Sculpture of a head from 950-1150 AD found at Building Y in the Tajin Chico section. On display at the Tajin site museum, Veracruz state, Mexico

Mexico’s Haunted City of Thunder – El Tajin: Surprising Connections Between Cultures Worlds and Eras Apart

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El Tajin is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the North of the state of Veracruz, near the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The city, one of the most flourishing of the Classic and early Post-classic period, was only rediscovered in 1785, immediately capturing the imagination of European travelers with its imposing jungle-covered ruins and unusual architecture. Over the five centuries since the city’s abandonment in the early 13th century, all knowledge of the city’s former existence was lost, even among the local Totonac people.

A view of the central portion of El Tajin, with the imposing pyramid dedicated to the god of Thunder, known as Building 5. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

A view of the central portion of El Tajin, with the imposing pyramid dedicated to the god of Thunder, known as Building 5. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

Haunted Pyramids

A superstitious terror surrounded the region where the ancient city once stood, considered to be the home of spirits and supernatural beings. These beings were known as Tajines, meaning ‘lightning’ or ‘thunder’ and were believed to haunt the ancient pyramids in whose interiors they dwelled, as if in an underground palace.

The Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin. The monumental access stairway, facing due East, is a later addition that covered many of the original niches. Because of the addition of this stairway, the number of visible niches no longer adds up to 365 – the number of days in a solar year. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

The Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin. The monumental access stairway, facing due East, is a later addition that covered many of the original niches. Because of the addition of this stairway, the number of visible niches no longer adds up to 365 – the number of days in a solar year. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

Today, Tajin is known for its elaborately ornate architecture and peculiar construction techniques. The Pyramid of the Niches is perhaps the most emblematic of Tajin’s architecture. It was built of sandstone, and cut in small blocks arranged to form a pattern of niches and cornices that decorate the entire façade. There are 365 niches along the four faces of the pyramid – one for every day of the year – rising in seven tiers until the summit. The pyramid itself is approached by a monumental stairway adorned with frets and stone mosaics. The number of the niches suggests that the monument had a calendrical function, but it is not known how exactly it was used for the tracking of time.

Another view of the Pyramid of the Niches from the side. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

Another view of the Pyramid of the Niches from the side. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

The Ball Game

Over 40 other pyramids have been excavated at Tajin, mostly in the lower city, including a large plaza surrounded by pyramids known as the Arroyo Group . Among these are as many as seventeen ballcourts; one of the highest concentrations of this type of structure in Mesoamerica. The North and South ballcourts are constructed of large flagstones, among which are a number of carved panels containing scenes related to the Mesoamerican ball game. The Acropolis of the site has not been excavated, with the exception of a palatial area known as Tajin Chico , located on an artificially terraced portion of the Acropolis. Buildings in this area show a clear Maya influence, and are notable for the use of painted stucco and plaster decoration.

Delicately carved panel from the South Ballcourt, depicting a human sacrifice. The style of the carving is very peculiar and reminds of the Near East and Sumer. (Photo © Marco Vigato)

Delicately carved panel from the South Ballcourt, depicting a human sacrifice. The style of the carving is very peculiar and reminds of the Near East and Sumer. (Photo © Marco Vigato)

Megalithic Builders 

A particularly remarkable aspect of Tajin’s architecture is the use of large, megalithic stone blocks in a number of constructions. The use of megalithic stones is particularly evident in the South ballcourt: Two parallel 60-meter-long (197 feet) walls delimit the opposite sides of the court, including six sculptured panels (three on each side). The walls rise in four rows of large megalithic stones, although there is evidence that the wall was probably higher. Most stones measure between three and four meters (10 and 13 feet). A particularly massive flagstone, however, measures over eight meters long (26 feet), with an estimated weight in excess of 10 tons.

detail of the megalithic wall delimiting the Southern Ballcourt. Some of the stones measure as much as 8 meters long, with a weight in excess of 10 tons. (Photo © Marco Vigato)

detail of the megalithic wall delimiting the Southern Ballcourt. Some of the stones measure as much as 8 meters long, with a weight in excess of 10 tons. (Photo © Marco Vigato)

One of the main ceremonial avenues of El Tajin, flanked by pyramids. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

One of the main ceremonial avenues of El Tajin, flanked by pyramids. (Photo: ©Marco Vigato)

In spite of their fine workmanship and the precision of the stone cuts and angles, the jointing between the stones is not always perfect, with the frequent insertion of smaller stones and wedges. This suggests that many of the megalithic stone blocks may have originally formed part of some other structure and are only found here in secondary use. A small temple at one end of the South ballcourt seems to be built entirely of reused stone blocks.

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