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Photograph of some of Pre-Hispanic incense burners recently recovered in Mexico.

Sending Smoke Signals to the Gods: Pre-Hispanic Incense Burners Discovered in Mexico

About 30 Pre-Hispanic perfume or incense burners (sahumadores) have been discovered by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) at the historic site of Cuautitlan in Mexico. The artifacts have polychrome handles and are completed at one end with snakeheads with open mouths - representations of Xiuhcoatl "the fiery serpent." Several graves have been uncovered in the same area since last April. The team of researchers has also unearthed the foundations of what appears to be an ancient temple.

On the INAH website , archaeologists Francisco Antonio Osorio Dávila and Héctor Pérez García explained that these objects, which were discovered in mid-May in front of the municipal market, had a ritual use and were deposited in rows that were stacked in three layers as an offering.

The archaeologists say that the incense burners had a ritual use.

The archaeologists say that the incense burners had a ritual use. ( Francisco Osorio / INAH )

So far 27 complete pieces have been recorded, although that figure could reach 31 when fragmented artifacts have been joined together. The burners vary between 50 to 70 cm (19.69-27.56 inches) long. White, red, blue, and yellow paint as well as holes in the shapes of crosses and other decorations are visible on the bowls and handles of the artifacts.

Osorio Dávila added that the handles are hollow but contain small balls of clay that emit a sound similar to rain when they are turned. In addition, the burners are decorated with small globular points that have been painted on or modeled in clay. The representations of Xiuhcoatl have retained their colorful tones and a thin glaze seen around the serpent’s eyes is even more noticeable in the creature’s fangs and forked tongue.

The archaeologist also clarified that both this offering of incense burners and the recently discovered pre-Hispanic structure date to the Late Post Classic period (1350 -1519 AD), when Cuautitlan became a tributary of the Triple Alliance and a strategic location for trade in the northern territories.

Regarding the architectural structure (of which only the foundations remain), it measures 15m x 8m (49.21 x 26.25 ft.) The archaeologists believe that it may be the remains of a medium-sized temple.

Architectural structure discovered in the same area as the incense burners and probably corresponding to an ancient temple.

Architectural structure discovered in the same area as the incense burners and probably corresponding to an ancient temple. ( Francisco Osorio/INAH )

As for the burials that were discovered at the site, the researchers added that the first consisted of three skulls facing west. Below and behind the skulls they found long bones and, as an offering, three jars from the Aztec Phase II period (1200 – 1400 AD) with traces of blue paint. A stack of large obsidian blades was also found. Two more burials were discovered later on - one facing the east and the other the north.

The grave that was oriented eastbound belonged to an individual whose sex could not be determined because the skeleton was found incomplete. Alongside the human remains, the archaeologists unearthed various prismatic shards and a small “cookie”-like fragmented object. About a meter away they uncovered an offering of 16 pots with tripod feet that were painted black and red. These pots range between 8 to 12 cm (3.15-4.72 inches) tall.

Image of one of the burials discovered in the same area as the incense burners.

Image of one of the burials discovered in the same area as the incense burners. ( Mauricio Marat/INAH )

As for the northern burial, it is interesting to note that the body was found in a seated position. The remains are of a young girl (13 to 15 years old), who was accompanied by two miniature dishes, two whistles, and small mask of Mictlantecuhtli, a god of death.

Furthermore, the remains of eight individuals, both men and women, were located opposite the municipality’s cathedral. After observing the alignment of the old cobblestones that were used to connect the different areas of the cemetery that once occupied the churchyard, it has been suggested that in comparison to the Pre-Hispanic graves these individuals may have been buried at some point between 1790 and 1850.

Some of the red and black painted pots recently found in the Pre-Hispanic burials. ( Mauricio Marat/INAH )

Finally, it is worth noting that the deposits appearing in the bowls of the incense burners will be subjected to flotation analysis to see whether they included substances such as copal resin .

Top image: Photograph of some of Pre-Hispanic incense burners recently recovered in Mexico. Source: Mauricio Marat/INAH

By Mariló T.A.

This article was first published in Spanish at http://www.ancient-origins.es and has been translated with permission.

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