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For almost 2,500 years, a succession of cultures rebuilt a ritual center in northeast Mexico


Dawn over Tamtoc, a city in northeastern Mexico that was founded around 400. One of two 12-story ritual mounds that flank the city rises above a central plaza. Tamtoc's ancient residents built the mounds by piling dirt atop small natural hills. (Estela Martinez)

The procession winds through the ancient city, past the ceremonial plaza, the towering earthen mounds, and the palace where kings once reigned. In front, two boys carry an arch made of cempasúchiles, the Mexican marigolds known as the Flowers of the Dead, and a man in white swings a censer, sending billows of pungent smoke into the air. Close behind is the council of elders, their conical hats bright with pink and red feathers. Two hundred marchers follow, the women in blinding colors, the men in white pants and shirts.

It is the end of November at Tamtoc, a pre-Hispanic site in northeast Mexico, 60 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Local Teenek Indians are celebrating Xantolo, when the spirits who rose on the Day of the Dead return to the underworld, the harvest season ends, and the cycle of life begins anew. The Teenek, also known as Huastecs, have gathered here because they consider it important to perform the Xantolo rituals at the ancient site, where they feel they can best honor their ancestors.

Walking in a place of honor with local dignitaries, draped in cempasúchil garlands, is archaeologist Estela Martínez from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (abbreviated INAH in Spanish); on the edge of the procession, snapping photographs, is her co-investigator, Guillermo Córdova. They are the latest archaeologists to investigate the complicated history of Tamtoc, which takes its name from a large hill on the site that in Teenek is called "Place of the Deep Black Water." Nestled in a bend of the Tampaón River, Tamtoc was the largest of several cities that once dotted the Huasteca, a vast region that includes what are now parts of six modern states and stretches from the Gulf of Mexico, across the broad coastal plain, and into the forested peaks of the Sierra Oriental. Centered around a ceremonial plaza the size of six football fields and surrounded on three sides by high ridges, Tamtoc featured a ball court, stelae, artificial lagoons, and dozens of ritual and residential platforms. It is flanked by two man-made, 12-story mounds, which are visible from miles around. At its height 700 years ago, the city had grown to 15,000 people.

The marchers soon reach the showpiece of this 330-acre site, a 2,300-year-old carved stone slab as big as a billboard. Once Tamtoc's spiritual heart, it represents water, sacrifice, and female fertility. Erected over one of the city's many springs, the massive slab depicts two decapitated women whose necks jet blood into the hands and navel of a skull-masked priestess.

The Teenek chief Flavio Martínez bows toward the slab. For his people, fertility, water, death, and corn are inextricably linked, and he prays for the blessings of Dhipaak, the corn god. As the Teenek light candles for the dead, some of the marchers begin to dance, circling and stepping to the sacred rhythms of guitars and violins.

Tom Gidwitz is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.