El Tajin: Pyramid of the Niches

Tajín was one of the most important cities of ancient Mexico, and as more studies are made the more important it appears to have been.


Located on the Gulf coast of Mexico in the state of Veracruz, Tajin was a pre-Hispanic city that reached its peak in the Epi-Classic period (in between the Classic and Post Classic periods), around 900 -1100 AD.  There is a lot of mystery surrounding the origins of Tajín.  Like most pre-Hispanic cities that lasted for centuries, it was built and rebuilt, and built on top of, again and again, and shows the influence of many cultures.  And also like most pre-Hispanic archeological sites, it is still being studied today and new information is being discovered all the time.



The main misconception about Tajin, was that it was a city of the Post Classic period only.  It was thought to have been built around 600 AD and that it only existed for a few centuries until around the time of the fall of Teotihuacan in the 7th or 8th century.  But more recent research suggests it was older than that, perhaps 400 years older than was originally speculated.  Archeologist Arturo Pasqual Soto, who for 10 years was the Director of the archeological zone of Veracruz, and who has written several books about Tajin, explained in a 2007 interview, “El Tajin is not a village merely coming into existing in 600 AD, alongside the decline of Teotihuacan, but a leisurely civilization with a history that existed regionally, if not only in this site, at least as early as 200-250 AD.”


Tajin´s art, architecture and artifacts show the influence of many cultures and despite Pasqual Soto devoting his most recent, and 400-page, book to the study of Tajin´s origins, it is still unclear who originally built the city.  It was once speculated that Tajin was built by the neighboring Olmecs, but the most common belief is that it was built by the Totonac. Although new evidence now shows the settlement was in existence well prior to the Totonac´s arrival.  The settlement was originally founded in the early centuries AD, and at the time the area was populated by the Huastec who were also, later in the post classic period, known as city builders.  It is possible that the city was originally founded by the Huastec and when the Totonacs arrived they either, defeated or assimilated, the Huastec and started building on top of their existing structures.  This would explain the multiple styles and the clear Totonac architectural influence in the later construction.  The confusion seems to come from conflicting ideas about when the Totonacs arrived in Tajin.  But regardless of when the Tontonacs got there, by the year 600 AD, Tajín was a large and powerful city that controlled much of what is now the modern state of Veracruz.


At the end of the Classic period, Tajín survived the widespread social collapse, migrations and destructions that forced the abandonment of many Mesoamerican population centers, including what was thought to be the great empire of Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan.  Tajín reached its peak after the fall of Teotihuacan but by virtue of the great Teotihuacan influence found at Tajin, it seems to have conserved many cultural traits inherited from them. This has led many researchers to think of Tajin as merely a cultural or colonial outpost of Teotihuacan, but recent study suggests that Tajín was an important city in its own right.


Richard A. Diehl, and Janet Catherine Berlo, in their book, Mesoamerica After the Decline of Teotihuacan, state:

In my opinion, El Tajín took over the distribution [trade routes] previously overseen by Teotihuacan.  Although the political and economic status of Middle Classic El Tajin is far from clear, the picture that is emerging, “suggests that it was the home of  a powerful and militaristic society, possibly an ally or colony of Teotihucan” (Zeitlin 1982:268) El Tajin … reached maximum size after the decline of Teotihuacan, a time period when El Tajin style architecture and artifacts …from central Veracruz appear up and down the Gulf Coast, implying conquest, colonization, or close personal ties between the two areas.


During its peak, Teotihuacan was where 50% of the entire population of Mesoamerica lived and was the economic and political power of the region, and its sudden demise at the end of the Classical period is one of the great mysteries of Mesoamerican study.  Some scholars have proposed that Teotihuacan succumbed to overpopulation, and the erosion of their food supply due to soil depletion and over-exploitation of the surrounding wooded area.    A more radical but interesting proposal is by Jeremy Sabloff, who claims classical civilization never collapsed, they simply moved northward. In this way, the final decline of the central zone would coincide with the blossoming of the area in the north. This would explain, he says, the similarities in instrumentation, agricultural techniques, architecture, urban planning and religious beliefs between both zones.  But others think that the collapse of Teotihuacan could have been the direct result of competition from emerging centers such as Tajìn.  According to Jaime Litvak King, “… In the 7th century, Xochicalco, along with Cholula, El Tajin and Tula, caused the fall of Teotihuacan by stopping the flow of products from its trade routes, thus strangling the base of the economic power of the metropolis.”


It is not yet known if Tajin truly played a part in the demise of Teotihuacan, but it definitely outlasted the central Mexican metropolis.  Teotihuacan fell sometime in the 7th or 8th century and Tajin prospered until the the twelfth or 13th centuries, when Tajin was destroyed by fire, presumably set by an invading force of Chichimecas.   After the fall of Tajin, the Totonacs resettled and created the town of Papantla and the once mighty city of Tajín was left to the jungle where it remained covered and relatively unknown for over 500 years, until it was rediscovered by chance in 1785.



What has most captured the imagination of archeologists and visitors alike is Tajin´s unique architecture.  There are no known origins for the Tajin architectural style in all of Mesoamerica, it more often invokes comparisons with China or Cambodia and in the early years scholars even speculated there may have been an Asiatic influence in the area.  What is most unique about the site are the use of niches and stepped frets, prominently found on the Pyramid of the Niches, which has become the most representative building of the site because of its unusual design and good state of preservation.  Seven stories tall, it has 365 decorative niches (including ones that have been covered up by the later edition of a staircase). It was originally covered in stucco and was painted a dark red, with the niches painted black.  The 365 niches are thought to represent the 365 days in the solar calendar, and to also represent caves.  A powerful theme in Mesoamerican religion, caves were thought to be the passages to the underworld, where the gods lived, and where humanity was born.


Another structure that has a calendar basis is the Great Xicalcoluihqui, or the Great Enclosure. This is a wall, which has 260 niches like the Pyramid of the Niches but it represents the 260 days of the calendar of Venus.  Venus was of great importance all across Mesoamerica, its movements were charted and used to determine the most auspicious times for battles.  This structure is unique among Mesoamerican sites and contains two or three small ball courts.


Also unusual in Tajin architecture is their use of poured cement in molds, as well as poured cement slab roofs.  Cal, mixed with earth was the cement of pre-Hispanic architecture and this was a novel technique in pre-Hispanic civil engineering.

Slab roofs, so common in modern day were unheard of in that time period, and were not used anywhere else in Mesoamerica.  Sometimes as much as a meter thick, in Tajin slab roofs were used to create two-story buildings.  There is only one other known example of two-story construction of the time period, and it is in the Mayan territories.  Another possible Mayan convergence or coincidence is the use of blue paint, as in Tajin´s Blue Temple, rebuilt and repainted over many times, every time, blue.

Other features unique to Tajin are the number of the residences that have windows, and that the city is not laid out on a grid or astrologically aligned.  Each building is individually aligned and often placed with not much space between them.


The Total site extends for 1,056 hectares (4.08 sq mi) and is divided into three main sections: the Arroyo Group, one of the oldest sections of the city, Tajin Chico, a residential and civil section, and the Ball Courts.


Another prominent building in Tajín is, the Building of the Columns, named for the columns that were found along the east façade.  They were made by stacking cut out circles of flagstones and have scenes carved into them celebrating a leader called 13 Rabbit.  It was one of the last buildings to be built and shows fire damage from the fall of the city.


Another one of the last buildings to be built and considered to be one of its most impressive is Building 5.  It is located next to the Pyramid of the Niches, in the center of the pyramid complex.  It is a truncated pyramid rising from a platform that is over 32,000 square feet (3,000 m2) in size.  The first level is lined with niches.  The top of the pyramid, where the temple once stood, contains two platforms, both of which are decorated with stepped frets.


Another unusual feature of Tajin is the large number of Ball Courts found in the city.  Seventeen ball courts have been found so far, but only six have been excavated and studied.  There is only one pre-Hispanic site that has more ball courts than Tajin, a site in Puebla has twenty-four.  It is worth mentioning that some of Tajin´s ball courts are very narrow and more resemble passage ways that ball courts. As more study is done it may prove there are less than seventeen courts, but regardless of the number, the murals, sculpture and reliefs at the site show the game was of great importance at Tajin.



The art of Tajín consists of murals, sculpture, reliefs, figurines, architectural elements, architecture with reliefs like carved columns, as well as ceramics and ceramic fragments from many time periods. Also found were many artifacts known to have been brought there from other places, most likely the result of their extensive trade routes and commercial activity there. Many examples with Teotihuacan influence or origin were found.  Common subjects include warriors, deities, and ball players, as well as geometrics and scroll like patterns, and Roman Piña Chan in his book Tajin La Ciudad del Dios Huran (Tajin City of the Hurricane God), mentions, “Since the very first excavations of the site, all of the researchers have mentioned the quality and iconographic richness of the pieces found scattered throughout the buildings.”



Beginning in the second phase of construction of the city, murals were painted on the walls of the palaces and temples. In his, Official Guide to Tajin, Juergen Brueggemann calls the murals “abstract” because their forms are not figurative, but represent concepts in the Quetzalcóatl complex in Tajin´s religion.  However, in Las Higueras there are interesting figurative murals, colored blue, red, and brown, one is a mural with sharks, showing a ritual that involved shark hunting.  Another mural from 600-900 AD shows an individual being decapitated.  One of the building in the worst shape in Tajin, also houses several important murals, the building is being reconstructed so the murals inside can be protected long enough to be studied and preserved.



A great deal of ceramics and ceramic fragments have been found at Tajin.  Of the ceramics, Brueggemann states they were mainly utilitarian pieces used for a specific function, or for commercial use or exchange, (a great market existed at Tajin) and their main purpose for the archeologists was to determine the time period.


Gordon Ekholm, in The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture, states that like Tajin architecture, Tajin art had a very distinctive style, “Certainly outstanding among all of the sculptural art of the gulf coastal region is that identified as classic central Veracruz, or as the Tajin-style.”  He divides the sculpture into two kinds, 1) of the Ball Game: yugos (yokes), hachas (axes) & palmas (palmate stones) and, 2) stylized ornamental relief design of interlaced scrolls, “an abstract highly formalized patterning that might be most aptly referred to Tajin-style.”  He also mentions that the heavy stone sculptures of the game were most likely too heavy to be worn while playing, and were probably used only  ceremonially.  Of note some of them are incredibly intricate carved stone.


A prominent sculpture at Tajin is located between the two sets of staircases on Building 5. It is a tall column-like sculpture that had been thrown down from the top of the pyramid in ancient times and broken. Archeologists reassembled it at the spot in which it was found.  It is a seated figure with a severed upper torso and a skull for a head, the arms are holding a serpent like form and the body contains scrolls, which may signify sacrificial blood.


Another interesting sculpture is an altar from Building 4. It is a large stone slab sculpted to depict four individuals with a symbol of intertwined snakes between the two pairs. The snakes represent the ball game marker called the Tlaxmalacatle in Aztec times, and probably also refer to the symbol of Ollin (movement).



Very sculptural in appearance, but distinct from the art of Tajin are the carved tablets and reliefs, often depicting gods, warriors and rituals.  The writing of the time period was in images, codices and glyphs.  The only society to have complex written language at this time were the Maya, and to a lesser extent the Zapotecas.  The Teotihuacanos had no writing, and likewise the stories of Tajin are told in images.  Juergen Brueggemann, says, “In societies like Tajin, that lacked writing, the artist was obliged to transmit concepts, images and associations through their graphic ability.”


The most common themes in the tablets of Tajin are depictions of gods and rituals and mythical scenes. For most of the Late Classic period Tajin was dedicated to the cult of the Hurricane god, and the Pyramid of the Niches was dedicated to the god of rain and wind. In the top part of the Pyramid of the Niches were depictions of dragon-serpents, scenes of gods involved in rituals and ritual decapitations of ball players.  The ball games were very important to Tajin and their most prominent tablets depict the rituals associated with it.  The ball game is thought to have been a religious ritual that mimicked the passage of the sun, and/or the struggle among gods, and/or the struggle of man against the gods.  No definite proof exists, beyond the intricate renderings on tablets and the existence of ball courts in most (but not all) Mesoamerican archeological sites, which seem to indicate the game was of religious importance in the society.


Interspersed in the reliefs and sculptures are often glyphs, symbols or other images that are readily recognizable, sufficient enough to believe that in Tajin a system of writing of known symbols was used.  Piña Chan describes a relief from Building 18 (identified as Sculpture1 of Building 2 of the Plaza del Arroyo / Sculpture 4 of the Pyramid of the Niches, phase Tecolutla (ca. 0-350 AD) to Cacahuatal (ca. 350-600 AD), by Pasquel Soto, 2006:218) that features a figure wearing a skirt with, “…vertical lines in a zigzag pattern and a [symbol] that is very similar to the Mayan glyph ik (wind), along the border of the garment.”  Also in numerous other examples there are instances of the Venus cross, one of the symbols for the planet so important to them.  Also, omnipresent in the images in Tajin is the sign for Ollin (movement), it is a symbol that resembles two intersecting or intertwining scrolls, and it can be seen throughout the reliefs and sculptures of Tajin in many forms.  Also interspersed in the reliefs of the later periods (and especially in the Building of the Coumns) are markers that could be the glyph of the name of a person, but that are also recognizable as numbers, and strongly resemble the system used by the Maya and Zapoteca, using bars and dots to indicate dates.  In this case the glyph could represent the name of a leader 13 Rabbit, or it could signify the date, the 13th day in the month of rabbit.

The Building of the Columns was of one of the last building complexes built at Tajín, so named for its columns. The surface of the columns were sculpted with scenes celebrating a ruler supposedly named 13 Rabbit, who probably had this structure built.  The scene shows as dual procession with 13 Rabbit seated on a wooden throne and his feet on a severed head. In front is a sacrifice victim with his entrails hanging out. 13 Rabbit’s name glyph appears above as well as an attendant´s name glyph, 4 Axe. The rest of the procession consists of warriors holding captives by their hair, spoils of war and symbols of a victorious battle.  In other reliefs, images of conquest in battle and humiliation are shown more symbolically, such as the image of a victorious ruler urinating on a maguey plant.


The most impressive of the Tajin tablets are the ones found in the ball courts, well preserved reliefs depicting the intricate rituals associated with the game.  In the North Ball Court are six carved relief panels with ritual scenes that run along both walls.  The walls are 87 feet (27 m) long and the ball court is considered very small. It is probably one of the oldest structures at Tajín. Bergemann´s guide says the north ball court tablets, like the tablets of the Pyramid of the Niches, distinguish themselves for their dynamic renderings of people with god-like attributes, “the people exhibit attributes of gods like Quetzalcóatl , Macuilxóchitl, a bird god, a coyote god and more that to this date have not been well defined.”

Along the South Ball Court´s vertical walls are reliefs dating from 600-1100 AD and they illustrate step-by-step the ritual of the game.  From the opening scene where the principal player is elaborately dressed and being handed a bundle of spears — (Above the scene is the god of death rising from a vat of liquid, suspected to be pulque, the glyph above the god identify it with the planet Venus) – to the closing scene, when two players ritually sacrifice a third by decapitating him with a knife, under the watchful eye of the judge of the game, Xòlotl, the dog headed twin of Quetzalcòatl.


In conclusion, Tajin was a city that existed for over a thousand years, with a rich history of art and symbolic writing, and is a fascinating and unique pre-Hispanic archeological site.  To date, less than 50% of Tajin has been excavated and there are sure to be many more answers uncovered in the future.  Much is still unknown but the story of Tajin seems to be intrinsically linked to the story of Teotihuacan and as long as people search for answers about the fall of Teotihuacan, Tajin will continue to be part of one of the great lingering mysteries of Mesoamerica.  Let´s hope as more knowledge is uncovered a greater understanding of the city in its own right will emerge.