The citadel of Cacaxtla is prominently located on a hilltop in the highlands of Mexico, in the state of Tlaxcala, about eighty kilometers (fifty miles) southeast of Mexico City. It dates to the Epiclassic period (c. c.e. 650-850), a time when great cities such as Teotihuacan had collapsed and independent highland kingdoms had begun to develop. It was the main seat of the rulers of a group known to archaeologists as the Olmeca-Xicalanca (not connected with earlier Olmecs on the Gulf Coast).

The most impressive feature of Cacaxtla for the modern visitor is its huge murals, colorful and dramatic, reflecting a mixture of stylistic influences. These bear witness to tumultuous times. One of them vividly depicts the aftermath of battle and sacrifice, with the victorious dark-skinned warriors shown in jaguar pelts and the defeated lowland army in bird costumes. In one scene, the defeated captain is draped with Venus symbols and is being publicly humiliated prior to his execution. The archaeoastronomer John Carlson has argued convincingly that this episode was one manifestation of a wider cult of warfare and ritual sacrifice related to the patterns of appearance of the planet Venus. A small chamber discovered in 1987 contained two stuccoed pillars, each painted with a life-sized figure rich in symbolism relating to blood, water, and the planet Venus. One is male and one is female, but they also have scorpion, bird, and jaguar features and wear Venus skirts, kilts ornamented with a huge depiction of the glyph known to represent Venus. They are thought to represent deities strongly related to Venus, who had a vital role in the process of turning blood into water through ritual sacrifice (feeding the gods with human blood would encourage them to reciprocate by providing rain), thus ensuring fertility and renewal. It is possible that this room was the place where some of the most important sacrifices took place.

About one and a half kilometers (one mile) to the west of Cacaxtla, on an adjacent and higher hilltop, is the ceremonial center of Xochitecatl, a much older site that was occupied from about 700 b.c.e. and in use until an eruption of the volcano Popocatepetl forced its abandonment around c.e. 150. (Later, at the time of the dominance of Cacaxtla, parts of it were reoc-cupied.) One of its most distinctive features is a spiral pyramid built around 700 b.c.e. But it is the rectangular Pyramid of the Flowers that is most remarkable. It contains more than thirty infant burials (yet only one adult) and over two thousand clay figures, the great majority representing females of all ages. The obvious conclusion is that the latter were votive offerings related to fertility rites. The infant burials evoke practices known in (later) Aztec times, when children were sacrificed at mountain shrines on particular calendar dates to petition for rain.

Ascending the temple’s western staircase to the large central platform— 140 by 100 meters (460 by 330 feet)—reveals a striking view to the east and, directly ahead, the 4,600 meter (15,000 foot) volcano La Malinche, which dominates this region. The deposits of clay figures were found near this spot, which is scarcely surprising. Rain and fertility are clearly associated, and clouds tend to loom over the mountain even when the sky is otherwise clear. The later Aztecs certainly associated mountains with rains, believing (some have argued) that mountains were hollow “houses” filled with water—a conviction that is likely to reflect a much longer-standing element of Mesoamerican worldview. In pre-conquest times La Malinche was known as Matlalcueye, the great female mountain of sustenance. It is fair to conclude that rain and fertility rites at Xochitecatl might have been associated with this mountain for many centuries into the past, and possibly as far back as the Middle Formative Period when the pyramids were first built.

The view from the platform of the Pyramid of the Flowers reveals one more remarkable fact. From here, the palace of cacaxtla sits immediately below and directly in line with the volcano. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that cacaxtla was deliberately placed in an alignment whose significance was already long established? Possibly not; and it is even possible that cult practices related to this alignment have survived into modern times. Each year on the festival of St. Michael, September 29, the people of the village of San Miguel del Milagro, close to Xochitecatl, set out on a pilgrimage to the archangel’s shrine. Chanting to celebrate the feast begins at sunrise. Around this day, as viewed from the Pyramid of the Flowers, the sun rises behind the summit of La Malinche, along the alignment of monuments and mountain. According to Carlson, these activities that still take place in a small Mexican village represent, in Christianized form, a living tradition of sacred geography, timed pilgrimage, and mountain veneration related to rain and fertility rites that extends well back into pre-conquest times. Such a continuity of tradition might seem unthinkable if we did not have good evidence that other fundamental aspects of Mesoamerican thought were remarkably durable— in particular the calendar itself.

Threading together in this way strands of evidence of different types— from archaeology, history, archaeoastronomy, and modern ethnography— raises many methodological issues, and if done carelessly can lead to quite unsustainable conclusions. Yet if done carefully it can bring some remarkable insights.

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