Over the past three decades, arguments for derivation of the chacmool form from Classic Maya iconography of captives destined for sacrifice have dominated our understanding of this sculptural type at Early Postclassic Tula and Chichén Itzá. However, there are significant differences between the chacmools at the two sites in iconography and context, suggesting variations in meaning despite the similarities. I argue that at least at Tula, chacmools are linked to a pan-Mesoamerican iconography of elite ancestors as reclining figures, identified by Javier Urcid. The only complete example of a chacmool found at Tula in its original context was placed in Sala 2 of the Palacio Quemado, a structure decorated with friezes of reclining royal ancestors facing central reliefs of cuauhxicalli (sacrificial vessels). The association of these reliefs with a three-dimensional sculpture in a similar recumbent pose serving as a receptacle for sacrificial offerings suggests a closely related meaning for both. The Sala 2 chacmool's royal diadem and knife support its identification as a ruler rather than a captive. The closest Classic Maya parallels here are not captives but the relief of Pakal's resurrection on his sarcophagus lid. Archaeological evidence points to an association at Tula among royalty, Tlaloc, and chacmools that persisted into the Late Postclassic among their Mexica successors. By contrast, the Chichén Itzá chacmools occur in a broader range of contexts and greatly vary in style and costume, perhaps reflecting local adoption and transformation of a central Mexican form, consistent with earlier Maya traditions.
RESUMEN En las últimas tres décadas, las tesis a favor de la idea de que la forma chacmool proviene de la iconografía de los cautivos destinados al sacrificio que es típica del clasicismo maya han dominado nuestra manera de aproximarnos a esta clase de esculturas en el Tula y el Chichén Itzá de la época posclásica temprana. Sin embargo, en lo que respecta a su iconografía y su contexto, existen diferencias significativas entre los chacmools que se encuentran en los dos sitios, lo que hace pensar que, a pesar de las similitudes, hay diferencias de significado. Yo sostengo que, al menos en Tula, los chacmools presentan claras influencias de una iconografía pan-mesoamericana, en la que a los antepasados de alto nivel social se los representa tumbados, boca arriba y semi-incorporados, y cuya singularidad fue reconocida por primera vez por Javier Urcid. En Tula, el único ejemplo de un chacmool íntegro que aún se encuentra en su contexto original está en la Sala 2 del Palacio Quemado, un espacio decorado con frisos en que figuran antepasados reales en posición semi-incorporada, los cuales se hallan orientados hacia relieves de cuauhxicalli (o receptáculo en que se depositaban corazones durante ritos sacrificiales) que están ubicados en el centro del recinto. La asociación de estos relieves con una escultura tridimensional en una similar postura recostada, que además sirve de receptáculo para las ofrendas de sacrificio, hace pensar que entre los dos hay un significado parecido. La diadema real y el cuchillo del chacmool de la Sala 2 respaldan la tesis de que se trata no de un cautivo, sino de un dirigente. En este lugar, los ejemplares cuya forma estética se remonta a la época maya clásica no son cautivos, salvo en el caso del relieve de la resurrección de Pakal que figura en la tapa de su sarcófago. Las pruebas arqueológicas apuntan a una asociación en Tula entre la realeza, Tlaloc, y los chacmools, que se mantuvo incluso en la época posclásica tardía entre los mexicas de épocas posteriores. Por el contrario, los chacmools de Chichén Itzá se sitúan en contextos muy diversos y exhiben una gran variedad interna en lo que respecta a su estilo y vestimenta, lo que tal vez sea evidencia de una adopción y transformación locales de una forma propia del centro de México—una práctica común según las tradiciones mayas anteriores.
RESUMO Nas últimas três décadas, argumentos a favor de derivar a forma chacmool da iconografia Maia clássica de cativos destinados para sacrifício domina nossa compreensão desse tipo de escultura em Tula do início do período pós-classico e em Chichén Itzá. No entanto, há diferenças significativas entre os chacmools dos dois locais em termos de iconografia e contexto, o que sugere variações de significados apesar de suas similaridades. Argumento que, pelo menos em Tula, os chacmools estão ligados à iconografia pan-mesoamericana de ancestrais de elite como figuras reclinadas, identificadas por Javier Urcid. O único exemplo completo de um chacmool encontrado em Tula em seu contexto original foi colocado na Sala 2 do Palacio Quemado, uma estrutura decorada com frisos de ancestrais reais reclinados, em frente a relevos centrais de cuauhxicalli. A associação desses relevos com uma escultura tridimensional em pose similarmente recumbente que serve como receptáculo para ofertas de sacrifício, sugere um significado intimamente relacionado para ambos. O diadema e a faca reais do chacmool da Sala 2 suportam sua identificação como um regente e não um cativo. Os paralelos maias clássicos mais próximos aqui não são cativos, mas o relevo da ressurreição de Pakal na tampa de seu sarcófago. Evidência arqueológica aponta para uma associação em Tula entre a realeza, Tlaloc e chacmools, que persistiu no pós-clássico tardio entre seus sucessores Mexica. Por outro lado, os chacmools de Chichén Itzá ocorrem em uma ampla gama de contextos e variam muito em estilo e figurino, talvez refletindo a adoção e transformação locais, consistente com as tradições maias anteriores, de uma forma mexicana central.
“Despite a steady stream of valiant efforts, the Mesoamerican chacmool has remained as enigmatic as ever.”1
They are among the most iconic and widely reproduced types of prehispanic Mesoamerican sculpture, across contemporary media ranging from general art-history survey textbooks to tourist postcards, and have served as the inspiration for sculptures by Henry Moore and a short story by Carlos Fuentes. Yet the awkwardly posed, reclining figures dubbed chacmools remain a mystery at the same time. Although the epigram here from Miller and Samayoa was penned twenty years ago, it is still a valid description of the state of affairs in art historical and archaeological scholarship around these recumbent statues. The significance of their distinctive pose is still debated, their point of origin in the Mesoamerican world still contested. Their odd posture has attracted divergent interpretations and identification of their subjects: Are they captives slated for sacrifice,2 warriors,3 ballplayers,4 oracles or priests in a ritual pose of unknown significance or in a state of ceremonial intoxication?5 Are they derived from representations of the Classic Maya Maize God or a Nahua god of drunkenness?6 The title of a 2013 lecture by Jon Carlson, “Chacmool: Who Was That Enigmatic Recumbent Figure from Epiclassic Mesoamerica?,” is about as good a summation of our current state of knowledge and consensus—or rather, lack thereof—of the identification of the social and/or divine figures portrayed by these sculptures as any. Did they originate at Chichén Itzá based on Classic Maya antecedents or on the northwestern frontier of Mesoamerica in the Classic Chalchihuites culture of Zacatecas and Jalisco?7
There are few things the scholarly literature agrees upon relating to this ill-named Mesoamerican sculptural type, dubiously christened in the late nineteenth century by the eccentric explorer Auguste Le Plongeon, a precursor of the Von Danikens and Graham Hancocks of today. Making their first unequivocal appearance in Early Postclassic (c. 900–1150 CE) contexts at Tula, Hidalgo, and the Maya city of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, chacmools are one of the artistic and architectural traits shared by these civic-ceremonial centers separated by over eight hundred miles that have sparked controversy for the last century and a quarter as to the precise nature of the connection between these “twin Tollans.” Subsequently, in the Late Postclassic (1150–1521), chacmools became part of the artistic heritage of Tula appropriated by the Aztecs and other Nahua kingdoms to stress their real or fictive ancestral ties to that venerated ancient city. At the same time, in the Lake Pátzcuaro basin of Michoacán, the imperial rival of the Mexica, the Tarascan state, produced its own variant of these figures.8 Among the Late Postclassic Yucatec Maya, a chacmool is documented from Tulum, and a possible ceramic miniature chacmool is known for Mayapán.9
Frequently associated with temple contexts, the function of chacmools also seems clear: they were altars for offerings dedicated to deities, holding gifts possibly ranging from human blood and hearts to incense in the receptacles that most support on their chests or abdomens. Beyond this, however, much remains in question. Currently, despite the lack of consensus, the most prevalent interpretation of the chacmool's symbolism and genesis comes from the work of the eminent Maya art historian, Mary Ellen Miller. In a seminal 1985 article (also one of the first and few devoted to in-depth consideration of a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican subject in the College Art Association's Art Bulletin), she argued that the contorted, recumbent posture of these figures derives from images of elite captives, trussed up in preparation for sacrifice, in Classic Maya art. In a later article, she equated the unusual pose of the chacmool with images of the Maya Maize God, whose death and resurrection in Maya mythology make him a paradigmatic sacrificial victim.10 If the chacmool form has Classic Maya antecedents, Miller suggested that its combination of these Maya roots and its “Toltec” style point to an origin in Terminal Classic to Early Postclassic Chichén Itzá. Miller's arguments have been used by some other Mayanists11 to support the notion, originating with George Kubler, that Chichén Itzá was the source of all or much of the stylistic and iconographic features it shares with the art of Tula.12
In this brief paper, I suggest an alternative reading of the chacmool form, at least at Tula, based on the local architectural, artifactual, and sculptural program context of the only intact example found in situ at this city, combined with broader, pan-Mesoamerican comparisons that appear to fit the sculptures in this setting. I suggest that at least in this context and by extension probably in general at Tula, chacmools are linked to a widespread Mesoamerican iconographic tradition, already ancient by the Early Postclassic, of depicting ancestors in recumbent poses, identified in a pioneering paper by Javier Urcid.13 The intact Tula chacmool shown in Figure 1 was discovered in a colonnaded hall, Sala 2, of the Palacio Quemado, a complex of such structures at Tula Grande, the political and ritual core of Early Postclassic Tula. The upper walls of Sala 2 display relief friezes of reclining royal ancestors (figs. 2–3) facing central images of cuauhxicalli or sacrificial receptacles (fig. 4). As I argued in a previous publication, of which this paper represents a sequel and logical extension, these relief figures and others at Tula reflect the pan-Mesoamerican iconography of reclining ancestors proposed by Urcid.14 The association of the Palacio Quemado reliefs with a three-dimensional sculpture in a similar recumbent pose that also served as a receptacle for sacrificial offerings suggests a closely related meaning for both, and the royal diadem and knife of the Sala 2 chacmool cast doubt on its identification as the representation of a captive and support its identification as a ruler. There are indeed Classic Maya iconographic parallels here, but the closest are not captive images but the relief of Pakal's resurrection into a glorified ancestor on his sarcophagus lid from Palenque. Other artistic and archaeological evidence point to an association at Tula among royalty, Tlaloc, and chacmools, which persisted into the Late Postclassic among their Mexica successors.
This interpretation may explain the wide appeal of chacmools across Early Postclassic Mesoamerica but is not intended as comprehensive explanation of all examples of this sculptural type. Rather, the pose and function of chacmools are part of a broader complex of symbolism associated with not just ancestors and sacrifice but rebirth and liminal states in general, shared across many regions of Mesoamerica. The Chichén Itzá chacmools occur in a wider range of contexts than is documented at Tula and greatly vary in style and costume, including depictions of a bound prisoner and a ballplayer. This variety may reflect local adoption and transformation of an originally central Mexican form, given a local spin or nuance in meanings.
I preface my discussion of the chacmools of Tula with a brief review of current interpretations of the iconography of these figures and proposed solutions for the closely related question of the place of origin of this sculptural type. A short overview of the Tula chacmools, with comparisons to Chichén Itzá, and the problems around the context of most examples from Tula follows, then the contextual and comparative analysis of the Palacio Quemado. In the latter, I attempt to balance interpretive methodologies based on close attention to local traditions with strategies grounded in geographically and temporally longer distance parallels from across Mesoamerica. I believe that analysis at both scopes, regional and pan-Mesoamerican, is essential for a thorough and balanced approach to questions in Mesoamerican art history, an approach that bridges both the cultural continuity models of iconography pioneered by Eduard Seler and more recently represented by the work of Karl Taube (cited later) and the more local approach associated with Kubler. It is necessary to recognize that no matter how widespread the distribution of any art style or iconographic trait through Mesoamerica, each was always selectively appropriated by and altered to fit each local elite's agendas. These regional variations and local settings need to be addressed alongside and within the broader Mesoamerican context.
Such approaches in recent years have supplanted earlier models for the transfer of imagery and style based on migration or vaguely defined and mechanistic diffusion, especially in the study of the long-distance interactions that characterize the Epiclassic and Early Postclassic. The debate over the mechanisms underlying the similarities between Chichén Itzá and Tula has shifted away from improbable narratives of “Toltec” invasions of Yucatán to consideration of more interactive processes based on trade, shared political and religious ideologies, and local agency.15 The work of Claudia Brittenham on the Cacaxtla murals also exemplifies this welcome trend.16 The presence of Maya style features and aspects of iconography at this central Mexican Epiclassic site, separated from the Maya region by hundreds of miles, was frequently explained in the two and a half decades following their discovery in 1975 as the result of Maya incursions into central Mexico or vice versa. Contact-period Nahua traditions of questionable historical reliability and evident propaganda function concerning the past migrations of a group called the Olmeca-Xicallanca were invoked to bolster such arguments. Brittenham's close analysis of the style of the murals revealed significant differences from their Maya parallels, supporting the spread of Maya elements as the result of highly selective borrowing of distant sources rather than as the products of invasion or migration, thus decoupling style from ethnicity. I offer the present contribution in the same spirit as a small part of the tendency toward more complex and nuanced solutions to old debates on interregional interaction in Mesoamerica.
THE MEANING OF THE CHACMOOL
As noted in the introduction, the chacmool has elicited quite a number of scholarly (and some rather less so) attempts at elucidating the significance of its odd pose and fixing its point of origin in the busy flux of regional interactions in Epiclassic through Early Postclassic Mesoamerica. The physician Alfredo Cuéllar posited that the chacmool represents Tezcatzóncatl, a Nahua god of pulque and the oracles uttered by ritual specialists under the influence of this fermented maguey beverage.17 In a manner reminiscent of attempts by modern medical specialists to identify diseases purportedly suffered by Pharaoh Akhenaten on the basis of the religiously inspired style of Amarna art, Cuéllar even “diagnosed” a couple of Tarascan chacmools with cirrhosis of the liver. Questionable medical verdicts based on nonnaturalistic art styles aside, it is unclear why a minor deity attested only in the Late Postclassic to Early Colonial periods should have served as the inspiration for a popular sculpture type originating in the Early Postclassic. Other pundits have similarly suggested that the alleged social actors reflected in chacmools were unable to stand up because of ceremonial inebriation, but credit hallucinogens as the chemical culprit.18
Miller's hypothesis that the contorted position of the chacmool reflects the pose of captives in the conventions of Classic Maya art is far more plausible than these alternatives. It is also certainly consistent with the use of chacmools as supports or receptacles for sacrificial offerings. Miller and Samayoa understood the reclining position, which they associated with the Maize God, as only used for portrayals of captives slated for sacrifice among the Classic Maya, with the exception of the iconic relief adorning the lid of Pakal of Palenque's sarcophagus.19 Here, this Late Classic Maya ajaw is depicted in a similar pose as he rises out of the jaws of the underworld after death. He is clearly not a prisoner but wears the jade skirt of the Maya Maize God, indicating that he is being equated with that divinity in death and in the hope, paralleling the life cycle of maize, of rebirth. Given the Classic Maya parallels Miller emphasizes, she posits that the first chacmools took shape in the Maya region, at Chichén Itzá, and from there the form spread to Tula and other regions of Mesoamerica.20 At present, the earliest known and clearly recognizable chacmool (fig. 5) is the one found in the Castillo-sub at Chichén, a structure dated to the early tenth century, according to the most recent chronology for the site, which would tend to support this aspect of Miller's model.21 Schele and Mathews cite Peter Schmidt's discovery of a nude chacmool in the Group of a Thousand Columns at Chichén Itzá as an additional confirmation of Miller's hypothesis.22 However, the seemingly more explicit prisoner imagery displayed in this example is atypical of the form, either at Chichén Itzá or (especially) Tula. Like the other buildings on the Gran Nivelación at Chichén, the Group of a Thousand Columns probably dates to around 950–1000 CE, later by decades than the more conventional chacmool, with no clear signs of captive status, found in the Castillo-sub.23
Adopting Miller's emphasis on the Maya roots of the chacmool but expanding the range of comparisons and potential antecedents in Maya iconography, Andrea Stone and Marc Zender identify the pose of the chacmool as reflecting a Maya convention for the portrayal of infants that can signify both literal infancy or birth, or more generally allude to “themes of renewal,” as in the sarcophagus relief of Pakal and representations of the resurrection of the Maize God.24 They also observe that a similar pose is used for Classic Maya images of sacrificed infants, as in the soon-to-be sacrificed baby jaguar god on the Late Classic Metropolitan Vase. In these contexts, the pose is consistent with both the tender age of the victims represented and the notion that the babies are offerings in reciprocity for the renewal of life. For Stone and Zender, the chacmool is “at base a warrior posed as a sacrificial child,” or, in a fuller statement, “Chacmools are multivocal sacrificial victims cast in stone: on the one hand they evoked the captured warrior and the concomitant glory due his captor; on the other they evoked an ancient custom of child sacrifice.”25 They also note the persistent linkage in Late Postclassic central Mexico between chacmools and the Nahua rain deity Tlaloc (of which more in the section on the Palacio Quemado), whose preferred offerings were sacrificed children. These connections bring their suggestions into convergence with those of Marcia Castro-Leal, who like Miller, Stone, and Zender identifies Pakal's image on his sarcophagus lid as an antecedent of the chacmool, but she connects the reclining posture of both with fertility.26
More recent takes on the meaning of chacmools broaden the spectrum of possible symbolism inherent in the form of these sculptures. Expanding Mary Miller's original interpretation, she and Megan O'Neil point out that both in the Castillo-sub and the eponymous Temple of the Chacmool (a buried earlier stage of the Temple of the Warriors) at Chichén Itzá, chacmools are placed in close proximity to thrones. This suggests an association between “the throne the seat of rulership and the chacmool” as “the place of offerings to rulership.”27 This brings another layer of meaning to these enigmatic statues, an association with authority and elite status. William Ringle and George Bey maintain that chacmools do not allude to deities, but represent warriors in Toltec costume receiving offerings.28 Virginia Miller bridges several previous interpretations by suggesting that both the form and the placement of chacmools denote a more general concept of transitions in states of being or liminality: “Throughout Mesoamerica, chacmools tend to be placed in liminal spaces: at the crossroads of sacbes, on top of platforms, at the foot of stairs, before altars, or at temple entrances…They are therefore probably not foci of worship, but mediators in rituals, where offerings were placed temporarily as participants passed into the inner sanctum.”29 Such in-between or mediating status fits prisoners destined for sacrifice, sacrificial victims as gifts and messengers to divinities, royalty as mediators between mortals and the supernatural realm of gods and ancestors, and the resurrecting Maize God and Pakal straddling the worlds of life and death.
In opposition to these art historical contributions favoring a Maya origin for chacmools, archaeologist Marie-Areti Hers argues for their genesis on the far northwestern frontier of Classic Mesoamerica on the basis of a Classic Chalchihuites culture “proto-chacmool” she excavated at Cerro del Huistle, Jalisco, and dated to c. 550 CE.30 The monument was discovered in the debris of the stairway of the east temple at this small site, to where Hers thinks it fell from an original placement at the entrance to the temple at the top of the stairway (consistent with the context of many later, undisputed chacmools and the liminal interpretation suggested by Virginia Miller).31 Hers admits that in comparison to its putative Postclassic descendants, this Chalchihuites carving is much simpler and more abstract.32 Anatomical detail on the figure is limited to the flexed right leg indicated by an incision, while the flexed right arm is suggested only by a (natural or artificial?) surface irregularity. The face is similarly simple, with round dots for eyes above a triangular nose and rectangular mouth. Hers offers various reasons for the very minimal carving of the figure: perhaps it was the work of a novice sculptor, or as a functional altar was not deemed in need of much detail, neither of which seems fully convincing.33 Later she explains the minimally carved style of this and other Chalchihuites sculptures as an artistic choice related to belief in the inherent sacred qualities of natural rocks, which she supports by citing much later Huichol and Tarascan beliefs about stones as ancestors.34
She finds the figure's pose inconsistent with that of a sacrificial victim, and argues that its open eyes suggest it represents a living personage rather than a dead one.35 Along similar lines to Cuéllar, she proposes that it depicts a priest or oracle in ritual pose, perhaps in an altered state of consciousness interpreted as possession by a god.36 She cites a postcontact ethnohistorical parallel from northwest Mexico, the seventeenth-century Cora oracle at Mesa de Nayar, who lay on the floor of a temple receiving offerings and uttering prophecies on behalf of the sun god. Hers argues that the later idea of the chacmool as a messenger bringing offerings from humans to gods derives from this Classic Chalchihuites portrayal of an intermediary between human and divine. She suggests that the Tula chacmools, and perhaps their proposed precedent from Jalisco, may represent god-men or rulers who lived apart from the people, communicating with the gods via hallucinogens.
Comparing and grouping her find with the corpus of fifty-six chacmools illustrated by Cuéllar, Hers ascribes chronological significance to the variations in the depiction of the torso and legs from a single simple plane to a more naturalistic curved outline, and to the size of the receptacle supported by the figure, which she posits increased over time.37 On the basis of these criteria, she seriates Mesoamerican chacmools into a sequence beginning with the Cerro del Huistle example, which is very simple and lacking a clear receptacle. The Tula chacmools follow next, alongside examples from Tlaxcala and Cholula, with turned heads and the torso and legs depicted as a single plane. In this postulated chacmool genealogy, Hers suggests, based on the considerable archaeological data supporting cultural links between and perhaps migration from the Chalchihuites area to Tula, that the original idea spread from the northwest to Tula, where it was elaborated into the recognizable chacmool form with turned head and receptacle by sculptors more skilled than their Chalchihuites counterparts. From Tula, it was introduced to Chichén Itzá via the Toltec invasion of Yucatán, still taken as literal history by a few at her time of writing but discarded today in favor of more complex and reciprocal mechanisms of interaction.38 At that Maya center, the figures became more naturalistic, again the result of innovations by local artists. Finally, after the chacmool's adoption by the Mexica, the receptacle became larger, culminating in what Hers interprets as the end of the sequence, four Aztec examples now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología supporting large sacrificial basins. In a later contribution, Hers elaborates her schema of chacmool origins into part of a migration model to explain similarities among northwest Mexican, US Southwest, and Postclassic central Mexican cultures.39 In this complex scenario, groups from the Loma Alta culture of Early Classic Michoacán migrated north, alongside immigrants from central Mexico, to become the Chalchihuites culture. They invented the chacmool before returning to Michoacán and central Mexico at the inception of the Postclassic to become the ruling class (the Uacúsecha) of the Tarascans and the Tula Toltec, respectively.
A number of scholars, including Muriel Porter Weaver and Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján, have adopted Hers's chacmool chronology and her model of a Chalchihuites origin for the form.40 Others are not quite sure; even López Austin and López Luján qualify the Cerro del Huistle sculpture as “perhaps” the earliest example of a chacmool.41 In his survey of West Mexican stone sculpture, Eduardo Williams, though he finds Hers's arguments convincing, admits that the crude nature of the Cerro del Huistle sculpture makes its identification as a chacmool unclear.42 The issue remains unresolved, but it is of potential interest that the Cerro del Huistle example is not the only known chacmool from the northern edge of Mesoamerica. Further to the east than the Chalchihuites culture area, an indisputable chacmool in a style close to that of Tula was collected by the end of the nineteenth century from the site of El Cerrito near the modern eponymous capital of the state of Querétaro.43 This city, with a massive pyramid, colonnaded halls, and other architectural features resembling the buildings of Tula, flourished in the Epiclassic and Early Postclassic periods. These similarities to Tula are usually explained as the result of the latter extending its hegemony north into Querétaro and/or Early Postclassic elites at El Cerrito appropriating aspects of elite culture from the more prestigious city to the south.44 However, given the fact that the El Cerrito chacmool lacks archaeological context and a firm date, the possibility remains, albeit remote, that it could be Epiclassic and represent a temporal and geographic link between the Classic Chalchihuites proto-chacmool claimed by Hers and its Tula successors.
The preceding review demonstrates that, like some elusive subatomic particle, the meaning of the chacmool and the trajectory of its spread across Mesoamerica are hard to pin down. So many meanings have been posited—deity, victim, warrior, oracle. Perhaps part of the issue here is the attempt by some of the scholars cited to draw sharp, exclusive, etic lines of demarcation around emic categories that were far less separate. In the Mesoamerican conceptual universe, where Mexica sacrificial victims impersonated the gods to whom they were dispatched, and rulers and ritualists identified with divinities, the boundaries among these entities were considerably more porous. Yet this does not mean that all the suggested interpretations simultaneously get equal praise for accuracy. If symbolism in Mesoamerica was complex and fluid, art and ritual were also context-specific. This consideration may provide a way through the maze of possibilities for the significance of the chacmool in specific settings.
VARIATION AMONG THE CHACMOOLS FROM CHICHÉN ITZÁ AND TULA
All of the attempts summarized above to create a single interpretation of the significance of the chacmool are limited by the variety of forms and contexts of this sculptural type. Not all chacmools were created equal in architectural placement and iconographic detail, and it would be surprising if the differences in costume and placement did not reflect differences in meaning and variations on themes, across regions or even within the same site. To compare the chacmools of the “twin Tollans” of the Early Postclassic, it is clear that there is much greater formal variety among those of Chichén Itzá than among those found at Tula, and while very few of the examples from the latter center were recovered from their original context, there still seems to be a broader range of architectural settings for the Chichén chacmools. Such differences are consistent with more recent models favoring dynamic interaction and deliberate local appropriation of distant styles and motifs over the migration and diffusion models of yore to explain the similarities between the two cities.
The formal diversity of the chacmools from the Yucatec city is well demonstrated by an illustration in García Moll and Cobos.45 One of the three recovered from the interior of the Tzompantli (fig. 6) displays a butterfly pectoral like its Tula counterparts but is rendered in a more rounded, naturalistic style than its central Mexican analogues. An example from the North Colonnade demonstrates an odd combination of blocky outline with detailed incised and relief costume elements (fig. 7). The example from the Venus Platform (fig. 8) appears stylistically similar to those of Tula and sports the mosaic “pillbox” headdress prominent among the elite costume elements shared by the two sites. However, the headgear of Chichén Itzá chacmools varies considerably. One from the Temple of the Chacmool wears a crested headdress with a frog or frog-reptile hybrid zoomorph, as different from the helmets of its Chichén counterparts as it is from anything adorning the heads of chacmools at Tula.46 The chacmool also has a trophy head attached to each thigh, suggesting, contra Miller, that he is not a captive but a captor. The costume of a chacmool from the Great Ballcourt indicates that it represents a ballplayer complete with padding on his arms, unlike any example at Tula, leading Schele and Mathews to suggest that he may represent a ball game official.47 The jaguar on his collar is also unparalleled among Tula chacmools. Schmidt's nude chacmool from the Group of a Thousand Columns is as different from its fellows at Chichén as it is unparalleled in the range of this sculptural form at Tula. As well as a “more relaxed, flexible pose,”48 it has a separately carved head. While all but one of the Tula chacmools were decapitated in pre-Hispanic times, enough remains of them to indicate that each one was carved in one piece.
In addition to the varied architectural settings of the Chichén Itzá chacmools mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the prominent one from the Temple of the Warriors was placed in the entrance of the superstructure between the feathered serpent columns, while one from the Temple of the Initial Series was positioned at the base of that structure.49 Another was situated near the entrance of the Sacred Way leading to the Well of Sacrifice. While it could be argued that these last three contexts suggest an association with liminal spaces—and indeed we have seen Virginia Miller's interpretation—the variety of architectural settings for the chacmools at this site is striking.
Almost all of the Tula chacmools were found out of their original context, owing to the violent destruction that befell the site at the end of the Early Postclassic and/or the later looting activities of the Mexica. One example lacks any recorded context and is described as being of uncertain provenience within the site of Tula.50 A large fragment was excavated by Jorge Acosta in the debris on the east side of the Adoratorio in the Tula Grande plaza.51 It may have been reset on that structure by the Mexica, since Acosta also discovered caches of Mexica ceramics suggesting that the second construction stage of the Adoratorio was the work of the Aztecs. Acosta also found three additional fragmentary chacmools on the lower slopes of the heavily ransacked Pyramid C. One of these, headless, was discovered in proximity to a circular (sacrificial?) stone, which led Acosta to think that both of these objects were originally positioned on top of Pyramid C and toppled over at the time the building was destroyed.52 Another chacmool fragment was found in the debris in the passage separating Pyramids B and C, likewise suggesting but not confirming an original setting on the summit of Pyramid C.53 Another was discovered nearby on “the adjacent plaza floor.”54 Most recently, the probable head of a chacmool was excavated from a Tollan phase (c. 950–1150 CE) sacrificial deposit of infant burials during a salvage archaeological operation in the present city of Tula in 2007.55 The only chacmool that was discovered intact and in situ in its presumed Early Postclassic context, the focus of this paper, is one of two found by Acosta in Sala 2 of the Palacio Quemado.56 The mutilated body of the second57 (fig. 9) was found in a presumably Aztec trench and the decapitated head in the fill of a Late Postclassic platform built over the Palacio Quemado.
As previously noted, nine of the chacmools at Tula were found decapitated, and the heads of eight of these are missing.58 If the head found in the sacrificial burial noted above is indeed that of a chacmool, its survival represents the reverse of the usual pattern. It is uncertain whether these acts of vandalism were committed at the time of the destruction of Tula Grande at the end of the Tollan phase or by the later Mexica. However, a decapitated chacmool in the style of Tula was found in the Templo Mayor area in Tenochtitlán/Mexico City.59 It closely resembles the intact Palacio Quemado chacmool, although lacking the latter's butterfly pendant. This discovery suggests that this sculpture was encountered by the Aztecs already decapitated during their activities at the ruins of Tula, as it is unlikely that they would deliberately mutilate an object they intended to reuse in Tenochtitlán to proclaim their legitimating affiliation with a great Tollan. It is also possible that at least some of the damage to the Tula chacmools was part of the ritual “life cycle” of these sculptures. Cobean, Jiménez García, and Mastache point out that the decapitated chacmool fragment found in the debris of the Adoratorio has a counterpart at Chichén Itzá, a similarly headless chacmool from the Venus Platform, a structure with architectural parallels to the Tula Adoratorio.60 Another possible solution to the question of the date and motivation for the desecration of the Tula chacmools is suggested at the end of the next section.
Because of the less than sterling context of most of the Tula chacmools, they are difficult to date with precision, though it seems likely that the majority were created during the Tollan phase. On stylistic grounds and the choice of basalt as the material for the sculptures, Elizabeth Jiménez García places most of the chacmools at the site in her style Period 2B, corresponding to the later part of the Tollan phase.61 She attributes only one fragment, the shoulder of a chacmool, to Period 2-A, earlier in the Tollan phase, since it is carved from orange quarry stone rather than basalt.62 This example is also unusual in being decorated with incised circles, perhaps representing tattooing. She dates one other chacmool to her Period 3 style, postdating the destruction of the Early Postclassic city but predating the Mexica, the putative work of new settlers copying earlier works they encountered among the ruins. However, she does not illustrate either of these sculptures in her preliminary report on her Tula sculpture cataloging project, nor does she give detailed formal criteria for the assignment of works to these proposed styles, though this problem will no doubt be rectified when the eagerly awaited full catalog, an indispensable reference, sees publication.
THE PALACIO QUEMADO
Three chacmools were excavated by Acosta in the ruins of the Palacio Quemado. The intact example (see fig. 1), which was found in front of an altar on the north side of Sala 2,63 covered an offering consisting of a greenstone figurine, two large shells, shell beads, and the remains of several pyrite mirrors decorated with turquoise and jade mosaic.64 Within the altar itself was another offering including shell beads, two complete shells, and a jade plaque, of which more later.65 The second Sala 2 chacmool (see fig. 9), as observed in the previous section, had been dismembered.66 The body was found in a Late Postclassic drainage trench, the head in fill of a Mexica platform,67 but the statue may have been originally associated with an altar like its intact counterpart.68 In Sala 1 of the Palacio Quemado, Acosta found the chest of a broken chacmool above the bench on the east wall near the entrance, which he thought had fallen from its original placement on the roof.69
The Palacio Quemado is a group of colonnaded halls of a type with apparent Classic northwest Mexican origins, possibly paralleling that of the chacmool form itself, but distributed as far south and east as Chichén Itzá during the Early Postclassic.70 Despite its modern name, it shows no evidence of residential use, royal or otherwise, but seems to have been employed, like its northern and Yucatán counterparts, for elite rituals. A clue to its specific function within the civic-ceremonial center of Tula Grande, as well as a striking iconographic parallel to the chacmools, is provided by the relief panel friezes, which originally decorated all three open salas of the Palacio Quemado at the level just below the roof. Owing to the collapse of the roofs, the panels comprising the friezes were all discovered fallen and fragmented. The Sala 1 frieze was the most easily reconstructed, because the reliefs were the least damaged.71 These friezes depict a series of elaborately attired elite figures (e.g., figs. 2–3) in reclining poses, bearing weapons and regalia, some entwined with feathered serpents,72 arranged in rows on either side of a central image of a cuauhxicalli, or sacrificial vessel for human hearts and blood (see fig. 4).73
Similar reclining figures appear in other reliefs from the site, including the Epiclassic civic-ceremonial center of Tula Chico,74 indicating a time depth for this motif going back to the Prado (c. 650–750 CE) and Corral (c. 750–850 CE) phases, and apparently predating similar reliefs in the “Toltec” sculptural style at Chichén Itzá.75 The consensus of recent interpretation of these recumbent figures identifies them as representations of royal ancestors, deceased kings of the Tula polity.76 I pointed out in an earlier paper that these images are consistent with Urcid's identification of a long tradition in Mesoamerica, extending back to the Formative at Monte Albán, of depicting ancestors in a reclining pose.77 The serpents accompanying some of the reclining personages in the Palacio Quemado frieze may signify their royal rank. In Epiclassic and Early Postclassic Mesoamerica, snakes associated with representations of elite figures seem to be markers of high status—a symbol dating back to Classic Teotihuacán—and/or supernatural portals or other liminal spaces or states associated with ritual.78
While the reliefs of reclining figures from the Palacio Quemado also appear to allude to sacrifice by their association with cuauhxicalli, current interpretations identify them as honored dead, fallen heroes of Tula, rather than enemy captives. Mastache and her colleagues draw parallels between these images and the reclining personages shown decorating the image of a temple depicted on f. 33 of Codex Borgia, identifying both as ancestral, apotheosized warriors.79 The cuauhxicalli that the rows of ancestors face in the Palacio Quemado reliefs contain both tools for self-sacrificial bloodletting and tubes perhaps intended to enable the ancestors to consume the sanguinary offerings held by these vessels.80 In a relief from the North Colonnade at Chichén Itzá, a pair of reclining ancestors, disgorged through the maws of Vision Serpents, similarly approach a cuauhxicalli to receive the fruits of sacrifice.81 On the basis of the reclining frieze figures and artistic parallels between the Palacio Quemado and the Mexica Temple of the Eagles, part of the Templo Mayor complex at the heart of Tenochtitlán, Cecelia Klein and Cynthia Kristan-Graham suggest that one function of the Palacio Quemado was for the performance of royal autosacrificial bloodletting and the funerals of rulers, analogous to the later Mexica House of Darts.82 The reclining personages of the friezes can thus be “best understood as funerary images” of Tula elites.83
The similarity in recumbent pose between the figures in relief on the roof friezes of the salas of the Palacio Quemado and the chacmools found in the same structure strongly suggests a connection between the subjects of both groups of images, and they seem to be parts of a unified sculptural program. Credit for first observing the parallels in posture belongs to Cuéllar,84 though predictably he identified both the chacmools and reliefs as Tezcatzóncatl and their shared pose as a convention for showing intoxication. The most significant difference in pose between the Palacio Quemado skylight frieze reliefs and chacmools is that the personages in the panels have their heads shown in profile (albeit often in anatomically impossible backward-looking poses) rather than in the odd turned position of the latter. However, this may be a result of the conventions governing relief versus three-dimensional sculpture at Tula. One may search the catalogs of Tula sculpture cited above in vain for any examples of profile figures in relief with their faces shown in frontal view. In general, the chacmools and many of the Palacio Quemado frieze panels share physically improbable head and neck poses.
The link between the chacmools and the frieze sculptures is underlined by several other features. As mentioned previously, Acosta thought that the fragmentary chacmool found in Sala 1 had fallen from its original position on the roof. If this is correct, then this three-dimensional reclining figure's placement would parallel the friezes of reclining figures in relief on the skylight. In Sala 1, it is not clear if the relief figures were looking toward cuauhxicalli, sun disks, or both, but in the Sala 2 frieze, the rows of reclining figures face the central cuauhxicalli from both sides. The reclining chacmool has a receptacle for offerings on its abdomen, paralleling the cuauhxicalli in function.85 Cobean, Jiménez García, and Mastache86 note the parallel between the chacmools and the cuauhxicalli in the friezes, and suggest that the halls of the Palacio Quemado were associated with human sacrifice, invoking Mary Miller's arguments on chacmool origins and citing Schmidt's chacmool from Chichén Itzá as support. However, the Palacio Quemado chacmools are not nude like the latter, and the relief figures in Sala 2 appear to be the recipients of the offerings in the cuauhxicalli rather than donors. Neither the Palacio Quemado chacmools nor the frieze figures are portrayed as stripped and humiliated captives. On the contrary, they are attired in elite regalia (more richly so in the reliefs) and bear arms.
The costume of the intact Sala 2 chacmool clearly marks its subject as a member of the Tula elite. He wears a noseplug and ear ornaments closely resembling those of the famed Pyramid B atlantid columns.87 The butterfly pectoral and the knife strapped to the arm—certainly not an attribute of a prisoner—are also similar to those of the high-status figures portrayed by these atlantid columns.88 The diadem on the intact Sala 2 chacmool's head has been identified as a xiuhhuitzolli, literally “pointed turquoise thing” in Nahuatl, a crown worn by the Mexica tlatoani at the time of the Spanish Conquest.89 On the Friso de los Caciques in the Vestibule at Tula Grande, a personage wearing this diadem leads a procession and has a speech scroll issuing from his mouth.90 Kristan-Graham interprets this bench frieze as representing merchants, but Mastache, Cobean, and Healan identify the figures as a ruler and his priests and officials performing a ceremony, perhaps autosacrifice.91 This headdress is also sported by one of the elite figures shown in a procession on a bench frieze in Sala 2.92 Though he follows another figure, who has the attributes of Tlaloc and appears by his position to be of superior rank, the crowned figure is clearly of high status and may be one partner in a system of dual rulership. Such an institution is suggested for Tula by Mastache, Cobean, and Healan on the basis of their distinction of two ranks of rulers depicted by the pairs of figures on the Pyramid B pillar reliefs, the paired rows of reclining figures in the Palacio Quemado roof friezes, the facing double lines of figures on bench friezes, and parallels to the historical double high priestly rule at Cholula.93
However, as William Ringle notes, in the Codex Mendoza (f. 17v-18r) the xiuhhuitzolli is also worn by a number of other nonroyal, albeit high-ranking, Aztec officials, and serves as a glyph for tecuhtli (lord).94 At the House of the Eagles at the Aztec Templo Mayor, where the program of decoration makes many archaizing references to Tula (and I have already mentioned its parallels with the Palacio Quemado), 40 percent of the bench frieze figures wear this headdress.95 At Tula's contemporary, Chichén Itzá, about one-quarter of the figures of the bench friezes of the Temple of the Warriors and Mercado are thus adorned, and in reliefs from the Northwest Colonnade, five individuals wear the same crown.96 In the Lower Temple of the Jaguars, an armed woman and a feathered serpent sport the xiuhuitzolli.97 While this diadem thus in fact never seems to have been the exclusive prerogative of the supreme ruler in Postclassic Mesoamerica, it is clearly a marker of high status lords, which suggests that the intact Palacio Quemado chacmool at very least represents a person of the highest noble rank. This interpretation is also consistent with the association of chacmools with thrones at Chichén Itzá noted by Miller and O'Neil.98 The Palacio Quemado intact chacmool is a crowned ruler, not a bound captive.
In a previous publication, I briefly suggested, based on their parallels to the reclining figures in the relief friezes, that the Palacio Quemado chacmools may have also represented elite ancestors, mediating between humans and gods by receiving sacrifices.99 This is not dissimilar to Cobean, Jiménez García, and Mastache's suggestion that at Tula these statues represent deified warriors who serve as intermediaries between humans and deities.100 An interpretation of chacmools as ancestors functioning as mediators or as markers of transitions between realms of existence is consistent with Virginia Miller's observations, quoted previously, on chacmools as signifiers of liminality. The cuauhxicalli associated with the ancestral frieze reliefs in Sala 1 and Sala 2 can be understood as markers of liminal states as well. Taube identifies cuauhxicalli as cosmic portals and axes mundi: they were “more than containers, but offered access between the world of the living and that of gods and spirits.”101
The hypothesis of chacmools as ancestors at the Palacio Quemado harmonizes well with the more global interpretations of this class of sculpture based on Maya parallels. Recall Stone and Zender's understanding of the chacmool's pose as not only related to images of infants and sacrifice in Maya art, but also representing the Maize God reborn and the more general concept of renewal. The persistent posthumous existence of ancestors and their accessibility to their descendants certainly fit the bill for the latter theme. Similarly, an ancestral reading of chacmools recalls the similarities between their position and the image of Janaab Pakal of Palenque in the relief on his sarcophagus lid, representing his resurrection from the underworld in his apotheosis.102 If Kristan-Graham's, Mastache's and my interpretation of the reclining relief figures in the art of Tula as royal ancestors is correct, and if Urcid's work on pan-Mesoamerican ancestor imagery is on target, this representation of Pakal may share its liminal, ancestral significance with at least some chacmools, like the Tula examples discussed here. James Fitzsimmons observes that the presence of the Maya deity Itzamna in his way form as the Principal Bird Deity atop the Shiny Jewel Tree on Pakal's sarcophagus, and Pakal's identification with Kawiil via his twisted foot and the smoking celt on his forehead, suggest that Pakal is becoming something that can be conjured, like an ancestor in Classic Maya royal ritual.103 Pakal's pose atop an offering plate seems to reflect sacrificial symbolism, but he notes that death itself—by any means—may have been seen by the Maya as a sacrifice.104 Stuart and Stuart identify the vessel in which Pakal reclines as the eastern sun, associated in Mesoamerica with rebirth and with the Flower World solar paradise of the royal dead as well as slain warriors.105 Taube identifies it as the Quadripartite Badge/brazier and compares it to later cuauhxicalli.106 He argues that both vessels function similarly as supernatural portals and axes mundi, which adds another aspect to the similarities between Pakal's sarcophagus relief and chacmools in the context of the Palacio Quemado.
The contents of the altar cache associated with the intact chacmool in Sala 2 reinforce the ancestral symbolism of the sculpture. Miller and Samayoa based their interpretation of chacmools in part on a jade plaque carved with a reclining figure, a disk on its torso, found in the altar (fig. 10).107 They note that Acosta compared the posture of this image with that of the chacmool itself, and observe that the figure on the plaque appears to be framed by the maw of a serpent, with the snake's eyes over its shoulders. On the basis of a bead in the figure's ample hair and its reclining posture, they identify it as the Maya Maize God, comparing it to images of this divinity at Chichén Itzá.108 However, if this identification is correct, this object would be the only known representation of this Maya deity at Tula, though as a portable sculpture it could be an import from Chichén or elsewhere in the Maya world. Commenting on this and similar greenstone plaques from Palenque, Xochicalco, and Xochitecatl, Urcid points out that “Closed eyes on some plaques may allude to memorializing a dead warrior or may be related to the act of divination, a ritual performance clearly evinced by examples where the human figure holds a mirror against the chest.”109 He also suggests that such plaques may substitute for the body of the ruler in caches, recalling the possible funeral functions of the Palacio Quemado. The figure's association with a serpent, combined with its reclining pose, is also consistent with it representing an ancestor. The reclining figures in relief from the Palacio Quemado are often entwined with serpents, which as noted above, may be indicators of high status as well as symbols of liminal states. The framing of the human within the jaws of the snake is also reminiscent of the Classic Maya iconography of vision serpents and is paralleled by another sculpture at Tula that may have similar symbolism.110 The disk on the torso of the plaque figure could be a mirror, as in Urcid's reading, or a cuauhxicalli like that featured in the Palacio Quemado roof frieze reliefs. Both objects function as supernatural portals in Mesoamerican religious praxis.
The Palacio Quemado plaque image is also reminiscent of an Epiclassic slab sculpture from Tula Chico, with crossed arms and open mouth, and a more damaged relief figure of unknown provenance within Tula, with elaborate costume and hands over abdomen.111 The pose of these Tula monuments recalls that of figures on several Pacific coastal Classic stelae from Guerrero and Oaxaca south into Guatemala, particularly Stela 1 from Río Grande, Oaxaca.112 The latter has been identified as representing a mummy bundle or “a ruler in a funerary box,”113 while Gutiérrez and Pye interpret crossed-arm figures across the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica as ancestors.114 The similarly crossed arms of Late Postclassic Mixtec penates, small carved stone images of ancestors and deities, may represent a survival of this tradition, as may be the crossed arms of defunct elites depicted in the Late Postclassic Mixtec codices.115 These observations might support an identification of the figure on the Tula plaque and other, larger-scale sculptures—including perhaps chacmools—from the site in a similar pose as dead rulers.
It is also possible that in addition to literally representing dead lords, both the Tula chacmools and the related reclining relief figures may also represent Tula elites in liminal states during rites of passage during their lives, conceived of as analogous to death. Guilhem Olivier interprets the enthronement ceremonies of the Mexica and Mixtec at the time of the European invasion as enacting the “symbolic death of the future sovereign” to their pre-accession status.116 In the iconography of the Late Postclassic Mixtec historical codices, he finds an equation between rulers undergoing nose piercing as part of their inauguration rites and sacrificial victims.117 In Codex Colombino-Becker, both Eight Deer and his nephew, successor, and assassin Four Wind are depicted lying on sacrificial stones during and at the beginning, respectively, of this ceremony. In Codex Bodley (f. 9), Eight Deer sits on a sacrificial stone with red-and-white stripes, covered with a royal jaguar skin, to receive his nose piercing. Noting the obligation of both Classic Maya ajawob and Mexica tlatoani to capture victims for their rites of coronation before their installation as rulers, Olivier suggests that these captives were equated with the monarch himself and their deaths represented that of the king's own former nonroyal state.118 Given the Palacio Quemado's proximity to Pyramid B with its sculptural themes of (and possible function as site of) royal succession, such a multivalent reading of ostensible death imagery to include other liminal moments in the careers of Tula's rulers seems plausible.119
The association of chacmools with royalty, dead or alive, at Tula may be related to another persistent symbolic connection of these sculptures in central Mexico. In later Mexica art, the chacmool is associated with the rain god Tlaloc.120 The chacmool found in the Templo Mayor excavations was on the side of the temple dedicated to Tlaloc. At least two Aztec chacmools, one from Mexico City/Tenochtitlán and one now in Tacubaya, wear the distinctive goggles of this deity.121 Esther Pasztory suggests that these represent the god himself or an impersonator, and that the best-known Mexica chacmool from Tenochtitlán with Tlaloc attributes served to demonstrate a connection to Tula through the deity portrayed as well as the sculptural form: “In this sculpture the Mexica were illustrating their relationship to the Toltecs. … [They] believed that Tlaloc was the major god of the past, and therefore they put his features on … a sculptural type they associated with Tula. The reclining figure is probably a Mexica who is impersonating a richly dressed Toltec.”122 That the symbolic linkage of chacmools and Tlaloc was already established in Early Postclassic Tula seems apparent by the probable head of a chacmool, excavated in 2007, accompanying an offering of the remains of sacrificed children and ceramic effigies of Tlaloc.123 Infants and other subadults were the sacrificial victims of choice for rain deities in Mesoamerica. Another apparent deposit of sacrificial remains excavated by the University of Missouri's Tula project at a temple in the residential area of the ancient city, outside of Tula Grande, was accompanied by a small clay figure of a chacmool, along with effigy incense burners depicting Tlaloc.124 As Jiménez García comments, the Tula chacmools appear to be “associated with lying-down personages linked with water rituals, therefore we assume that blood from sacrifices must have been offered to water deities.”125
Though the chacmools from the Palacio Quemado do not display the distinctive iconographic features of Tlaloc, the offering deposits found under the intact Sala 2 example and in the associated altar—shells, greenstone, and mirrors—represent a clear link to the Teotihuacán Storm God, an earlier version of this supernatural. In the 1990s, an additional offering cache containing a shell jacket and pyrite mirrors was excavated in Sala 2, a further connection between this hall and the same god. Gamboa Cabezas points out the parallel between these Tlaloc-related offerings in Sala 2 with its associated chacmools and the chacmool on the Tlaloc side of the Templo Mayor.126
Give the apparent royal status of the Palacio Quemado chacmool, it is significant that Tlaloc is closely associated with rulership in the Tula art tradition.127 The bench frieze figure from Sala 2 dressed as this divinity and leading an elite procession, discussed in the section on the Palacio Quemado in connection with the xiuhhuitzolli, is clearly the most important, either senior or equivalent in rank to the diadem-crowned official behind him. Mastache, Cobean, and Healan suggest that he represents the king,128 and also note this connection between the only chacmool discovered in situ at Tula and the rain god: “Thus, even though the Chac Mools of Tula are representations of warriors that lack specific attributes directly linking them to a particular deity, it is probable that the association between this type of sculpture and cults to Tlaloc, which is evident in the Templo Mayor, goes back to Tula, especially when considering that the only Chac Mool found in situ is next to the bench frieze procession led by a Tlaloc figure.”129 They miss here only the additional link between the xiuhhuitzolli crown of the chacmool and that of the second figure in the bench frieze, causing them to reduce the rank of the figure portrayed by the former from royalty to a warrior. A statue identified by Mastache and colleagues as a “Tlaloc warrior” from Ballcourt 1 also appears to be wearing the same crown.130 A fragment of a pillar relief from Pyramid B depicts a ruler wearing the goggles of the rain god and a disk pendant resembling the mirrors found in Sala 2.131 The ruler depicted on Tula Stela 1 wears a headdress decorated with a Tlaloc mask, as do those shown on Stela 2 and probably Stela 3, though the helmet depicted on Stela 3 might represent the Teotihuacán War Serpent instead.132 On a smaller scale and different medium, a Mazapan figurine from Tula shows Tlaloc or an impersonator wearing a headdress with a stack of knots or ribbons like those depicted on Stela 1 and other representations of Tula rulers.133
This association between Tlaloc and kingship at Tula is consistent enough for Cobean and associates to propose that the site's rulers were viewed as incarnations of the deity and that one of their proposed dual kings may have served as priest of Tlaloc.134 If the Tula chacmools, at least the Palacio Quemado examples, are representations of royalty identified with the rain god in life and possibly after death as well, this might explain the origin of the connection between Tlaloc and chacmools among the Mexica. Further support for this hypothesis may be found in a relief of a reclining figure from a platform adjacent to Pyramid C (fig. 11) with features of Tlaloc and others with attributes of the Maya rain deity Chaak and/or possibly a Tajin rain deity.135 The posture of these personages recalls the reclining royal figures in the Palacio Quemado as well as that of the three-dimensional chacmools.
A royal identity may also explain a puzzling feature of the Tula chacmools: the harsh treatment meted out to them during (or before?) the destruction of the site at the end of the Early Postclassic. While many of Tula's sculptures are in poor condition owing to the looting activities of the Aztecs, modern ransacking of the ruins for construction materials, and more recent chemical emissions from a nearby Pemex facility, the chacmools were singled out for deliberate decapitation. It is interesting to compare this specific targeting of these sculptures with the desecration and defacement of royal representations in times of crisis and transition at other Mesoamerican sites: the breakage of Stela 31 and inverted re-placement of Stela 4 at Tikal at Early Classic Tikal following that city's defeat by Caracol and Calakmul, the similar inversion of the portrait of Ajaw Bot on Stela 6 at Ceibal,136 and the reuse of a Classic royal stela as a corn grinder by the Early Postclassic inhabitants of the site of Río Viejo in Oaxaca.137 There is also a similarity in the seeming animus expressed against the chacmools and the smashing of sculpture at Teotihuacán during this city's destruction. If the chacmools of Tula were images of rulers, that might explain their fate at the hand of invaders, rival political factions, or rebellious subjects, though not the lack of similar targeting of royal images in relief (though it might be easier to decapitate a handful of visually prominent three-dimensional sculptures than engage in the laborious effort of consigning myriad two-dimensional images to damnatio memorae). It is also possible that the defacement of the chacmools was part of a more orderly termination ritual or even a cyclical ritual defacement of images, perhaps at the death of a ruler or other political transition, as has been suggested for the mutilation of Olmec royal sculpture.138
In the preceding text I have set out a series of arguments based on both local archaeological and architectural context and comparative iconography drawn from both local sources (including the decorative program of the Palacio Quemado sala where the intact and in situ chacmool was placed) and a broader spectrum of pan-Mesoamerican art traditions, to offer a hypothesis on the meaning of a group of chacmools at Tula. While it is not intended to serve as a comprehensive explanation for every last example of this figure type from the Postclassic Period in Mesoamerica, it seems to work as a provisional explanation for many features of the Tula chacmools. It also seems to be somewhat generalizable beyond Tula: for example, it helps explain the persistent linkage of chacmools and Tlaloc in central Mexico, which seems to have begun in Tula. It also overlaps with several suggested explanations based on Maya parallels for the origins and significance of the figure's pose, particularly Virginia Miller's stress on liminality and Stone and Zender's identification of birth and renewal symbolism. It is also congruent, in a broad sense, with Mary Miller's views, not in the suggestion that the Tula figures represent captives—the evidence discussed suggests otherwise—but in the association with rebirth implied in her hypothesis by the equation of the figures' posture with the Maya Maize God. It is also consistent in a more symbolic, nonliteral sense, with (i) sacrificial imagery in the significance of royal ancestors as recipients of sacrificial offerings, (ii) the possible implication from both Maya and Tula's iconography that all royal deaths were seen as sacrificial in some sense, and (iii) in the possibility that other moments of transition in the life cycles and careers of Tula's rulers may have also been understood as symbolic deaths.
What are the possible implications of this contextual/comparative reading of the Palacio Quemado chacmools for the origins of this sculptural form in Mesoamerica? If, as I have argued, the reclining pose of chacmools is related to the ancestor iconography identified by Urcid, this imagery is pan-Mesoamerican and was already of considerable antiquity by the Early Postclassic Period, which would have tended to facilitate the spread of this sculptural type, whatever its precise place of genesis. Urcid reproduces and calls attention to several Classic Maya examples of reclining ancestor representations in reliefs from Calakmul, Copán, and Ucanal, which might be consistent with the suggestion of an origin for the chacmool form in the Maya area.139 However, as observed previously in this paper, reliefs of reclining figures in the distinctive Toltec style shared by Tula and Chichén appear earlier at Tula, as evidenced by the Epiclassic (650–850 CE) examples from Tula Chico. While pre-Tollan phase chacmools have not been discovered at Tula, if, as the contextual and comparative evidence from the Palacio Quemado suggests, the relief figures and the three-dimensional chacmools, sharing the same general style, are expressions of the same or similar concepts at Tula, they may both have developed first at that city. If Hers's Cerro del Huistle proto-chacmool is what she claims it is, this would be consistent with the later elaboration and development of this type at Tula, given both the city's many evident connections to the earlier Chalchihuites culture as reflected in parallels in art and architecture140 and the evidence of an Epiclassic population intrusion at Tula of northwest Mexican origin,141 though with more evident ceramic ties to the Bajío than to the Chalchihuites region.142 In light of this last observation, the chacmool from El Cerrito, lacking an archaeological context to fix its date, might possibly predate the Tula examples it so closely resembles. At least one ceramic type shared by the Bajío and Tula, Blanco Levantado, occurs in earlier, Classic (300–600 CE) contexts at El Cerrito, possible evidence of a reciprocal relationship between Tula and El Cerrito, rather than the former as sole source of their shared cultural features.143 As in Hers's model, the chacmool form could then have been appropriated from Tula by the Maya, and the diversity in form and style of the Chichén Itzá chacmools can be viewed as local elaborations of a borrowed theme, including in at least one case fusion with Maya captive imagery.
Wherever the chacmool form originated, its spread across Early Postclassic Mesoamerica strongly implies its intelligibility in symbolism broadly shared across regions, perhaps the reclining ancestor imagery recognized by Urcid. Without such similar understandings of the pose, however generalized, its appeal to diverse polities and ethnic groups would be difficult to explain. However, local adoption/adaptation of the chacmool led to a proliferation of varieties of the original form based on convergences with other, more specific regional antecedents. Such factors might explain the diversity of chacmools at Chichén Itzá. If the form originated in Tula (or in a Classic northwest Mexican culture from which it was later appropriated at Tula), its use there, at least in the Palacio Quemado, emphasized the ancestral significance of the figure. In its adoption by the ruling class at Chichén, however, it was variously combined with related but distinctive Maya iconographic tropes involving reclining figures, captive and ballplayer imagery, as well as sacrificial and ancestral readings. Such considerations make the search for one interpretation that fits all Mesoamerican chacmools a questionable project. Whatever their exact point of origin, these sculptures are perhaps best understood as reflecting a widely shared complex of related ideas linking recumbent figures with liminal states, including death, birth, sacrifice, and ancestral status. This nexus of ideas and imagery preexisted the spread of this sculptural type and explains its appeal and adoption across such a wide variety of regions. In the absence of such a shared understanding, the figures would not be intelligible or appealing to local elites and artists and their intended audiences. However, each regional center seems to have emphasized different aspects of the shared symbolism and elaborated it further, as reflected in the iconography, style, and placement of chacmools.