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Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents

Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents
The Public Sculpture of El Tajín

The first extensive treatment in over thirty years of the iconography displayed on public monuments in an important Mesoamerican city in Veracruz, Mexico.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

April 2009
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151 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 55 figures, 6 photos, 2 maps |

El Tajín, an ancient Mesoamerican capital in Veracruz, Mexico, has long been admired for its stunning pyramids and ballcourts decorated with extensive sculptural programs. Yet the city's singularity as the only center in the region with such a wealth of sculpture and fine architecture has hindered attempts to place it more firmly in the context of Mesoamerican history. In Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents, Rex Koontz undertakes the first extensive treatment of El Tajín's iconography in over thirty years, allowing us to view its imagery in the broader Mesoamerican context of rising capitals and new elites during a period of fundamental historical transformations.

Koontz focuses on three major architectural features—the Pyramid of the Niches/Central Plaza ensemble, the South Ballcourt, and the Mound of the Building Columns complex—and investigates the meanings of their sculpture and how these meanings would have been experienced by specific audiences. Koontz finds that the iconography of El Tajín reveals much about how motifs and elite rites growing out of the Classic period were transmitted to later Mesoamerican peoples as the cultures centered on Teotihuacan and the Maya became the myriad city-states of the Early Postclassic period.

By reexamining the iconography of sculptures long in the record, as well as introducing important new monuments and contexts, Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents clearly demonstrates El Tajín's numerous iconographic connections with other areas of Mesoamerica, while also exploring its roots in an indigenous Gulf lowlands culture whose outlines are only now emerging. At the same time, it begins to uncover a largely ignored regional artistic culture of which Tajín is the crowning achievement.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Approaching El Tajín
  • 2. The Pyramid of the Niches
  • 3. The Divine Ballcourt
  • 4. The Tajín Court: The Mound of the Building Columns
  • 5. Audiences and Deities at El Tajín
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Rex Koontz is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Houston. He has published two previous books, Landscape and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica (with Kathryn Reese-Taylor and Annabeth Headrick) and Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs (fifth edition with Michael D. Coe).


El Tajín was an ancient capital of an extensive lowland Mesoamerican realm in the latter half of the first millennium AD. The site is perhaps best known for its elegant niched architecture, which is found in profusion in the pyramids and other structures that formed the city's monumental core. First among these other structures were masonry ballcourts for the playing of the Mesoamerican rubber ballgame, and scholars have long examined the rich iconography of these courts for clues to the meaning and function of this ritualized sport. Despite interest in fundamental aspects of the city, El Tajín's place in Mesoamerican history has not been well defined.

The site's singularity has hindered attempts to place it more firmly in the context of Mesoamerican history. El Tajín was the largest city in the region during its zenith (Wilkerson 1999:113-116), as well as the only center with such a wealth of sculpture and fine architecture. Unlike the numerous large cities that formed the contemporary Maya area to the south, El Tajín was a city apart, with ties to more southerly areas of the Gulf lowlands but no peers in the region (Kampen 1972; Pascual Soto 1990; compare Proskouriakoff 1954:84-87). Smaller sites throughout the area imitated Tajín architectural style on a reduced scale (Palacios 1926; Jiménez Lara 1991; Pascual Soto 1998:25-28), but none of these had even a significant fraction of the public art produced at the capital. Important recent studies (Ringle 2004; López Austin and López Luján 2000; Smith and Berdan 2003) have begun to shed light on the interregional webs of art, commerce, and politics that operated during the period, but these studies have yet to be incorporated systematically into studies of the site itself. Finally, with some key exceptions (e.g., Taube 1988), studies of Tajín imagery outside the ballcourts have been less successful than the studies of ballcourt imagery cited above. The task of this volume is to bring together iconographical studies that point to El Tajín's place in a larger Mesoamerican world, although this can be done only when the public imagery as a whole comes into better focus, both inside and outside the ballcourt. It is a double movement, then—internally, to a more nuanced reading of the major public imagery as a coherent set of statements, and externally, to a better understanding of the public imagery of other elites with which El Tajín was interacting—that gives this volume its particular logic.

The ancient city of El Tajín sits in the rolling hills of the north-central Gulf lowlands, only 40 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the east and a slightly greater distance from the foothills of the Sierra Madre to the west (Fig. 1.1). The site lies within the boundaries of Mesoamerica, that area of complex pre-Columbian civilizations that extends from the southern half of Mexico through Guatemala and Belize to the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. Among the elements that characterize this culture area are pyramids and monumental sculpture at the center of cities. El Tajín contains just such a complex monumental core area, with large amounts of impressive cut stone architecture together with the complex sculpture and painting that are indicative of a Mesoamerican city.

Eleven ballcourts have been found in the core, with six others in the near vicinity. Many if not all of these were in use during Tajín's apogee (ca. AD 650-1000). By this time Mesoamericans had been playing some form of the ballgame for at least two millennia (Hill and Clark 2001; Ortíz C. et al. 1997), so ball-playing is not what sets El Tajín apart. The concentration of courts in a single urban center is unusual, however, and places the site alongside a handful of other Mesoamerican cities. Given the amount of energy devoted to the construction and decoration of masonry courts, there is little doubt that the ballgame and surrounding rites were central to the city's elite.

Several Tajín ballcourts are decorated, and the central court contains one of the richest collections of ballcourt sculpture in all of Mesoamerica. The iconography of these central court panels has been crucial to scholars studying the ballgame in this region and throughout Mesoamerica, providing fundamental information on the major objects associated with the game (Ekholm 1949) as well as sacrificial rites surrounding the game (Tozzer 1957; Knauth 1961). While isolated details from these panels have served well as comparative material for larger Mesoamerican iconographical patterns, any reading of the ensemble of panels as a coherent narrative series is still in dispute, a problem that will be taken up fully in Chapter 3.

Beginning by the seventh century and continuing until the eleventh, El Tajín served as a major Mesoamerican capital in an area that had previously been marginal to the region's urban tradition (Brüggemann 1993; Wilkerson 2001a; Daneels 2002:659). During this same period, previously peripheral areas all over western Mesoamerica became major centers of commerce and political power. This new-found power was announced in the form of monumental architecture and art. In this the public sculpture of El Tajín is typical, and must be seen in the larger context of changes to the Mesoamerican political and social landscape occurring during this period.

The period of El Tajín's apogee accords with the decline of Teotihuacan, the chief urban center of the first half of the first millennium AD. The waning of Teotihuacan's power initiated waves of political, social, and economic realignment throughout Mesoamerica in the period AD 650-900/1000, called here the Epiclassic (Pasztory 1978:15-21; Millon 1988; Diehl and Berlo 1989; Coggins 2002:43-45; Braswell 2003). Many scholars have pointed to El Tajín's importance during the Epiclassic period (Jiménez Moreno 1959; Webb 1978; Diehl and Berlo 1989; Smith and Berdan 2003), when it was one of several regional centers that experienced a surge of activity as Teotihuacan power waned. The reconstitution of a Mesoamerican world after the decline of Teotihuacan remains one of the chief questions of Mesoamerican history, but El Tajín's key role in that process is not in doubt.

Recent scholarship on the Mesoamerican Epiclassic has stressed the construction of elite networks that replaced the old Teotihuacan order (Ringle et al. 1998; Ringle 2004; López Austin and López Luján 1999, 2000; Smith and Berdan 2003:25). The nature of these networks is still a matter of debate, but it is clear that one crucial aspect involved the presentation of complex public statements in the urban center proclaiming these new elites and the systems that legitimated them (Nagao 1989). It is of great interest that a significant part of the symbolism was shared among many of these elites, while at the same time a certain regional identity was imposed on the art and architecture. This is true of El Tajín, as it is of several other capitals across Mesoamerica at the time (Diehl and Berlo 1989; Ringle 2004).

The decoration of these city centers have been likened to political billboards, but this is a static characterization of what was a dynamic area, with numerous rites enlivening these spaces and interacting with the permanent carved messages on the buildings (Fox 1996; Kowalski 1999:11). These sculpted stories are concerned above all in presenting various rituals enacted in the same spaces. El Tajín is particularly rich in narrative sculpture that speaks directly to the presentation of these rites. In this respect the city's public sculpture is similar to the contemporary public art and writing of the Maya (Schele and Miller 1986; Reents-Budet 1989; Stuart 1998). That said, the presentation of ritual on El Tajín's public monuments should not be conceived as simply reflecting ritual practice. Recent scholarship on Mesoamerican ritual imagery reminds us that many choices were made as to which rituals were to be depicted and how (Quiñones Keber 2002; Herring 2005:42-45), decisions that should be kept in mind as we examine El Tajín's imagery of ritual throughout this book (see especially Chapter 5).

If we are to see El Tajín in the context of the Epiclassic period in Mesoamerica, then it may be helpful to explore how we came to think of the Epiclassic as a period and what are perceived as its major characteristics. Many Mesoamerican scholars, and virtually all those working in the Maya area, use the terms "Late Classic" and "Terminal Classic" to refer to the period under discussion. This works well in the Maya area, where there is a much stronger continuity between the first and second half of the millennium, with only the "Terminal Classic" (ca. AD 800-1000) seen as the sort of disruptive period normally associated with the Epiclassic to the west. Radical changes in settlement, trade, and style patterns happened earlier in western Mesoamerica, however, with major shifts beginning by the sixth to seventh centuries AD. The rise of El Tajín as a key center was one of these shifts, and the Epiclassic may be best characterized as the period in which these transformations came into being and matured throughout much of western Mesoamerica.

Initially the Epiclassic was seen as a transitional period between the peaceful, theocratic Classic (to ca. AD 650) and the more militaristic Postclassic (after ca. AD 900; Jiménez Moreno 1959). Later scholarship, however, has shown conclusively that the Classic period was not without militarism and conflict, suggesting that if the Epiclassic was transitional, the transition was not between periods of peace and conflict. Thus while it was clear that settlement, stylistic, and other patterns shifted during this period, there was no longer a grand historical narrative to make sense of these changes. More recently, Webb (1978) proposed that trade, not conflict, was at the heart of the Epiclassic transformation: Classic societies traded items central to religious practice in a relatively peaceful setting, whereas Epiclassic capitals such as El Tajín were involved in more-militaristic trading ventures focusing more on secular or luxury trade items. The emphasis on Epiclassic trade among these emerging capitals, and its relation to militarism and other aspects of the period, continues to be a topic of debate (Ringle et al. 1998; Ringle 2004:213: Sugiura Yamamoto 2001).

Despite the importance of the Epiclassic context for the rise of El Tajín, the city did not exist only in the rather rarefied air of these rising Epiclassic capitals. It was the hub of a region that had long been inhabited but had remained largely peripheral to Mesoamerican history. While we know too little of this regional culture and its workings, strong evidence suggests that El Tajín built directly on the earlier regional culture (Wilkerson 1972; Pascual Soto 1998). In addition, we now have evidence for a regional sculptural tradition that is directly ancestral to the Epiclassic Tajín flowering. The regional context is an important consideration when examining the problem of style in El Tajín and its relation to other Epiclassic centers. Much has been written on the "eclectic" nature of Epiclassic art, with its ability to borrow both graphic practices and symbolism from throughout Mesoamerica (Kubler 1980; McVicker 1985; Nagao 1989). Although El Tajín may have appropriated a number of symbols circulating during the Epiclassic, the style employed, when viewed from the perspective of the earlier regional tradition, is largely an indigenous development and shows little if any of the conscious stylistic appropriations often cited for other Epiclassic capitals such as Cacaxtla and Xochicalco. This history of regional sculpture is presented in Chapter 3, while below we describe the center of the city as it was during Tajín's Epiclassic apogee.

Introduction to the Urban Core

The center of El Tajín (Fig. 1.2), which contains all the major architectural and sculptural programs, is located among the rolling hills that are typical of this part of the Veracruz lowlands. There is a steady decline in elevation from north to south, going from 200 to 140 m above sea level. The architects of the site artificially modified the upper portions of the monumental center to contain the Mound of the Building Columns and the Tajín Chico areas (García Payón 1954). The rest of the center, referred to as the lower monumental center, sits in the valley floor, which opens only to the south.

A wealth of sculpture adorned the buildings of the monumental center. This book focuses on the meanings of that sculpture and how those meanings would have been experienced by specific audiences. This is not to say that the book is a catalog of the literally hundreds of panels, stelae, and architectural friezes at the site. Two fine, complete catalogs have already been produced (Kampen 1972; Castillo Peña 1995), and there is little reason to go over yet again every sculpture in this fashion. Instead, this book treats at length the three richest, most important sculptural programs adorning what are widely regarded as the most important public spaces in the monumental center: the Pyramid of the Niches/Central Plaza ensemble, the South Ballcourt, and the Mound of the Building Columns complex (Fig. 1.2). In this respect the book is a sustained examination of a restricted set of ancient monuments. The majority of the book looks at what can be gleaned from the iconography of the sculptural programs in a reading of motifs, relations, and finally narratives.

A pre-Columbian person approaching El Tajín at its pinnacle would have seen a city of 15,000-30,000 people (Brüggemann 1991:104; Brüggemann et al. 1992:62) spread over 1,000 hectares or almost 4 square miles (Ortíz C. and Rodríguez 1999:103). At its center was a monumental ensemble of pyramids, ballcourts, and palaces that covered more than 10 percent of the city (Brüggemann 1991:81; Fig. 1.2) and was delimited by two small streams flowing from north to south, beginning on either side of the upper portion of the center. House mounds dating to Tajín's florescence ring the center, continuing into the hills that encircle the site (Krotser and Krotser 1973:181).

Much of the lower monumental center is organized into plazas formed by pyramids surrounding a central space. Just off these plazas, the builders of El Tajín placed one or more ballcourts. Eleven courts have now been documented for the monumental center, giving El Tajín one of the highest concentrations of ballcourts in Mesoamerica. All of these are found in the lower center; in Tajín Chico, in the upper center, the buildings take on an administrative/ceremonial character (Sarro 2001). Many of these public buildings in both areas were decorated with full-figure sculptures, relief panels, and elaborate mural paintings. The corpus of art at the site is still growing, for the study of El Tajín is ongoing, and we are still discovering major sculptural pieces and even entire mural programs.

{Figure 1.3 here}

Only recently, in the last quarter century, have we been able to piece together a vision of the city. Early European and Mexican explorers did not consider El Tajín a city, but a single, isolated pyramid (Ruíz 1785). The Pyramid of the Niches, as it has come to be called, is indeed one of the most beautiful, elaborate, and important buildings at the site. Its architectural complexity entranced the world for more than a century after its discovery, with several famous European explorers producing renderings of the building (Fig. 1.3). The combination of niches constructed of numerous separate blocks of stone surmounted by an emphatically projecting cornice (the "flying cornice"), seen to greatest effect in this building, was to become the sine qua non of Tajín architectural style. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Pyramid of the Niches served as the sole major example of that style, while the culture from which the pyramid sprang, like the city that surrounded it, remained almost completely unknown. Given the paucity of archaeological information coming from the region and the lack of any other documentation apart from the growing number of decontextualized portable stone objects, this is hardly surprising. Even when archaeological investigations began in earnest in the first half of the twentieth century, the lack of a regional context for understanding El Tajín continued to be a major problem.

It is now clear that at the time of its apogee El Tajín would have been the largest and most populous urban center in the north-central Gulf lowlands (Wilkerson 1999; Brüggemann 2001a:377). As Tajín's power grew towards the beginning of the Epiclassic, other, smaller centers within 30 km of the site adopted the Tajín practice of building in stone, as well as its architectural style (Jiménez Lara 1991; Wilkerson 2001b:652), as did cities as much as 80 or 100 km to the west, such as Yohualichan on the flanks of the Sierra Madre (Fig. 1.1; Pascual Soto 1998:28-30). Kubler (1973) has posited that the niche and flying cornice, elements diagnostic for Tajín architecture, were marks of Tajín identity wherever they were found.

Throughout this region of Tajín architectural style, the ceramics used during this period are much like those found at El Tajín (García Payón 1971:532; Daneels 2004), suggesting that the architectural style signaled a deeper affiliation. The palma, an especially complex, portable carved stone object with decoration strongly reminiscent of Tajín art, also marks this region and joins it to the highland traditions just to the south, around Xalapa, Veracruz. Daneels (2004:421) has defined a ceramic sphere that encompasses this larger region but suggests that these ties were more general than those seen in the heartland of Tajín's architectural style. The art and material culture of these peripheral sites indicate close Tajín ties in some elements (e.g., painting styles and rites depicted), but they also exhibit important differences (different ceramic figurines and a lack of flying cornices in the architecture) that suggest less intimate political and social relationships (Headrick and Koontz 2006:195). This book will examine some of these relations as they reveal themselves in the iconography, but for the moment one can safely envisage the smaller corridor of Tajín-related architecture as the Tajín polity or realm, with the ancient city at its center as the capital (Fig. 1.1).

Although the Tajín realm may be relatively well defined on the basis of architecture and material culture, little is known about the people who inhabited that realm. Ceramics were the principal means used in the past to identify the Tajín people and have also been the chief evidence for dating the site and exploring its relationships with other Mesoamerican centers. All this is quite a bit for the ceramic evidence to bear, as we shall see, and it suggests that a close examination of the ceramics will be repaid with a better understanding of how El Tajín has been constituted as a culture.

Ceramics: The Dating and Ethnicity of Tajín

Wilfredo Du Solier (1939, 1945) published the first systematic studies of Tajín ceramics. His stratigraphy came from several test pits in the west part of the site (Du Solier 1945:148), especially from one midden found in the extreme west of the monumental center, near the arroyo (Du Solier 1939:25). All other observations seem to be based on surface finds and earlier collections. The fact that he was unable to systematically compare his test pit stratigraphy to the fill in buildings, leaving the latter to be dated on style and a priori assumptions about urban development, was a situation that plagued Tajín archaeology until the Proyecto Tajín's systematic study of the ceramic fill in six of the ballcourts in the late 1980s (Raesfeld 1990, 1992), and one that continues to plague buildings outside the ballcourt study.

Du Solier created type categories for both the sherds (1939:27-29) and the figurine heads (1939:36), which he was able to associate with specific areas of Tajín. These correlations have not been discussed since and may still prove to be interesting. For example, Du Solier associated Polished Black Relief ware with the Mound of the Building Columns, where he found "hundreds" of these relief vessels carved with the "13 Rabbit" glyph, which he interpreted as a date (1945:155-156). He associated "captive taking" vessels with Tajín Chico, as well as a certain type of Fine Orange ware with pre- and post-fire grooving that he found in the top portions of his trenches in the site's western extremities. It is largely on this evidence that Tajín Chico is placed late in the architectural sequence (1939:31).

To date the site, Du Solier created three rough stages of Tajín ceramics and concentrated on the outside relationships of the Polished Black ware to other sites in Mesoamerica. He saw a relationship between what he defined as early Polished Black with Teotihuacan II or early III ware. This connection was one of the main pieces of evidence used to date Tajín as a Classic period site, although as Brüggemann (2004) later pointed out, it ignored the larger context of the Tajín ceramics in favor of a simple correlation. Put another way, Du Solier had no proof that the Tajín ceramics were found in stratigraphic situations comparable to the Teotihuacan pieces. This problem would crop up each time a ceramic relationship with Teotihuacan was attempted. In a later essay, Du Solier (1945:190) posited that there was no direct Teotihuacan influence at Tajín, and that any characteristics of the former site were "passed through the sieve of Huastec culture" before arriving at Tajín.

Paula Krotser (in Krotser and Krotser 1973) extended Du Solier's typology, did more trenching to establish a ceramic sequence, and also performed an intensive surface collection. Again the attempt was made to link Teotihuacan and Tajín through the Polished Black ceramic type, called here Terrazas Lustroso. This study suffered from the same lack of context as Du Solier's (Brüggemann 1992a:29, 2004), namely that the Tajín ceramics were not found in contexts that showed other firm Teotihuacan relationships. Not only were they found in different stratigraphic contexts, but at Teotihuacan, these ceramics were a luxury ware, whereas at Tajín they were a domestic ware (Yarborough n.d. [1992]:244-245). More generally, Krotser was able to tie the ceramics of Tajín to both the Huastec and Totonac ceramic spheres, and she noted that close relationships existed between Tajín and the nearby lowland site of Las Higueras as well as the highland Puebla site of Xiuhtetelco (see also García Payón 1971:528). The former contains murals in a style that can now be seen as related to Tajín (Sánchez Bonilla 1992; Morante López 2005).

Krotser's ceramic work was done about 2 km south of the central monumental zone, in groups of house mounds that the author designated as somewhere between those of the common farmer and those of the city's highest elite. Through these important early investigations of the periphery of Tajín, done in conjunction with Ramón Krotser, the authors were able to demonstrate that El Tajín was truly urban and not a largely vacant ceremonial center. That said, the work did little to clarify the architectural sequence at the heart of the site.

At approximately the same time that the Krotsers were working south of the center, S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson was exploring the nearby site of Santa Luisa, where he was able to construct the first complete ceramic sequence for the region and anchor it at least partially to radiocarbon dates (Wilkerson 1972, 1979, 1980, 1987a, 1990, 2001b). This regional chronology, in which the apogee of El Tajín is dated to the La Isla A (600-900) and La Isla B (900-1100) phases, has been critical to all later work in the region. Because Wilkerson could not correlate this information systematically with a large majority of the buildings at Tajín for lack of comparable material in good archaeological context, its usefulness remained marginal to constructing a chronology for the site proper.

Although the large amount of data on ceramics gathered in the 1960s and 1970s could not be applied to a chronology of monumental buildings at the site core, it was often used to defend or demolish hypotheses on the identity of the Tajín people. The great majority of scholarship on the city's inhabitants argued for one of two principal candidates: the Totonac (García Payón 1963) or the Huastec (Du Solier 1945; Wilkerson 1972, 1979). While north-central Veracruz sported a multiethnic population when the Spanish arrived, the Totonac were the dominant group in the area and thus the first candidates for building the much earlier city; however, ceramics associated with the Totonac are distinctive polychromes that do not appear at Tajín until late in the sequence, thus disqualifying the Totonac as we know them archaeologically from founding the city. Despite the ceramic evidence indicating that the Totonac arrived late in the sequence, García Payón (1963) saw the proof of Totonac identity for Tajín in colonial accounts of the historical movements of the Totonacs into this area that claimed a much earlier arrival, in the middle of the Classic period (ca. AD 300-400). This is possible only if one posits the different ceramic assemblage at that time to also be Totonac, which is what García Payón did (1963:245). In short, the Totonac identity hypothesis has a very weak basis in the material evidence, and the colonial records on which it is based provide a shaky foundation (Ramírez Castilla 1995).

Using ceramic evidence instead of colonial records, Wilkerson constructed an important argument for El Tajín as a Huastec site. He noted, as did Du Solier before him, that several very early (ca. 1000-300 BC) ceramic styles and figurine types are shared between the Tajín region and the area immediately to the north (Wilkerson 1979:40-41). This northern Gulf region has long been associated with the Huastec Maya, and it was hypothesized that these northern ties indicated a deep stratum of Huastec culture in the Tajín region. Recent archaeological finds in the Nautla River valley just to the south of Tajín have significantly changed this view of early Tajín affiliations. It is now clear that by ca. 300 BC a culture separate from that to the north had developed in the Tajín region and Nautla Valley (Wilkerson 1994, 2001a). By Tajín's Epiclassic apogee, the Huastec area to the north was a distinct ceramic sphere (Daneels 2004:421). Thus neither the Huastec nor the Totonac have definitive claims to the culture of Tajín.

Although it is difficult to assign a specific language or ethnic identity to El Tajín, the archaeological and artistic evidence is more easily related to other regions and spheres. As noted above, regional architectural styles and ceramic assemblages indicate a close-knit north-central Gulf lowland sphere during the period of Tajín's apogee. Fundamental traits of the Tajín art style indicate even wider Gulf relations. The widest sphere that has been clearly related to El Tajín is that of the Classic Veracruz style, which Proskouriakoff (1954) defined through the use two motifs: the scroll and the raised double outline. The sphere's definition in terms of stylistic practices, as opposed to reconstituted ethnicities, means that Classic Veracruz continues to be a productive, although debated, category. Refinements to Proskouriakoff's initial definition of the sphere show that the particular scroll style used at Tajín is indicative of later developments in the style of the northern half of the central Gulf lowlands (Stark 1998). It is especially close to the work seen on palmas, an elite sculptural form that is also specifically associated with the northern portion of the Classic Veracruz style sphere.

With a stalemate on the question of ethnicity, and rather impressionistic methods of dating the monumental center, the next phase of research into Tajín ceramics, chronology, and ethnicity began in 1983 with the launching of the Proyecto Tajín. During this massive project, the largest by far to date, little interest was shown in the ethnicity of the city's residents, but the question of dating consumed a significant portion of the project's resources. Several researchers came to the conclusion that any settlement before the Epiclassic period (ca. AD 650-1000) had been rather small, and that the apogee of Tajín may have been as short as three centuries (Brüggemann 1993).

To explore the question of chronology further, Raesfeld (1990, 1992) excavated test pits in six of the ballcourts, obtaining a comparative sample of more than 3,500 sherds. All six ballcourts proved to have the same fill, and surface collections at others suggest that all were constructed in a very short time. Furthermore, ceramic types that had been used to distinguish a Late Classic and an Early Postclassic phase were mixed in all the ballcourts, suggesting that these types may not be chronologically diagnostic, a problem that Wilkerson had already touched upon in his work at Santa Luisa. At the same time, Brüggemann (1993) telescoped the history of the site to the time span between AD 850 and 1150, finding no basis either in the architecture or the ceramics for any building that García Payón attempted to date as earlier. Lira López, in her published dissertation on Tajín ceramics (1990), notes little chronological development at all in the ceramics, following the results of Brüggemann and Raesfeld. Both Brüggemann and Lira López place what appears to be the compressed apogee period in the ninth to twelfth centuries on the basis of a radiocarbon date.

Despite the problems with chronological control at the beginning and end of the sequence, the important work of the Proyecto Tajín on Tajín chronology focused researchers on the rather short period of Tajín's apogee and the Epiclassic connections during that time. In arguing these points, and especially the initial date of AD 850, the Proyecto workers chose to ignore the earlier regional work of Wilkerson (1972), which showed that apogee-period ceramics found outside the center could be dated to the period between 600-1100, with these dates anchored to a more substantial series of radiocarbon dates than that used by Brüggemann and Lira López in the center.

While the above information is crucial to situating the city of Tajín in space and time, the focus of this book is not the city as a whole, but the three programs of public sculpture erected at its center. Since all three of these programs have been known and studied for some time, any study of the iconography of Tajín comes with a certain set of interests and assumptions. As we will see, these assumptions, and the debates they have generated, often have a direct effect on how scholars view Tajín's place in the greater Mesoamerican world.

The Study of the Imagery

Ellen Spinden (1933) was the first scholar to write at length on the imagery of El Tajín, and to help make sense of its figures and symbols, she turned to current understandings of Aztec imagery. This was a natural strategy. Not only did the Aztecs leave a voluminous body of art that had already been studied seriously for more than half a century, but they were also the subject of the finest ethnohistorical materials in Mesoamerica in the body of work by Sahagún and others. In addition, the greatest iconographer of the nineteenth century, Eduard Seler, used these Aztec materials almost exclusively to construct the first wide-ranging and coherent view of Mesoamerican iconography. Thus by the late 1920s, when Spinden began her work at Tajín, there was a venerable tradition supporting the use of Aztec analogies in examining other Mesoamerican symbol systems.

Although she analyzed a wealth of Tajín sculpture using Aztec analogies, Spinden did not have access to a single complete sculptural program; however, she did have access to four of the six monumental panels of the South Ballcourt. From these images, Spinden posited that the ballcourt sculptures depicted the initiation rites of a young warrior into a military cult with solar symbolism. Significant to all later scholarship were Spinden's (1933:256) identification of ballcourt sacrifice in the northeast panel (Fig. 3.8) and the association of this iconography with the Great Ballcourt of Chichén Itzá.

José García Payón, who followed Spinden and who for over three decades was the head archaeologist at El Tajín, was especially intrigued by the iconography of the South Ballcourt panels. On one level, García Payón largely accepted Spinden's hypothesis that the panels represent the initiation of a warrior. He introduced another layer of symbolism by identifying the South Ballcourt as a citlaltlachtli, or constellation ballcourt, and the actors as sky deities or impersonators. On both interpretive levels, he continued to use Central Mexican analogies initiated by Spinden. When he wrote his first major essay on the subject (García Payón 1959), an important part of the program remained unknown. Soon after that essay was published, García Payón found the two central panels of the South Ballcourt. He interpreted the panels as depicting a pulque rite due to the presence in both scenes of the maguey plant, from which the intoxicating beverage is made (García Payón 1963). He eventually expanded this hypothesis into a large part of his last major publication on the site (García Payón 1973b:31-57).

H. David Tuggle (1968) was the first to publish and interpret as a whole the extensive imagery found in the Mound of the Building Columns program. In this important article he identified the scenes as a series of rituals, most of which involved human sacrifice. He linked several of the key scenes with imagery found in the lower monumental center, thus being the first to note the iconographic coherence of the site as a whole. Following Caso (1953), he showed that the glyphs inserted into the carved scenes named the figures. Tuggle suggested that the most important individual, named "13 Rabbit," was a historical ruler at the site.

Michael Kampen (1972) was the first person to publish a systematic study of the site's iconography as a whole. His book, The Sculptures of El Tajín, Veracruz, Mexico, was by far the most important publication on the imagery up to that time. In it he illustrated the entire known corpus of sculpture with careful line drawings that have proved invaluable to all later researchers. His iconographic analyses were placed in a synthetic chapter on the subject and in the descriptions that accompanied the catalog of the sculptures. In both places he dropped the interpretations of Spinden and García Payón, by then embedded in the literature, and instead carefully noted the basic vocabulary and syntax of Tajín iconography. He then linked these patterns to basic themes such as ballcourt sacrifice. Kampen was especially wary of direct analogies with later Aztec imagery given the significant differences in the organization, location, and historical position of the two cultures. He found the wide-ranging comparative method introduced by Spinden to be too impressionistic and too reliant on simple correspondences between Mesoamerican systems. This critique, together with superior documentation of the site's sculptural corpus, made Kampen's book indispensable to Tajín studies.

The work of the Proyecto Tajín has continued Kampen's documentary work and has also proven invaluable for iconographers. The recent catalog of sculpture by Patricia Castillo Peña (1995) and the monograph on works in all media by Sara Ladrón de Guevara (1999) contain extensive collections of new material as well as more-detailed reconstructions of old sculptures and murals that formerly had been known only as disconnected fragments. The latter work also contains a considered analysis of the global worldview evident in Tajín iconography.

Arturo Pascual Soto (1990) further systematized many of Kampen's observations. Throughout his book on the site's imagery he treats the elements of Tajín iconography as if they were Maya hieroglyphs, and he goes so far as to borrow the notational system that Thompson (1962) used to describe the glyphs. Pascual Soto's main objective was to generate a chronology for the sculptures by noting the historical transformations in particular iconographic elements in order to date the monuments and identify workshops. This goal may be opposed to the narrative reading that drove the earlier analyses. Pascual Soto's close attention to iconographic detail and archaeological context allowed him to establish for the first time several important groups of sculpture, including a much clearer idea of the public sculpture in and around the Central Plaza (Pascual Soto 1990:173).

At the same time, Wilkerson (1980, 1984, 1991) was involved in exploration of the narrative content of the South Ballcourt program, initiated by Spinden and García Payón. Synthesizing the work of the two earlier researchers, he linked Spinden's hypothesis on the meaning of the corner panels as warrior initiation rites with García Payón's interpretation of the pulque ritual of the center panels. In Wilkerson's analysis, the corner panels show the rituals leading to ballcourt sacrifice, which then produces the "response of the gods" in the form of pulque. He also expands on García Payón's astral symbolism, which he links specifically with Venus. Taking up Tuggle's thesis on the position of 13 Rabbit in the Mound of the Building Columns, he argues that one of the more important scenes (Fig. 4.4B) records the affirmation of this ruler's power.

Karl Taube (1986, 1988) has reinterpreted several important Tajín images by placing them in their larger Mesoamerican context. He is the first to apply such a wide-ranging comparative method to the imagery of Tajín since Spinden's initial article. Most importantly, he identifies the central panels of the South Ballcourt as an example of the cosmogonic imagery found throughout Mesoamerica (Taube 1986:56-57), and a main scene in the Mound of the Building Columns as scaffold sacrifice (Taube 1988).

The most sustained attempt to place Tajín iconography in its Epiclassic Mesoamerican context is that of William Ringle (Ringle et al. 1998; Ringle 2004). His focus is not on El Tajín per se, but on the shared Feathered Serpent symbolism used by Epiclassic elite networks throughout Mesoamerica. Ringle is particularly interested in the link between Tajín imagery and that of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan, a relation first remarked in Spinden's original Tajín article.

Although they do not specifically treat Tajín imagery, López Austin and López Luján (2000) provide an important complementary model for shared Epiclassic symbolism, derived from a close reading of later ethnohistoric sources as well as analogies with later political systems. They base their model on an exegesis of the language of Zuyuá, an arcane elite language used in Contact period Yucatan, but which these authors argue has deep and broad roots in Mesoamerica. Especially important for this study is the recognition that elites would associate themselves both with the local patron deity as well as the more universal Feathered Serpent, the latter usually conceived as a combination of a quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) and a rattlesnake (Crotalus or Sistrurus sp.). Like the Ringle model noted above, the Zuyuan model places Feathered Serpent imagery at the center of shared Epiclassic symbolism across the region, a theme we will explore as it pertains to Tajín. Both models attempt to explain the shared symbolism and the wide-ranging contacts of Epiclassic elites, two of the most pertinent and heretofore little understood aspects of Epiclassic elite art.

Both Epiclassic models play against a recent tradition of studying Tajín iconography that has steered away from analogies. To place Tajín in a Mesoamerican context, however, requires the judicious and frequent use of analogy. If the imagery of El Tajín is to be brought fully into the Mesoamerican fold, then the use of analogies with other Mesoamerican iconographic systems is the single most important issue in the study of Tajín's imagery. A major problem for any analogical argument is the lack of textual documentation on Tajín thought and religion. The major documents for the study of Tajín culture turn out to be the art and architecture themselves. This is the lot of the prehistorian, to be always searching for relevant documents but never finding anything so immediate as the art and other aspects of material culture that the people themselves produced. Everything else—including documents produced by later cultures, as is the case with later ethnohistoric writings from the area, as well as the contemporary Maya writing and the iconographic statements of related Epiclassic capitals—is at some remove from the matter at hand. How to connect these documents with the iconography of Tajín has been and continues to be a major problem in Classic Veracruz studies, and one we will explore in its specifics as we examine the imagery.

In sum, the best treatments of Tajín iconography have always involved close, intrinsic readings of the imagery combined with analogies from well-documented Mesoamerican iconographic traditions. In the scholarship on Tajín before 1960, these analogies were drawn almost exclusively from the Late Postclassic Aztec tradition. Later authors have criticized the use of iconographic analogies from a culture that was organized differently, lived in a significantly different ecosystem, and followed the apogee of Tajín culture by 500 years. This revision of the use of analogy in Tajín iconography follows a wider trend in which the appropriateness of the Late Postclassic Aztec analogy was questioned throughout Mesoamerican studies (Kubler 1967). The Late Postclassic analogy had its defenders (Nicholson 1971), but even these admitted that indiscriminate use of Aztec materials seen earlier was no longer tenable. Instead, recent analyses have focused on finding analogies that are more specifically suited to the Tajín context for structural and/or historical reasons. Particularly important to this study are approaches that focus on the Epiclassic context of the imagery.



“I find this book to be a superior piece of scholarship in every way.”
John Pohl, Peter Jay Sharp Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas, Princeton University Art Museum


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