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2012 – End of the Maya Long Count

August 20th, 2012 No comments

Catastrophe theorists have been having a field day – or rather year.  2012 is when the Maya long count ends.

As catastrophe theorists have loved to point out, 2012 marks the end of the old Maya long count, the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle;  but before we get too depressed,  Mayanists have been quick to add that just because one count ends, it doesn’t mean the Maya believed another couldn’t begin.

As ever, nothing is ever quite as you think it is with the Maya.

Thirty-five years ago, I visited my first Maya site, at Palenque.  From the top of the Palacio temple, a staircase led down inside it to the burial chamber of a ruler.  The ‘secret staircase’ – it is difficult to use any other less melodramatic term – had only been discovered in 1949.  An archaeologist noticed there were holes which had been filled with stone plugs in one of the floor slabs;  the temple wall also extended below ground level, suggesting some lower chamber.

When they lifted the slab, they found a stairway filled so densely with rubble that it took three years to get to the bottom.

Going down the corbelled staircase on my own felt like something out of John Buchan.  At that time, visitors were asked to bring their own torches, as there were only low-voltage lights running from an intermittent generator.

For the archaeologists who first saw the funeral vault at the bottom, it must have been the revelation of a lifetime:  the room was still preserved as they had found it, with the king’s funeral tomb dominating the chamber.

The size of the crypt was impressive:  it was at least twenty feet high.  After the descent down a narrow staircase, this was like finding a cavern after pot-holing.

In the years since my visit, much has changed in our understanding of the Maya – from new archaeological discoveries, but above all because we can now finally read the glyphs on the temple stelae.  Read more…

making fun of Mexicans

February 4th, 2011 No comments

The Top Gear team’s controversial comments about Mexico  may have been just as much making fun of the stereotype as of actual Mexicans;  although Richard Hammond’s “Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat,” is close to the edge on that. 

Mexicans, like most nationalities, are more than happy to make jokes about themselves, just not very pleased when others do.  Their favourite one is that when God was creating the world and sharing out mineral wealth, natural resources, climate and other benefits equally among all the nations, when He came to Mexico,  He put all the chips on their table – prompting an attendant angel to ask Him why He was being so unfair.  God replied: ‘ Don’t worry, it will even out.  Just wait until you see the Mexicans.’ 

Far from being a mañana culture, the Mexicans actually have the reputation among other Latin Americans of being fast-talking, fast-moving and dynamic – if anything, a little too much so.  

Mexico City in particular is one of the fastest and biggest of North American conurbations – no place for sleeping in the shade and potentially daunting for visiting Europeans who try to keep to the slow lane.  I did actually take my driving test in Mexico, so can speak directly to Top Gear preconceptions! (Like everyone else I had to bribe the test examiner and then didn’t actually have to do any driving) – see Tequila Oil

So in answer to Richard Hammond, I would expect a Mexican car to be incredibly tough, versatile and have a fair amount of style…  which is why the car you will actually see most in Mexico City is the VW Beetle (there was a big factory in nearby Puebla which only ceased production of the ‘Mexican Vocho’ a few years ago).  Taxi-drivers have used them for years , although recent laws about having four-door cars for ease of use by passengers have opened the door to Japanese imports;  as readers of Tequila Oil will know, having enough doors for a taxi was a crucial concern when selling my own Oldsmobile …

Mine’s a michelada

May 1st, 2010 No comments

Once Acapulco was a remote and glamorous resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast.  Mass tourism from abroad and from within the country has changed all that.

Now it should be enjoyed more for the vitality and vulgarity of a latin Blackpool or Coney Island: plates of fried bananas and whelks;  rubber rings and trinkets in brash colours;  kids dashing under the waves or burying themselves under the brownish sand (no one can claim Acapulco has the purest water in the Pacific – a million people live there).  Along the central drag is a large, kitsch statue of a plump Diana firing her arrow directly at a gigantic inflated bottle of Corona.   Overhead, frigate birds try to mob the boobies and the gulls to get them to disgorge their fish.

I like best the old working fishermen’s beach at the north end of the shore, near the fort once used to keep the area free from English pirates like El Drago (Drake).  There the pelicans cluster round the catches, hopping from foot to foot like embarrassed teenagers at a ball waiting to be asked to dance.  These are not the picturesque Disney white pelicans of further north and California, but the brown ones of the Latin American seaport, with their ponderous heavy-jowled flight. 

The drink of choice for the locals is not tequila – that’s for the norteños or the American college kids who come here for their ‘Spring Break’ to party hard in the surf.  No the drink here is the michelada, a light beer with salt and lime on the rim of the glass, and a dusting of chilli powder to give more power to your elbow.  The more of it you  drink, the more of it you need to drink. 

I have one on the old fishing pier, watching the pelicans clustering together on a buoy and looking down the strip towards the gleaming high-rise hotels at the south end of the shore, now half empty with all the talk of Mexican drug crime (20 were killed in a nearby Acapulco suburb recently).  And then I have another.

Postscript:  and for those doubting that Acapulco has been infected by Mexican drug crime, see this more recent report

When the Aztec tomb of the Emperor is finally opened

December 10th, 2009 No comments

I go to the British Museum to hear Leonardo López Luján talk about his work on the Aztec pyramids of the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City.  There is an almost palpable  air of expectation about the event — after several years of excavation, his team have reached the entrance to what may well be a royal tomb.  The glyphs on the doorway correspond to those for the reign of Ahuizotl, Moctezuma’s predecessor as Emperor of the Aztecs (or Mexica, as the British Museum keeps pedantically reminding us to call them).

Even the natural — and proper — caution of an archaeologist cannot prevent Leonardo from getting excited at the prospect.  And he’s had three years to do so — the monolithic lid to the tomb was first uncovered in October 2006 (by workmen clearing the wrong site by accident).  The reason it’s taken so long to excavate is that the water table is very high in what was once, after all, a  city built on a lake, like Venice. 

The tomb lid showed a representation of the nocturnal earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli carved into the pink andesite, with claws extended to receive the dead.  Ground-penetrating radar shows there are three chambers below the tomb lid.  Funerary offerings placed at the entrance to these chambers include gold offerings, the bones of an eagle and a dog, and the pelt of a spider monkey.

 The moment when the tomb is  finally opened may well be the first really momentous archaeological find of the 21st century: no tomb of an Aztec emperor has ever been found before.  And it will happen soon.

see Mexico City Dreams    The Traveller Magazine

Mexico show at the British Museum

October 1st, 2009 No comments

a fine exhibition, but raises some issues about how indulgently we view the Aztecs and in particular their practice of widespread human sacrifice. as I pointed out in the Times in a piece on Moctezuma, the Aztec dictator.

Also raises the question of how while this is the third big Mexico London show in 15 years, the British Museum – or any other gallery in London – has had no show on the Incas or any of the Peruvian civilisations in living memory.  The British Museum does not even have a gallery devoted to South America – the only two in the ‘Americas’ section are devoted to North America and Mexico respectively.  Which is something that Director Neil MacGregor needs to address.