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 >