The Preclassic site of Chalcatzingo is located in Central Mexico, in modern-day Morelos. This site is formed by igneous rock and forms a pass by which travelers could access Puebla to the east, where vast resources were found. Given this ideal situation, Chalcatzingo was an important axis of trade, dubbed by Michael Coe as “the most important highland Olmec site.” However, it does not appear to have begun as a clearly Olmec site. The archaeologist who excavated most of Chalcatzingo, David Grove, estimates that the site was founded by 1500 BC, and flourished around 700 years later, coinciding with the apogee of the Olmec site of La Venta.
This correlation with Olmec sites suggests that Chalcatzingo experienced large amounts of trade from the Olmec heartland in the Gulf Coast, and possible marriage alliances as well. Scholars tend to favor a more amicable relationship between Chalcatzingo and the Gulf Coast rather than one built on conquest or invasion.
These relationships did not only benefit Chalcatzingo economically; they also influenced the site’s artistic expression. It is during the point of highest interaction and influence that we see Olmec artistic style appear at Chalcatzingo.
Monumental Art & Rock Carvings
Art at Chalcatzingo consists of monumental petroglyphs, images carved into large boulders along the site’s periphery. Perhaps the most famous example of these petroglyphs is Petroglyph or Monument 1, known rather incorrectly as “El Rey” or “The King.” In fact, the figure shown in the image is female, indicated by the skirt she wears. This figure appears to be a leader or governor, and holds a ceremonial bar in her arms. She sits within a cave that emits mist and wind, and above her fall raindrops and precious jade circles. This scene appears to allude to a ruler petitioning the gods for fertility and abundance for her people.
Monument 9 clarifies the odd shape of the cave in which the ruler sits. Currently kept in a private collection, it is in the shape of a doorway of sorts, formed in a quatrefoil (or four-lobed) shaped. The center of this monument is carved out so that people– likely rulers– could walk in and out of it. This suggests that it functioned in a similar fashion as that suggested on Monument 1: as a place where a ruler could enter into the heart of the earth and petition for rainfall.
Other scenes at Chalcatzingo show feline figures, both standing under falling raindrops and in the process of attacking human figures. These images, less understood than others at Chalcatzingo, appear to also be associated with supplications for rain. This is confirmed by the fact that during the rainy season, water cascades in torrents down the mountainsides, creating rivers and rivulets of water that courses alongside these monumental petroglyphs.
Work continues today at Chalcatzingo. One archaeologist currently working there is Omar Espinosa, who specializes in the study of lithics, or worked stone. He is analyzing the lithics found at the site in order to determine trade relationships, site complexity and more.
Tune in to this week’s interview with Omar on the podcast (currently available in Spanish only).