[Check out Leah Flinn's comment -- click "comments" at bottom of post -- for some more on the Voladores and a video of them. EKB]
One day when my brother-in-law John was with us, we all went to Cempoala. I have always wanted to visit, but somehow it kept sliding down our list of places to go. We had the impression it wasn't very interesting: second rate ruins, if such a thing could exist. Whatever. We of course were wrong.
Cempoala is right near the Gulf Coast. It was rainy, but much warmer than up here where we live. We drove from the highway down an ordinary road in the flatlands into the town of Cempoala. You can see where it is on this map, and where Xalapa (on the map spelled with a "J") is. Where we live is maybe a an eighth of an inch south of Xalapa.
The town of Cempoala today is scruffy, busy, trafficky. Graffiti artists work here.
We tend to groan at graffiti, but sometimes I wonder: through much of history, people decorated their buildings with carvings and mosaics and paintings. And they did in old Cempoala. The graffiti on this building shows real creativity.
The city park:
The main church:
A once brightly colored, now faded sign pointed us towards the ruins, and after a couple of blocks, there was a gate and a smallish guard house. We parked on the street in front of the gift shop, across from some houses.
Today the people in modern Cempoala live comfortably with the ruins of old Cempoala, physically as well as culturally. And of course they profit from the association. Today's people share their backyards with those from a long time ago.
Here you see John and Jim climbing in the ruins while a neighboring house peeks through the trees.
To the neighborhood dogs, it's all one big playground.
Perhaps five hundred years from now, the sands will have blown across it all once again, seeds will have sprouted, trees grown up and died. Gentle mounds covered with soil and plants will hide the today's past as well as the past of five hundred years ago. Maybe, for whatever fate has befallen mankind, people will once again cultivate the land with hand-held ploughs. The plough will catch against an object perhaps brought near the surface by rains and erosion. The farmer will reach down and look at it: a licuadora, perhaps. He kicks the dirt. A plastic container with food still in it, turned to dust. The head of a doll, its eyes long gone. A bowl, a knife.
And since the ruins of five hundred years ago have been brought to life for today, archaeologists of the future will find those remnants side by side with the licuadora and the plastic food container.
The Totonacos lived here before Christ was born and live here still. The ruins of Cempoala which represent the pinnacle of Totonaco power, probably were completed in the 15th century. They were powerful, these people, and accustomed to war as well as to rich harvests and brilliant fiestas and ordinary life. They could muster 50,000 men to fight from a population of perhaps a quarter of a million. They were early allies of Hernán Cortés's because they were chafing at the reach of the Aztecs.
Here is what you see through the camera's eye at the entrance. The grounds sprawl left and right from here. Jim is holding an umbrella. It was a drizzly day, cool even here near sea level.
There's a lovely small museum on the grounds:
In its small space, you can get an excellent overview not just of the grounds, but of the history. The Totonacos of Cempoala shared a lot with other Mesoamerican cultures
A sign in the museum explains:
Locks, yokes and balls are the materials associated with the ball game which one generally found as offerings and which are characteristic of the Gulf of Veracruz. All are made of very strong materials, polished, semipolished, or left rough.
The majority of these pieces [in the museum] have been found in the land cultivated by the community of Zempoala [Cempoala].
For a delightful explanation and demonstration of aspects of this Mesoamerican game, check out this link.
Cempoala shared pottery styles:
These are printing cylinders:
The dancers who leap from high poles are from this area. Here is a picture of some of them from the Museum:
According to a museum description, "The ceremony is related to the fertility of the earth and is dedicated to Tonathiu, the god of the sun. The four fliers represent the seasons of the year. Originally [the dancers] had to spin in a spiral thirteen times from the top of the pole to the ground, which multiplied by by four gives 52, the number of years [cycles of seasons] in the Mesoamerican century.
A few photos from the grounds -- many more can be found elsewhere online.
Here is Jim walking past a temple base:
Gladiator ring with throne construction behind it:
Here you can see stages of discovering a ruin, uncovering it, starting restoration and the finished product. The original builders used ground shells from the coast in a mortar mix.
There are a number of trees called nacaxtles on the grounds of Cempoala. This is I think the biggest:
This is the nacaxtle's seed pod:
Nacaxtles are indigenous to the coastal area where you find Cempoala. They grow up to twenty meters tall and have trunk diameters as much as 2 meters in length. Sometimes the reach of their branches horizontally is greater than their height. As is the case with so many plants in our area, they are put to much use. Their wood is good and used for everything from beams to furniture, trees being cut after they reach twenty years of age up until around 100 years of age. People like them because they grow easily in fields where they provide shade for cattle. Cattle can eat the seed pods, but not too many because it can give them diarrhea. The seeds contain something called saponino which can be used as a substitute for soap, and even though they may cause digestive problems for cattle, they provide a useful medicine for the same problem in people. The trunk exudes a liquid useful in the treatment of bronchitis. Mature fruit contain a gum-resin which when mixed with the fruit's ground pulp can used to bind charcoal.
I'll end with a personal touch. Here is my brother-in-law John at Cempoala: