Death in the Early Cities

  December 13, 2021   Read time 3 min
Death in the Early Cities
There are many archaeological examples of the funerals of dignitaries and the importance of lineage during the exequies, and of the relationship of lineage with monumental architecture.

For the rest of the population, however, funeral rites seem to be associated with domestic spaces. In Teotihuacan, the most cosmopolitan of the region’s urban centers, numerous sculptural and painted images show that rain, fertility and the commitment to sustaining agricultural resources have been found. A fundamental notion of pre-Columbian thought developed in this imposing city— the ritual significance of caves and their association with life and death. These openings, whether natural or man-made, were associated with the netherworld because of their symbolic relation to a uterus, a tomb, and the jaws of the mythic “earth monster.” As confirmed by some late narratives, the life of the ancestors is thought to originate in the cave and, in serving as tombs, caves are also the final destination for some individuals. In Teotihuacan, which is a sacred recreation of the cosmos, caves were a crucial element—from them came the raw material to build the city, and rituals took place inside them that were closely associated with death.

Teotihuacan’s sophisticated agricultural cosmovision and technology is evident in the astonishing colorful murals found in palaces and apartment compounds. In the eastern quadrant of the great capital, archaeologists uncovered what is known as the Tepantitla complex, and they were able to restore a series of colorful murals depicting something like a terrestrial paradise. This paradise or sacred afterlife shows richly bejeweled characters in different postures and actions, a great blooming tree with a dynamic, twisted trunk and a richly costumed deity presiding over the scene. This image has been interpreted as Tláloc’s paradise, or the Tlalocan.

During this period (c. 200 CE) death by sacrifice became a common practice as evidenced by numerous stunning discoveries in the great ceremonial compound known today a the Ciudadela. At the heart of the Ciudadela stands a majestic pyramid-temple decorated with alternating images of Quetzalcoatl and, possibly, Tláloc. Recent archaeological work found 134 human skeletons with their hands tied in the back. Exceptional offerings were placed near the individuals, such as luxurious necklaces made of shell (representing human mandibles). Often, with these immolations, the people returned the sacrifices the gods had made in the original times. Thus, death became fundamental to the operation of the cosmos.

The evidence from other sites is often considered surprising. Iconographic representations engraved in walls and pottery of the Maya region depict skeletons in motion, participating in rituals or presiding over scenes. Examples from the more lavish and complex funerals, such as the tomb of Pacal, the ruler of Palenque, date to this time. The elaboration of a monolithic sarcophagus, the carving of a tombstone, and the construction of the pyramid to function as a sepulcher, are all examples of extensive planning. Together with the sacrifice of companions and the lavish offering, this evidence demonstrates the importance of the notion of an afterlife and, probably, of the journey the ruler had to undergo to reach his destination. In this imposing tomb there is also an exultation of life and death: An image of the deceased was carved on the cover of the sarcophagus, a maize plant emerging from his chest. Such magnificent royal sepulchers are common throughout the Maya region.

Oaxaca is another region where the dual notion of life and death is apparent. The evidence from mural paintings, the clay masks that show skeletal facial features, and the location of Zapotec tombs (placed under rooms, patios, and temples) all point to the importance of death in everyday life. The area of the Gulf of Mexico is not an exception. The clay figurines from Zapotal, Veracruz, are one example, as they represent skeletons that are associated with the god of the underworld.

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