Ancient Mysteries

The Priestesses of Tamtoc

The date was May 11, 2006.  The Governor of San Luis Potosí, Marcelo de los Santos Fraga, was attending the inaugural ceremonies of his state’s newest archaeological site to open to the public, complete with a brand-new visitors center and on-site museum.  The out-of-the-way group of ruins was called Tamtoc, located in the far eastern part of the state of San Luis Potosí near the town of Tamuin.  At the time of the opening festivities the governor did not know of the importance of the site he was presiding over or what would ultimately be discovered there.  In the previous year – in February of 2005 – a worker uncovered a gigantic stone while working on the restoration of the hydraulic channel that, in ancient times, had carried water from a spring to an artificial lagoon created within the city.  It took until November of 2006 to excavate the monolith properly and to maneuver it upright as it had been in antiquity.  The stone measures about 25 feet across by 12 feet high and is almost two feet thick.  It was christened by archaeologists with the bland name of “Monument 32,” but soon earned the nickname “La Sacerdotista,” or in English, “The Priestess.”  The carved stone is one of the largest such pieces in all of Mexico.  It depicts a woman with wide hips standing in the center.  Her arms are raised to the heavens and on her head is a cracked pot from which an abundance of vegetables and water flows.  On the sides of this priestess are two other women, and they are decapitated.  Blood flows from the decapitated heads to the center “priestess” in straight lines; two going down to her legs, two going across to her head and two going up to her raised arms.  All women are standing on skulls.  According to Mexican archaeologist Ricardo Muñoz who has worked at Tamtoc for many years, the carved slab allegorically represents the underworld, the earth and the heavens.  The central female figure, nicknamed “The Priestess” represents the earth and she is being nourished by sacrificial blood. In return, she gives humankind abundance through the bounty on her head.  All women are standing on skulls, meaning they are rooted in the underworld.  The earth’s arms are raised toward the heavens.  Also, the direct lines of streams of blood go down, across and up, toward all three realms.  Muñoz and others also believe the massive carving served as a lunar calendar.  With a date range estimate of its manufacture placed between 1150 to 750 BC, it may be the oldest calendar representation in ancient Mexico to have survived to the modern age.  The “Priestess of Tamtoc” is considered one of the most important finds in Mexican archaeology so far this century.

Tamtoc is located in the eastern part of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí near the border it shares with the state of Veracruz.  Spread across some 210 hectares, most of the site was built in a major bend of the Tampaón River, part of the Pánuco River system.  The site grew around two hills which are often mistaken for pyramids but gave the city a strategic advantage.  The older part of Tamtoc is clustered around a spring, and this part of the ruins, called the La Noria Zone, dates to sometime before 1000 BC.  More than seventy structures have been discovered at the archaeological site, ranging from terraced buildings to platform mounds. Thirty of these structures are located in the perimeter and are open to visitors. There is a central plaza that probably functioned as a civic or administrative center, built in the final epoch of the city. Archaeologists originally thought that Tamtoc flourished between 900 AD and about 1350 AD, but there were other building phases with the earliest phase beginning over three thousand years ago.  This early phase was followed by a pause, with a second phase starting in about 600 AD and lasting about 300 years.  The time period that archaeologists originally thought was the extent of Tamtoc’s existence – from 900 AD to 1350 AD – is generally accepted as the third phase.  This phase has been extended into the late 1400s.

Tamtoc’s three phases of occupation are delineated by radically different architectural styles.  This leads some to believe that different sets of people occupied the site across the different phases.  The earlier phases are marked by buildings with curves and rounded edges.  Some see these buildings as reminiscent of those dedicated to the central Mexican god Ehecatl, the god of wind, which came on the Mesoamerican scene centuries later and hundreds of miles away.  The architecture of Tamtoc’s first period is found nowhere else in ancient Mexico. The buildings in the latter period are blockier and more rectangular.  Across the many occupations of the city, many buildings were covered in stucco and painted various colors.  The most popular colors used were red, green, and blue.  Most of the monumental architecture visible today at Tamtoc was constructed in the latter phases.  By far, most of the larger building at Tamtoc exist around the Central Plaza.  This group is made up of 23 architectural structures, of which 18 are around a plaza and five in the central part, all associated with administrative and religious activities.  The remaining buildings have been identified as homes belonging to the ruling elite, with the exception of structure known by the bland archaeological name “AW3,” which was identified as an altar. Almost all the structures in this complex have stairs that lead to their upper parts, where a temple or the housing complex was located.  Most houses at Tamtoc were made of bamboo. Even some of the temples at the top of the largest platforms at the site were made of this renewable forest plant.  Archaeologist generally agree that the East Structure, also called Paso Bayo, served to house very important temples, from which various rituals related to the measurement of time and the movement of the celestial bodies were conducted. This structure is the second tallest on the site and marks the eastern limit of the monumental area.  An impressive part of the ruins are the waterworks which radiate out of the area of Tamtoc called La Noria, the oldest part of the city.  The inhabitants of Tamtoc built a series of distribution channels for the water of a spring, from which a series of offerings have been recovered. In addition to bringing life-giving water to the settlement’s population, the canals and pools in this irrigation system served important ritual purposes.

So, who built Tamtoc?  Archaeologists continue to debate this as the site is relatively new to researchers.  The Spanish first saw ruins in the area in the 16th Century but by that time the city was abandoned and only used by local Huastec people for burials and occasional ceremonies. Most Spanish accounts have been lost to history.  In more modern times, the ruins were first described in the late 1800s although no serious investigations began until the 1930s.  Between 1935 and 1938 Tamtoc was mapped and Mexican archaeologists did minor excavations.  Real, serious study commenced in 1962 when a joint Mexican and French archaeological team began major excavations and restoration.  By the 1960s the ruins had been ascribed to the Huastec people, an offshoot of the Maya who arrived from the Maya homeland sometime between 1500 and 900 BC.  The Huastec were living in the area at the time of the Spanish conquest and old Spanish maps of the area call this region Tamtok, Tamtoqui or Tamohí.  The name of this place may come from the Huastec words “tam” or “place” followed by the suffix indicating some sort of color. Tok in the Huastec language is used to describe a type of bluish shrub from which a blue paint was extracted.   Some linguists also believe that the ending tok, toqui or ohi could refer to the deep, dark bluish waters of the nearby Tampaón River.  No one knows why this breakaway Maya group, the Huastecs, traveled over a thousand miles from the Maya heartland to establish themselves on the northern fringes of Mesoamerica, and no one knows if the Huastecs were the original builders of Tamtoc.  The only thing known for sure is that they were there for the later phases.  The civilization located due south of the Huastec area was that of the Totonacs.  For more information about the Totonac culture, please see Mexico Unexplained episode number 179. To the north of the Huastecs were the aggressive and nomadic Chichimeca people.  For some reason, no evidence of warfare exists at Tamtoc. The Aztecs and later the Spanish had to fight off the Chichimeca in and around the same area of the Huastecs.  Although the Rio Tampaón may have served as a somewhat natural barrier between the nomadic Chichimecs and the more settled citizens of Tamtoc, it is quite unusual that there is no evidence that the city was ever attacked.  Perhaps the Huastecs found a way to coexist peacefully with neighbors that no other civilization had a good time dealing with.  For more information about the Chichimeca, please see Mexico Unexplained episode 142.

While certain feminist revisionist scholars have been chided by mainstream researchers for overemphasizing or exaggerating a female role in ancient societies in Mexico – the “Great Goddess” hypothesis in Teotihuacán is a good example – there is no need to overplay the importance of the feminine at Tamtoc.  One of the characteristics that distinguishes Tamtoc from all other sites in ancient Mexico is the remarkable female presence there. To date, 90% of the burials discovered at the site are of women. Furthermore, they are represented in most of the clay and ceramic figurines found there and are thought to have had a high rank in the social division of the community.  In addtion to the massive carved monolith mentioned earlier nicknamed The Priestess, another important feminine artifact discovered at Tamtoc has been called affectionately, “The Tamtoc Venus.”  Chubby and fertile-looking, very reminiscent of the ancient Paleolithic European Venus of Willendorf, this ancient Mexican fertility statue was discovered while doing the excavation for the gigantic carving of The Priestess.  The “Tamtoc Venus” is also formally known by archaeologists as “The Scarified Woman.” The sculpture has scarifications in the form of high relief tattoos, which are seen on its shoulders, breasts, and thighs.  The scars correspond to the 52 years of the Mesoamerican calendar, as well as the 104-year cycles of the lunar and solar cycle. It is presumed that the sculpture is not of a goddess, but of a priestess, which indicates the importance of women as bearers of time through their menstrual periods.  The Tamtoc Venus was submerged in water for more than 2,500 years. It is important to emphasize that this female sculpture is an unprecedented discovery.  There exists no record of a sculpture so well worked and detailed in Mesoamerica of this antiquity, as well as being of the feminine gender.  This find causes a rethinking of the role that women played in the social, political, and religious life of pre-Hispanic cultures.  The Venus is made of basaltic stone, which does not exist in the region.  Was the Scarified Woman an imported object or was she fashioned on site from non-native stone?  The sculpture was broken apart for ritual purposes.  Archaeologists theorize that instead of sacrificing an individual, the ancients used this object in place of a real human.  The statue was broken up and thus sacrificed and thrown into the artificial water pond where it was discovered.  Given the nature of the object and the fact that it was thrown in the water in a symbolic sacrifice, researchers think that the Tamtoc Venus was part of a fertility ritual.  With this significant feminine presence at this site, some scholars believe that Tamtoc could have been an important religious center or pilgrimage site for women.  Given that most of the female skeletons discovered at the site have evidence of infection or serious disease, perhaps Tamtoc was a place for feminine healing.  As serious research at the site only began a little more than twenty years ago, there are more unknowns than knowns at this very puzzling ancient Mexican site.


Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) web site (in Spanish)

Spanish Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “The Priestesses of Tamtoc

  1. Hola! Thank you for this fascinating piece. Very interesting.
    Question: a couple of years ago, some friends and I found an Olmec head on a hill in Veracruz. A local man assured us that it had not been reported. I understand that INAH has a form to report “monuments” but am having difficulties finding it online. Can you help find the form?

    1. Sorry, I wouldn’t even know where you would start, probably the local INAH field office. What an interesting thing!

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