Thursday, January 13, 2011

stuffing my mouth

"And such small portions."

So ends the famous Woody Allen punchline.

But I am learning that life, just like supper, is best appreciated in small portions.  It has taken me some time to realize that little bit of wisdom.

My plans for Wednesday were to get up early, have a nice breakfast on the plaza, visit Colima's two best museums (Museo de Historia and Museo de Culturas del Occidente), and tour two archaeological sites (La Campana in the city limits of Colima, and Tampumachay on the main road back to Manzanillo).

OK.  After my active day on Tuesday, even I knew I was being too ambitious.  And that was before the bells incident.

I told you yesterday I was excited that my balcony looked right out on the cathedral.  Well, picturesque comes with a price.  In this case, a loud price.

The bells in the towers started ringing at 3.  Then at 5.  And again at 7.  They were the type of loud that would raise Elmer Fudd straight out of bed.

My early start turned into a 9 AM departure from the hotel -- without breakfast.  I headed across the jardin de libertad to the Museo de Historica.

Most guide books minimize the limited scope of the museum's exhibits in favor of the far more comprehensive Museo de Culturas del Occidente.  But the historical museum is just that: a place to show the various eras of Colima's history from its earliest days to the present -- through cultural items.  It is the very essence of a popular institution.

I spent the morning there and most of the afternoon at La Campana.  Here are some thoughts are visiting both.

We know little for certain about ancient cultures.  And what we know is always subject to revision.

The silly "Aztecs as Spartans and Mayas as Athenians" analogy is the most obvious and embarrassment.  Or the discovery that the nearly-beatified Anasazi were cannibals.

What we do know about the Indians around Colima is that they had been there at least as early as 1500 BC, and were the oldest civilization in western Mexico.

We also know that the tiny region eventually formed around this early culture and remained fiercely independent politically from its neighbors. 

They also managed to hold off the Spanish in two incursions in 1522.  Only to fall in 1523 -- losing 95% of the population to war and disease.  Ending 3000 years of independence.

What we know about the early centuries of this civilization is through its pottery.

The earliest examples of pottery are quite plain.  Only a few simple designs painted or etched on the surface.  Even so, it is obvious that the potter knew the piece had value beyond a utilitarian vessel.  Otherwise, there was no need for ornamentation.  Some are now almost 4000 years old.

But the pottery soon became far more ornate.  Taking their forms from the vegetables cultivated by the Indians.  In this case, pumpkins.

The Indians quickly learned that obsidian (a plentiful material due to the proximity of two volcanoes) could be chipped and carved into both war and work implements -- in addition to statuary.  Rather sophisticated statuary.

I have often been struck by what appear to be incongruous comparisons between cultures.  But I made my own.  The human figures bear a strange resemblance to Sumerian pottery.  It is the eyes.  The size and shape.

I am not suggesting a connection between the Colima Indians and Sumeria.  Perhaps it is nothing more than the difficulties of carving small eyes in clay.  No matter where artists live.  Mesopotamia or Mesoamerica.

La Campana gives us a good idea how the makers of this pottery lived.  The site has been occupied since 1500 BC, but was abandoned prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

There are no massive buildings at La Campana.  But the pyramids, houses, ball courts, and patios show a human scale.  You can easily imagine your neighbors building similar foundations.

And foundations are what has been recovered and reconstructed.  No dressed stones here.  Everything is round rock set in clay mortar.

But we know what it once was -- the largest city in western Mexico.  At its height, the foundations were topped with wooden structures and roofed with palms or grass.  That is why we have nothing left but the foundations.

La Campana also offers a rare attraction: a tomb filled with original objects.  When archaeologists find artifacts on a site, they are usually put in a museum for their protection.

But the curators of this site have left everything in place for public viewing.  Bones.  A pottery mask.  A pottery dog.

The Indians on the west coast buried their dead in shaft tombs.  In the case of Colima, eight foot shafts dug through volcanic rock.  The tomb would then be hollowed out to give the soul a space to begin its journey through the travails of the afterlife.

Only honored classes (warriors or women who died in childbirth) would be automatically admitted to "heaven."  Everyone else could expect a long, tough journey -- no matter how good or evil they were in life.

But two things were required for a successful journey.

We have already looked at the first -- the need for tomb space where the soul could rise from the body.

The second requirement was -- a dog to accompany the soul on its journey.  Professor Jiggs would have appreciated that little bit of canine history.

Without either, the soul would wander aimlessly for eternity.  Like Paris Hilton.

That explains the odd relationship between Indians and their dogs.  There were two distinct types of dogs.

The first, tlachichi, were fat, bald, and short-legged.  They sound like a frankfurter.  And that is exactly what they were.  They were a food source.

The second, xoloitzcuintli, were a noble breed with long legs.  Interestingly, both types of dogs have been preserved in pottery form.  Maybe the dead wanted the option of being guided by a dog from the Donner party.

The pottery dogs were always hollow when placed in a tomb to allow the human soul to take up residence inside.  There is something reassuring to me about a people who saw dogs as friends to assist them in their greatest need.

The museum has a mock tomb that a viewer can compare to the actual tomb at La Campana.  You get an incredibly good feel for what it was like to be down the shaft.

I could easily have spent a full day in the museum.  The exhibits have been chosen carefully to draw a connection between the viewer and Mexicans long -- and more recently -- gone.  Admittedly, there is the usual romantic patina foil hammered over the historical recitals.

The conquest.  How coconut palms came to Mexico and revitalized Colima.  The Independence movement.  Benito Juarez's flight through Colima.  Porfirio Diaz's life-breathing economic policies and soul-sucking politics (though no portrait of the dictator).  The Revolution.  The golden days of Colima.

I will leave the Museo de Culturas de Occidente and Tampumachay for another day.  Because I know I will get back to Colima now and then.

Perhaps on my way to other parts of Mexico.


Kwallekno said...

Here in Ohio we have historical accounts of settlers who were taken in raids by Indians from west of here, in every one I have read, the setters recount that their captors would eat one or two captives when they had to stop to rest. The Indians did not want to take the time to hunt because they knew the families of their captives were hot on their trail. It was a great incentive to keep up because the laggards were the first ones to be cut up for supper. And everyone ate because if they did not, they would be the laggard the next march...

Carolyn said...

Sometimes I can understand how things can be inferred from the remains of early societies, like how some dogs were eaten and some were companions (evidence of human chewing on the dog bones, I presume). But other inferences I don't get "The pottery dogs were always hollow when placed in a tomb to allow the human soul to take up residence inside." Interesting, I like the thought but from what evidence do they draw that conclusion I wonder . . .
The chubby little dog sculpture is so charming and sweet and probably quite delicious in real life. :(