Central Mexico

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Exploring the Past in Central Mexico

Archaeology and History Sites in Hidalgo

Huapalcalco

Deriving from a Nahuatl word meaning “place of the wooden house,” Huapalcalco shows evidence for five distinct periods of occupation. Cave paintings and projectile tips reveal the presence of a Lower Cenolithic settlement, around 10,000 to 7000 years ago. A hamlet then appeared in the Late Preclassic Period, while in the Epiclassic Period a larger urban settlement sprang up, giving us many of the structures that survive at this site.

Pahñú

The ruined settlement at Pahñú was an important regional centre during the Epiclassic Period of Mesoamerican archaeology. Archaeologists attribute the site to members of the Xajay culture, which is thought to be ancestral to the Otomi, an indigenous community still living in the region. It was probably devoted to Otontecutli, the God of Old Fire, and includes three open squares, one of which is decorated with a range of petroglyphs.

One of the so-called Atlanteans at Tula, a carved Toltec warrior.

Tula

At one point the most important city in the Toltec Empire, Tula remains an impressive site which peaked in the 10th century AD, during the Early Postclassic Period. By the 12th century much of Tula was all but abandoned. A few features survive, including the Burned Palace, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Ball Court. But best known for the ‘Atlanteans’, large basalt statues overlooking the city.

Tepeapulco (Xihuingo)

Tepeapulco was inhabited between the 1st and 8th centuries AD, during much of the Classic Period. Architectural features at the site suggest that the settlement was under the influence of Teotihuacán. The most prominent feature at the site is the Tecolote pyramid, named after the sculpture of a tecolote (spotted owl) recovered there. The nearby cliffs contain a range of rock paintings and petroglyphs, as well as markings that may reflect astronomic calculations.

Archaeology and History Sites in Mexico State

Looking down the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Teotihuacán

The “Place where the gods were made” was not only one of the largest pre-Hispanic cities in Mesoamerica, but also one of the largest urban centres anywhere in the ancient world. Known for the vast size and number of its monuments, including the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.

Archaeology and History Sites in Morelos

Olintepec

Olintepec was inhabited from the Early Preclassic Period through to the Colonial Era. During the Late Preclassic it was a major regional centre, something assisted by its possession of some of the most richly irrigated land in Morelos. The settlement was then conquered by the Tepanecas and subsequently by the Aztec Empire. Much of Olintepec has yet to be uncovered, although excavation of Mound 1 has revealed close to 200 human burials.

Chalcatzingo

Located at the foot of two hills, Chalcatzingo appears to have been established around 1500 BC. It subsequently reached its height during the Middle Preclassic Era, when a range of stone structures were erected here. Among the best-known elements of the site are its Olmec-influenced architectural features, perhaps a result of artistic diffusionism from the Gulf Coast. Archaeologists consider it to be one of the most important urban centres in the Olmeca area of influence.

Coatetelco

Coatetelco takes its name from a Nahuatl term meaning “place of snakes in the mounds of stone.” The inhabitants of the settlement had links to Xochicalco, but after the latter town began to decline, Coatetelco replaced it as the most important centre in the region during the Late Postclassic Period. Among the visible features are the Cuauhtlitzin Temple, the Xipe-Totec Platform, and the Ball Court. Excavation occurred in the 1970s.

Las Pilas

The settlement at Las Pilas date largely from the Early Classic Period, which lasted from the 3rd through to the 7th century AD. The community who lived here specialised in the preservation of water, demonstrated by a network of canals created to channel and preserve this precious resource. Among the features of this canal network are two duct systems and sedimentation boxes, indicating the technological advancements of this ancient society.

Teopanzolco

Taking its name from a Nahuatl term meaning “in the old temple,” Teopanzolco started life in the Middle Postclassic Period. It is possible that its first inhabitants were the Tlahuicas, a people mentioned in written sources. The first settlement was destroyed and another built atop it during the Late Postclassic Period, coming to be inhabited by the Mexicas. Although the growth of modern Cuernavaca has destroyed much of Teopanzolco, some ruins remain visible.

Tepozteco

Tepozteco is made up of several terraces and a pyramid which were established atop a peak of the Sierra de Tepoztlan during the Middle Postclassic Period. Tepozteco became a major religious site, attracting pilgrims from a wide area. On the terraces to the east of the temple, several domestic residences once stood, housing the priests and others involved in overseeing ritual devotion to the god Tepoztēcatl. The structure overlooks the town of Tepoztlán.

Xochicalco

Located atop a mountain, Xochicalco reached its height between around 650 to 900 AD, during the Epiclassic Period. Its growth may have been linked to the decline of Teotihuacan and the subsequent power vacuum that emerged in the region. Among the key structures is a cave converted into an observatory to monitor the sun, and a temple which contains reliefs depicting feathered snakes, suggesting an influence from Teotihuacan and Mayan societies elsewhere in Mesoamerica.

Yautepec

Yautepec was a settlement that appears to have arisen around 400 AD, during the Classic Period. It subsequently reached its apogee in the Late Postclassic Period, from around 1200 till 1521 AD. It was part of the Aztec Empire, and among its ruins is the first Aztec royal palace excavated by archaeologists. Although various ruins are visible today, much of the historic settlement lies beneath the modern town which shares its name.

Archaeology and History Sites in Puebla

Tepapayeca

The Aztec Empire controlled Tepapayeca during the Late Preclassic Period. For the Aztecs, this location was key to protecting trade routes and defending their territories from Mixtec invaders. It also proved useful in ensuring that local rebellions against Aztec rule could be swiftly suppressed. There are multiple possible origins of the name “Tepapayeca” – it could mean “fenced floor of stone walls,” or alternatively “good and serene place.”

Cantona

The ruins of Cantona bear witness to a city that once stood along an important trade route. It reached its apogee between 600 and 1000 AD, during the Classic Period, before being abandoned shortly after. Covering approximately 12 square kilometres, it was home to a large number of buildings, the foundations of many of which are visible today. Nearly 30 ball game courts have been unearthed at Cantona.

Cholula

With origins in the Late Preclassic Period, Cholula rose to become a significant settlement in the Classic Period, when it was part of the commercial network established by Teotihuacán. The site boasts the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the largest pyramid in Mesoamerica; it was dedicated to the god Tláloc and contains a tunnel running inside it. Artefacts recovered from this fascinating city are displayed at the site museum.

Los Cerritos de San Cristóbal Tepatlaxco

Probably taking its name from a Nahuatl term meaning “in the palace ball game,” Los Cerritos de San Cristóbal Tepatlaxco was inhabited between 300 and 600 AD. A fortified site, it is believed to have been under the influence of the Olmec. Nine pyramid bases stand here; although they range from 2.5 to 9 meters in height, their positioning on the banks of a ravine give the impression of them being higher.

Tepexi el Viejo

Tepexi el Viejo was inhabited from around 300 AD right through to the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. A walled fortress located at the confluence of two deep ravines, it probably had military functions, although its ruins testify to the presence of ceremonial squares and mounds, indicating a varied range of activities that took place here. It likely served as the home of an important local lord.

Yohualichan

Its name perhaps meaning “The House of the Night,” Yohualichan was inhabited by ancestors of the Totonac people. It arose in the Early Classic Period as an outpost of the city at El Tajín, which lies in a straight direction approximately 60 kilometres from Yohualichan. The site’s ceremonial center is arranged around a large rectangular square and includes such features as a ball game court. Depopulation perhaps occurred in the Postclassic Period.

Archaeology and History Sites in Tlaxcala

Cacaxtla

The term Cacaxtla means “Place of Cacaxtles,” the latter a type of frame used for transporting goods. This humble name conceals the splendour of this settlement, which rose to dominance across much of the Poblano-Tlaxcalteca Valley after the decline of Teotihuacan, during the Epiclassic Period. The site boasts a series of largely unique painted murals, now protected from the elements under a large canopy. Archaeologists only discovered Cacaxtla in the 1970s.

Ocotelulco

Over the course of 1990 and 1991, archaeologists excavated the site of a temple at Ocotelulco. They revealed three phases of development at the site, which was ultimately destroyed at the time of the Spanish colonisation. Among the noted features at the site is a bench on which is a carved relief depicting the god Tezcatlipoca surrounded by a range of bloodied obsidian knives and several anthropomorphic serpents.

Tizatlán

A small but important Tlaxcalan site, dating to the 14th century. Stone was used from the site for the construction of the ‘Capilla Abierta de Tizatlan’, a Catholic church built just after the Spanish Conquest. Inside the church visitors can see 16th century frescoes. Of the pre-Hispanic site, a polychrome altar with images of Tlaxcalan deities has been preserved, the walls of which are decorated with images of animals and humans.

Tecoaque

Its name perhaps deriving from the Nahuatl for “the place where lords or gods ate,” Tecoaque grew up in the Early Classic Period. At that time, it was an important stop along trade routes through the region. It grew and developed, reaching its apogee in the Postclassic Period of the 12th to 16th centuries. Archaeologists have revealed evidence for European contact at the site, including several bodies, perhaps members of Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition.

Archaeology and History Sites in Veracruz

Castillo de Teayo

The Castillo de Teayo (Teayo Castle) is considered one of the most important archaeological sites on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Its name refers to the large pyramidal structure found here, which intriguingly shows influence from varied cultural traditions. The base appears to be Early Preclassic in origin, although the rest of the structure was built largely in the Late Postclassic Period. Sculptures and other artefacts from the site are displayed at a nearby museum.

Cempoala

With origins in the Preclassic and Classic Period, Cempoala’s early form reflected Olmec influence. During the Postclassic Period, Cempoala served as the capital city of Totonacapan, the (multi-ethnic) area of territory dominated by the Totonaca people. At its height, the settlement’s population was around 25 or 30,000. One of the main archaeological features is a series of stepped rings which might have been used in measuring and computing time.

Cuajilote

Named for a local tree, Cuajilote reached its apogee during the Classic Period. Archaeologists have excavated a range of structures, although there are more to be unearthed – experts estimate that there were once 500 buildings here. Among the known structures are a ball game court and a range of temples. Originally located in a particularly fertile landscape, the archaeological site stands within the current borders of the Tlapacoya urban area.

Cuyuxquihui

The name of Cuyuxquihui comes from a Totonac term meaning “armadillo tree.” The settlement emerged in the Postclassic Period, after the abandonment of the city at El Tajín. The structures at Cuyuxquihui are fortified, leading archaeologists to believe that it was erected in a period of increasing violence and group conflict. Cuyuxquihui remained an important hub in the region until the Mexicas conquered it in 1456.

El Tajín

With a name meaning “The Thunder,” El Tajín was a major regional centre in the Epiclassic Period, between the 7th and 10th centuries. The most prominent structure here is the Pirámide de los Nichos (Pyramid of the Niches), known for having 365 niches – one for every day in the year. There are several other important temples and 17 ball game courts also present. Since 1992, UNESCO have classified it as a World Heritage Site.

Las Higueras

Arising in the Early Preclassic Period, when its architectural features suggested an influence from Olmec society, during the Classic Period Las Higueras came under the control of the Totonaca culture. It reached its apogee in the Late Classic Period, between the 7th and 10th centuries. The site is perhaps best known for the painted murals that archaeologists discovered here, and which depict a range of anthropomorphic figures.

Quiahuiztlán

Quiahuiztlán takes its name from a Nahuatl term meaning “the place of rain.” Its origins lie in the Epiclassic Period, amid the social changes brought on by the weakening of Teotihuacán. During the Postclassic Period, it was conquered first by the Toltecs, and later by the Mexicas. Quiahuiztlán remained under Mexica control until the Spanish conquest. It was here that the Spaniards and the Totonacas formed an alliance against the Aztec Empire.

San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan

Originally settled between 1500 and 1200 BC, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan evolved into a key capital of the Olmec society. Between 1200 and 850 BC, the city’s population grew rapidly, probably reaching around 13,000. Subsistence activities to support this population growth expanded accordingly. Nearby, large stone heads and other sculptures were made from volcanic stone, representing some of the most quintessential images of the Olmec civilization. By 850 BC, the city’s population was declining.

Tres Zapotes

Stretching for over 3 kilometres, the settlement at Tres Zapotes includes a diverse range of structures, including over 150 mounds, artificial terraces, and natural features modified by human activity. Some of these mounds were probably residential platforms, allowing them to rise above the alluvial plain in which much of the settlement is found. Various sculptures reflecting Omlec and Izapa stylistic influences have been recovered here, reflecting the aesthetics of its Preclassic Period inhabitants.

Vega de la Peña

Inhabited from at least the Classic Period, Vega de la Peña only reached its apogee in the 13th and 14th centuries, during the Late Postclassic. It was an important part of local trade networks, which led to it being used by the Mexicas when they were expanding their influence into the Gulf region. Archaeologists first recognised the value of the site in the 1920s, although focused investigation had to wait until the 1990s.

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