Drawing after Miguel Covarrubias – Indian Art of Mexico & Central America Death Gods, Smiling Faces and Colossal Heads: Archaeology of the Mexican Gulf Lowlands
by Richard Diehl

Ancient Cities, Towns, and Shrines

El Zapotal: The Lord of the Underworld's Shrine


To even the practiced eye of an archaeologist, El Zapotal looks no different than any other small Classic period mound cluster in the flat and incredibly hot Mixtequilla region south of Veracruz City. However, for more than 1,000 years, one inconspicuous mound at the site covered a truly extraordinary shrine dedicated to the Lord of the Underworld, a shrine that included life-sized hollow clay sculptures that Chera Wyllie, an authority on ancient Mexican art, has called "…the apogee of ancient Mesoamerican ceramic artistry." (Wyllie 2008: 234). The story of El Zapotal is that of a major archaeological treasure that has been lost, found, and then almost completely ignored for decades. Today it is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

The shrine remained hidden until the 1960s when local looters began to uncover a trove of beautiful ceramic objects. Soon thereafter, Mexican law enforcement officials seized several large ceramic sculptures awaiting illegal export abroad in the port of Veracruz. They were able to trace them back to a small village a few kilometers from Cerro de las Mesas, a large ancient center famous for its stone stelae. Manuel Torres and a team of archaeologists from the University of Veracruz (UV) in Xalapa assessed the situation and spent several field seasons excavating one of the mounds already opened by the looters. They uncovered a unique temple shrine dominated by an unfired clay image of the Lord of the Underworld, an ancient Mesoamerican deity often known by his Nahuatl name Mictlantecuhtli. This macabre figure sits menacingly on a raised throne surrounded by mural paintings charged with religious symbolism. Outside the shrine stood nineteen large ceramic statues depicting the Cihuateteotl (Nahuatl, plural), much feared goddesses who represented women who had died in childbirth. They in turn were encircled by 200+ jumbled human skeletons accompanied with an astounding array of superb human and animal ceramic figures, musical instruments, and other fine-wrought clay objects.

Upon finishing their excavations, Manuel Torres and his colleagues transported all the materials except for the fragile unfired Lord of the Underworld back to the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa (MAX), where they have remained since 1972. A small selection of the most spectacular pieces has always been displayed in MAX and at a local museum constructed over the in-situ Lord of the Underworld but neither museum can display even a fraction of the El Zapotal trove.

Most tragically, the excavation was never properly written up or published. Were it not for a few publications in relatively obscure Spanish language academic outlets, nothing would be known about the find. These include an excellent monograph on the ceramic sculptures by Nellie Gutiérrez Solano and Susan K. Hamilton and licenciatura theses at the UV by Adelina Suzan Morales and María Eugenia Maldonado Vite, the sources of much of my information. Fortunately modern scholars, particularly Dr. Sara Ladrón de Guevara, Director of the MAX and Dr. Cherra Wyllie of the University of Hartford, are initiating new studies of the objects and their context and plan to make them much more widely known to the world at large.

The Region

The Mixtequilla is a small area of low-lying terrain on the western edge of the Papaloapan river drainage. Named perhaps for 19th century Mixtec-speaking Indians from Oaxaca who arrived each year to help pick the cotton for which the region is famous, it is hot, dry, and mosquito-infested virtually year-round. It hardly seems a likely setting for a cultural and artistic florescence but such was the case during the Classic period (AD 600-900). By then Cerro de las Mesas, the largest archaeological site in the region was largely abandoned but small centers such as El Zapotal, Cocuite, Dicha Tuerta, and Nopiloa had emerged in its shadow. None of these were large or impressive in the Mesoamerican scheme of things but their inhabitants included some of the finest potters who ever worked in the Americas, men (and perhaps women as well) whose level of skill and imagination made them true artists rather than craftsmen.

The Shrine and surrounding area

The Shrine to the Lord of the Underworld rested on what archeologists called Mound 2, a low platform surmounted by a three-sided building painted inside and out with a colorful and complex tableau depicting a pregnant woman, a warrior dressed in a coyote skin, skeletal figures receiving homage from attendants, and solar disks. The unfired painted clay sculpture of the Lord of the Underworld occupies the focal point of a scene that extended beyond the wall paintings to include almost-life-sized standing hollow statues of women. The statues are thought to represent the local equivalent of the Aztec Cihuateteotl, women who lived in the dark underworld but whose death in childbirth, the equivalent of a battle to create a future warrior, had earned them the right to accompany the sun on its daily journey from noon until sunset. Numerous primary burials and a vast jumble of human bones possibly belonging to sacrificial victims lay around the exterior of the shrine. Mixed in with them Torres uncovered a vast profusion of clay sculptures, figurines, vessels, musical instruments, and other objects placed as offerings. The best description in English of the shrine and its contents can be found in two accounts by Cherra Wyllie ("Continuity and Changes in Late Classic Southern Veracruz Art," in Classic Period Cultural Currents in Southern and Central Veracruz, edited by Phillip Arnold III and Christopher A. Pool, pages 225-258, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, Washington, DC, 2008, and "The Mural Paintings of El Zapotal, Veracruz, Mexico", Ancient Mesoamerica, to be published in 2010).

Looting of the Mixtequilla

The illegal excavation and sale of antiquities has a long history in the Gulf Lowlands but became endemic in southern Veracruz in the 1960s and continues today, albeit perhaps on at less rapacious pace. The scale of these clandestine but lucrative activities can be seen in the fact that by as early as 1971, the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles could mount an exhibition of 150 exhibit-quality Classic period central Veracruz objects found in collections in the city of Los Angeles alone! Many of these pieces, just as is true of those scientifically excavated at El Zapotal itself, were badly damaged and have been heavily restored. The fact that we do not know where these looted pieces came from and what they were associated with greatly limits our ability to interpret them and the lives of their creators.

The collection from El Zapotal is as valuable for the information it provides as it is for the beauty of its objects. One reason is that the context and disposition of the objects shows how this art was used by its makers. Another is that we can assume all the objects were made at one moment in the history of the community to be used in a specific ritual setting. This in turn sheds considerable light into the minds and activities of its makers.

Finally, knowing that so many pieces of such superb quality were created in one place for one activity suggests that El Zapotal must have been home of one or a handful of the greatest artists who ever lived in ancient Mexico. But, why was this so? Why El Zapotal and not a great city like Teotihuacan or Cholula in the Mexican highlands, or a Maya center such as Tikal or Copan? Furthermore, was El Zapotal truly unique in its homeland, a Mesoamerican Florence surrounded by lesser artistic lights, or do other equally outstanding discoveries await future excavations? If so, I can only hope the archaeologists get before the looters.

The El Zapotal Image Portfolio

The images below provide a broad-ranging but far-from-complete introduction to the inventory of objects found at El Zapotal. All are located in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa (MAX) in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. I present them in order to bring this under-appreciated treasure to the attention of the world public. I hope that current research by the scholars mentioned above will amplify the information available on this most unusual archaeological find and encourage others to pursue new investigations. I must enter a caveat to anyone who views these objects. In almost every case they were found badly damages and subsequently were restored. In some cases the restorations appears to have been quite extensive. Thus some of these objects may appear differently today than when they were buried by the ancient Veracruzanos.

I have drawn my images and many of my interpretations from the sources listed below, as well as from the monograph Las Esculturas en Terracota de El Zapotal, Veracruz, by Nelly Gutiérrez Solana and Susan K. Hamilton, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1977. I extend my thanks and appreciation to all of these authors and photographers.

Map of Archaeological Sites

1.  El Zapotal lies at the boundary between the Central and South Gulf Lowlands. From Diehl, Richard A. "The Precolumbian Cultures of the Gulf Coast," in The Cambridge Prehistory of the Native Peoples of Americas: Volume II, part 1, eds. R. E. W. Adams and M. Macleod, pp. 156-196., 2000.

Google Map of El Zapotal

2.  El Zapotal is located a few kilometers from Cerro de las Mesas, the largest Early Classic Period (300-600 AD) center in the region. Boca del Rio, located south of Veracruz City, has some of the finest restaurants in the Gulf Lowlands. Photography by Google Earth.

Summit of 'El Gallo' (The Rooster)

3.  This photograph taken from the summit of "El Gallo" (The Rooster), the tallest mound at El Zapotal, shows the flat terrain and scrub vegetation characteristic of the region today and probably in the past as well. Photograph by Richard A. Diehl, May 1995.

'El Gallo'

4.  "El Gallo" is an unexcavated but looted mound that dominates the site. Its name probably reflects a common local folk belief that certain mounds conceal gold or other treasures that can only be recovered by the lucky person who hears a cock crow or sees a shimmering green light on the mound during the night hours of Good Friday. Photograph by Richard A. Diehl, May, 1995.

Local site museum

5.  The local site museum is maintained by the federal government to protect the shrine and the unfired clay statue of the Lord of the Underworld. Photograph by CONACULTA, Mexico.

Sculpture depicts the Lord of the Underworld

6.  The unfired sculpture depicts the Lord of the Underworld as a grinning character who is part-skeletal (skull, rib cage and arms) and part-flesh (hands, legs, and feet. Fragments of pigment show that the sculpture was originally painted. He sports an elaborate headdress adorned with profile skulls and a bat face in its center, large circular ear spools, and a bib-like pectoral. The roundel on his belt and loincloth serves to identify rulers on stone sculptures at nearby Cerro de las Mesas. His facial expression seems to say "Welcome to my realm." (Height: 150 cm.) Photograph by Michael Zabé, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, 1992.

Wyllie's Drawing of the Lord of the Underworld

7.  Cherra Wyllie's Drawing of the Lord of the Underworld seated in his shrine illustrates the murals that flanked him. The walls surrounding him are now too badly deteriorated to show well in photographs but depict an ancient crone in advanced pregnancy and a warrior dressed in a coyote pelt. Published in Wyllie, 2008.

Wyllie's view of the shrine

8.  This view of the shrine by Wyllie, based on a reconstruction drawing by Maldonado Vite (1997), depicts the murals on the interiors and exteriors of the flanking walls, and a line of hollow "Cihuateteotl" ceramic sculptures. In its totality the tableau illustrates the mythical passage of the sun through the day and night, the world of the living and nocturnal realm of the underworld. Published in Wyllie, 2008.

Cihuateteo sculpture

9.  Nineteen standing Cihuateteotl sculptures were recovered at El Zapotal. All are similar in concept and design while each differs in details. Paint residues remind us that as with Classical Greek sculptures, what we see today are no more than the armatures for flamboyant polychrome creations that have lost their colors over the centuries. This Cihuateteo (singular) is remarkably complete, lacking only a fragment of her headdress and whatever object she held in her left hand. Her closed eyes signify death while the open mouth suggests the act of singing or chanting. Her clothing is confined to a simple full length skirt with a double-serpent-headed belt and an elaborate headdress. She is nude from the waist up, a common practice among Indian women of the region well into the 20th century. She wears a necklace of beads with a circular pendant, complex round ear spools, and what appear to be woven bracelets. The pouch or censer in her right hand is adorned with a bat (a Mesoamerican bat out of Hell?), an appropriate symbol for the Underworld. (Height: 140 cm.) Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

Cihuateteo sculpture

10.  This magnificent sculpture appears to depict a taller, more slender woman than the others. The broken right arm allows us to appreciate the thin clay walls that form the figure. Her bent elbows, the turn of her left wrist, the realism of the twin serpent belt and the extraordinary object in her left hand all bespeak the work of a master artist able to control the clay as he or she wished.

Cihuateteo sculpture

11.  This close-up of the object in the left hand of the Cihuateteo above shows it to be an idol, pouch, or perhaps a censer adorned with a striking human skull and suspended from a pliable cord. The artist obviously had considerable first-hand knowledge of the endemic snake population of the region. The crack in her lower torso reminds us that most of the El Zapotal offerings were found damaged and may even have suffered deliberately destruction prior to interment. The dark patches on the torso are firing marks created by the surface being too close to a piece of fuel.

Cihuateteo sculpture

12.  While every Cihuateteo shares many similarities, each has her own unique aspects. This lady's facial features, headdress, collar, and the specific form of the object in her left hand all distinguish her from her companions. Her now-empty right hand may once have held a ceramic torch, as does a Cihuateteotl now in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Cihuateteo sculpture

13.  The manufacturing processes used in the creation of the monumental sculptures have never been studied in detail but they were clearly created in pieces of a manageable size that were then assembled into the completed sculpture. These pieces included lower and upper torsos, heads, arms, headdresses, belts, and ornaments. According to Gutiérrez Solana and Hamilton (pages 35-36), the larger fragments were created by coiling long "ropes" of clay into the basic shape, smoothing and allowing the structure to dry before firing. They were joined by using a clay binder to secure them to each other. Faces may have been made in molds, as were smaller elements such as ornaments and headdresses. Gutiérrez Solana and Hamilton believe that firing was done in an open hearth but recent discoveries of numerous closed ceramic kilns in several nearby archaeological sites suggests such sophisticated facilities may have been used here as well.

Cihuateteo sculpture

14.  This well-preserved Cihuateteo from near-by Cocuite is so similar to those from El Zapotal that it may have been manufactured in the same workshop. Her elaborate headdress is as richly painted as real-life headdresses would have been. The thick necklace and bracelets are depicted as snail shells, while her skirt tie overlaps a belt of what appear to be olivella shells. The absence of a snake belt is intriguing: perhaps she had a slightly different connotation than the classic solar underworld travelers. Considerable paint fragments remain: turquoise blue, white, and red can be seen in the headdress, yellow and red on the torso and arms, red and white toenails, and white fingernails. The belt is blue and the snail shells below it are rose. Five six-pointed stars, each is painted brown with a black-outlined orange spot in the center, decorate her skirt. All in all, she must have been a most striking presence. (Height: 136 cm.) Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988

Seated Cihuateteo sculpture

15.  The corpus of monumental ceramic sculpture at El Zapotal includes four seated Cihuateteotl figures. Like their standing companions, they wear long skirts with serpent belts, elaborate headdresses, necklaces, and bracelets. One writer has suggested they represent midwives. This example has a unique five-point device behind her head. The veil covering her head and neck is adorned with an almost-comical bat figure, perhaps symbolic of her nocturnal realm. The delicate modeling of her fingers is just another example of the superb skills of the artist. (Height 105 cm). Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

Cihuateteo standing man sculpture

16.  Like so many of the El Zapotal sculptures, this standing man carrying a jaguar on his back is unparalleled elsewhere in Mesoamerican sculpture. Is the feline the man's supernatural alter ego or nagual, or does the scene depict an incident in a long-lost myth? The cape he wears is a most unusual shape and the determined look on his face contrasts sharply with the joyful face of his companion. (Height 67 cm). Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

Cihuateteo standing sculpture

17.  One writer has suggested that this striking figure represents a prisoner shown nude except for a belt and a rope that pulls his head back into an unnatural position. Karl Taube has suggested that the cylinders by each ear are drums and the entire sculpture functioned as a anthropomorphic drum, with the holes in the legs serving as sound outlets. Whatever their others functions, those holes surely allowed heated air to escape during the firing process, They could also symbolize wounds analogous to the embedded darts depicted on certain Teotihuacan human torsos carved from stone. The missing arms may have provided the answer to how this fascinating object was used. (Height 169 cm). Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

Two young males

18.  Two young males who clearly are twins carry a chest in this unique sculpture. Their postures (three-quarters rather than full frontal) suggest a snapshot taken during the action but why is one stepping on the other's foot? Who are they? What is in the box? What are they really doing? Twins are a rare but notable occurrence in the Pre-Columbian art of southern Veracruz, extending back to at least two Early Formative period Olmec stone sculptures found at San Lorenzo. They may represent the Hero Twins of the epic Maya and perhaps pan-Mesoamerican foundation legend known as the Popol Vuh. (Height 66 cm).

Seated male sculpture

19.  This seated male sculpture is another of the unique El Zapotal pieces. Seated figures occur elsewhere in ceramic and stone but none are as life-like in posture or as successfully executed in the round as this seemingly young adult male. His costume is unlike that seen in any other Mesoamerican portrayals and his expression, even though partially obscured by the eye rings that some scholars connect with the Aztec Rain God Tlaloc, radiates a sense of quiet, internalized contemplation. Is he human, perhaps a young lord, or is he a god? (Height: 47 cm.) Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

'Smiling Faces'

20.  "Smiling Faces" or "Caras Sonrientes" as they are known in Spanish, are hallmarks of the Late Classic period (AD 600-900) in central Veracruz. Hundreds are found in private collections and museums around the world but relatively few come from controlled archaeological excavations. Numerous examples found associated with burials at El Zapotal demonstrate that they were created as companions for the dead. They typically are hollow and wider than they are thick. The flattened heads are mirrored in the artificially deformed skulls of the grave occupants. Most appear to be males, even those with brassiere-like markings (more likely tattoos or painted designs than actually strips of cloth) across their chests. This example also has filed teeth, a common occurrence in real life. Endless theories have been proposed to explain the grinning, simpleton-like countenances of the faces but none can be proven. (Height unknown) Published on the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa website, September 2009 www.uv.mx/max/.

'Smiling Faces'

21.  Smiling Face figures are most commonly shown with their arms uplifted. This unusual example has articulated limbs that recall older Teotihuacan "puppet figurines". The purpose of function of moveable limbs is not known. The proportions of the various body parts suggest a boy or young child. (Height 27 cm). Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

Woman appears to be modeling

22.  This woman appears to be modeling her gorgeous embroidered blouse, called a quechquémitl in Nahuatl, and triangular skirt. The figurine lacks a physical body and is supported by a hidden clay leg. Her hair, teeth and eye irises are decorated with black pigment. Her elaborate headdress appears to be a basketry foundation surmounted a long-necked, long-beaked bird, round perforated beads, and feathers. (Height 40 cm) Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

ceremonial brazier

23.  This large ceremonial brazier retains remnants of red and white paint. The diverse planes and angles of the many elements create a sense of dynamic tension. The round brazier behind the frontal panels is a multi-chambered construction. (Height 41 cm). Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

support base

24.  The hole in the top and support remnants on the back of this box indicate that it served as a base for some vertical object now lost. The modeled face on the front is quite similar to Maya depictions of the rain god Chac. (Length 80 cm) Photograph by Antonio Vizcaíno, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Xalapa, Veracruz, México, 1988.

pyramidal-shaped braziere

25.  This pyramidal-shaped brazier features a woman seated cross-armed in a niche, perhaps a symbolic cave or shrine, surrounded by circular elements and a profusion of rectangular plaques. She wears a small mask or plaque over her mouth. (Height 31 cm). Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.


26.  This sumptuously dressed warrior brings to mind Japanese Samurai warrior ceremonial garb. His headdress is constructed of three removable parts. His warrior status is indicated by the bundle of darts or spears protruding from his right and a shield in his left hand. (Height 19 cm). Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

kneeling man

27.  This kneeling man, who unfortunately now lacks his face, grasps what may be either a ceremonial brazier or a kettle drum. He is balanced on the balls of his feet, a position that seems to be almost impossible to sustain for any length of time. His rich shoulder garb, made of ropes, contrasts vividly with the simplicity of the remainder of his clothing. (Height 74 cm) Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

Hollow ceramic head depicts the Lord of the Underworld

28.  This hollow ceramic head depicts the Lord of the Underworld in a serious moment. Height: 16 cm, Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

male figure

29.  This extensively restored figure depicts a male with an expression of either sheer terror or total surprise on his face. He sports an elaborate headdress, large circular ear spools and what may be the world's oldest known bow tie. The staff in his right hand has led some to suggest he represents the god of merchants, called Yacatecuhtli by the Aztecs, who was often shown carrying a walking stick. The bottle in his left hand is decorated with a black substance, probably asphalt, and may be analogous to Classic Teotihuacan strombus shell trumpets. (Height 37 cm) Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

male figure

30.  Similar in conception to the previous piece, this sculpture shows the use of a rear support to keep it erect. This man's eyes show pronounced crossing and his staff is surmounted by a disk or fan. (Height: 45 cm), Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

Richly dressed male figure

31.  Here we see a richly dressed male whose zoomorphic headdress combines serpentine elements with those of a bat. His arms are slightly flexed and his palms face forward, a posture that, combined with the quizzical look on his face, suggests he wishes to know what is expected of him now. Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

Hollow ceramic

32.  In Mesoamerican architecture stone balustrades frequently depict serpents with chins on the ground and bodies raised up. However this hollow ceramic example apparently served as a drain terminus from which water or some other liquid (blood?) spouted through the openings between the eyes. (Height 55 cm). Photograph by Nadine Markova, published in Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, edited by Beatriz Trueblood, Xalapa, Mexico, 1992.

Previous Page  |  Table of Contents  |  Next Page

Return to top of page