National Geographic : 1992 Sep
:BIRD MAN AND JAGUAR MAN MURALS woman who, according to an Indian legend, was sacrificed to the mountain gods. A gigantic ruined pyramid occupies the windswept sum mit. On the opposite hill sprawls the flourishing town of San Miguel del Milagro, named in the early 17th cen tury to celebrate the miracu lous appearance of Saint Michael the Archangel to a 16-year-old Indian boy. Despite the unusual bulk of Cacaxtla's main mound it covers an area the size of four football fields and rises more than 80 feet-the ruins long lay in relative obscurity among the many ancient sites in the vicinity of San Miguel. That all ended in the late summer of 1975, when dig gers from the town secretly tunneled into the mound in search of treasure. Almost immediately they encoun tered a smooth stucco sur face, the wall of a buried building. On the morning of September 13 their tunnel reached the jamb of a door way and the first hint of the surprises to come. The diggers had happened upon a huge mural showing a man dressed as a giant bird, nearly life-size against a bloodred backdrop (page 129). His talon feet rested on a magnificent grinning feath ered serpent rendered in blue, with yellow belly scales and beard. The bird man embraced a long bar-shaped object that ended in a blue dragon head with a pointed tongue. An intricate border of whimsical water crea tures-turtles, snakes, and little animals peeking from shells-framed the fantastic scene. And in this first of many startling discoveries at Maya symbol of royal power, the skin of a jaguar adorns one of two portraits outside a chamber. Blue drops from the warrior's lances suggest blood turned to water-evoking rain andfertility. A new steel roof (left) shelters Cacaxtla's acropolis, under the distant peak of Iztaccihuatl volcano. The city thrived betweenA.D. 650 and 900 in the tumult that came with the decline of the nearby metropolis Teotihuacan. PAINTINGBY NATIONALGEOGRAPHICARTISTWILLIAMH. BOND Peeling away layer after dusty layer (left), archaeologists have found remains of plazas, altars, rooms, and doorways. Stairs lead to a sunken cham ber named the Red Temple in part for the color of its entrance murals. Scholars have found at least eight stages of construction, some buried in the ancient Mesoamerican tradition. This suggests that bursts of build ing accompanied changes of rulers. Most historians believe the builders were Olmeca Xicalanca, a little-known group of warrior merchants originally from the Gulf coast region.