La Cañada de la Virgen - Part I

Archaeological Treasure in San Miguel de Allende:

An Ancient Wonder now Revealed to the Public

By: Albert Tyler Coffee


   We’ve all heard about the importance of 2012 to the ancient Maya but for northern central Mexico, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende in particular it is 2010 that may be the year to remember, as it is not only the bicentennial of the Mexican war of independence, which was sparked by the hero-founders of the region, but also the year in which an archaeological wonder may be revealed to the public. That wonder, or better yet archaeological treasure, which has now been excavated and studied by a multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional team directed by the INAH Guanajuato archaeologist Gabriela Zepeda García Moreno; is the archaeological zone of La Cañada de la Virgen. The site lies just outside of San Miguel on land that is part of the ex-hacienda of the same name, surrounded by scenic hills and small canyons which abound in flora and fuana that in some aspects remain unaltered after centuries.

  I gazed upon the main pyramid again from a distance recently as I arrived with Gabriela one cool and sunny morning. It glowed beneath the bright sun, across a small canyon, on what seems like a wide plateau beneath the gaze of sacred hills that command the horizon. Its geometric design set it apart from the surrounding landscape but I could see how it may have been mistaken over the years for a small hill when covered by dirt and vegetation. It would be my first time to visit the site since the time I had spent working and learning from the various scientists involved in its exploration back in the spring and summer of 2004. It was quite a shock upon arriving with Gabriela six years later to see how much work had been done and how many of the structures had been excavated and consolidated, that had been merely cactus covered hillocks back then.

   I spent that day with Gabriela and staff from the museum in Guanajuato (Alhondiga de Granaditas) taking photos and learning about the recent excavations, the preservation of the natural habitat within the zone (certain species of native plants displayed along  a scenic pathway) and the unique, forward thinking plans for its opening to public visitation. I remember imagining how my anthropology professors, leaders in Mesoamerican research, would have loved to have been there and to have been part of such an amazing discovery as this.

  There are many fascinating archaeological sites in Mexico and it is hard to describe to the general public, who are mainly aware of the highly touristed centers, the importance of smaller or lesser known sites currently under investigation. But it is at these places that scientists are on the cutting edge of research and understanding of the ancient indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica, their daily habits, knowledge of the cosmos and intimate tie to the earth and the forces of nature. La Cañada de la Virgen is one of those focal points of research and the site of pioneering archaeological studies. San Miguel holds the position of one of those unique places in Mexico where the vestiges of colonial as well as pre-hispanic history become accessible to the general public; opening doorways into understanding and a feeling of our past, present and future as human beings.

   After years of labor during a unique and pioneering study; Gabriela, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and INAH Guanajuato with previous funding and support from the local, state and federal governments are in the last stages of preparation as the roadway and entrances into the archaeological zone are now being finished.  She anticipates that by November of this year they should be ready for the grand opening and ready to welcome the public into a sacred and serene place whose marvelous secrets have been left over the centuries to the earth and humanity.

  So, what do we know now that the excavations are done and we near the opening of the archaeological zone?  The answer is… we know a lot more than we could have ever imagined before Gabriela and her team unraveled many of the mysteries that the site holds after over 60 months of continuous investigation. Some of those mysteries, like how the layout and construction of the various temple complexes align to the landscape and heavens and what was the identity of the ancient people who occupied these canyons and forests so long ago have now been made much clearer. Soon the general public will be privy to evidence of the life-ways, culture and architectural genius of the ancient builders of these monuments and the serenity of a naturally sacred place.

So, what exactly is La Cañada de la Virgen? Here are a few of the things we can now say: That it is…

An Agricultural and Ritual Clock Aligned to the Sacred Landscape and the Movements of the Heavens….An Important Regional Center for Trade and a Widespread Ceramic Tradition….A Unique and Ethnically Isolated, Sacred Place with a Lifespan of Over 5 Centuries….A Burial Ground for Elite Residents Accompanied by Sacred Death Ritual Offerings….A Ceremonial Center with Architectural Complexes of Profound Meaning and Use….A Lesson in Visual Anthropology and Archaeo-astronomy….An Ethnobotanist’s Paradise….A Study in the Daily Life, Health and Diet of Ancient Mesoamericans through Forensics….A Portal Between Worlds and a Sacred Pilgrimage Destination….A Piece of Mexican and World  Patrimony in Need of Proper Preservation….

  In this series I will go into detail to explain all of these facets of La Cañada de La Virgen to the readers of Atención as I have had the great privilege working side buy side with the people taking part in the excavation process and have had the opportunity to talk at length with Gabriela Zepeda and other members of the research team. I will focus on facets of the archaeological zone that are of particular interest and importance and that set it aside as unique and exemplary among sites in other regions of Mesoamerica and the important part it plays in Mexican pre-history…

General Information and History of the Site

  The archaeological zone of La Cañada de La Virgen  is located about 30 km southwest of San Miguel de Allende in the municipality of San Miguel de Allende on the 5001 hectare ex-hacienda/sanctuary and ranch La Cañada de La Virgen which is has been under the ownership of the Sociedad de Producción Rural de Responsibilidad Limitada Cañada de la Virgen and overseen by Regina Thomas von Bohlen since 1999, but which has an extensive, documented land tenure history dating back at least to the early 1700’s.

   In 2001 the land that now comprises the archaeological zone, 16 hectares, was donated by Regina and her organization to INAH and is now federal land. In 2001 a protective cyclone fence was erected around the site and local site guardians assigned, in retrospect creating an area protected from livestock and pedestrians, which fostered the growth and re-growth of various native plants. Those include at least 7 species of cactus and flora and fauna associated with the ancient semi-artificial pond (amanalli in the Nahuátl language) in the northeast section which still holds water throughout the dry season and supports a contemporary biological niche of its own.

  The various structures that make up the nucleus of the site (complexes A,B,C and D, the amanalli and a narrow causeway) are situated around an indicative sacred space called a  ‘sunken patio’. The ancient inhabitants of the Bajío region are referred to as the ‘Sunken Patio Culture’ and over two-hundred sites throughout Guanajuato and the Bajío have been identified displaying a similar layout. These structures served to showcase the movements of the celestial bodies by blocking out surrounding distractions; and also as acoustical theaters.

  The zone is located in an important vantage point, surrounded by sacred hills to the east, west and south and overseeing the great Laja river valley to the north; which is an area rich in ancient settlements that share common traits in aspects such as architecture and ceramic technology. La Cañada de la Virgen was part of this larger culture area for over five-hundred years but an was an obviously sacred ritual and ceremonial space, important as a pilgrimage center and place of worship to the changing seasons, the cosmos and the corresponding vivid pantheon of gods and goddesses as represented by the celestial bodies. We will see why this was further along, as I go into detail about the various discoveries at La Cañada de la Virgen.

   The apex of the main pyramid was dynamited by looters in the 1950’s causing irreparable damage to the main temple complex on the top level. It could be argued that this was one of the first “excavations” conducted at the site. Over the following decades it was a hidden getaway for those seeking a mystical, clandestine escape outside of San Miguel; perhaps gazing at the stars atop what then looked like a small hills and assuredly the looting continued until authorities finally decided to conduct formal studies and protection of the site. Those initial excavations were directed by archaeologist Luis Felipe Nieto in the mid to late 1990’s, who made many important discoveries excavating in several areas and restoring much of the pyramid and its substructures, but do to land tenure problems his academic study was ended after only a few years.

   Starting in April 2002 with preliminary testing and cleaning of underbrush and rubble from the major structures, Gabriela’s team of scholars, which has included experts in the fields of archaeology, physical and visual anthropology, restoration, conservation, archaeoastronomy, architecture, history, genetics, soil analysis, biology, ethno-botany, chemistry, physics, professional photography and ceramic arts; has completed an incredible amount work toward understanding who La Cañada’s ancient inhabitants were and how they lived.

  Carbon 14 dating done from samples taken out of pits dug down into the base of the main pyramid, part of Complex A; which also consists of three, four room platforms set around the sunken patio, yielded a period of uninterrupted occupation of 510 years; from 540 to 1050 A.D. This occupation is situated within the Classic and Terminal Classic periods in Mesoamerican archaeology. Artifact analysis indicates ties to the ancient cultures of western Mexico, northern Mexico, the central valleys of Mexico and as far away as Oaxaca.

  Though the Bajío has been long thought of by many to be on the northern periphery of the true Mesoamerican culture area (the Spanish invaders encountered wild hunting and gathering tribes like the Guamares, Guachichiles, Chichimecs and Otomí)  the scientists at La Cañada de la Virgen and other newly or soon to be opened sites throughout Guanajuato are revealing evidence that the people who inhabited these lands over a thousand years ago shared many common traits and formed and important part of that mosaic of cultures that includes the Maya, Toltec, Zapotec, Teotihuacanos,  and Aztecs. Based upon several paths of scientific analysis and reasoning that I will go into in upcoming editions, Gabriela and her colleagues believe that, to be more precise, the ancient occupants of the zone were the ancestors of the Otomí. Gabriela also says that this study has “…opened up many new possibilities for future research, conservation and an understanding of Mexico’s native past.”

More info about archaeologist Albert T. Coffee's tours to Cañada de la Virgen Archaeological Site >

La Cañada de la Virgen - Part II

‘The House of the Thirteen Heavens’-

An Ancient Agricultural and Ritual Clock Aligned to the Living Landscape and Cosmos

By: Albert Tyler Coffee

   Ancient sites all over the world demonstrate architecture and spaces purposefully aligned to the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and to surrounding landforms. It is widely understood that in the distant past people had an extremely advanced understanding of just where the Earth was situated in the universe and how it related to and was affected by its other inhabitants. At La Cañada de la Virgen (the archaeological zone located just 30 km southwest of San Miguel due to be opened soon to the public) the seasonal extremes, the unique Mesoamerican ritual calendar and the different phases of agrarian or hunting/gathering activities were all monitored precisely by a priestly class of astronomers who marked the movements of gods manifested as celestial bodies. 

   The gods who oversaw the processes involved in the procurement of sustenance and various aspects of nature were worshiped in ceremony that paid homage to the cyclical passage of time. An amazingly detailed and extensive astronomical study done at La Cañada de la Virgen (the only continuous study of its kind ever conducted over such a period of time at any site in Mexico, entailing nearly six years of observation) has just been catalogued and presented by Rossana Quiroz Ennis, part of the multi-disciplinary team directed by archaeologist Gabriela Zepeda García Moreno of INAH Guanajuato.
‘El Cerro y El Cielo’ is a vivid 3-D photographic collection, an exposition of the results of this intensive study conducted by archaeologist and archaeo-astronomer Rossana Quiroz, recently on display at Bellas Artes and now in print. It presents the precise alignments and function of Complex A (one of four labeled complexes- A, B, C and D). It is the most important set of structures on the site, made up of a distinctive ‘sunken patio’ which served to block out the surrounding landscape to create a sort of celestial theater above, perhaps also serving a purpose related to its acoustic nature; as well as a pyramid/temple complex and surrounding rooms. The interplay between this structure’s many facets in alignment at auspicious moments with the sun, moon and stars is presented vividly through an expert photographic record, now that much work has been done.

   Complex A is termed the ‘House of the Thirteen Heavens’ due to the total number of rooms (sites of numerous burials) set around the patio, including the temple on top of the pyramid on its western side, as well as to the ancient Mesoamerican vision of thirteen layers of heaven. The structure was built in three phases between about 540 and 1050 A.D., placing it within what are termed the epi-classic and early post-classic time periods, a span which saw the climax and fall of the great city of Teotihuacan and the rise of the mighty Toltecs. The third and last phase was never finished due to the site’s sudden abandonment (along with all other sedentary peoples of ‘El Bajio’, towards the south, perhaps due to a long lasting drought). It is this second phase of construction that has been preserved through laborious reconstruction and that is what the visitor will behold.

   The pyramid’s construction in seven levels or tiers also holds significance; the essence of the number seven to ancient Mesoamericans was that of the earth or mountains. The temples that once crowned the top level of the pyramid were almost completely destroyed in the 1950’s when looters used dynamite to try to open the ‘hill’ up to find whatever precious artifacts or treasures remained. Part of one on the south side, left partially intact, still displays a piece of a symbolically painted interior wall and revealed the incredible burial of a man researchers have called ‘El Jerarca’ due to his probable former elite status.

   Complex A was obviously the ceremonial heart of the site which held a great importance throughout the Laja river valley as a special pilgrimage destination and as a sacred ritual center. The lengthy ancient causeway that leads up from the ‘cañada’ to the east and into the patio via stairs and a ‘portico’, heads right up to the pyramid’s stairway on the western side. This is also unique at the site, as most ceremonial centers in those times were oriented to the east.

   The pyramid is constructed as a man-made hill, and it imitates, as do similar structures throughout the world, the deified hills and mountains that surround it, also replicating the structure of the heavens. The feminine and masculine progenitor deities, who are reflected in the duality of the sun and moon are said to live within the mountain as well as that which provides sustenance to mankind, namely maize. Human settlements then were known as ‘water-hills’ and were located near them, near to these homes of the ancestors, these portals into the underworld that were mimicked in stone at many centers of ceremony.

   But these landmarks, often as distant as the Guanajuato Mountains, are also alignment points integral to the very basis for the complex’s construction. The precise mathematical knowledge involved in the planning and construction of the place by people who lived so long ago is one of the most astounding aspects of the site according to Quiroz, who added how much she appreciated being part of the team organized to fully investigate and distribute this precious information that has been bequeathed to humanity by the ancient inhabitants of ‘El Bajio’.

   Complex A’s design, layout and its axis of symmetry puts the zone in the group of other Mesoamerican sites which relate to special sun dates such as March 4th, October 9th, April 7th and August 25th. These sedentary, agricultural, hierarchal societies organized their complexes in such a fashion as to fully incorporate and relate themselves to the landmarks that marked the important seasonal solar and lunar extremes as well as various other celestial movements. An ancient priest or time keeper sitting atop the pyramid and looking out over the patio and entrance ‘portico’ into the sacred precinct would have been able, as Rossana Quiroz and her colleagues were, to behold and precisely mark the rising of the sun along the eastern and western horizons. This was done at intervals set at spans of days incorporating the sacred numerology of ancient Mesoamerica’s calendars and the marking the solstices and equinoxes.

   Eclipses and their unique cycle, as Rossana reminded me during one of our meetings, are also extremely important at the site and marked the passage of time at intervals interwoven into what she, Gabriela Zepeda and their colleagues believe to be the calendar of the Otomí people, one which placed much importance on tracking the timing of such occurrences. Evidence of such an event of alignment occurred on March 3rd, 2007 when the moon in total eclipse rose straight up out of the ‘portico’ as viewed from the base of the pyramid and was dramatically captured on film by Quiroz. Nevertheless, this hypothesis is still being tested through Rossana’s actual Phd proposal. Early March, however, is one of the most important moments in the architectonic context of the site, and it is believed to be associated with the beginning of the agricultural cycle for the Otomís, as well as the origin of the ethnic celebration of ‘El Señor de la Conquista’.

   The calendar used in the presentation of this groundbreaking study is based on the pre-Columbian Codex Huichapan from the group of indigenous Otomí language speakers, some of whom have lived throughout ‘El Bajio’ for centuries.  Combined with the calendars of the Mexica of the ‘Altiplano Central’, in which February 12th was documented as the new year start point, the calendar constructed at ‘Cañada’ is set up in intervals of twenty days called ‘veintenas’ with five “ill-fated” days added to the end of a 360 day cycle. Each passing ‘veintena’ initiates a different phase of ritual life and of plant husbandry, like the time for planting and for harvesting corn, beans and squash and the petition of rain, among others.

   Amazingly enough, at the beginning of March the sun can be seen setting or “dropping” into the top of the pyramid in the evening as viewed from the portico entrance, signifying ‘the planting of the sun’ and the time for doing so with corn at the start of a new agricultural cycle. Rossana Quiroz theorizes, based also on other material findings, that this may have been an auspicious moment when the seeds for planting were brought to the temple for blessing. This is just one of the incredible visual phenomena that can be witnessed throughout the year from such vantage points as the patio, pyramid and ‘portico’ of Complex A. The moon and other bodies such as Venus also relate to the various dimensions of the structure at important intervals in a magnificent show of architectural and astronomical precision.

   The archaeological zone of La Cañada de la Virgen is a poignant reminder to us of just what it is that we have forgotten, of just what has been lost or destroyed since the European invasion of the knowledge of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic origins and of our tie to the natural world. The ceremonial center’s layout corresponds to the ‘Cuatro Rumbos’ or four cardinal directions. It attests to a relationship to the land and cosmos that today has been set aside and replaced by a less ‘nature centered’ lifestyle that brings modern technology to the fore front and leaves the genius of our ancestors as something to be uncovered beneath centuries of debris and sediment.

   The site’s unique eco-friendly opening to the public has been delayed several times due to the labor involved in the construction of the last segment of roadway onto the historic ex-hacienda upon which it is located and the building of a visitor’s center. But it is finally open to the public as of Friday, February 11th, 2011 and is accessible to all interested visitors ready to behold and experience a piece of human history and ancient ingenuity that has been left as Mexican patrimony, one that enhances and enriches our understanding of ourselves and our place on Earth and in the cosmos.

   In the upcoming, Part 3, of this series I will go into more detail and into different facets of the site, like the amazing information gleaned from the excavation of the various human and animal burials discovered there, artifacts and other aspects that are leading researchers to a better understanding of the true identity of its ancient inhabitants.

*Albert Tyler Coffee is an anthropologist who was invited to work and learn alongside the INAH team excavating during the 2004 field season. He has also contributed to a study of the wisdom and histories of the elders of the ranch communities around the zone. He offers his services as teacher and guide to the zone and to all of the ancient sites and regions of Mexico.

**Rossana Quiroz Ennis is still doing research throughout San Miguel de Allende’s archaeological surroundings with UNAM’s Anthropological Research Institute Phd Program. You may find her book entitled “El Cerro y el Cielo” at Charco del Ingenio, Librería la Deriva, Café la Parroquia, Tecolote Bookstore, Papelería Tinta y Papel and Vía Orgánica.

More info about archaeologist Albert T. Coffee's tours to Cañada de la Virgen Archaeological Site >

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