Mesoamerica: The Classic Period in Mexico

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Aerial View of Teotihuacán, with the Pyramid de la Luna and the Avenue of the Dead (photo By Ricardo David Sánchez – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28728091)

The Classic began earlier in central Mexico with the building of Teotihuacán. By this period, literacy is pan-Mesoamerican, and all gods known at the time of Contact are extant in some form. These gods are shared by all in Mesoamerica in somewhat altered forms, and include the Rain God, possibly descended from the Olmec were-jaguar; his consort the Water Goddess, a mother goddess; the Fire God, who is a creator; and the Feather Serpent, who is a culture hero that introduced learning and art. Mass production of ceramic forms began in the Classic with the use of molds either invented or introduced from South America for incensarios and figures. Also in this period, there was an intensification of sharp social divides and the consolidation of the elite.

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Monte Albán (Photo by By Raymond Ostertag – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1366714)

There is some Mayan influence in the arts of Monte Albán II, which ends in Monte Albán III with the influence of Teotihucán. The site developed around a large and long plaza surrounded by stone-faced platforms constructed of modified talud-tablero architecture with central stairways fronting them. ball_court_at_monte_albanA masonry ball court in an “I” shape was built, and tombs were subterranean with elaborate corbel vaulted chambers, antechambers, and murals. A corbel vault is a concave formation of blocks, usually stone or masonry; the vault is formed by blocks as they project inward from the layer on which they rest.  By about 700 CE, the site was abandoned.

Ball court at Monte Albán (photo by By Andrew McMillan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

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Reconstruction of Tomb 105 from Monte Albán (photo By Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5774999)

Teotihuacán was the unifying force of Central Mexico in the Classic Period, and controlled a trading area that stretched from Arizona to El Salvador. The name of the city was given to it by the Aztecs, and means The Place of the Gods, as the Aztecs believed it was the site of the creation of the current universe as well as the sun and moon. Scholars are unsure what the people who lived in the city called it; what language they spoke; or how to full interpret the glyphs they left behind. It was situated in its landscape in such a way as to evoke powerful emotions and connect it with the sacred cosmos. The mountains of the valley symbolized water and fertility to later Mesoamerican groups. Tlaloc was worshipped at Teotihuacan as well as Quetzalcoatl, the Sun God, the Moon Goddess, and Xipe Totec, a symbol of the renewal of the rainy season. All of the gods were connected with maize, the symbolic staff of life. It would also see that for every male deity, there was a complementary female counterpart, representing the importance of duality within Mesoamerican religions. The agriculture practiced here was probably chinampa, or floating garden cultivation, and the city depended mainly on trade and tribute.

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Plan of Teotihuacán (photo by Wikihistoriadoras (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Teotihuacán was the first large, planned city in Mexico, with a major north south axis bisected by a major east west axis at the Cuidadela, in the center of the main ceremonial section of the city. It covered about 8 square miles at it’s height in the 6th century, and had a population of 100-200,000, making it larger than many equivalent cities in Europe in the same period. The north-south axis, the Avenue of the Dead (again, the name was given by the Aztecs, as were the names of the 2 main pyramids at the site), leads to the Pyramid of the Moon, and seems to be the main ceremonial road. Ceremonial and administrative buildings along this road with the residential districts behind. The typical architecture of the site is talud-tablero, which means a rectangular panel that has an inset placed over the sloping wall form.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the oldest building in Teotihuacán, and was built in stages with an early brick-faced mound contained within the larger stone-faced structure. This is typical of Mesoamerican architecture, which preserves the original as the heart of the building both symbolically and structurally. The placement of this pyramid was predetermined by the sacred cave beneath the structure. The pyramid is a tiered platform mound, and mimics the mountain, Cerro Gordo, behind it.   The cave beneath the pyramid was originally a lava tube that was enlarged and elaborated, and has a multi-chambered terminus. The use of the cave predates the pyramid. The Pyramid of the Moon was also a stepped pyramid form, and was built and enlarged over a period of time, with at least 7 stages having been identified. Both pyramids were aligned with the solstices and certain star clusters.

Teotihuacán, Pyramid of the Sun, completed c. 200 CE and Pyramid of the Moon, completed c. 250 CE (photo By Ralf Roletschek – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42138076 and By Aude – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41724770)

Teotihuacán, Cuidadela and Temple of Quetzalcoatl, completed c. early 3rd century  (photo By NahidSultan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42093906 and By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30703412)

The Cuidadela was probably the site of the royal palace, and within its walls is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. This is a 6-tiered step pyramid of talud-tablero architecture, and is partially covered to the west with a later pyramid, much of this later building was removed by archaeologists to show the decoration of the earlier structure beneath. Around the tiers of the earlier building are depictions of the feather serpent with depictions of the fire serpent that carries the sun on its back. This probably represents a creation myth, as the background is painted blue, and there are effigy seashells carved along the sides. Pits along the base at the center, north, east and south contain burials of 18 sacrificed warriors, the number of 20 day months in the 365 day calendar, and there is a single sacrificial burial at each corner, possibly representing the 4 cardinal directions, which may imply that the pyramid itself represents the world tree. A burial was recently found here, with mercury used possibly as a representation of a sacred river, the symbolic division of the world of the living from the underworld. There is a possibility that this will be the first burial of a ruler found at Teotihuacán.

Teotihuacán, Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, c. 3rd-4th century CE (photos By Polimerek, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41852085 and By Ralf Roletschek – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42139822)

Teotihuacán, Tepantitla, Tlalocan mural, c.200-500 CE (photo By Thomas Aleto from Riverside, PA – Tepantitla Mural, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2781356 and CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3046220)

Most of the city consisted of modular residential compounds contained within walls, and grouped into wards based on kinship, commercial interest, or nationality. The major exports of the city were obsidian, salt, and mold-made ceramics.The apartment compounds typically were rectangular with about 45 rooms and 7 forecourts that border a central court, which is sunken and has a small altar in the center. All are one story with flat roofs, and often have workshops for the production of goods attached to the main living space. These structures were also fully painted with murals, which are usually religious and repetitive. The murals of the Tepantitla palace depict Tlalocan, the paradise of the Rain God, Tlaloc. Represented within these murals is the female spider deity, which seems to have been the supreme deity of Teotihuacán. She seems to have been perceived as having been responsible for creating the current universe. The landscape depicts the place of the origin myth with a mountain and springs at its base, as well as the Paradise of Tlaloc, one of the levels of the Upper World, where spirits when if they drowned, hung themselves, or died of dropsy. Graves were discovered in the floors, and the people favored cremation. This may point to some sort of ancestor worship, but also represents a typical means of burying the dead throughout the Americas.

Teotihuacán, Tripod Vessel Depicting Eagles and Shells, 400-650 and  Censer of the Fire God, 200-700 (photo By See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-2741723-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/244470, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27293722)

The art is systemic and impersonal with interchangeable repetitive geometric units and organic forms. The typical pottery form is a cylindrical vase with 3 slab-shaped feet that often had fitted lids on the top. There were also incensarios in the form of the fire god, although some later ceramic ones have motifs related to water, possibly representing a drought or other environmental catastrophe.

Throughout each building stage of Teotihuacán, burnt-lime plaster was used to cover buildings and floors. This plaster comes from burning limestone, and requires a lot of wood. The burning of the forest cover led to the alteration of the climate to an arid one, and probably contributed to the downfall of the city due to soil degradation from erosion caused by deforestation. Around 700 CE, the ceremonial and administrative sections of the city were destroyed deliberately and burned, probably by the people who living in the city as a means of ritually “killing” the temples. People lived in the residential compounds for another 200 years before the city is abandoned completely.

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