Friday, August 31, 2012

steve meets indiana jones

It really was a new dawn.

At least, for me on this trip to San Miguel.

Last year I wanted to visit the prime archaeological site of the area -- Cañada de la Virgen (Canyon of the Virgin).  It had just opened to the public last year, but I could not arrange a visit before I headed south to Pátzcuaro.

I was not going to make the same mistake this year.  Late last week I started the process of setting up a guided tour.

I only had two requirements. 

First, I wanted the guide to be Albert Coffee, who has worked with the archaeologists who restored the site. 

Second, I did not want to travel with a group.  I had a lot of very specific questions that I knew would simply complicate a group tour.

It turned out to be a wise choice -- both requirements.

Albert knows his stuff.  On the drive out, I told him that I was aware there were quite a few controversies about the site.  Just as there are about almost every mesoamerican site in Mexico.  And we will get to some of those.  Albert has some strong opinions of his own.

The site has severe restrictions on how long each tour group can be on site.  When we arrived, the director informed us that the on-site time had been reduced almost by half.  That meant that we needed to rush.

I was glad I had spent the time walking up and down Babs's hill for the past two weeks because there is a long, hilly walk to get to the site.  Last year my ankle may not have been up to the task.

The first controversy surrounding the site is who built it.  The early theory was that the site was associated with the Toltecs.  Of course, that simply left the place in the middle of the long-running controversy about the Toltecs.

The dates were dodgy if it was a Toltec site.  It was built between 300 and 1000 AD.  And abandoned in 1050.  No one knows what cased the collapse of the local civilization.  But like Teotihuacán and the Mayan city-states, the sudden collapse was undoubtedly due to a multitude of complex causes.

I could easily see the various building periods evident on each building.

They were built in three stages. 

The first was with colorful block stones that were transported from a quarry near Guanajuato -- over thirty miles away.  Without the aid of domesticated animals or the wheel. 

The second phase was built with local basalt.  This is a volcanic area. 

The third stage, that was interrupted, was built with ordinary brick.

One theory is that Otomi-hñahñu Indians were responsible for the construction. There appear to be Oaxaca influences -- such as the presence of sunken patios.

The truth is -- no one knows.

What we do know is the purpose for the site.  It is a giant astrological calendar.  And by giant, I mean massive.

The buildings are designed to track the cycles of the moon and planets.  For example, the major pyramid (the thirteen skies house) is a moon clock and a planet movement calculator.

But the surrounding hills are also part of the calculator.  They measured the equinoxes, when crops should be planted, when crops should be harvested, and when the rainy seasons were to begin. 

That means whoever built the complex had watched the seasons over a long period of time and then placed each building in a very exact position.

One of the most interesting aspects of the site is how the buildings reflect the shape of the surrounding topography.  The thirteen skies house reflects the outline of a major volcano from one side and a mesa on the other.  The house of the winds repeats a small hill on the horizon.

Archaeologists have discovered enough information to understand some of the ritual surrounding the site.  Only about 150 elite priests lived on the site.  But, during periodic rituals, others would participate.

A one kilometer causeway begins in a small canyon below the site -- representing the underworld.  The procession would then climb the hill to the sanctuary, stopping at least twice along the way to perform ceremonies.

The site also contains some interesting burials.  A man, probably noble, who was decapitated after death and had his hands and feet cut off.  A young woman buried in the trappings of a warrior.  A man, wrapped in a plant fiber bundle, buried in a chamber at the top of the pyramid -- a thousand years after he died.

Each burial raises more questions than it answers.  But the bundled man is evocative of Oaxaca -- and the Inca.  And the girl warrior shows the site had a feminine connection.

Both the thirteen skies house and the house of the winds have an interesting architectural attribute. Open patios face each building.  If each building was tipped into its respective patio, the building would fit exactly into the patio.

The symbolism is common in mesoamerican sites.  The masculine/temple/mountain sky finding completeness in feminine/patio/earth/cave.

There are some -- Albert is amongst them -- who argue the patios were filled with water to act as mirrors and reflect that relationship.  Again, it is controversial.  But there is no disputing the spatial relationship between the buildings and the patios.

Time constraints keep us moving along at a brisk pace.  But I learned a lot about the site and got to experience its feel.  It is one of the sites that still allows visitors to climb its steep steps.  If the time constraints stay in place, that may be difficult for groups to accomplish.

I would gladly go back to the site to learn more.

All in all it was a beautiful day on Thursday.  Including the dawn.


John Calypso said...

thanks for taking us along - well done.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

Glad you enjoyed your day and Albert Coffee.  I've heard nothing but praise for his knowledge and his background.  Tulane turns out master archaeologists.  That's where the "founder" of Palenque, whose name escapes me right now, graduated from also......

Steve Cotton said...

And our forced march pace gave me quite a workout.  I hope the site reverses its policy on time.  It would be far too short for a full tour group.

Steve Cotton said...

My visit to San Miguel has been great.  But yesterday's trek was really special.

Irene said...

Thank you for this tour. Why are there time constraints on how long you can be on the site?

NW said...

Okay so that is just very cool. Thank you for that.

Steve Cotton said...

 You are welcome.  Our history lesson for the day.

Steve Cotton said...

I really do not know.  There is a complex back story associated with the place.

Mcotton said...

It was great to visualize your tour with you.  It made me think back to when your dad, Rachel and I visited Oaxaca, Mitla, and Monte Alban.

Steve Cotton said...

I hope to get south early next year.

Glenn said...

Very interesting.  I didn't realize this was an archaeological site.  Several years ago I was told that the area was used by marijuana growers, and was advised not to hike there.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

The pyramids are on private property..........the woman who owns the land establishes the policies.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

 Steve, it is very easy to take a bus to Mexico City, transfer to another to Oaxaca.  I was there for quite a while without a car and there are all kinds of ways to get around.........great day drivers and tour guides in Oaxaca..

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks for the information.  There is a possibility that I may join one of the tours from Melaque to Chiapas.  But, as you know, I am rather fluid these days.

Steve Cotton said...

I asked about that.  But this one appears to have come from the government director.  There is undoubtedly a story there.

Steve Cotton said...

The site is surrounded by a vast amount of private property.  The woman who owns the property donated the archaeological site to the government.  Otherwise, she has cut off access across her property for other users. 

A lot of the area is ejido land.  Plenty of corn and squash. 

As for alternate crops, I have heard nothing.

Kim G said...

Interesting post. I had never heard of that particular site. (But I suppose there are many such sites in Mexico.)

The archaeological richness of Mexico continues to amaze me.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where there are plenty of old rocks, but none made into pyramids and temples.

Steve Cotton said...

It has nt been heavily publicized.  And there is a story in that, as well.  When we next meet, I will tell you.