Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How big are those pyramids?

I like to talk about the "monumental architecture" at Calixtlahuaca as if the pyramids and palace were truly large and impressive structures. I realize that the temples at Calixtlahuaca are much smaller than the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, or the other big Aztec twin-temple pyramids such as Tlatelolco or Tenayuca. This fits a general expectation that the scale of civic architecture should match up with the scale of the polity. Joyce Marcus (2003) has pointed out that this assumption is not always true, but I think it holds up reasonably within a cultural tradition such as Aztec central Mexico. As the capital of a big empire, it is not surprising that Tenochtitlan has bigger temples than Calixtlahuaca, the capital of a smaller regional state.But Chris Fisher just sent me an image that makes even the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan look puny. He has merged a model of that temple into the main platform at Tzintzuntzan, the Tarascan capital (Pollard 1993; Fisher 2005):
(image by Christopher Fisher)

The oddly shaped temples on top of the great platform are called yacatas. The Templo Mayor fits right in the line of yacatas. Well, since the Tarascans beat the Aztecs soundly in the only major direct battle they fought, I guess we can say that Tzintzuntzan was the more powerful city. So then it makes sense that their main religious structure was bigger than the Templo Mayor.

The sizes of things are important, and differences in scale can teach us important lessons. These may not be simple or obvious lessons, but it is always important to keep in mind how big things are.

Fisher, Christopher T.
2005 Demographic and Landscape Change in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, Mexico: Abandoning the Garden. American Anthropologist 107:87-95.

Marcus, Joyce
2003 Monumentality in Archaic States: Lessons Learned from Large-Scale Excavations of the Past. In Theory and Practice in Mediterranean Archaeology: Old World and New World Perspectives, edited by John K. Papadopoulos and Richard M. Leventhal, pp. 115-134. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Pollard, Helen Perlstein
1993 Tariacuri's Legacy: The Prehispanic Tarascan State. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Smith, Michael E.
2008 Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.


Cacalotl said...

Quite impressive indeed...

I share this information on Facebook and Twitter, Dr Smith.

Hugo Eder Cortés Rivera said...

Interesting proposal but I'm afraid that you've failed to observe some basic notions. Tzintzuntzan main temple is based on a modified hill where the yacatas were later aded. In this regard, Tenochtitlan's Hueyteocalli (Templo Mayor) was of anthropological origin.

Moreover, the capital city of the Tarascan League held roughly 40 thousand people, while the aztec capital was home to (depending on whom you're reading) 100 to 300 thousand people.

The defeat of the Aztecs was a matter of technology rather than city-based-power: the Tarascan people had bronze weaponry and shields, while the aztecs still relied on wood-based weapons with volcanic crystal blades (obsidian).

I like your blog though.