Saturday, August 20, 2011

know thyself

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Like other tribes before them, the Spanish destroyed many of the historical documents of the Aztecs and Maya.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. 


Felipe Zapata said...

There is (or was) a restaurant on the far side of the lake from the town of Zirahuén. It was approachable by a very primitive road, and my wife and I went to that restaurant a few years back. The road was so bad that I swore never to do it again. I did not know the road had been improved.

I see you passed on the opportunity to hold the Baby Jesus of Tingambato in your very hands. Might have made a Catholic out of you.

Ric Hoffman said...

"The cycle of destruction spirals back through each of the conquering tribes in Mexico.... a sitting skeleton, and 32 skulls with respective offerings.  No one knows exactly what to make of the combination......"
Probably the remains of the conquering foreign tourists with camera are looking for the "true Mexico" to amuse them.  The ones who compare the infrastructures of their native land to the wonders of this new adopted one.

Mexican Trailrunner said...

Hi Steve, am thoroughly enjoying your pictures and posts, I love all things Patzcuaro - but most of all Lago Zirahuén.  You can kayak it, btw, if interested. 
Your pictures are reeeeeaaaallly good!
I have to agree tho, and sounds like you do too, stay off the back roads and be safe.  I have had to stop hiking the cerro around my lake now too, it's just too dangerous, we have stopped driving back roads around Jalisco and near-by Michoacan.  It's a new world and I don't like it.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

When you come back to San Miguel you'll need to make the trek about 20 miles from SMA to Canada de Virgen pyramid.  It opened last year to the public.  There is a great archaeologist that is now a guide named Albert Coffee.  Remind me and I'll give you his number to set up a tour.  He worked on the site and is extremely knowledgeable.  The pyramid was for celestial observation etc., according to what I've read.  Glad you're enjoying your exploring.  

Nita said...

Steve, I never met an archeological ruins I didn't like, small or large. This one I did not know about. Thank you for pics and information.

tancho said...

We run over to Zirahuén a lot, since they have fixed the road from Santa Clara. There a few nice little restaurants on the NorthEast side that have decent food. When we first came to Mexico to look for land to build, Zirahuén was a place I could have purcase a big plot bordering the water. The only problem that was before the autopista and the road being fixed. It was at least 1 hour from Patcauro at the time, now I would have probably chosen Zirahuén just for the great views.
If you get a chance take the back road (free) between Lake Patzcuaro and Uruapan.
Tacambaro is also a nice side trip.

Steve Cotton said...

But history is seldom that just.

Steve Cotton said...

I don't think I took a photograph of the road. I will look through my photographs to show you if I did.

I completely forgot about the baby -- even though I went to the church. I may stop by on my trip to Uruapan.

Steve Cotton said...

Funny that you mention kayaks on the lake. As you know, I seriously considered bringing down a Hobycat kayak with outriggers, sail, and foot paddles. It would have been perfect on the lake. And it is an idea I should not easily discard.

Steve Cotton said...

It was one of the many sites I missed seeing while I was at San Miguel. When I return, I will b e certain to go. The contemporary culture distracted me from the ancient culture.

Steve Cotton said...

You really should see it if you get the chance. This evening I am going to a lecture by an author of a book on Mexico's history. I look forward to discussing some of these sites with him.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks for the information on another spot to stop.  I accidentally took the autopista from Pátzcuaro to the Zirahuén junction.  But I came back on the libre.  The drive itself was worth it.  Other than the fact I had drivers on my bumper on the entire trip.

Don Cuevas said...

Felipe; Steve, there are at least two restaurants on the western side of Lake Zirahuen. One is La Troje de Ala. The newer is Miralago, which our friend, Tancho tried to dine at some months back but found no one there. 

Recently while in Morelia, I met the administrator of Miralago, Sr. Maurilio (his last name has slipped my mind.) He is the husband of Betty of the new, La Cocina de Betty in Morelia. The latter is located two blocks from La Migra. 

Dave and Rosy Greene have eaten at Miralago and liked it. I believe that the road around the lake is all paved now.

Saludos, Don Cuevas

leftedge said...

Steve, thanks for posting on facebook. Dave and I (Nichols) read this post with pleasure this morning. You write beautifully, and the photos are lovely. 90+ degrees in Salem, OR yesterday. Looks like not only are we having a strange, late summer, but an early wet fall approaching.

Steve Cotton said...

I saw the signs and the entrance to Miralago.  It looks like quite a place.  But I did not stop.  I am in a scenery-consuming mood.

Steve Cotton said...

I often forget to put the link over there. In fact, I forgot to do it today.

Thanks for the very nice compliment. Our weather here has been in the low 70s. My type of weather.

Felipe Zapata said...

My wife and I drove all the way around Lake Zirahuén today and it is paved all the way. Wonderful drive. The Miralago restaurant was open, and business was booming. It's only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so Tancho must have gone some other day.

Steve Cotton said...

Your reporter lies not.