take a look.  We were not disappointed. 

Moving water...
The Pyramid of the Niches is unique because it contains a set of decorative niches painted black against the dark red of walls.  A total of 365 niches make up this grand piece of architecture.  It is believed that the niches represented caves that were thought to be entrances to the underworld.  The sides of the front stairway were adorned with frets allegedly symbolizing lightning.

Example of what the colors would've looked like
The ball-courts are decorated with many beautiful ornamental frieze depicting episodes from the ballgame and the reactions of the gods.  Air pollution from oil-drilling platforms and power stations along the coast causes high levels of acid rain in the region, which is darkening and eroding the intricately carved reliefs on the soft limestone buildings at an alarming rate.

Xicalcoliuhqui motif, aka twisted gourd.
It is associated with water, waves, clouds, lightning,
serpents, cyclical movements, or conch shells cut in half.  
The structures originally were covered in very thick stucco which served as the base for paint.  It is thought most were painted red with white and black accents.

Part of El Tajin from above (from archeological site)

And as for the people of the corn?  Even though Mexicans are people of the corn, they may have been surpassed by Americans on that front.  The following is from the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.


‘Corn is now so dominant in American supermarkets that more than ¼ of our food contain corn.  Disposable diapers, trash bags, toothpaste, charcoal briquettes, matches, batteries, and even the shine on the covers of magazines all contain corn. In America, all meat is also ultimately corn: chickens, turkeys, pigs, and even cows (which would be far healthier and happier eating grass) are forced into eating corn, as are, increasingly, carnivores such as salmon. 


If you doubt the ubiquity of corn you can take a chemical test. It turns out that corn has a peculiar carbon structure which can be traced in everything that consumes it. Compare a hair sample from an American and a tortilla-eating Mexican and you’ll discover that the American contains a far larger proportion of corn-type carbon. “We North Americans look like corn chips with legs,” says one of the researchers who conducts such tests.’ 

Sources:  David Tuggle, José García Payón

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