Cantona: On the Eagles' Ramparts
By a cruel twist of fate, a dozen of Mexico's archaeological treasures, some well known, others barely explored, were decreed "mega projects" and thus became the incidental victims of the Salinas era. From early 1992 to the end of 1994 they were beneficiaries of almost unlimited human and material resources, for their research, excavation, and even blatant reconstruction. And then it was over.
Cantona, on a windy volcanic plateau where the state of Puebla meets the Veracruz border, is one of these casualties. Wonderfully situated on a fortified basalt bluff called the Cerro de las Aguilas, the Pizarro volcano and Cofre de Perote in the distance, there are three roads and a rail line into the precinct, but the most beguiling is a raised causeway over a shallow lagoon, between the Jalapa highway and the carefully cultivated fields on the agricultural flats that extend to the foot of the site.
Cantona was "discovered" around the mid-nineteenth century by Henri de Saussure, a curious personage from among Puebla's French legacy. Looters, however, both professional and amateur, had been poking around for much longer, hungering after stone, ceramic and jade - or turquoise mosaic. They managed to confuse archaeologists not only by removing pertinent study material but also by leaving gaping trenches that often cut through the ancient foundation of stone and obsidian workshops, winding streets, terraced marketplaces and lofty ceremonial structures.
It would seem that the site was originally settled by a strictly local culture, then became periodically infiltrated by a succession of alien peoples including Huastec, Mixtec, Cholulan, Tlaxcaltec. Development finally took coherent form, based on predictable weather and harvest patterns and established trade lanes, between 600 and 1000 A.D. After that the site was virtually abandoned, except for a Chichimec nucleus, following a prolonged drought around 1050.
Given its altitude, around 7500 feet, the plateau, known as the Plains of St. John, is cold and dry. The winds bounce off the Zacapoaxtla range and the Atlitzin and Citlaltepetl (Pico de Orizaba) volcanoes. Once a river system fed the fields but now rain water is collected in cisterns on the bluffs, then drained into the valley.
Uncovering the Past
According to INAH, barely one percent of the sprawling metropolis has been charted. Most of the building materials are volcanic stone from the lagoons of Alchichica and Quehulac, ancient calderas in the basin at the foot of the site.
Abundant obsidian, the principal export product, was brought to the workshops from Citlaltepetl. Unique vegetation, including singular varieties of conifers and crawlers, blends with strange yuccas, agaves, cacti and palms of the high desert that cling to the symmetrical lavers of edification, including at least 30 plaza groups that ramble to the top of the acropolis.
Only five of these groups have been restored, in a chunky style rooted to the basalt outcropping. Each includes a so-called "ballcourt," more likely a ceremonial space on a parade route into the respective plaza. Somehow the accommodation of the structures to the contours of the hill, the terraces that hold them together and the sense of soaring, suggest a kind of volcanic Machu Picchu, but there the similarity ends. Spread around the base of the outcropping are the approximately 3000 patio groups - three of them restored - in which people lived, planted their terrace gardens of herbs and vegetables, cavorted along the stone lanes, gossiped over the low dry-wall barriers and generally lived out their lives, like the rest of us, through the cycles of birth, reproduction and death, perhaps governed by princes and priests, or maybe eventually by generals.
Once a vibrant hive of human spirit, the site now lies lifeless among the carefully assembled stones, piled without mortar on an incline that now, as long ago, gives them stability. The phallic stelae uncovered in the uppermost plaza, that of the "ceremony of the fertilization of the earth," are stacked in a warehouse. Abundant ceramic, the real key to dating finds, is stashed in numbered boxes.
Cantona needs an on-site museum, however modest, a small hotel, a little restaurant, a book shop, a classroom. The group of twenty young men from nearby communities, like the hacienda town of Tepeyahualco de Hidalgo in the valley, were all trained during the excavations of the early 90's. Now they alternate their services as guides or custodians, but according to one of them, 21-year-old Alejandro, they are eager to form a cooperative, take courses, give talks, and see Cantona prosper beyond that finite time, not so long ago, when after nearly ten centuries, money and men came and went and the site flourished. "With such a prospect our uncles and brothers and fathers would have no need to emigrate to the cities in search of work and our sisters would learn more than planting."
By Carol Miller
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