National Geographic : 1992 Sep
What John has seen in the battle mural and elsewhere are representations of Venus that range from the Teotihuacan and Oaxaca forms of the eyed half-star to the distinctive trapeze-and-ray insignia that decorates war helmets all the way into the distant Maya heartland. These and other icons, identi fied by generations of scholars, he has woven into a cohesive theory of Mesoamerican war iconography. It involves not only Venus but also Tlaloc, storm god of ancient Teotihua can. The icons combine in many ways, John says, to form the key element in what he and his col leagues half-jokingly call the Mesoamerican "star wars." "That's exactly what they were," he explains, "wars regu lated by Venus's appearances. We've known that for a long time, but I see it best right here. It's what Cacaxtla was all about." KEY TO INTERPRETING the jaguar-bird encounter is that some of the van quished bird men wear blue body paint, the traditional mark of sacrificial victims. "The scene is not of a bat tle," says Mesoamerican art historian Ellen Baird of the Uni versity of Nebraska at Lincoln, "but of its aftermath and atten dant sacrifices. Blood-the ways in which it was obtained, and the need for obtaining it seems to be the central theme." Blood and its symbols per vade the mural, and for good reason: The Cacaxtlans and other Mesoamericans believed that it held the soul and that it formed the supreme metaphor for water, essential for the nour ishment of the earth. John Carlson agrees with Beneath bony figures of captives painted across the floor of the Red Temple (left), conservators restore hieroglyphs for con quered towns (above and below). "I try to put myself in the place of the people who created them," says conservator Diana Magaloni. Her chemical analyses of one temple mural show that artists used colored powders-such as yellow ocher, hematite, and carbon-and cre ated long-lasting paints by mix ing them with juice from the nopal cactus.