Dogma still dogging western Mexico's archeological wealth
by Sean Mattson
Archeologist Eric Cach will never forget the day a group of skeptical students from Mexico City's National School of Anthropology dragged themselves out to the Guachimontones ruins in the western state of Jalisco.
Their professors at ENAH (for its initials in Spanish, Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia) had already told them there was nothing of archeological interest culturally and architecturally speaking in the vast provincial expanses of the nation's west. So making the ten-hour trip from the capital to Teuchitlan, Jalisco just to see a few piles of rocks was going to be a big waste of time.
Were they in for a surprise.
Teuchitlan's monumental, unique-to-world-architecture circular ruins left the students from Mexico's most prestigious school of anthropology scraping their jaws off the ground. And Cach's vivid description of the complex civilization that built them sent the students back to classes with some serious questions for the department heads.
They told me they were still being taught that there were only nomadic groups in the west whose structures were architecturally very poor, said Cach, 34, admitting that he, too, was taught the same thing in school.
Very few weren't....
Leading the crusade against the disturbing and seemingly undying dogma of a western Mexico bereft of archeological heritage is American archeologist Phil Weigand.
Weigand undertook the uphill battle in the late 1960s with wife and Teuchitlan investigations laboratory technician Acelia, when both were students in the University of South Illinois. What piqued their interest was the incongruency between the textbook rhetoric and west Mexico's notorious pre-Columbian tradition of shaft tomb burials and the plethora of clay artifacts the tombs had provided (quite illegally) to private collections around the world.
When Acelia and I began 33 years ago, we started with this dogma and we accepted it, said Weigand. But I thought, well, let's go out where these shaft tombs have been found and look for these simple surface structures. The shaft tombs weren't dug by the dead people, they were dug by people who were alive at the time and I wanted to see how they lived.
It didn't take the Weigands long to discover that the dish students of Mexican archeology were being fed was a little hard to digest. After just two summer trips to the Teuchitlan region, the Weigands had discovered the vestiges of an extensive, socially complex and architecturally rich society that the academics had either not seen or had chosen to ignore.
On the first trip in 1969 we saw that this dogma wasn't true, recalled Weigand. Near the places where these tombs were located were these pyramids of circular design. In '71 or '72, once we had aerial photographs, we started finding them first by the dozens then by the hundreds. They're all over the place. We have found more than 2,000 sites, and some of them, like the Guachimontones, have up to ten circles and two ball courts. And surely there are many more that we haven't found yet.
But seeing wasn't believing for many at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico City or even in nearby Guadalajara. The idea that there had been an important pre-Hispanic civilization outside central Mexico didnt jive with the still-surviving capitalino belief that Mexico City is the center of the universe.
By 1976 people were actually trying to get us out, to stop the project, said Weigand. They said our data must be flawed, that these things clearly don't exist, that perhaps we are confusing hills with pyramids. Anything rather than go out and see for themselves. The powers that be still [are] pushing back this idea of centralismo into the pre-Hispanic past where it doesnt belong, said Weigand. The flat-earth people unfortunately are still affecting us.
Archeologist Weigand had to persist three decades before being granted the permit to begin excavating and restoring the Guachimontones ruins. 2003 marks his fourth year in the field, but that's not to say INAH has changed its institutional opinion of western Mexico or made life easier for Weigand and the ever-growing number of professionals (among them numerous INAH officials in various parts of the country) who are trying to rewrite western Mexico's pre-Hispanic history.
One example is the difficulty with which Weigand's team renews its excavation permit every year.
The academic ignorance persists as well. Nowhere was this more evident than in a September 2002 special edition of Arqueologia Mexicana, Mexico's leading periodical on archeology.
The 84-page edition, entitled Tiempo Mesoamericano: Periodos, Regiones y Culturas Prehispanicas, gave the Teuchitlan tradition all but a dot on a map and a one-sentence mention.
At an official level the Teuchitlan Tradition may only barely exist, but plunderers have known about the monumental remains for decades. Weigand is reminded of the fact every time he makes the one-hour drive from his Guadalajara home to Teuchitlan. The 50-year-old highway that bypasses the town was built using rock from the Guachimontones. And from the highway through town and up to the excavation site there are plenty of exposed house foundations that reveal rocks suspiciously resembling the those of the monumental pyramids.
And it hasn't helped that local legend says there's a stash of gold buried under the Gran Guachi, the largest pyramid in the state.
Weigand's team says most of the plundering has occurred in the last fifty years. The hardest-hit is unfortunately the largest pyramid of the bunch, The Gran Guachi, which measured 55 meters across and perhaps 20 meters in height (approximately 165 by 60 feet), before the highway was built. Perhaps 30 percent of its original mass is now under Jalisco State Highway No. 4. What remained became dangerously unstable as rainwater eroded the gaping hole left in the side of the pyramid after the sacking. It cannot be restored.
Perhaps most discouraging for the preservation of the Guachimontones site in particular is that neither alerting authorities to its existence in 1970 nor beginning excavations in 1999 could protect it from rock plunderers and treasure hunters.
There are structures on Weigand's first maps that just aren't there anymore, said Cach, recalling one of the early days of excavations when he saw a pickup truck roll by the site, loaded with rocks from a nearby complex. They had been at it since four in the morning and we didn't stop them until seven, said Cach. We still haven't gotten up the courage to go up there and see what they destroyed.
Come 2002, the 39-structure Guachimontones site could finally be left in peace when workers went home for the night, thanks to a community-backed 24-hour security program, at least during excavation season. Surrounding sites however have not been so lucky. One afternoon during last year's excavations, Weigand saw a pair of bulldozers move into an archeological site near the dig (the Guachimontones is located on the side of a hill overlooking a valley, making it a convenient lookout station). Weigand and his team immediately dropped what they were doing and went to investigate. But by the time they could stop the bulldozers, on the payroll of a major tequila company, three platforms had been done away with and a fourth was in their crosshairs.
It was a conscious act of architectural vandalism, said Weigand. They can't say they didn't know, there are signs up all over the place. In one afternoon they destroyed architectural heritage that had been there for more than 1,500 years.
He adds, At a twin complex in Loma Alta, ever since it has been designated a protected area, people have gone up there and are just tearing the site apart. They don't look very experienced because they are breaking everything they find --we go up from time to time to collect the broken vessels. Their target seems to be the ball court, which is not a very probable place to find stuff, but that and several other buildings they are literally tearing apart right now. The police from the municipality go up there occasionally, but they can't be there all the time. These guys just hide in the bushes until the police go away and keep on digging.
When you see a bulldozer come in and do away with an archeological site and then it's gone forever you feel disappointment, a sense of loss. And it becomes even more profound when you talk to these people [looters, builders, tequila companies, etc.] and they just don't care, says Weigand. But at some point you have to stop thinking about the laterizing soils [soil degradation typical in the region due to deforestation] and the bulldozers and concentrate on the fascination of the science that is right in front of you.
In recent years INAH, at least its Jalisco delegation, has taken much greater interest in protecting the state's numerous unstudied archeological sites. Unfortunately the odds are stacked against the institution's three state archeologists. Besides being understaffed and underfunded, there are more than 3,000 pre-Hispanic sites that need protection in Jalisco. There's also a dilemma brewing over whether to officially delineate archeological sites, many which are nondescript mounds of rock long since taken over by time. The act of placing an INAH placard on a nearby tree declaring the site protected is like putting an X on the treasure map for plunderers. Even if there's nothing of black market value to be dug up.
Three seasons into the planned five-season Guachimontones excavation and restoration project, the necessary changes to the history books are already substantial despite shoestring budgets, rampant destruction and time limitations placed on field work by INAH and the rainy season.
The foremost discovery is of course the hallmark circular architecture, unmatched by any civilization in the world. Ceremonial in nature, the largest structure in the Guachimontones site is 130 meters in diameter and consists of a central circular pyramid (The Gran Guachi) surrounded by a circular patio and 12 stepped platforms. The center of the pyramid was hollow, used to support a large pole on the top of which was performed volador (flying or pole-top) ceremonies. Dated around 500 AD, the Guachimontones site provides the earliest evidence of this pan-Mesoamerican practice (versions of which are still executed, mostly for tourist diversion, in central Mexico and Veracruz). The structures are remarkably perfect circles and were covered with up to 15 cm (six inches) of plaster which, at least in the case of the Guachimontones and its three major pyramids, were painted over with various red, white and black geometric shapes. These are buildings built by architects and designed by architects, said Weigand, emphasizing the complexity of the edifices. These people were thinking in terms of formal design and this is formal architecture.
The majority of this circular architecture hallmark to the Teuchitlan tradition (0 A.D. to 500 A.D.) is located in the valleys surrounding the long-extinct Tequila volcano. Vestiges of circular architecture contemporary with the heartland of Teuchitlan tradition shoot out like fingers from the mountain passes leading out of the volcanos valleys in all directions of the compass. With the exception of a circular-buildings complex in Comala, Colima, most of the structures outside the heartland are small, nondescript circular platforms. Weigand believes these sites were used by Teuchitlan natives while on trade missions with neighboring civilizations. The furthest removed Teuchitlan tradition construction is on the Queretaro-Hidalgo state divide.
Another widespread trace of the Teuchitlan Tradition is its irrigation systems, known as chinampas. This distinct Mesoamerican practice (the most well-known being the canal system of Xochimilco, in what is now Mexico City), covered 3,200 hectares (7,400 acres). Needless to say, untold hectares of chinampas have been destroyed by sugar cane and agave farmers in recent decades.
Based on the number of hectares under cultivation when the Teuchitlan tradition was at its apogee, around 500 A.D., the population estimate for the zone surrounding the Tequila volcano is believed to have been around 65,000, and up to half a million residents for all of west Mexico.
Weigand has detected over 1,000 residential compounds (which could have as many as ten house platforms), 400 circular structures and 87 ball courts contemporary to the Teuchitlan Tradition. Add the shaft tombs, the extensive irrigation systems, the clay figures, and recent discoveries of evidence pointing to complex death ceremonialism, everything indicates that a highly organized and socially stratified civilization thrived in Jalisco 1,500 years ago. And much more is waiting to be discovered.
So much for the nomad theory.
Archeologist Eric Cach(from Verzcruz and of Mayan descent) uncovers fragments at the Guachimontones site. Photo: Sean Mattson
Pictured here is the Iguana pyramid with the current town of Teuchitlan and La Vega lake in the background. Photo: Sean Mattson