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El Tajin's 'Niche In Time'
Chronology studies at El Tajín, the 'City of Sorms' and nearby sites show that the area has been occupied at least since 5600 BCE and show how nomadic peoples eventually became farmers, building more complex societies prior to the rise of the city of El Tajin. The pace of this societal progression became more rapid with the rise of the neighboring Olmec civilization around 1150 BCE, although the Olmecs were never here in great numbers and while it is unclear who built the city, it appears this monumental construction started around the 1st century CE and by 600 CE, El Tajín was a major city due to its strategic position along the old Mesoamerican trade routes. GE 20.26' 52.60"N ~ 97.22' 41.75"W
Located in the present-day Mexican State of Veracruz, it is remarkable for many reasons. The site boasts many buildings, temples, palaces, all with innovative niches, and ball courts.
But the most impressive of all is the stunning Pyramid of the Niches which has seven stories. Each of these consists of a sloping base wall called a talud and a vertical wall called a tablero, which was fairly common in Mesoamerica. It's decorative niches are capped by what is called a “flying cornice,” a triangular overhang and each one of it's 365 niches is 60 centimeters deep. The stones are arranged in controlled lines and delicate proportions. At the top of the pyramid there were tablets framed by serpent-dragons. The pyramid has a square base, 36 meters on each side. This gives a total of 472 total feet of the 4 sides.
Even after the fall of El Tajin, sometime around 1200 A.D., locals kept the temple clear and somehow, the local Totonacs managed to keep the site a secret from the Spanish conquistadors and later colonial officials. This lasted until 1785 when a local bureaucrat named Diego Ruiz discovered it while searching for clandestine tobacco fields. It was once dramatically painted to heighten the contrast between the shady, recessed niches and the faces of the tiers; the interior of the niches was painted black, and the surrounding walls red.
If I was a sculptor, but then again- no
Or a man who makes potions in a travelin' show
Oh, I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do
My gift is my song and this one's for you.
From the center tops of the pyramids to the Pyramid of the Niches it's 571 miles from the Temple of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza; 175 kilometers from the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, and 113 miles from the pyramid of Cholula.
The 'Pyramid of the Niches' is a masterpiece of ancient MesoAmerican architecture and reveals its astronomical and symbolic significance in Its architecture, which is unique in Mesoamerica. Characterized by elaborate carved reliefs on the columns and friezes shows this temple was obviously of great symbolic importance to the people of El Tajin as it once contained exactly 365 niches, marking its connection to the solar year.
AFTER the stairs were added (and they were only on the East side of the pyramid), it shows that the actual number of niches on the reconstructed building total 364. Due both to the number and placement of the niches, it is seen that this distinctive pyramid served as a device for keeping track of each of the four component cycles of the sacred 260-day Mesoamerican calendar. The monumental staircase bisects the front, or eastern, face of the pyramid and has 5 sets of 3 niches each, and each group is separated from those niches above and below it by 13 steps. These represent the 13 numbered days of the sacred calendar. There were once 6 platform-altars (now there are only 5), each of which feature 3 small niches: this reaches a total of 18 special niches, representing the 18 months of the solar calendar. On either side were the Quetzalcoatl spirals, (and while some are missing the thought is that there were possibly again 13 on each side when built.) Thus, both architectural symmetry and religious symbolism have been effectively combined in this imposing stairway to the top of the pyramid.
The most severely damaged niches are those that surmount the top platform of the pyramid. They are preserved on the west side where it is clear that only 5 niches are to be found. The demands of symmetry require that 5 niches be located on each of the three remaining sides, for a total of 20. This was the number of named days in each ‘month’ of both the sacred and secular calendars. Thus, the two key elements of the 260-day calendar -- the 13 day-numbers and the 20 day-names -- are to be found represented by the niches on the staircase and top platform of the pyramid.
Arrayed in front of the pyramid and near its northeastern and southeastern corners are 13 massive blocks of stone, each with a hole cut into it as if to receive a pillar or post. The block immediately in front (due east) of the staircase marks the equinox positions of the sun and those at the northeastern and southeastern corners marked the solstice positions. This arrangement of blocks and posts was intended to help keep the 260- and 365-day calendars in phase with each other.
Keeping the two calendars calibrated with one another on an 'annual' basis was difficult enough, but unless it could be done accurately over a 52-year period (the lowest common denominator of the two calendars is 18,980 days, which corresponds to 73 rounds of the 260-day sacred calendar (and 52 rounds of the once 365-day secular calendar), no common starting-point could be established for the two systems of reckoning time. It was for this purpose that the niches bracketing the staircase on the front, or eastern, face were intended. In the six tiers of niches of which the pyramid is composed, there are 8 on each side of the staircase in the bottom row, 6 on each side in the second row, 5 on each side in the third row, 4 on each side in the fourth row, 2 on each side in the fifth row, and 1 on each side of the sixth, or top, row. Thus, altogether there are 26 niches on each side of the front staircase, for a grand total of 52 -- the third of the component cycles of the sacred calendar.
The remaining three sides of the pyramid, the north, west, and south, are identical in design. On each of the successive tiers there is a decrease of 3 niches. The bottom tier contains 22 niches, the second 19, the third 16, the fourth 13, the fifth 10, and the sixth 7, making a total of 87 niches on each side. When the niches on all three sides are added together, they yield a grand total of 261 -- only 1 more than the number of days in the sacred calendar. Obviously, because 260 is not be equally divisible by three, the demand for structural symmetry took precedence over the sacred number in this instance. Nevertheless, that 260 was the apparent key, again, for if all the niches on the entire structure are summed up they total 346. In addition, there were once 7 levels. 7 times 52 is 364 and 52 was an important number for Mesoamerican civilizations: the two Mayan calendars would align every 52 years, and there are 52 visible panels on each face of the Temple of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza. Thus, to the Totonac priests who designed this imposing structure, it was not only an esthetic masterpiece but a precision instrument of fundamental importance to their understanding of the ceaseless passage of time.
The computational use of the pyramid was accomplished through the daily movement of three 'counters' from one niche to another. These counters may well have been the small idols or figurines of the gods for whom the respective days were named. On the first day of the given 260-day cycle, a counter would be placed in the first of the 13 niches on the staircase, another in the first of the 20 niches on the top platform, and a third in the first of the 260 niches of the main pyramid. With each succeeding day, the counters would be exchanged or moved into the following niche. When each counter had reached the final niche in its respective series, a cycle would have been completed and the following day the cycle would start over again in the beginning niche. Each time a solar year had been completed, (as measured by the interval between summer or winter solstices) a counter would be moved into one of the 52 niches at the front of the pyramid, and each time the counter reached the final niche in this series, a new "century" would begin.
Building 5 is considered to be the stateliest of the El Tajin site. While located next to the Pyramid of the Niches, its visual appeal is not lost to its more famous neighbor. It is located in the center of a pyramid complex and consists of a truncated pyramid rising from a platform that is over 32,000 square feet in size. Access to the first level of the pyramid, which is lined with niches, is via a single staircase on the west side or a double staircase on the east side.
The top of the pyramid contains two platforms, both of which are decorated with stepped frets. It has the same side slope degree angle at both ends as the Temple of Kukulcan at Chitzen Itza.
Between the two sets of staircases on the first level on the east side of Bldg 5 is a tall column-line sculpture. It fell somehow from the top of the pyramid in ancient times and was broken. Archaeologists reassembled it at the spot in which it was found. The sculpture is similar in style to the carved stone yokes of Veracruz. The figure seems to be an allegorical representation of a seated figure with a severed upper torso and a skull for a head. The arms are holding a serpent like form and the body contains scrolls.
The Blue Pyramid has some features that sets it apart from other pyramids at the site. Except for six benches on the staircase and at the top of the balustrades, probably later additions, there are no niches. The seven stories of the pyramid are composed of gently sloping walling divided into panels of varying widths. The unreconstructed north side has a large indentation made by looters before the site was protected by guards. No sculpture is known to have come from this building and nothing of the temple at the top remains. The building was covered in cement several times over its history, and each layer of this cement was painted in blue rather than the more common red. Remnants of this paint can be seen on part of the stairway and on the side facing east toward Building 23.
Blue is most often associated with the rain god but there is no other evidence to support this. The use of light blue paint is a feature shared only with the Maya.
Unfortunately for those who study the 'City of Storms', relatively few records remain of the people who lived there. There are no books and no direct accounts by anyone who ever had direct contact with them. Unlike the Maya, who were fond of carving glyphs with names, dates and information into their stone artwork, the artists of El Tajin rarely did so. This lack of information makes the architecture that much more important: it is the best source of information about this lost culture. Their skill is also evident in the simple fact that so many of their buildings have survived to the present day, although the archaeologists who restored the magnificent palaces and temples surely helped.
Sources and Links:
Archaeological Mexico: A Guide to Ancient Cities and Sacred Sites by Coe, Andrew. Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2001.
Moon Archaeological Mexico, by Andrew Coe Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2001.
Solís, Felipe. El Tajín. México: Editorial México Desconocido, 2003.
Wilkerson, Jeffrey K. "Eighty Centuries of Veracruz." National Geographic 158, No. 2 (August 1980), 203-232.
Zaleta, Leonardo. Tajín: Misterio y Belleza. Pozo Rico: Leonardo Zaleta 1979 (2011)
P. Gendrop, Ancient Mexico (Editorial Trillas, Mexico City, 1972), p. 69.
V.H.Malmstrom, Science, 181, p. 939-941 (1973).
Article by Joani Jiannine 2021