Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, The Central Mexican Plateau-Tula and the Toltec Art

  1. Tula and the Toltec Art

At the beginning of this new phase in the history of ancient Mexico, the city of Teotihuacan had been abandoned for near two centuries. According to oral traditions, the city of Tula was founded by a semi-legendary character, Ce Acatl Topiltzin, son of a barbarian leader and a woman who came from a town with an old cultural tradition. In this transition between Teotihuacan and Tula the role of Xochicalco was significant, as some legends told that the young prince of Tula was educated by the priests of that city. In addition, this character was attributed with a series of extraordinary qualities because he was not only represented as the incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent” born in Teotihuacan, but was described as the civilizing being par excellence, pioneer in the cultivation of corn, creator of the calendar, of the arts, etc, to the point that, centuries later, the Aztecs themselves used the word “Toltec” (which originally meant “people of Tula”) as a synonym for civilized, cultured, artist…

Two views of the Mesoamerican archeological site of Tula (State of Hidalgo, Mexico). Left: The large vestibule in front of the the pyramid B filled with broken columns is known as Building C or Burnt Palace (“Palacio Quemado”) named after evidence that it was burned. Right: The Pyramid B, located adjacent to the Burned Palace, also known as the Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (“House of the Morning Star”). This pyramid is a five-tiered structure famous for the four massive Toltec statues placed on its summit.

Whatever the truth about this legendary character was, the archaeological evidence shows the ceremonial center of Tula as a pale reflection of what is now left from the classical splendor of Teotihuacan for much of the city of Tula did not survive to this day. This Toltec empire also had a new militaristic approach that was practically non-existent in earlier times. In this way, in the Toltec’s artistic repertoire, the warrior came to occupy the place previously reserved for priests. In Tula as well as in the distant Chichén-Itzá in the Yucatan peninsula where the “Maya-Toltec” art developed in parallel, the themes of eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts, or the gathered skulls of the sacrificed placed on platforms and altars called Tzompantlibegun to appear frequently in artistic representations.

At the top of the temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli are four massive columns each carved representing a Toltec warrior. These figures supported the roof of the temple that once stood on top of the pyramid. Each warrior figure was made of basalt, stands over 4.6 metres (15 ft) high, and has an atlatl* or spear thrower, feathered headdress, incense, a butterfly shaped chest plate and a back plate in the shape of a solar disk. These figures are known collectively as Atlantean figures or Atlantes.

The artistic power of the Toltecs is reflected in the great colonnades of the main square of Tula, at the foot of the temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (the “star of the dawn” or planet Venus), as well as the so-called “Atlanteans” or Colossians who, dressed as Toltec warriors, supported the roof of this temple. A new repertoire of sculptural forms was created by the Toltec art, such as the “Chacmool*” or reclining character, the “Standard bearer” and others, besides the creation of an interesting variety of pottery known as “plumbate*” (or pottery with lead) with metallic gleams. As for metals, this is the moment when, finally, the work of metals such as gold, silver and copper appeared in Mesoamerica. In addition, the techniques of the mosaic and the inlays in turquoise, shell and other materials were perfected.

One of 12 Chacmool figures found at Tula. The Tula chacmools date to the Early Post-Classic ca. 900-1200 AD. Contrary to those found at Chichen Itza, the features of the Tula Chacmools are more standardized. The chacmools depict young men with warrior attributes and in the case of those found at Tula they could also have an association with thrones or raised seating platforms. The chacmools at Tula probably represent war captives.
A Toltec standard bearer from Tula.

Since the end of the tenth century and for two centuries, Toltec’s hegemony spread in almost all directions taking the boundaries of Mesoamerica to its maximum expansion both to the north of Mexico and along Central America. This was also the moment in which some of the regions that remained outside the great cultural impulse of the classic period began to develop a more lasting sculpture and architecture. This is the case of the Huasteca to the north of the Gulf of Mexico, and to the west of Mexico the Tarascos and other towns.

Examples of plumbate pottery from Tula. Left: A Toltec plumbate head effigy vessel from Soconusco (Chiapas,Mexico), ca. 1000 to 1200 AD. Middle: Toltec ceremonial plumbate vessel from Soconusco, ca. 1000 to 1200 AD. Right: Toltec plumbate vessel in the form of a dog from Soconusco, ca. 900 to 1200 AD.

In fact the western region of Mexico, which had maintained a more modest cultural level with some Olmec and later Teotihuacan influence plus other areas from the pre-Classic period, was fully incorporated into the Mesoamerican culture from the Post-Classic period (1000-1697). These peoples, who until then had been distinguished only by their ceramics of full and sensual forms, continued to produce refined crafts such as tiny and delicate polychrome vessels or the gold and silver objects of the lake area of Michoacan. But alongside these minor arts, a vigorous stone carving with very sharp edges was produced and the so-called “yácatas*” or staggered foundations found in this region were also built with their peculiar combination of circular and rectangular volumes.

Tzintzuntzan was once the ceremonial center of the pre-Columbian Tarascan state capital of the same name. Its name comes from the Purépecha word Ts’intsuntsani, which means “place of hummingbirds”. The Yácatas, top left (Michoacan, Mexico), are five rounded pyramids built over a large Grand Platform and line up looking out over Lake Pátzcuaro. On top of each of the yácatas was a temple made of wood in which the most important rites of the Purépecha people and government took place including burials. Ixtlán del Río is located in the municipality of the same name, on the south west region of the Nayarit State, in Mexico. It is also known as “Los Toriles” and contains the only vestiges of the western cultures in Nayarit. The site has an unusual pyramid for Mesoamerica; it is a round construction (top right) of 24 meters diameter by four meters high. With five stairways harmonically distributed around its perimeter and a wall with small cruciform windows on top, it was probably a ceremonial center dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. La Quemada is an archeological site, also known as Chicomóztoc and is located in the Villanueva Municipality, (state of Zacatecas, Mexico). Here are two of its main constructions. At the bottom left is the Columns Hall, a 41 by 32 mt. enclosure, destructed by a fire. In its interior still stand eleven columns that once supported the roof. At the bottom left is the Votive Pyramid, a structure more than 10 mt. high, originally a stairway reached the top of the pyramid where a room or temple constructed with perishable materials apparently existed.

And while this Tarascan region and other places like Ixtlán del Río, in Nayarit, erected their first buildings in stone, Mesoamerican cultural influences spread along the Pacific coast to the North. As for the arid plateaus that constitute the northern area of Mexico, traditionally inhabited by nomadic hunters, they came to house some important nuclei of sedentary culture. This is the case of La Quemada, a semi-fortified place whose existence can be traced back to the times of the splendor of the city of Teotihuacan. Further north, Casas Grandes produced a rich pottery with fine geometric designs in a style that relates to the art of the Southwest United States.

Left: Huastec statue from the Tampico Region, 14th–16th centuries. Top right: Chacmool, ca. 1200-1400 AD from Tarascan, Tzintzuntzan in the State of Michoacán, West Mexico, (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). Bottom right: Two Michoacan figurines or “Pretty Ladies” from the Late Pre-Classic, ca. 500 BC-250 AD.

From the destruction of Tula by the Chichimecas towards the end of the twelfth century, the three centuries before the Spanish conquest witnessed the last waves of nomadic tribes that inhabit the Mexican highlands. And in the midst of the presence of all these small rival states striving to achieve political hegemony, arose the Aztec people destined to reach a glory as high as it was ephemeral.

Casas Grandes (“Great Houses”), also known as Paquimé, is located in the northern state of Chihuahua (Mexico). The site is attributed to the Mogollon culture. The settlement began after 1130 AD and would see the larger buildings developed after 1350 AD. The community was abandoned approximately by 1450 AD. Casas Grandes culture has been linked to other sites in Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. Top left: A view of the Paquime ruins, in Casas Grandes, (Chihuahua). Top right: Pre-Columbian pottery from Casas Grandes, Ramos, ca. 1100 to 1200 AD. Bottom left: Ceramic vessel from Casas Grandes, ca. 1200-1450 AD. Bottom ritght: Ceramic jar from Ramos, Casas Grandes, ca. 1280-1450 AD.


Atlatl: (from the Nahuatl). A spear-thrower, a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in dart-throwing, and includes a bearing surface which allows the user to store energy during the throw. It may consist of a shaft with a cup or a spur at the end that supports and propels the butt of the dart. The spear-thrower is held in one hand, gripped near the end farthest from the cup. The dart is thrown by the action of the upper arm and wrist. 

Chacmool: Often associated with sacrificial stones or thrones, Chacmools were a particular form of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture that first appeared around the 9th century AD in the Valley of Mexico and the northern Yucatán Peninsula. They depicted a reclining figure with its head facing 90 degrees from the front, supporting itself on its elbows and supporting a bowl or a disk upon its stomach. These figures possibly symbolized slain warriors carrying offerings to the gods; the bowl upon the chest was used to hold sacrificial offerings, including pulque (an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant), tamales, tortillas, tobacco, turkeys, feathers and incense. In some Aztec Chacmools, the receptacle was known as Cuauhxicalli (a stone bowl to receive sacrificed human hearts). Aztec Chacmools bore water imagery and were associated with Tlaloc, the rain god.

Plumbate pottery: A type of fine pottery made in the Mexico–Guatemala border region in early post‐Classic times, Plumbate pottery was one of the most distinctive style pottery of its time and is considered the only true vitrified (glazed) pottery in Pre-Columbian America. An orange-colored pottery of this kind decorated in a great diversity of styles is associated with the Toltecs, as is a dark-colored pottery with a glossy appearance and incised ornament (plumbate ware).  Widely traded, these ware is characterized by its shiny glaze‐like surface that results from the special types of clay used.

Tzompantli: A Tzompantli or skull rack was a type of wooden rack or palisade documented in several Mesoamerican civilizations, which was used for the public display of human skulls, typically those of war captives or other sacrificial victims. It consisted of a scaffold-like construction of poles on which heads and skulls were placed after holes had been made in them. Many have been documented throughout Mesoamerica, and range from the Epiclassic (ca. 600–900 CE) through early Post-Classic (ca. 900–1250 CE) eras.

Yácatas: The distinct five rounded pyramids of Tzintzuntzan (“place of hummingbirds”), the ceremonial center of the pre-Columbian Tarascan state capital of the same name. These large constructions line up looking out over Lake Pátzcuaro, and rest over a large Grand Platform.