Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Acatzingo de la Piedra - A monolithic pyramid in Central Mexico?

The summit of the monolithic pyramid known as the Cama de Moctezuma on the Cerro de la Malinche in Acatzingo de la Piedra, Mexico. [Photo by Author]

Acatzingo de la Piedra is an ancient fortified hilltop site in the municipality of Tenancingo, Mexico. It is located approximately 50 kilometers to the south of the state capital of Toluca and 100 kilometers to the southwest of Mexico City, near the Nevado de Toluca volcano. 

The site has never been excavated, but has been mapped and described in a 2010 publication by archaeologist Beatriz Zúñiga Bárcenas of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and more recently by archaaeologist Vladimira Palma Linares of the UAEM Tenancingo. 

The site is one of only five known across Mexico to display significant examples of monolithic rock-cut architecture (the other four being Tezcotzingo and Malinalco, also in the state of Mexico, and the rock-cut shrines of Mazatepetl and Chapultepec in Mexico City). 

The ascent to the fortified citadel is possible through a trail that starts in the village of Acatzingo de la Piedra, along massive basalt cliffs offering breathtaking views of the valley of Toluca. The cliffs provided a natural defense for the site, and were complemented with defensive terraces and stone walls. 

The imposing basalt cliffs surrounding the site on three of its four sides. [Photo by Author]
Aerial view of the site of Acatzingo, protected by massive cliffs. [Photo by Author]

In places the exposed rock surface gives the appearance of an immense megalithic wall formed of huge cyclopean stones. The effect is indeed so strong that one wonders if some portions of the cliff face are not in fact ancient and very eroded stone walls, whose blocks appear to be carefully laid one on top of each other in regular rows. 

Is this just some strange geology or ancient megalithic stone walls? [Photo by Author]
More strange geology - Several huge stone boulders seemingly forming part a continuous megalithic stone wall. The question is - Natural or artificial? [Photo by Author] 

Walking along the cliff face, one passes an impressive and nearly vertical rock tower before reaching a portion of what appears to be another megalithic stone wall (or unusual geology?) on which a bas-relief of a goddess, probably Chalchiuhtlicue, but also identified with La Malinche, was carved during the Aztec (Late Post-Classic) period. The identification of the bas-relief with Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of terrestrial waters, seems appropriate given the presence of a natural spring gushing forth from behind the rock nearby. 

A massive rock pinnacle or tower on the approach to La Malinche. [Photo by Author]
Bas-relief carving of the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, near a natural water spring on the Cerro de la Malinche. [Photo by Author]
A detail of the same carving with calendrical glyphs symbolically relating to the beginngin of the present World Age or Cycle and the New Fire ceremony celebrated every 52 years. [Photo by Author]
More unusual geology near the carving of the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue. The cliff face has the appearence of an ancient and very eroded megalithic wall of interlocking stone blocks. [Photo by Author]
Petroglyphs painted in white on the cliff face, including crosses and monograms, testifying to the colonial use and occupation of the site. [Photo by Author]

A perilous trail then leads along the edge of the cliff to an area of petroglyphs drawn in bright white on the rock face. The petroglyphs, mostly crosses, are almost certainly colonial in origin and do not appear to be of any great antiquity. We could not identify the location of another group of petroglyphs (these certainly prehispanic) described by Dr. Zuñiga in her 2010 paper, as the thick vegetation made the trail completely impassable.

One then reaches the base of what is perhaps the most significant monument of the entire site, known as Moctezuma's bed or "Cama de Moctezuma". As seen from below, it has the appearance of a massive carved monolith of gray andesite, rising in steps towards an irregular and partially flat-topped summit. The overall shape of the rock is quite irregular, with a trapezoidal base some 15 meters wide rising in at least 5 steps that narrow towards the summit, forming narrow ledges between them.

The monolithic pyramid known as the Cama de Moctezuma as seen from the narrow trail below. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the base of the same pyramid with carved steps. [Photo by Author]
The huge carved steps forming the body of the pyramid, each between 1 and 1.5 meters high. Unfortunately the thick vegetation and proximity to the cliff face makes it difficult to have a clear view of this most unusual monument. To take this picture we had to hang over the edge of the cliff by holding on to a tree. [Photo by Author]

More carved stone steps, each about 1 meter to 1.5 meters high, are also visible on the face of another huge rock monolith located about 20 meters downhill from the level of the "Cama de Moctezuma", suggesting that this is in fact a much larger, partially buried and likely unfinished structure.

As seen from the air with the aid of a drone, the area appears almost horseshoe shaped, with the largest pyramidal monolith occupying the center of it. 

The monolith itself was apparently separated from the natural bedrock by means of a deep-cut trench with nearly vertical walls, in which additional ledges and other carved steps are visible. This trench is now entirely filled with dirt, so that it is impossible to determine at present the depth at which lies the base of the monolith, or if other carvings are present below ground level.

The top of the monolith contains a rectangular depression 1.42 wide by 2.28 meters long, deeply carved into the natural bedrock and seemingly approached by two flights of stairs placed at a ninety degree angle with respect to each other. There we measured an azimuth of 104° E, which may be of astronomical significance. 

It is possible that the entire structure was never completed and remained unfinished. It is also possible, however, that its present appearance is due to deliberate destruction during colonial times. 

The summit of the huge pyramid-shaped monolith known as the Cama de Moctezuma, showing a neatly cut rectangular hollow and two small flights of steps approaching it at a ninety degree angle. [Photo by Author]
A detail of the two badly eroded and possibly unfinished flights of stairs approaching the summit of the monolith at a ninety degree angle to each other. Note the indentations and the artificially levelled summit of the monolith. [Photo by Author]
Some more indentations or steps on one side of the monolith. [Photo by Author]
A deep rock-cut trench separates the monolith from the surrounding bedrock. [Photo by Author]
An aerial view taken from the drone of the monolithic pyramid occupying the center of a horseshoe shaped formation. Some other huge carved boulders are visible near the base of the cliff to the left and right. [Photo by Author]

About one hundred meters to the south of this rock we found another partially buried stone covered in petroglyphs belonging to different historical periods. Among them we could observe a typical Aztec round shield, or chimalli, two coyote heads, a skull, two circles, a ceremonial knife and a flower. We also observed a petroglyph containing the depiction of a horse, evidence of the late occupation of the site during the early colonial period. The area where the petroglyphs are found appears to have been used as a megalithic stone quarry, from which some huge roughly hewn boulders were extracted. In many places it is possible to observe the holes made in order to splinter the huge boulders into smaller pieces.

A huge half-buried stone covered in petroglyphs in the southern part of the site. [Photo by Author]
A colonial petroglyph containing the depiction of a horse. Unlike the other prehispanic petroglyphs, this is much shallower and was likely realized with the use of metal tools. [Photo by Author]
Aztec petroglyphs showing a skull, two coyote heads and a figure of possible astronomical significance, likely a star or a comet. [Photo by Author]
An area of the megalithic stone quarry with huge partially finished and carved stone boulders near the southern portion of the site and the petroglyph rock. [Photo by Author]

The summit of the hill was originally occupied by a set of plazas and pyramids, now entirely reduced to rubble. These structures all seemingly date to the Post-classic period and would have been still in use at the time of the Spanish conquest. 

The near flat summit of the Acatzingo hill, showing remnants of low stone platforms, mounds and retaining walls, now much destroyed and largely overgrown. [Photo by Author]

Acatzingo is a fascinating site that contains what appear to be the remnants of two different styles and possibly also different epochs of construction: One megalithic, characterized by the use of massive cyclopean stones and carved rock surfaces; the other characterized by the use of much smaller stones employed for the construction of ceremonial platforms, habitational terraces and retaining walls. 


[1] Beatriz Zuñiga Barcenas, "Registro y delimitación del sitio arqueológico del cerro de La Malinche, Acatzingo de la Piedra, Tenancingo, Estado de México", Arqueología, 45, 2010, pp. 212-233.

[2] Roberto Vázquez, "Rescate de la Historia: Exploración del Sitio Arqueologico de La Malinche", Criterio Noticias, June 25, 2019. On-line resource:  "https://criterionoticias.wordpress.com/2019/06/25/rescate-de-la-historia-exploracion-del-sitio-arqueologico-la-malinche/. Las accessed March 9, 2021.

[3] Julio César Ortega Velzaquez, Descripción arquitectonica del sitio La Malinche, en el Posclásico Tardío, Tenancingo, Estado de México, UAEM Tenancingo, 2013. On-line resource: http://ri.uaemex.mx/bitstream/handle/20.500.11799/40544/TESIS.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y. Last accessed March 9, 2021.

[4] Vladimira Palma Linares, "Arqueología en el sitio La Malinche", Revista Universitaria, UAEM, Vol. 2, no. 15, 2019, pp. 22-23. On-line: https://revistauniversitaria.uaemex.mx/article/view/12783/10015. Last accessed March 9, 2021. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Drought reveals dozens of ancient petroglyphs submerged under a Mexican lake.

Valle de Bravo, Mexico. Over the past few days our team was able to document dozens of ancient petroglyphs that emerged from the waters of Lake Avandaro in Valle de Bravo, Mexico, for the first time in over a decade. The petroglyphs, which are located very near the shore, may date to the Teotihuacan period, or nearly 2,000 years old. The site was submerged when a dam was created in 1947 leading to the formation of Lake Avandaro, and is only rarely visible when the rocks are uncovered during exceptional drought conditions, as it has been the case for the past few months. 
The main group of petroglyphs located inside a small rock shelter or cave. All the surfaces of the cave, including the floor and ceiling are decorated with geometric and other abstract symbols.
Among the numerous petroglyphs are several astronomical markers or pecked crosses, typical of the Teotihuacan culture that dominated central Mexico in the first centuries of our era, as well as solar symbols and other abstract and geometric carvings. A small cave alone contains dozens of petroglyphs including circles, spirals as well as lines and other abstract shapes that may form part of a map. Another rock nearby bears a diagram of what appears to be a temple or shrine approached by a monumental double stairway. There are also several architectural models of what appear to be pyramids with steps, unfortunately now badly eroded. More submerged petroglyphs and rock carvings are said to lie submerged in the waters of Lake Avandaro. Unfortunately the constant water erosion from the lake has now erased most of the carvings and it is doubtful they will survive for much longer unless efforts are taken for their preservation and documentation.
A typical Teotihuacan pecked cross, likely used as an astronomical marker or for calendar calculations.
An important prehispanic settlement was located in Valle de Bravo near La Peña, containing several small pyramids and monumental sculptures like the pair of giant serpent stone heads now housed in the small archaeological museum of Valle de Bravo, showing a strong Teotihuacan influence. 
A detailed view of the main group of petroglyphs on the bottom wall of the rock shelter near the lake shore.
One of the walls of the rock shelter, entirely covered in petroglyphs. These include several circles connected by lines that may represent constellations or a map of the area.
Another view of the same rock shelter taken from the entrance. Some faint petroglyphs are also visible on the floor and ceiling.
More carvings and petroglyphs near the entrance.
A badly eroded architectural model carved from a single colossal stone, depicting what appear to be a group of pyramids surrounding a central plaza. The very faint outlines of steps can be made out on the rock surface.
Another view of the same stone showing more stepped carvings.
The location of the main petroglyphs site, near the shore of Lake Avandaro. These huge rocks are usually submerged under the waters of the lake.
More carved boulders near the shore. The group of stones barely emerging from the water in the distance form part of another architectural model depicting a pyramid and Mesoamerican ballcourt.
Huge boulders apparently carved and piled together near the shore. Any petroglyphs that may have once been present on their surface have now disappeared.
A huge carved stone with an artificially flattened top. The outlines of several faint stairways and stepped symbols are visible to the right of the stone.
Another stone with small steps carved into it. It may have symbolized a sacred mountain or peak.
A solar symbol carved on a large boulder. The first rays of the sun illuminate this stone on the morning of the Winter Solstice.
Deeply carved grooves in one huge boulder.
Another badly eroded architectural model of a stepped structure (left), possibly a pyramid or temple, with a broad central stairway. It is still possible to make out the faint outlines of steps.
A typical Teotihuacan pecked cross, likely used as an astronomical marker or for calendar calculations. One of the arms of the cross points in the direction of La Pena, a large rocky outcrop on the opposite shore of the lake where a ceremonial center and numerous caves were located.
One of the most intriguing carvings is this representation of what appears to be an architectural plan. Two square structures, possibly pyramids or temples, are approached by monumental stairways. The uppermost one appears to be connected to a set of three chambers in a cruciform arrangement, connected by a corridor. 
Another badly eroded petroglyph - One of several dozens on boulders near the shore, now threatened by the waters of the lake.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tamoanchan - Cradle of Mesoamerican civilization?

In search of a Lost Cradle

                The oldest Nahua legends speak of a mythical place called Tamoanchan, considered to be the cradle of all Mesoamerican civilizations and a sort of terrestrial paradise from which the ancestors of the Aztecs and the Toltecs would go out to repopulate the earth after a great Flood. According to the early colonial historian Bernardino de Sahagún (1500-1590 AD), the original inhabitants of Tamoanchan had come from the Sea: “They say the came to this land to rule over it…they came from the sea on ships, a multitude of them, and landed on the shore of the sea, to the North…from there they went on, seeking the white mountains, the smoky mountains…led by their priests and by the voice of their gods. Finally, they came to the place that they called Tamoanchan…and there they settled [1].” These learned men invented the sacred books, the count of destiny, the book of years and the book of dreams. Tamoanchan has been since identified with a number of places in ancient Mexico, including Tula and Teotihuacan, but these are likely later associations from a time when its true location had already become lost and shrouded in legend. 

The oldest Mesoamerican Civilization

The earliest historical traditions locate Tamoanchan far from the coast, in the province of Cuauhnahuac near present-day Cuernavaca. From there, the tribes that would become the ancestors of all later Mesoamerican civilizations spread to the North, East and South to give rise to the civilizations of the Toltecs, the Olmecs and the Maya. These people called themselves the Chan, the “People of the Serpent”, and the very name of Tamoanchan may have come from them [2].
In 1911, the bishop of Cuernavaca, Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete formulated a theory that Tamoanchan was once a real place, whose ruins were to be found in the Southern part of the state of Morelos. He believed that the civilization of Tamoanchan was older even than that of the Olmecs and had spread throughout Mesoamerica from a single point of origin. A few years earlier, Plancarte had collected rumors of the discovery of immense stone ruins in the remote mountains of the Sierra de Huautla, to the South of Cuernavaca, which he believed could point to the location of Tamoanchan. These ruins were of a cyclopean kind, entirely different from the crude constructions of the Aztecs and of an antiquity so remote that no record of their builders had survived in the records of the Conquest.
A corner at the base of the megalithic ramparts of Chimalacatlan, where the walls rise to a height of nearly 10 meters (33 ft). The foundations of the walls rest directly on the natural bedrock, making a precise dating of these structures extremely problematic. [Photo by Author] 
A view of the great megalithic walls surrounding the Acropolis of Chimalacatlan. Some of the stones measure over 3 meters long, with an estimated weight of between 5 to 8 tons [Photo by Author]
“A most ancient and famous work”

The ruins were again rediscovered in 1948 by the archaeologist Florencia Müller, who similarly considered them to be of very great antiquity. In the absence of datable remains, she tentatively attributed them to the Olmecs, whose presence in the region is attested since at least 1,200 B.C. [3] The largest structures were located near the village of Chimalacatlan and consisted of a number of megalithic stone platforms occupying the artificially-leveled summit of the Cerro del Venado. The walls survived up to a height of nearly 8 meters in certain points and were built of huge blocks of stone measuring up to 3 meters long, laid in regular rows without mortar. Immense efforts had certainly gone into the construction of the massive walls and terraces, yet no trace could be found of the original builders and inhabitants. The only ceramic and a few tombs found at the site dated to a much later period than that of the construction of the walls. Nor was there any trace of the structures that were intended to be built on top of the megalithic platforms.
One large stone platform measured some 40 by 30 meters and would have once contained a sunken courtyard also lined with megalithic stone blocks. A partially carved rock surface and some giant monoliths on the upper terraces of the site are all that remains of a great unfinished structure that may have been a temple. Some of the stones that had been prepared for the construction, only partially detached from the natural bedrock, would have weighted as many as 20 tons. A number of cylindrical column shafts, each measuring about 2.5 meters long, were also found nearby. More constructions were certainly planned near the summit of the hill, where the rock was artificially flattened and carved, but these were either dismantled or were never built. Even so, the ruins of Chimalacatlan are not only the largest and best-preserved examples of cyclopean megalithic architecture in all of Mesoamerica, but also quite possibly the oldest.   
The wall of the upper terrace on the Acropolis of Chimalacatlan, built of large megalithic stone blocks. The top of the lower platform contains a large sunken courtyard that has not been excavated. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the Northwest corner in the lower platform walls of Chimalacatlan, preserved to a height of nearly 10 meters. [Photo by Author]
A detail of the very precise mortarless construction of the walls of Chimalacatlán, a style which may be called "cyclopean" and of which only few other examples exist in all of Mexico and Central America. [Photo by Author]
A nearly perfect section of a megalithic wall at Chimalacatlan, running alongside a sort of alley between two building platforms. [Photo by Author]
Lost Cities of the Mexican Highlands

With the exception of some consolidation work conducted by the Mexican National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH) during the early 2000’s, and in spite of their enormous historical importance, the ruins of Chimalacatlan remain today in a state of near complete abandonment. Yet they are by no means the only megalithic ruins in the area. When the famous explorer and archaeologist William Niven visited the region in 1891, he recalled walking for miles among the ruins of ancient habitations that would have once formed part of an immense prehistoric city: “broken walls, ruined buildings, huge in size beyond comprehension…marked the slopes as far as the eye could reach”; he later wrote in his diaries. [4] Some of the buildings he encountered were larger than those of Mitla and covered an immense area: “It must have been an immense nation that once dwelt here”, he observed; and this city, or chain of cities, must have been fully as large as Babylon, or Thebes, or Memphis, or other famous cities of antiquity.”
The very peculiar landscape of bushes and cactuses that characterizes the southern portion of the state of Morelos and the north of Guerrero, making exploration and progress through the harsh terrain extremely difficult. [Photo by Author]
In January 2019 we were accompanied on an expedition into the Sierra de Huautla by the responsible for Culture of the municipality of Tlaquiltenango, Prof. Rogelio Ortega Gallardo. Our goal was to photograph the ancient ruins that were said to exist near the village of Huaxtla. Just as described by Niven over a century ago, the ruins cover an immense area and extend over several hilltops and across great ravines. Everywhere one could see the remains of fallen walls, badly dilapidated pyramids and stone platforms. Although the thick vegetation only allowed to appreciate a small portion of the site, the style of the ruins appeared to be entirely similar to that of Chimalacatlan, as consisting of huge megalithic stone blocks arranged in regular courses. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the walls remained intact, the rest having fallen long ago. The local villagers confirmed that the ruins extend for several miles in all directions, but no systematic mapping of the site has ever been carried out. According to information provided by Prof. Ortega, at least 41 sites with megalithic architecture are known to exist within the municipality of Tlaquiltenango alone, which would have formed part of a nearly continuous chain of cities. There are moreover legends of a network of ancient tunnels extending throughout the entire region, including a walled-up entrance under the ruins of the colonial convent of Las Bovedas.
A large collapsed structure in the ruins of Huaxtla, showing portions of a megalithic wall of large basalt stone blocks. [Photo by Author]
A corner construction of large megalithic stone blocks in the ruins of Huaxtla. The incline of the walls and the rounded corners of the walls are reminiscent of the megalithic structures of Peru. Note the use of smaller stones for the filling and the upper portions of the walls, perhaps indicative of two different phases of construction. [Photo by Author]
For miles around Huaxtla, the hills are covered with remains of collapsed walls and massive stone ramparts, exhibiting a kind of cyclopean mortarless construction that has few parallels in Mesoamerica. Although it is impossible to provide an accurate estimate, hundreds of thousands of tons of hard basalt stone were carved and put into place to build the massive walls and fortifications of Chimalacatlan and Huaxtla. [Photo by Author]
The unknown megalithic civilization of Mexico

The mysterious ruins that are found in the Southern part of the state of Morelos are among the largest to be found in the entire American continent and could also turn out to be among its oldest. They belong to a time possibly earlier still than that of the Olmecs, and may indeed turn out to be those of the legendary lost city of Tamoanchan – The Cradle of Mesoamerican civilization. A mighty megalithic civilization once reigned over much of Central Mexico, which left behind the great stone ruins of unknown date that the later Toltec, Maya and Aztec invaders encountered and appropriated. The quality of the stonework of Chimalacatlan, as well as the many more examples of rock-cut surfaces and megalithic architecture found throughout Central Mexico, would put this civilization on a par, if not with those of Peru, at least with that of the equally mysterious builders of the great cyclopean cities of Italy, Greece and Turkey. We can only hope that in future years more of the past of this fascinating region will be revealed as its ancient cities are also rescued from centuries of oblivion.  

Note: This article first appeared on Ancient Origins on February 9th, 2019: Link here

[1] Bernardino de Sahagún, Codice Matritense de la Real Academia, folio 191,192
[2] Francisco Plancarte y Navarrete, Tamoanchan: El Estado de Morelos y el principio de la civilizacion, Imp. El Mensajero, Mexico, 1911
[3] Florencia Muller, Chimalacatlan, Acta Anthropologia, Mexico 1948
[4] Robert S. Wicks and Roland H. Harrison, Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods, Texas Tech University Press, 1999, p. 43
[5] Mario Cordova Tello, Juan Pablo Sereno Uribe, Sur de Morelos: Chimalacatlan, INAH, http://consejoarqueologia.inah.gob.mx/wp-content/uploads/1_proychimala.pdf