Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents: The Public Sculpture of El Tajain

Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents: The Public Sculpture of El Tajain

Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents: The Public Sculpture of El Tajain

Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents: The Public Sculpture of El Tajain

Synopsis

El Tajén, an ancient Mesoamerican capital in Veracruz, Mexico, has long been admired for its stunning pyramids and ballcourts decorated with extensive sculptural programs. Yet the city's singularity as the only center in the region with such a wealth of sculpture and fine architecture has hindered attempts to place it more firmly in the context of Mesoamerican history. In Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents, Rex Koontz undertakes the first extensive treatment of El Tajén's iconography in over thirty years, allowing us to view its imagery in the broader Mesoamerican context of rising capitals and new elites during a period of fundamental historical transformations.

Koontz focuses on three major architectural features--the Pyramid of the Niches/Central Plaza ensemble, the South Ballcourt, and the Mound of the Building Columns complex--and investigates the meanings of their sculpture and how these meanings would have been experienced by specific audiences. Koontz finds that the iconography of El Tajén reveals much about how motifs and elite rites growing out of the Classic period were transmitted to later Mesoamerican peoples as the cultures centered on Teotihuacan and the Maya became the myriad city-states of the Early Postclassic period.

By reexamining the iconography of sculptures long in the record, as well as introducing important new monuments and contexts, Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpentsclearly demonstrates El Tajén's numerous iconographic connections with other areas of Mesoamerica, while also exploring its roots in an indigenous Gulf lowlands culture whose outlines are only now emerging. At the same time, it begins to uncover a largely ignored regional artistic culture of which Tajén is the crowning achievement.

Excerpt

El Tajín was an ancient capital of an extensive lowland Mesoamerican realm in the latter half of the first millennium ad. The site is perhaps best known for its elegant niched architecture, which is found in profusion in the pyramids and other structures that formed the city’s monumental core. First among these other structures were masonry ballcourts for the playing of the Mesoamerican rubber ballgame, and scholars have long examined the rich iconography of these courts for clues to the meaning and function of this ritualized sport. Despite interest in fundamental aspects of the city, El Tajín’s place in Mesoamerican history has not been well defined.

The site’s singularity has hindered attempts to place it more firmly in the context of Mesoamerican history. El Tajín was the largest city in the region during its zenith (Wilkerson 1999:113–116), as well as the only center with such a wealth of sculpture and fine, architecture. Unlike the numerous large cities that formed the contemporary Maya area to the south, El Tajín was a city apart, with ties to more southerly areas of the Gulf lowlands but no peers in the region (Kampen 1972; Pascual Soto 1990; compare Proskouriakoff 1954:84–87). Smaller sites throughout the area imitated Tajín architectural style on a reduced scale (Palacios 1926; Jiménez Lara 1991; Pascual Soto 1998:25–28), but none of these had even a Significant fraction of the public art produced at the capital. Important recent studies (Ringle 2004; López Austin and López Luján 2000; Smith and Berdan 2003) have begun to shed light on the interregional webs of art, commerce, and politics that operated during the period, but these studies have yet to be incorporated systematically into studies of the site itself. Finally, with some key exceptions (e.g., Taube 1988), studies of Tajín imagery outside the ball-

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