My friend Roy claims to have The Big Book of Things Roy Doesn’t Know.
And I suspect his wife, Nancy, believes there is an even larger tome: Things Roy Thinks He Knows, But Doesn’t.
I really wish that popular archaeologists knew their work as well as Roy knows himself. I remember a history lesson in Mrs. Dix’s sixth grade class. The textbook showed a picture of the Teotihuacán pyramids and described them as Aztec structures.
That was a common myth. But by the 1950s, archaeologists knew that was not true. It was a bad guess. Like the myth the pyramids were built by the lost tribes of Israel.
Like other tribes before them, the Spanish destroyed many of the historical documents of the Aztecs and Maya. Just as the Aztecs had done to the people they conquered. The cycle of destruction spirals back through each of the conquering tribes in Mexico.
The further back in time archaeologists dig, the more mysterious the older cultures become. We know almost nothing about the people of Teotihuacán or the Toltecs. But that has not kept archaeologists from guessing.
To be fair, academic archaeologists are usually very precise when they start speculating. They pepper their work with terms like “probable” or “possibly.”
But journalists and text book writers prefer far more certainty. So, the precatory language tends to turn into the dictates of scripture.
On Friday, I visited a site where next to nothing is known about the civilization that built it. Tingambato is 23 miles from Pátzcuaro -- just on the other side of the mountains to the west of the lake.
The site was originally presumed to be another Purépecha city. But when archaeologists began excavating it in the late 1970s, they discovered it to be far older. The oldest part of the dig was built around 450 AD. The second phase was built between 600 and 900 AD. That predates the Purépecha by between 900 and 400 years.
The site is very small. Smaller than Ihuatzio. But its scale is very human.
Like Tzintzuntzan, the city sits on an artificially leveled grand platform. But unlike Tzintzuntzan, it was greatly modified over the years with new construction.
We can tell that this was not merely a ceremonial city -- though ceremonial it was. There is a series of rooms, mistakenly nicknamed “the palace,” though there is no proof that the place was a royal residence.
”The palace” overlooks a sunken plaza that appears to be an atrium to the modern eye. It isn’t. The two structures in the center that look ornamental are actually altars.
What, if anything, died on the altars, we do not know. There is very little evidence to determine the city’s ceremonies. However, there is circumstantial evidence that human sacrifice cannot be discarded as a theory.
And, of course, there is the ever-present ball court. This one is well-persevered, because unlike most ball courts that were built between other structures, this one was constructed as a sunken court in the great platform.
No Mesoamerican site would be complete without a pyramid. And this site has quite a nice one. The construction of the pyramid and the arrangement of the buildings and spaces around it would indicate a heavy Teotihuacán influence. And because we know so little about the people of Teotihuacán, it is not surprising we know little about the people of Tingambato.
What we do know comes from a tomb discovered on the site during excavation. Five feet high and about eleven feet square, the tomb consisted of a sitting skeleton, and 32 skulls with respective offerings. No one knows exactly what to make of the combination. Reuse of the tomb? Ritual sacrifice? Trophy skulls? Based on the evidence, any conclusion would be mere speculation.
Tingambato is just my type of site. A place with mystery. But a mystery built on a human scale.
The city is built on a grid street system. I should probably put “street” in parentheses because I could reach the walls on each side of the street and still have bent elbows. But they were as big as they needed to be. After all, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Mexicans did not have animal-powered carts.
I still had a bit of time left in the day to explore, so, I decided to take a look at the area’s other lake -- Lake Zirahuén.
The lake is a bit higher than Lake Pátzcuaro. And its setting is far more dramatic. The surrounding mountains come right to the edge of the lake. And the lake is blue.
My travel guide indicates “[a] rough but passable road circles the lake.” The guide is dated. Because the road that circles the lake is not only a beautiful brick and cobblestone construction, it is far better than most roads I have encountered in California these days.
And it was well worth taking a trip around the lake for the varied scenery. It also proved how fickle I am. Yesterday I was in love with the water of Lake Pátzcuaro. Today I am in love with the alpine beauty of Lake Zirahuén.
My friends Roy and Nancy have a very nice condominium on Lake Tahoe -- where I stayed for a few days on my return trip from Rome. They believe Lake Tahoe is the most beautiful place in the world.
After my visit to Lake Zirahuén, there may be another entry in that The Big Book of Things Roy Doesn’t Know.