Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/March 1884/Mexico and its Antiquities

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THE Mexican Republic extends from the fifteenth to the thirtieth degree of north latitude, and embraces an area of about 750,000 square miles. It is traversed by the continuation of the Cordillera of South America, here called the Sierra Madre, which trends north-westerly from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and varies in height from a moderate elevation in the southern States of Chiapas and Oaxaca to a mean height in the nineteenth degree of latitude of 9,000 feet, with the peaks of Orizaba and Popocatepetl—"the culminating point of North America"—rising to the elevations of 17,200 and 17,720 feet respectively. On the parallel of 21°, the Cordillera becomes very wide and divides itself into three ranges: one running eastwardly to Saltillo and Monterey; one traversing the States of Jalisco and Sinaloa, and subsiding in Northern Sonora; and a central ridge extending through the States of Durango and Chihuahua, and forming the water-shed of the northern table-land. This range decreases in elevation going north-ward. Four peaks—Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl, Orizaba, and the Nevada de Toluca—rise above 15,000 feet, and three others the Cofre de Perote, Ajusco, and the volcano of Colima—above 11,000 feet.

Fig. 1.—Indian Hut in the Tierra Caliente.

The country is divided into three zones: the tierra caliente, or hot land, bordering the coast of either sea for from forty to seventy miles inland; the tierra templada, or temperate land; and the tierra fria, or cold land. About one half the surface of the country lies in the latter zone, while the remainder of the republic is almost equally divided between the temperate and hot regions. The country consists for the most part of a plateau, having an average height of about 6,000 feet above the level of the sea, which extends from the frontier of the United States to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and is about 350 miles wide in the latitude of the capital. But few of the rivers are navigable, and the longest of them, the Rio de Santiago, is only 542 miles long. The numerous lakes on the plateau are mostly shallow lagoons, the mere remains of large basins of water that formerly existed, and without outlet, and therefore filled with salt water. After the lagoon of Terminos, on the coast of the Gulf of Campeachy, which is really an arm of the sea, the largest lakes are the Lake of Chapala, in the State of Jalisco, and Lakes Patzcuaro and Cuitzco. The country enjoys a variety of climates, of which those of the temperate and cold regions are tolerably uniform. The rainy season generally occurs in the summer, but at other times the air of the plateau is inconveniently dry.

A large part of the country is overlaid by the igneous rocks, of which trachyte, feldspar, porphyry, and amygdaloid basalt, are of most frequent occurrence. In the Sierra Madre the metamorphic rocks are common. Limestone is extensively quarried at Orizaba, and constitutes the greater part of the eastern branch of the Cordillera between San Luis Potosi and Monterey. The Cordillera, from Chihuahua on the north to Oaxaca on the south, contains very extensive deposits of gold, silver, iron, copper, and lead; and zinc, mercury, tin, platinum, and coal occur in a few places. The argentiferous veins constitute the principal part of the mineral wealth of the country. The silver occurs generally in the form of sulphides, in gangues of quartz, frequently in the metamorphic clay-slate, but sometimes in porphyry, as at Real del Monte, or in talcose slate, as in some mines at Guanajuato. Among the most remarkable mineral veins of the continent, after the Comstock lode, are the Veta Madre of Guanajuato and the Veta Grande of Zacatecas, which have been worked for about three hundred years.

The next most important deposits are the immense beds of iron, chiefly in the form of the magnetite and hematite ores. The well-known Cerro del Mercado, in the State of Durango, has been estimated to contain sixty million cubic yards of iron-ore, which have a weight of five billion quintals, and give, according to an analysis by Mr. M. H. Borje, of Philadelphia, sixty-six per cent of pure metal. Lead-ores are abundant; copper is mined at various places; oxide of tin is found in veins and alluvial beds at Durango. Mercury occurs as cinnabar in several States; and zinc-ores, with platinum, antimony, cobalt, and nickel, in not large quantities, are found in Chihuahua. The principal coal-beds are in the States of Oaxaca, Vera Cruz, Mexico, Puebla, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Sonora. The anthracite-bed recently discovered at Barranca, on the Yaqui River in Sonora, is probably the largest and richest deposit of coal in the republic. Lignite, or brown coal, occurs in many places, but is not used to any great extent. The demand for coal is, so far, much greater than the supply accessible to the railroads. Mining is still conducted by working on the old Mexican plan, and this system has been found, under existing circumstances, to be more economical and profitable than a system in which modern and improved methods are applied.

Some of the oldest mines in Mexico, many of which were worked before the Spanish conquest, are at Pachuca, in the State of Hidalgo. There are about one hundred and fifty of them, seventy-five of which are in the Real del Monte, affording an ore composed mainly of blackish silver sulphides. The ore is worked here, as at Guanajuato, by the patio process, which is illustrated in the accompanying view. It is first crushed by a revolving stone wheel, iron-tired, in a pit, at the center of which is a sieve through which the finer pieces are shoveled into a vault below. These pieces are then carried to the arrastras, flat stones of hard rock kept revolving in a large tub half-filled with water, where they are in twenty-four hours ground to a fine powder.

Fig. 2.—Silver Mill at Pachuca.

The pulverized ore, called lama, is next carried to the patio, a court-yard paved with large flat stones, where it is allowed to accumulate to a depth of about two feet. The muddy mass is then mixed with magistral, or blue vitriol, salt, and quicksilver, and the whole, now called torta, is thoroughly stirred together by the trampling of mules. This process is kept up for seven hours daily, for from two to four weeks, according to the quality of the ore. The torta is then carried to the lavaderos, or large cisterns, where it is washed and stirred by means of revolving sticks. The silvery mass being heavy, settles at the bottom, and in two or three days the muddy water is drawn off. The amalgam, or pella, which has been formed, is now taken from the lavaderos to a sort of oven or depression in the ground, covered with a huge metallic hood termed a capellina. A fire is built around the capellina, and the mercury is separated by distillation in about four days. The block of silver which remains is transported to the nearest mint, and worked into coin or sold.

The volcanoes form one of the most interesting features of the country. Only four of them are active, but no eruption has taken place from either of these during the present century. Earthquakes are, however, common, and solfataras, fumaroles, and adjoining warm springs, indicate that these volcanoes are still in a semi-active state. According to Humboldt, they lie on the same great vent of the earth's crust, and approximately on the nineteenth parallel of latitude. Orizaba, which may be reached from Esperanza on the railway from Vera Cruz to Mexico, has been quiet since 1566, but was reported to be smoking in April, 1883. There is no hazardous climbing on the mountain,

Fig. 3.—Popocatepetl.

but the ascent is exceedingly laborious on account of the steepness of the snow-clad cone. About five hours are required to reach the summit, but very few persons have thus far accomplished the task. The excursion to Popocatepetl starts from Amecameca, on the Morelos Railway, the road leading at first through fine wheat-fields watered by the melting snows of the great volcano. The path soon rises and enters a magnificent forest, which is succeeded by a growth of thick grass, after which the crest-line of the ridge is crossed, and the ranch of Tlamacas, the starting-point for the summit, is reached. The lower part of the peak of the volcano has a slope of about 20°, and the angle increases in ascending till it reaches about 45° just below the summit. The crater is not visible until the traveler arrives at the. edge. It is roughly estimated to be about five hundred yards in diameter and one hundred and fifty yards deep, and contains several fumaroles, with a small pond at its bottom. The temperature of the air on the summit at about ten o'clock in the morning was 32°. The view from the peak commands an area of about one hundred thousand square miles, and reaches to the Gulf of Mexico, one hundred and fifty miles distant. The descent may be made, if the snow is soft enough, by coasting on a sled. The volcano of Jorullo, in Michoacan, is famous for having been the result of a sudden eruption from a previously peaceful plain, on the night of the 28th—29th of September, 1759, the phenomena of which are fully related in a graphic description in Humboldt's "Cosmos." It is reached by a fifty-five-mile horseback-ride from Patzcuaro-station on the railroad from Mexico to Manzanillo. Horses may be ridden to within half a mile of the crater. The volcano is pear-shaped, with the outlet of the crater on the north side. The cone is covered with loose black ashes, in which a few bushes grow, and slopes at about 45 on the north and west sides. The crater is about a mile in circumference. The traveler may descend in it to the bottom, about five hundred feet below the summit. The walls slant rapidly, and are covered with an enormous mass of talus. Grass, a few ferns, and some native trees grow on its borders, and deer are abundant on the mountain. Shocks of earthquakes are often felt in the environs of Jorullo, one of which, in March, 1883, left cracks in the ground at a point ten miles off. Although no eruption has taken place for more than a hundred years, the volcano is still in a semi-active state, as is shown by the heat of the crater-walls, the emission of aqueous gas and vapor, and the frequency of earthquakes. A very extensive view is commanded from the summit.

Great interest is given to Mexico by its ancient ruins, relics of unknown people, whose character, origin, and history are destined long to be fruitful themes of study. They consist of teocallis, or pyramids, in different parts of the country, and the remains of elaborate buildings and of cities, chiefly situated in the States of Yucatan, Chiapas, and Oaxaca. The most prominently known ruins of cities are those of Uxmal, in Northern Yucatan, which are considered to be the oldest; those of Palenque, in Chiapas, next in age; and those of Mitla, in Oaxaca, third in age. The buildings were usually constructed of hewed stone, and have excited general admiration on account of the skill in architecture and the elaborate workmanship displayed in them. Near some of them are the remains of finely constructed artificial lakes, with bottoms of cemented stones; and the traces of a very ancient paved road have been found in Yucatan. Charnay found the country in Yucatan covered with ruins from north to south; and Stephens, about 1840, visited forty-four ruined cities or places, in which remains of buildings were still found, most of which were unknown to white men, even to those inhabiting the country. The remains of Mayapan, the ancient capital of the Mayas, are scattered over a broad plain, and are characterized by a mound sixty feet high with a base a hundred feet square, the summit of which, a stone platform fifteen feet square, was reached by four stairways twenty-five feet wide. Another building is of stone, and circular, and stands on a sloping foundation thirty-five feet high. Near it are two rows of capitals, without columns.

The ruins of Uxmal are pronounced by Stephens, who explored them thoroughly, worthy to stand side by side with those of Egyptian and Roman art. The most important building, the Casa del Gobernador, is three hundred and twenty feet long, and was built of hewed stone laid in mortar or cement, and bore a cornice which was decorated all around with "one solid mass of rich, complicated, and elaborately sculptured ornaments." It stands on a foundation of three terraces, altogether forty-two feet high, the lowest of which was five hundred and seventy-five feet long. The remains of Chichen-Itza are similar to those of Uxmal. In one building the walls of the rooms are covered with picture-writing; and figures of serpents are a frequent ornament. At Ake, thirty-six columns, in three parallel rows, are all that remain of a once magnificent structure.

At Palenque, Captain del Rio found, in 1787, ruins extending seven or eight leagues one way and half a league the other, and visited and described fourteen edifices admirably built of hewed stone. The largest known building is two hundred and twenty-eight feet long, one hundred and eighty wide, and twenty-five feet high, built entirely of hewed stone, laid with admirable precision in excellent mortar, and it stood on a much larger terrraced pyramidal foundation. A corridor nine feet high, and roofed by a pointed arch, went round the building on the outside; and this was separated from another within of equal width. Other buildings are nearly as remarkable. Tablets, with elegantly carved inscriptions, are plentiful; and of the sculptured human figures Stephens says that "in justness of proportion and symmetry they must have approached the Greek models."

The four palaces, as Dupaix calls them, at Mitla, are said by him to have been "erected with lavish magnificence.... They combine the solidity of the works of Egypt with the elegance of those of Greece. But what is most remarkable, interesting, and striking in these monuments," he adds, "and which alone would be sufficient to give them the first rank among all known orders of architecture, is the execution of their mosaic rilievos, very different from plain mosaic, and consequently requiring more ingenious combination and greater art and labor. They are inlaid on the surface of the wall, and their duration is owing to the method of fixing the prepared stones into the stone surface, which makes their union with it perfect." M. Charnay says that the beauty of these buildings can be matched only by that of the monuments of Greece and Rome in their best days.

The Pyramid of Cholula was one of the great edifices of the world. It was 1,423 feet wide at the base, 177 feet high, and covered a superficial area of forty-five acres. Civilized man is gradually destroying it, and a cut has been made in one side of it for a railroad-track. Near it are other smaller pyramids.

Fig. 4.—Aztec Temple at Cholula.

The teocallis of San Juan Teotihuacan are next in age to those of Cholula. The two largest are dedicated to the Sun and the Moon. The former is 180 feet high, and 682 feet long at the base. Its summit—now marked by a platform about 75 feet square and a modern cylindrical monument of stone—is said to have been crowned with a temple, in which was a gigantic statue of the Sun, made of an entire block of stone, and wearing a breastplate of gold and silver. The two principal pyramids are surrounded by several smaller ones, few of which exceed twenty-five feet in height. According to tradition, they were dedicated to the Stars, and served as sepulchres for the illustrious men of the nation.

Toltec ruins are found at Tula, about fifty miles north of the capital.

Fig. 5.—Pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacan.

At Papantla, in the State of Vera Cruz, is a pyramid remarkable for its symmetry, built of immense stones of porphyry, regularly cut and finely polished, many of which are covered with hieroglyphics, with carvings of serpents and crocodiles.

Fig. 6.—Toltec Palace at Tula.

The Museum of the city of Mexico contains a sacrificial stone, and a number of the idols of Aztec worship. We give cuts of two of these idols—Quetzalcoatl, the chief god of the people, and a feathered serpent.

The Marquis de Nadaillac, who has lately reviewed the whole subject of "Prehistoric Art in America," has given a graphical description of the Mexican ruins as a whole. "The massive constructions in Mexico and Peru," he says, "the immense spread of the bases and the Fig. 7.—Quetzalcoatl.inclination of the walls, give a pyramidal tendency and an appearance of stability and durability that force us to think of Egypt. Palenque, with its palaces, and Tiaguanuco, or Huanucho-Viejo, in Peru, with their monumental portals and their not numerous openings in the form of the tau, for the admittance of light, their walls covered with bright-red paint, and their figures always in profile, would not be out of place on the banks of the Nile. The bas-reliefs of Chichen-Itza resemble those of Babylon and Nineveh in richness of ornamentation. The meanderings of the friezes of Mitla, of the Casa del Gobernador, and the Casa de Monjas, at Uxmal, are of a kind with those of Greek art. The porch of Kabah, an aqueduct on the Rodadero, at Cuzco, might have stood on the Roman Campagna. The figures with which the temple of Xochicalco (Mexico) was adorned were represented sitting with crossed legs in the traditional attitude

Fig. 8.—Feathered Serpent.

of Buddha; and recently a Protestant missionary remarked upon the resemblances between the edifices at Chichen-Itza and the topes or dagobas he had seen at Anaradjapora, the ancient capital of Ceylon. The pyramids are certainly the most salient feature in this ancient architecture. The walls that still stand are composed of immense blocks of granite or porphyry of cyclopean construction, or of mason-work of stone or brick, cove red with cement. All travelers have remarked the solidity and elegance of the building. The façades were regularly shaped, the joints well pointed, and the edges clean-cut. Generally, they were adorned with a projecting cornice loaded with rich ornaments in stucco. The possibly excessive monotony of the architecture was relieved by square towers several stories high. Such towers may be seen at Copan, Palenque, and Tikal; the Casa de la Culebra at Uxmal was crowned with thirteen turrets. The architects were also careful in placing statues, pilasters, caryatides, and bas-reliefs on the facades; and important mural paintings have been described at Chichen-Itza. They represent processions of men and animals, combats, struggles between man and the tiger or the serpent, trees, and houses. One painting, the only one relating to navigation, represents a boat somewhat like a Chinese junk.

"The sculptures that adorned these buildings," the marquis continues, "present so many differences in style and execution that we can hardly believe them the work of the same race, or that they represent the same civilization. In some cases they depict strange idols in incorrect forms, men wearing tigers' heads, an alligator holding in his jaws a figure with a human head and an animal's extremities, or a gigantic frog with his paws terminating in a cat's claws. Besides such monsters, we recollect at Copan a statue wearing the highest expression of Maya art, in which we know not whether to be most astonished at the oddity of the conception, the richness of the ornamentation, or the fineness of the execution. At Palenque we may see a statue with a placid expression that would not be out of place in the palace of a Pharaoh; and the sepulchral stone of Chac-Mol, recently found at Chichen, the bas-reliefs of Santa Lucia, and other works, are not discordant with modern art. These striking contrasts, while they bring no explanation, add, in the endless problems they raise, a new attraction to American archæology."

  1. Appletons' Guide to Mexico. By Alfred R. Conkling, LL.B., Ph.B. With Railway Map and Illustrations. New York: D. Appleton & Co. Pp. 378.