November 10, 2007, Cherra Wyllie, Ph.D. "The Murals of El Zapotal, Veracruz, Mexico"

            The archaeological site of El Zapotal is located in the Mixtequilla region of Southern Veracruz, Mexico. The culture of this gulf heartland region was influenced by the art and traditions of the neighboring Mixtec, Zoque, Totonac and Nahua peoples.  During the 1970s, work at El Zapotal included the excavations of Mound 2, which revealed a Late Classic ossuary with multiple burials, over 400 sumptuous funerary offerings, and life-sized terracotta sculpture on par with the Chinese national treasures from Xian. The terra cotta sculptures within the central room of the pyramid include four life-sized images of midwives, seated with crossed legs, and four standing figures which represent martyred women heroes who had died in childbirth.  These statues flank a U-shaped banquette surrounding a 1.52 meter high sculpture of a skeletal Death God which bears a symbol of sprouting maize on its belt.  Surrounding the death god is a series of murals which murals form part of a larger narrative program integrating sculpture, architectural elements, burial offerings, and human osteological remains. They literally serve to interact symbolically with the death god and mirror the sculptural portions of the tomb. The motifs of the El Zapotal murals appear to be closely connected with Underworld stories of Creation shared by neighboring, and perhaps all, Mesoamerican cultures. 
            Working in the extremely hot, humid, and poorly lit room, Dr. Wyllie, through the assistance of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia - Veracruz, produced drawings of the now deteriorating paintings. On the east wall of the banquette which frames the death god can be found a dwarf wearing a heron headdress, a motif which reflects the Totonac belief that dwarves served the Death God. On the west wall is found a male figure with backward feet, a Pocolaca symbol, who is wearing a crawfish or lobster claw hand, reminiscent of the Maya murals at Bonampak. He is accompanied by a bird costumed person who plays music. Another section of the mural portrays a woman who died as a hero in childbirth, mirroring the standing figures in the room, and corresponding to Totonac custom, as well.  She is accompanied by an old Thunder God and a man wearing a coyote costume. This motif is depicted on Rio Blanco pottery, and is referred to in Nahua and Totonac traditions. Another section of the mural shows a warrior woman in an animal headdress, wearing the same basic costume as the terra cotta midwives.  There is even a figure with a single serpent leg. In three dimensions, the tomb symbolizes a nine stepped pyramid, surrounded by the path of the sun as it travels through the underworld and returns to the sky. Its arrangement further evokes the form of a royal court, in which kings as deity impersonators reenacted the creation and destruction of the world and sun. The old king died as the sun did each day, and departed to rule beneath the earth. The new ruler was then symbolically reborn as the returning sun, which arose each day from the brazier of a false god. Sahagun alluded to this myth when relating a ceremony on the merchant feast day in which participants wore the broad traveling hat shared by the Aztec Huehueteotl and the Maya God L, and a god impersonator was sacrificed by fire. The Totonac appear to share this myth as well, as they speak of the rebirth of the sun when he throws himself into a fire and then emerges to fly up into the sky. Dr. Wyllie’s examples vividly illustrated the similarities and apparently shared nature of Meso-American creation myths, and led to questions and discussions which will continue through the year.
            Cherra Wyllie, Assistant Professor of Art and Archaeology, University of Hartford, is an archaeological illustrator specializing in Classic Veracruz iconography and hieroglyphic inscriptions. She received an MA in Archaeological Studies and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Yale University, with a regional focus on Mesoamerica and a theoretical concentration in Anthropology of Art. She has published on Aztec book arts and Veracruz writing systems. Her chapter, Continuity and Change in Late Classic Southern Veracruz Art, Hieroglyphs, and Religion, in the Dumbarton Oaks/Harvard University Press Classic Veracruz volume, is due out later this year.
            Members of the Pre-Columbian Society were joined at our regular meeting by a group from the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington, DC. Fortuitously, both groups, at Dr. Wyllie’s suggestion, were able to attend a lecture given by Simon Martin on Maya kingship immediately following Dr. Wyllie’s talk. At the generous invitation of the Washington group, several of the members and Dr. Wyllie then continued to the Sitio Conte exhibition to join their tour, which was led by our former PCS president, Dr. Elin Danien, Research Associate in the American Section of the Penn Museum.

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