National Geographic : 1992 Sep
black body paint, barely visi ble behind a wide collar of jade beads and a heavy belt of carved faces securing a jaguar skin around his waist. A light red war shield, trimmed in darker red and yellow with dangling blue feathers tipped in yellow, hung from his left wrist. His upraised arm brandished an atlatl, or spear-thrower, loaded with a flint-tipped dart. It pointed to one of the most wretched figures I have ever seen in ancient art on what may have been the worst and last day of his life. The captain of the bird soldiers wore a knee-length skirt, a richly decorated tex tile in red and blue, trimmed in feathers and fringe. Over it hung the familiar quech quemitl, the triangular shawl of the Mexicans, equally adorned. Both upraised arms bore wings of blue feathers, costume companions to the large sightless bird-head helmet. The bird captain's mouth was open in what I took to be a scream, for his right hand grasped a dart that lay imbedded in his face. "Surprised? I knew you would be," Marta declared as proudly as if she had painted the images herself. Indeed I was. In 30 years of travel among Mesoamerican archaeological sites, I had never beheld the vivid reality and preserved detail I wit nessed here. After seeing the paintings, another of my col leagues remarked: "Cacaxtla tells us what we have lost in so much of Mesoamerican civilization." As Marta and other art historians had seen almost at first glance, the Cacaxtla mu rals contain an extraordinary potpourri of elements-details of costume and ornament, hieroglyphs, gods, animals, and plants-that normally appear either in the Mexican highlands or in the distant Maya lowlands, but hardly ever together in one place and never so blatantly as at Cacaxtla. Most unusual of all, the astonishing images of the acropolis appear in the style of the Classic period Maya, who lived at least 500 miles away. EARLY 15 YEARS after Marta unveiled the bat tle mural to me, I returned to Cacaxtla. Much had changed. The entire summit of the Gran Basa mento now lies in the shade of a gigantic roof erected by the state of Tlaxcala to shelter the fragile adobe of the ruins and their murals. The painting I had but glimpsed before, now thoroughly cleaned and con solidated, contains more than enough to gladden the heart of any iconographer. Amid the figures drift iso lated hieroglyphs; some surely identify individuals depicted. Clearly not of Maya form, the hieroglyphs appear with strings of dots-the usual high land way of writing numbers -attached to pictures of objects or animals. The name of the jaguar captain, for example, is repre sented by three dots joined to a deer antler, or, for want of the Cacaxtlan pronunciation, Three Deer Antler, perhaps a calendar number and sign derived from his birth date. War icons, not unexpect edly, appear in the scene as well-a screech owl, blood glyphs, and a disjointed and blood-spotted human femur. But dominating the whole are the Venus symbols, an entire family of elements that in one way or another represent the celestial body intimately asso ciated with the grandiose rituals of Mesoamerican war and sacrifice. To the Maya, Venus was xux ek, the dread "wasp star," whose appear ance controlled the scheduling of military raids. John Carlson of the Center for Archaeoastronomy in Col lege Park, Maryland, special izes in the Mexican and Maya Venus lore, and for almost a decade, with the help of a National Geographic Society research grant, he has cast his net far and wide for evidence.* His pursuit of Venus has taken him from the ruins of the Clas sic period metropolis of Teoti huacan near Mexico City to the abandoned fortress city of Xochicalco in the state of Morelos, and to the distant reaches of Oaxaca and the Maya area as well. In the Cacaxtla paintings he has found his nirvana. "The place is crawling with Venus symbols," he told me. "I'm just thankful they found Cacaxtla in my lifetime. Now I simply can't imagine Mesoa merica without it." *See "America's Ancient Skywatchers," March 1990. The first mural unearthed at Cacaxtla showed a bird man, plumed and painted black. Archaeologists soon were thrilled by the find of some of the best preserved Mesoamerican paintings yet uncovered.