El Tajín Is Built Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The ancient civic-ceremonial complex of El Tajín expanded its sphere of influence well beyond the Mexican Gulf coast to become a key mercantile interest and expansionist state of the Mesoamerican Epiclassic or Late Classic period.

Summary of Event

During the course of the Mesoamerican Epiclassic or Late Classic period (c. 600-950), the peoples of El Tajín, Veracruz, established one of the most distinctive civic-ceremonial centers and far-reaching mercantile enterprises of ancient Mesoamerica. With an initial impetus toward the formation of state-level social and political complexity borne of the Late Preclassic, or Proto-Classic era (c. 100), the site of El Tajín initially developed as a Gulf coast outpost or trading partner of the Teotihuacán empire in the period after 250. The preponderance of Teotihuacán ceramics at the site of El Tajín during this period appears to support the inferred relationship. Beginning with the decline of Teotihuacán military and commercial interests on the Mexican Gulf coast in the sixth century, the site of El Tajín experienced exponential growth as a civic-ceremonial complex and epicenter of the Classic Veracruz stylistic tradition. [kw]El Tajín Is Built (c. 600-950) [kw]Tajín Is Built, El (c. 600-950) El Tajín Central America;c. 600-950: El Tajín Is Built[0200] Architecture;c. 600-950: El Tajín Is Built[0200] Expansion and land acquisition;c. 600-950: El Tajín Is Built[0200] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;c. 600-950: El Tajín Is Built[0200] 13 Rabbit

Unquestionably, El Tajín’s role as a key player in the development of a pan-Mesoamerican sphere of social, political, and commercial interactions—extending well into the Huastec region to the north, and southeast into the heart of Central America—was a critical variable in the sociopolitical and commercial transformation of El Tajín. Ultimately, this extraordinary period of growth culminated with the construction of some two hundred platform-mounds and seventeen ball courts occupying a total area of some 150 acres (61 hectares). The emergence of a civic-ceremonial tradition produced a host of architectural innovations, including chiaroscuro niches, talud-tablero (talus-table) facades, monolithic wall panels, corbelled vaults, stucco relief, and concrete masonry construction. Architecture;El Tajín

Perhaps the site’s most culturally distinctive, sculpturally eclectic, and readily identifiable feature remains the Pyramid of the Niches Pyramid of the Niches , the final construction phase of which dates to c. 600. An earlier monument dated to c. 300 lies at the core of the Pyramid of the Niches and makes clear the Early Classic (c. 300-600) affinities and origins of the site of El Tajín. Researcher Michael Edwin Kampen noted that the Pyramid of the Niches is the source of some of the most diverse and eclectic forms of sculpture available from any architectural source available for the region. The six primary platforms, steps, or levels that constitute the structure are composed of a veneer of yellow-brown limestone that raised the structure to a height of 59 feet (18 meters) with a base measuring 85 feet (26 meters) on each side. The sandstone façade in turn incorporates a purported 364 to 365 niches—if one takes into account those niche features buried beneath the 33-foot-wide (10-meter-wide) staircase that fronts the eastern flank of the monument. As noted, this single structure has produced an eclectic body of sculpted panels and monuments that include Mayoid or Maya-like, Zapotec, Teotihuacán, Cholollan, and related Gulf coast influences.

Even with glyphic and iconographic decipherment, the dynastic history of ancient El Tajín remains shrouded in mystery. Despite this fact, the individual whose name recurs most frequently, and prominently, on the monuments of El Tajín is that of 13 Rabbit 13 Rabbit , whose name is derived from the Aztec calendar. Although little is known of the lives and exploits of the leaders of El Tajín, the many monuments that commemorate the exploits of 13 Rabbit are such that it is quite likely that he and his immediate successors were responsible for kindling the renaissance in architectural and artistic development defining the site’s transformation and elaboration in the period extending from c. 600 to 950. If the highly militaristic contexts within which 13 Rabbit appears are any indication, then his rise to power and the expansion of the site’s influence were very likely predicated on the expanding role of the martial arts and the emergence of a conquest state centered on the northern margins of the Mexican Gulf coast.

The principal civic-ceremonial monuments, such as the Pyramid of the Niches and the Hall of Columns Hall of Columns , date to the Epiclassic exploits of 13 Rabbit, and the seventeen or so monumental ball courts that dominate the site’s core area are in turn dated to this period. The largest of these, the South Ball Court, measures 197 feet (60 meters) in length and 59 feet (18 meters) in width. Its elaborately carved stone panels measure 6.5 feet (2 meters) in height. Where Tajín’s principal ball courts—mainly, the North and South Courts—are concerned, the distinctive Classic Veracruz style (with its double-volute scroll pattern and highly ornate narrative format) provides a wealth of pictorial and iconographic imagery available for future study and interpretation. However, little progress has been made toward the decipherment of those glyphic and iconographic conventions in evidence on the monolithic blocks of sandstone and basalt that form the walls of the immense North and South ball courts of El Tajín.

Researcher Arturo Pascual Soto’s noteworthy attempts at deciphering the glyphs and iconography of El Tajín are flawed by the assumption that the original language of El Tajín was necessarily the same as that of contemporary Totonac peoples who have inhabited the region since the demise of El Tajín. Writing;El Tajín Significantly, scholars generally agree that the Totonac were but the most recent of pre-Columbian émigrés to the region, and, therefore, their role at El Tajín postdates the advent of Classic Veracruz developments at that site. The ethnic affiliation of the original inhabitants of El Tajín, therefore, remains largely open to debate; however, the presence of a hybrid Huastec, Otomí, Nahua, and Mayoid or Maya-like presence in the region during the Epiclassic provides one additional point of departure for inferring origins and affinities.

Elaborately carved ball-game paraphernalia, consisting of monolithic stone yugos (yokes), yuguitos (small yokes), hachas (axes), manoplas (gauntlets), and palmas (palm fronds), depict the ball-game belts, chest protectors, and other protective gear employed in those combat sports conducted within the ball courts and arenas of the civic-ceremonial core of El Tajín and other allied sites. The use of rubber game balls, like the Mexica Aztec and Maya paraphernalia of the later Postclassic era (c. 1250-1521), is similarly apparent from monuments and related iconography recovered at El Tajín. The elaborate carvings on many of these ball-game paraphernalia characterize the Classic Veracruz style, and their appearance in pan-Mesoamerican contexts ranging from northern Veracruz through to the Guatemalan highlands—some 1,450 kilometers (900 miles) distant—speaks to the far-ranging influence of the ball-game cult and its epicenter at El Tajín.

The stone yokes (yugos) and related ball-game paraphernalia were very likely too heavy to have been effectively used in the ancient ball games Ball courts and games;Central America of El Tajín. It is likely that the stone representations were used as the stone molds or models on which leather ball-game belts, pads, and related equipment were fashioned or molded for use in the early variation of the game known to the Maya as pok-ta-pok or to the later Mexica Aztec as tlachtli. If the stone yokes recovered from Xochicalco, Cacaxtla, Cholula, Kaminaljuyu, and related ball-game sites serve as any indication, then it is likely that the production of ball-game paraphernalia and the proliferation of craftspersons or leather workers identified with El Tajín’s far-ranging economic and political interactions were equally widespread. As in later versions of the game, human sacrifice and decapitation rituals were pivotal elements of the Classic Veracruz version.


El Tajín’s phenomenal civic-ceremonial developments and the exponential growth of its pan-Mesoamerican economic and political interactions make clear its significance to the Epiclassic world order. Evidence of this influence is clear from archaeological evidence recovered at such important Late Classic and Epiclassic Mesoamerican centers as Cholula, Xochicalco, Cacaxtla, Monte Albán, and Kaminaljuyu. Moreover, mercantile and political outposts such as Yohualichan, Puebla, which lies approximately 37 miles (60 kilometers) southwest of El Tajín, is architecturally and culturally identical to the much larger site of El Tajín. Yohualichan, then, provides one additional line of evidence for the presence of Tajín outposts and allied centers extending from north-central Veracruz into the Sierra de Puebla corridor and into the region of the ancient states of Cantona and Cholula, Puebla. What roles Tajín entrepreneurs and militarists such as 13 Rabbit may have played in this expansion remains unclear, but the iconographic, stylistic, and cultural dimensions of El Tajín’s pan-Mesoamerican impact are unmistakable.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brueggemann, Juergen, Sara Ladrón de Guevara, and Juan Sánchez Bonilla. Tajín. Photographs by Rafael Doniz. Mexico City: El Equilibrista/Turner Libros, 1992. A beautifully illustrated and detailed overview of the art, architecture, and civilization of the ancient metropolis of El Tajín by one of the principal archaeologists charged with the site’s excavation and restoration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kampen, Michael Edwin. The Sculptures of El Tajín, Veracruz, Mexico. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972. A detailed analysis and insight-filled overview of the art history and cultural contexts within which the monuments of El Tajín were recovered.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ochoa, Lorenzo. “El golfo durante el clásico.” In Atlas Histórico de Mesoamérica. Coordinated by Linda Rosa Manzanilla and Leonardo López Luján. Mexico City: Larousse, 1989. An annotated time line and cultural history of Classic era developments on the Mesoamerican Gulf coast during the era of El Tajín.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weaver, Muriel Porter. The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica. 3d ed. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1993. A comprehensive overview of the civilizations of Mesoamerica as understood from the perspective of archaeology and ethnohistory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkerson, Jeffrey K. “Classic Veracruz Architecture: Cultural Symbolism in Time and Space.” In Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol, edited by Jeff Karl Kowalski. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A scholarly overview of the architectural traditions of Classic Veracruz, with an emphasis on the site and culture of El Tajín.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkerson, Jeffrey K. “In Search of the Mountain of Foam: Human Sacrifice in Eastern Mesoamerica.” In Ritual Human Sacrifice in Mesoamerica, edited by Elizabeth H. Boone. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1984. A detailed discussion of the cult of human sacrifice as manifest on the Mexican Gulf coast with a specific emphasis on evidence for human sacrifice, including heart excision and decapitation, in the ball-court panels from the site of El Tajín.

Categories: History