Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
El Tajín, Abode of the Dead "The Photography of Nicolas Sapieha"
February 13, 1998
Text by Angela M. H. Schuster


El Tajín's main plaza looking west

The lush gulf coast of Veracruz played a formative role in Mesoamerican history. It was here that the early Olmecs built the ceremonial centers of San Lorenzo and La Venta. It was here, too, that the Mesoamerican ball game was born. Described by Spanish chroniclers and recounted in the Popul Vuh, the Maya creation myth, the ball game was more ritual than sport, and losers often lost their lives. Nowhere is the obsession with the game more evident than at the site of El Tajín.

[image] A basalt statue of a death god (left) [LARGER IMAGE] looks out from the steps of Temple V, built ca. A.D. 900. This ball court, (right) [LARGER IMAGE] one of 17 at El Tajín, was built around A.D. 600. [image]

Set amid tobacco fields and banana plantations, apiaries and vanilla groves, El Tajín occupies a terraced hillside on a tributary of the Río Tecoluta near the town of Papantla in northern Veracruz. Discovered in the late eightennth century, the site derives its name from a modern Totonac belief that 12 old lords of the thunderstorm, known collectively as "Tajín," live among its ruins. According to indigenous maps drawn at the time of the conquest, however, the site was once known as Mictlan, the "abode of the dead," a fitting name for a city obsessed with the ball game and its ritual sacrifices. Though ball courts are ubiquitous at Mesoamerican sites, no less than 17 of them have been found at El Tajín, one of which bears a relief panel depicting the decapitation of a ball player (background [IMAGE]), perhaps the captain of a losing team. Sculptured images of underworld deities appear throughout the site in scenes of the ball game and the manufacture of pulque, a fermented beverage made from the maguey cactus. It appears that death, ball playing, and the drinking of pulque were critical to ritual life here.

[image] The Pyramid of the Niches (left) [LARGER IMAGE] has 365 niches and was once decorated with stone reliefs depicting various mythical creatures, which are now in the site museum. Structure 16 (right) [LARGER IMAGE] stands on the north side of the so-called Plaza de Arroyo. [image]

El Tajín's buildings, with their distinctive slope, niche, and cornice construction, are monuments to Mesoamerican engineering. To date, some 50 percent of the city's buildings has been excavated, revealing a series of plazas, palaces, and administrative buildings within a two-square-mile area. Conservative estimates suggest that at its apogee in the Late Classic Period (A.D. 600-900) the city controlled much of the modern state of Veracruz. It is unclear who built El Tajín. Some believe it was the work of the Totonacs; others argue in favor of the Huastecs, a people known to have occupied the region at the time El Tajín was settled. We do know that the site was occupied sometime in the first century A.D., and monumental construction began shortly thereafter. El Tajín prospered until the early years of the twelfth century, when it was destroyed by fire, presumably set by an invading force. The simple elegance of El Tajín's architecture is the subject of Nicolas Sapieha's photography.

* Click here for map of El Tajín.

Back to Index

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America