Archive for the ‘Ancient Central America’ Category

Made Your New Tonalpohualli’s Resolutions Yet? (13th C – 16th C AD)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

These images from the Codex Magliabechiano show the first four day-symbols for the “year”, or ‘tonalpohualli’. They represent flint, the rain, a flower, and a crocodile.

In Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, a year of time wasn’t measured in the same way that a year is measured in the 21st century. Instead, the Aztecs used several calendars to measure time in the sense that marked periods were devoted to specific deities. The tonalpohualli was a calendar whose name meant “count of days”, and marked out a 260-day sacred period.

The tonalpohualli was not based on either a lunar or solar rotation, but instead was composed of twenty 13-day periods called ‘trecena’/ Each trecena was devoted to a particular deity, and was directly associated with a specific feast for that god or goddess.

Due to its rather ancient place in Mesoamerican history, the origins of the tonalpohualli calendar remain unknown – however, some historians have postulated theories about its meaning, such as: that it is representative of the human gestation period; that it reflects a time of year relative to the sun’s position in the tropics; or that it is a primitive Venusian cycle. Opponents to these theories suggest that perhaps its creation had nothing to do with natural phenomena at all, and instead may simply be related to the importance the Aztecs gave to the numbers 13 and 20.

Complementary to the tonalpohualli is the Aztec xiuhpohualli, a solar calendar that divides the year into 18 months consisting of 20 months each. Each xiuhpohualli year was named after the first tonalpohualli day that it fell on, since the two calendars only coincided with each other once every 52 years.

Other Mesoamerican cultures also kept similar calendars – for example, the Mayan equivalent of the tonalpohualli was called the Tzolk’in, while the Mayan version of the xiuhpohualli calendar is known as the Haab’.

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Tomorrow: Prehistoric Goddess

Dealing with Mayan Death Vases (ca. 400 AD)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

This rare “death vase” was discovered in the grave of an elite Mayan, and is carved with scrolls and tiles that look like snake scales.

In the grave of an elite member of the Mayan Empire, archaeologists discovered a vase situated next to the skeletal remains – and oddly enough, the vase still contains some remains of food that was placed inside the vase at the time of burial. The vase itself is the first among its kind to be discovered archaeologically in modern times, and it may actually be able to shed some light on the ancient rituals practiced by the Mayans.

The food remains inside this intricately carved “death vase” reveal more about the ancient Mayans’ practice of ancestor worship than was previously known – the vase included remnants of corn pollen, cacao, and something called ‘false ipecac’ which is known to induce bouts of severe nausea when ingested.

These trace remains may suggest that “death vases” such as this one were used in the ancient rites that produced trance-like states through an intense form of physical purging – the Mayans communicated with their ancestors through visions, which they would induce by such practices as bloodletting, taking a powerful chocolate enema, or by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and then repeatedly throwing up.

All evidence points to whatever drink was inside of the vase as having contained ipecac, which would have made the person ingesting the drink throw up – and throw up a lot. Then through this, they would have had ‘visions’ wherein they could talk to their ancestors.

What kind of drink would have contained this nausea-drug? The white-marble death vase probably held a gruel primarily made with corn, with cacao added for flavor, and the drug added for the… ‘religious’ experience.

Prior to the discovery of this vase in its context, other Mayan death vases existed in museums only due to looters having taken the intricately carved pieces out of tombs and selling them on the black market or to museums for their own profit – this is the first of the death vases to be scientifically excavated.

The place where the grave was located is slightly perplexing, however – it was found underneath a palace in a small settlement inside of Honduras’ Palmarejo Valley. The palace and the vase point to a higher level of prestige than should have been prevalent at an otherwise typical and unimportant farming village – so why was a high status burial located inside of a residential building in a tiny settlement?

The likeliest explanation is that the person who was buried here was an important historical figure for the people of this town – perhaps someone whose death marked the end of an era, such as a community founder or original member of the town’s ruling lineage. Interestingly enough, the vase itself isn’t as old as the burial – the vase was added to the grave about a hundred years later, likely in commemoration for the individual.

The decoration on the death vase is made up of sculpted scroll images and tiles that look like snake scales, with handles that were carved to resemble a leaf-nose bat’s head.

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Tomorrow: Nehemiah’s Wall?

An Ancient Taino Frog-Man Could Hold the Key

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

The plaza of a settlement from the ancient Taino people is lined with stone carvings like these. This could be the largest Taino settlement in the Caribbean!

At an ancient settlement in Puerto Rico, archaeologists have unearthed bodies, rock art, and large structures that may have belonged the to the Taino people – a Pre-Columbian indigenous culture which is thought to have migrated to the Caribbean from either South America or Mexico many centuries ago.

The Taino people were among the first cultures to run into Europeans when they arrived in the Americas, and thus it appears that this settlement probably dates from between 600 and 1500 AD. In fact, the site may even be the largest Taino settlement in the entire Caribbean, making it the most significant settlement these people ever developed – for starters, the site appears to have evidence of not only Taino occupation during the height of the culture, but also an occupation dating far back to a pre-Taino period.

The site on Puerto Rico is extremely well preserved, and while archaeologists knew that the area contained indigenous artifacts, the scope and significance of the site only became clear once construction began on a modern dam nearby. It was during the monitoring process of this work that a fascinating discovery was made: nearby to the dam site, there was a large plaza that covered approximately 40 meters by 50 meters of ground.

The plaza appears to be what the Taino called a ‘batey’, which was a rectangular area that the people built their settlements around – then they would use the plaza for things like ball games and ceremonial rituals. A number of the stones in the plaza also have ancient petroglyphs etched into them, which at the very least indicates the important functionality of the space. All evidence currently points to this being the largest known ancient ‘batey’ in the entire Caribbean as well. A number of the petroglyphs on the plaza’s stones depict a male figure with attached frog legs, which may hold a key to determining the origins of the Taino.

In and around the settlement, there have also been several burials located where some of the bodies were interred in rather unique positions – their legs were bent at the knees, and the bodies placed face down in the grave. This burial position hasn’t been seen at any other indigenous sites in the Caribbean, and it may also give indications as to from where the Taino originated.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

The First Ancient Aztec Tomb Ever Found (ca.1486 – 1502 AD)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

An Aztec name glyph for the ruler Ahuitzotl, whose tomb is believed to be buried under Mexico City. If so, this would be the first Aztec tomb ever discovered!

The Aztec ruler Ahuitzotl was the eighth ruler of the city of Tenochtitlan, and was the primary reason for the Aztec expansion into Mexico and the subsequent consolidation of power in the Aztec Empire. He came to power in the year 7 Rabbit – otherwise known as 1486 AD – and left a legacy as one of the greatest known military leaders in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. And now it appears that his tomb may rest underneath the stones of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan – which just so happens to be buried underneath Mexico City.

Ground-penetrating radar has revealed that there may be a tomb underneath the temple, sparked by the discovery of a carved stone monolith with the image of an Aztec goddess in 2006. The goddess was carved holding a rabbit with ten dots in her right foot, which is a representation of the year 1502 – or, 10 Rabbit – which was also year that Ahuitzotl died. Initial speculation is that the monolith was the tomb’s headstone, and that the tomb should be somewhere beneath it.

If the tomb of this ruler is actually underneath the temple, it would be the first Aztec royal tomb ever discovered, and would probably provide an enormous amount of information about the Aztecs that remains unknown – for example, very little is known about Aztec religion and iconography. At the very least, there are many examples of Aztec writing, which has allowed historians to piece together the history of these people – and according to these documents, when Ahuitzotl died, there was an enormous ceremony for him before his burial in front of the Great Temple and many grave offerings were buried with him.

Around the carved monolith, archaeologists have found many small artifacts which they believe may actually be the grave offerings for Ahuitzotl. The difficult thing in finding these items is that the Aztec used to place their offerings in very specific spots, according to how they saw the world work – which means that the location of every item is important for determining what the Aztec felt was important in their day-to-day lives.

This carved monolith depicts a representation of the Aztec goddess Tlaltecuhtli, who holds a rabbit with 10 dots, denoting the year of Ahuitzotl’s death. If Ahuitzotl’s tomb is underneath this stone, it would be the first Aztec tomb ever discovered.

As for Ahuitzotl, there was a reason he is remembered as one of the greatest military leaders of pre-Columbia Mesoamerica. His first act upon coming to power was to suppress a rebellion by the Huastec people, whereupon he proceeded afterward to more than double the size of territory under Aztec rule. He decimated the Zapotec, conquered the Mixtec, and took over the lands and suppressed hundreds of other tribes all the way from the Pacific Coast of Mexico to the western side of Guatemala.

In the year 8 Reed – or, 1487 – he oversaw the rebuilding of his city Tenochtitlan for the express purpose of making it bigger and better, and he had the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan expanded… and in some reports, he had 20,000 people sacrificed at its dedication. Ahuitzotl died in the year 10 Rabbit, and was succeeded by Montezuma II, his nephew. For all the work that Ahuitzotl had done in expanding the empire, the Spanish conquistadors would soon arrive on scene in 1519, destroying much of the Aztec empire and eventually suppressing their entire culture.

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Tomorrow: Sometimes fiction makes the best history!

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