The site of El Tajín, 21 km west of the Gulf of Mexico, close to the city of Papantla in Veracruz, was a primary urban center on the Gulf Coast of Mexico c. 600–1000 CE. The site was originally discovered by Europeans in 1785, although the indigenous people of the region were probably always aware of it. For more than a century after its discovery, the site was considered to be no more than the Pyramid of the Niches, the central monumental building first uncovered in 1785. It has only been in the last century that the rest of the urban core has slowly come to light, and serious studies of the urban periphery and important satellite centers have only been undertaken since the 1960s. While it is clear from ceramic evidence and architectural style distribution that the El Tajín realm at its apogee once encompassed a large part of north-central Veracruz, no significant survey or other systematic study of the realm has been attempted.
El Tajín grew to its central status c. 600–1000 CE from still little-known and relatively humble beginnings before 500 CE. During this pre-apogee period that coincides largely with the Early Classic elsewhere in Mesoamerica (local Cacahuatal phase, c. 350–600), El Tajín was one of several sites in the region that began to erect stelae commemorating single figures.
The Early Classic stelae of the region followed a consistent format, beginning with a raised outline frame around the stela. Inside this frame a single figure was depicted with ritual objects held in each hand, usually consisting of a baton or banner in one hand and a ritual bag in the other. Most figures are shown in a frontal, iconic pose. These early stelae were said to be found in the southern section of El Tajín (the Arroyo group) and have been archaeologically recovered and firmly dated to the Cacahuatal phase in important Early Classic regional centers near El Tajín, such as Morgadal Grande.
Overall, we do not have sufficient archaeological information to draw a robust picture of the Early Classic period at El Tajín, as much of the evidence is buried beneath the Late Classic city. It is assumed that the site would have been comparable to other Early Classic centers in the region, with a central pyramid, an adjacent ballcourt, a public plaza for public performance, and the placement of stelae, and a handful of other monumental stone buildings surrounded by a small support population.
Sometime around 600 CE, El Tajín became the paramount site in the region. The city was several times larger than other settlements in the region. Sites that previously had erected their own stelae begin to adopt the emerging style of architecture associated with El Tajín, including the use of the flying cornice and the niche. The stela form falls out of favor around this time, as monumental architectural decoration such as sculptural panels and interior murals at the primary site of El Tajín seems to be the most important public iconographic expression in the region.
During the apogee period (between c. 600–1000), the ceremonial center of El Tajín occupied an area of c. 2 sq. km, excluding the surrounding urban settlement. A distinguishing feature of the site is the fact that it was constructed on a series of elevated areas—some natural but modified, some manmade—which commanded a view of the surrounding settlement and agricultural areas. The site may be divided into four sections. Tajín Grande occupies the lowest section of the site; it is the ceremonial core, where the largest monumental structures, including the famous Pyramid of the Niches and major decorated ballcourts, are located. Moving upward, the monuments of Tajín Chico, which was built to the north on natural and artificial platforms, are much smaller but evince multiple story construction, the use of local cement, and elaborate geometric decoration. It is likely that these buildings were spaces for elite reunions and rites. Rising above both of the former spaces is a monumental set of palaces and other elite spaces known as the Mound of the Building Columns, after a richly decorated entryway. The “western slopes” of the site, though not yet systematically excavated, were probably elite residential areas, because of their close functional relationship with the first two sections of the site. Surrounding this tripartite core area was the vast urban residential settlement. The entire city may have had as many as 15,000–20,000 inhabitants at its height, although we lack the detailed settlement survey to be more precise.
The central area of El Tajín (Tajín Grande) is anchored by the Pyramid of the Niches, a typical Mesoamerican pyramid form of c. 18 m in height, but covered with several hundred well-made stone niches that give the pyramid its name. The graceful and impressive architectural detail has brought much attention to the building from its discovery in the late 18th century, and for more than one hundred years thereafter it was considered the only important building at the site. Later archaeologists have found a whole range of buildings surrounding the Pyramid of the Niches. All of the visible buildings date to the apogee period of the site (c. 600–1000), although the area still has not undergone a systematic effort at finding underlying buildings. The most famous is the monumental decorated ballcourt near the Pyramid of the Niches, known as the South Ballcourt, with six large relief panels that represent ballgame-related rites of the El Tajín elite.
Immediately surrounding the Pyramid of the Niches and the central monumental ballcourt are four more important apogee-period ballcourts for the play of the Mesoamerican rubber ballgame and performance of associated rites. Other ballcourts are found scattered in other parts of the site. Several of these ballcourts were decorated with relief sculpture and there are some small remnants of what must have been an extensive mural program. The iconography of the sculpture focuses exclusively on the rites surrounding the game: at no time is the actual ballgame shown in these courts.
The art style found throughout the site is also found on a number of finely carved portable sculptures known as yugos (yokes), hachas (hatchet-shaped stones), and palmas (spade-shaped stones). Many (but far from all) of these objects contain scroll decoration related to the architectural decoration found at El Tajín. It is likely that the El Tajín region produced a good number of these, but we now know that many other groups throughout Mesoamerica were interested in the yugo form and produced their own variants. The palma form is associated almost exclusively with the El Tajín style and found almost exclusively in the area of El Tajín architectural and ceramic affiliation. Several palmas illustrate an El Tajín-style flying cornice architecture with niches as part of their iconography, often with single figures standing on top of El Tajín-style architecture.
There is some evidence that later Mesoamericans paid homage to the site after it had ceased to function as a regional capital. Huastec (a Mayan-speaking group to the north of El Tajín) left diagnostic sculpture and ceramics at the site, although it is not thought that they inhabited it.
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