Internet Journal for Teotihuacan Archaeology and Iconography
So-called theater-type censers have received special attention due to their complex structure and variety of attached symbolic elements (Figure 1). A number of these censers have been found in the Central Mexican highlands, mainly from the city of Teotihuacan, although another major corpus of Teotihuacan-type censers was also found in the Guatemalan highlands and pacific slope. Some of these Teotihuacan and Guatemala censers are in museums, but many are now in private collections in Mexico, Guatemala, and abroad. A relatively small number of censers were actually excavated archaeologically in caches, graves, or living spaces at residential compounds in Teotihuacan and related sites. Censer bodies, ornaments called "adornos" attached to the censer lid, and molds for the reproduction of adornos have also been discovered in isolation or in small clusters dispersed throughout the city.
While the complexity of censer symbolism without clear naturalistic human representations have often led to their iconographic analyses in ritual, mythological, anonymous, or ahistorical terms, the process of their manufacture, distribution network, and socio-political implications had not been studied well archaeologically. Exceptions have been Janet Berlo's (1984) thorough analysis of censers at Teotihuacan and abroad, and Carlos Múnera's study of a workshop discovered in 1982. The Proyecto Arqueológico Teotihuacán 1980-82 (PAT 1980-82) of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), directed by Rubén Cabrera, excavated a ceramic workshop dedicated primarily to censer production in an area attached to the Ciudadela (Rodríguez 1982; Múnera 1985; Langley 1992). More than 20,000 fragmentary pieces of molds and ornaments, with tools and production debris were excavated within this Ciudadela complex (Múnera and Sugiyama 1997).
This discovery is also exceptional in that related structures have intensively been explored (e.g., Cabrera et al. 1982a, 1982b, 1991); some structures in the Ciudadela have yielded censer remains and provided additional information. In particular, the main pyramid in the precinct, called the Feathered Serpent Pyramid (cited hereafter as FSP), was systematically excavated by the PAT 1980-82 and a joint project of INAH and Arizona State University (ASU) (Cabrera and Sugiyama 1982; Cabrera, Sugiyama, and Cowgill 1991; Sugiyama 1989a); the exploration of the main monument in the Ciudadela provides information about ideological factors to which censer production may have been related. More importantly, unquestionable association of the censer workshop with extensively excavated Ciudadela provides rich contextual data and an ideal opportunity to re-interpret the imagery and function of the censers within a social context.
In this paper, my aim is to offer a preliminary discussion of socio-political aspects of censers within a historical perspective and to provide an interpretative framework for censer iconography. In light of ample excavation contexts, it has been suggested, originally by Múnera in 1985, that censer production may have been an official state activity. Elites living in the Palaces of the Ciudadela may have been actively engaged in censer production, or else they might have overseen and controlled manufacture. Based on my study of FSP symbolism and on-going analysis of censer iconography, I would suggest that the censers were related to militarism that originated at the FSP. More specifically, anthropomorhic figures with images of butterflies and other martial elements represented in censer adornos may have referred to dead soldiers who would have sought symbolic association with mass-sacrificial burials found at the FSP. This censer symbolism was apparently diffused in residential compounds in the city and abroad sometime after the monument was constructed. Certain features even survived in post-Teotihuacan periods, although the specific form and composition of the Teotihuacan censer abruptly disappeared with the collapse of the state.
Symbolism of the Ciudadela
In this section, I briefly summarize my interpretation of the symbolism of the FSP, which has been expressed elsewhere in greater detail (Sugiyama 1995, 1997). Then, the architectural sequence at the Ciudadela is briefly introduced to situate censer production in a chronological sequence.
The site of the Ciudadela seems to have been occupied since the earliest ceramic phase of Teotihuacan, known as Patlachique, as indicated by surface collections and small-scale excavation. After almost completely removing earlier structures, construction of the Ciudadela began during the Miccaotli phase as one of the last major ceremonial complexes and the largest enclosed precinct in the city. The FSP was built as the precinct's main temple, information which helps to illuminate the significance and function of the Ciudadela. Extensive excavation suggests that state ideology was manifested through architectural, sculptural, and mortuary programs involved in the erection of the FSP.
Militarism was one of the fundamental concerns revealed archaeologically at the FSP. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl Project discovered that more than 200 soldiers or soldier-priests were sacrificed and dedicated to the erection of the pyramid around AD 200. Many of them were found with their hands behind their back as if they were tied and buried unwillingly. Most of them were probably soldiers, or at least soldier impersonators, based on associated materials, such as projectile points, slate disks attached to the waist, and real or false human maxilla pendants probably worn as war-trophies.
Another ideological component of the FSP would have been human sacrifice. Excavation data indicate that victims were not just antagonists of the state who were captured, sacrificed, and buried with their own costume. Rather, they were systematically prepared and buried with symbolic objects in order to manifest the significance of the very act of human sacrifice. They could have been honored soldiers dedicated to the Feathered Serpent cult, based on detailed examination of symbolic attributes associated with them (Sugiyama 1995).
Finally, I believe that rulership was one of the major themes at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. Such an interpretation is supported by the discovery of a wooden staff recovered in one of the looted graves. It represents the feathered serpent and may have been used as a scepter by the ruling group. Tools of auto-sacrifice fashioned of obsidian were probably also symbols of rulership. In the Lowland Maya, auto-sacrifice, especially royal bloodletting formed a dominant subject of Maya monumental art and the hieroglyphic inscriptions that was fundamentally associated with kingship (Stuart 1988). Furthermore, burial patterns also suggest that, in addition to the graves of sacrificial victims, royal tombs were possibly once part of this burial complex, although they were later substantially looted. In summary, the construction of the Ciudadela seems to have commemorated state militarism, human sacrifice, and rulership in association with feathered serpent symbolism at an early period of the foundation of the state.
In spite of its importance, this original significance of the FSP declaimed around 200 AD apparently did not last more than two centuries at most, according to extensive archaeological data. The FSP seems to have been ritually terminated around 350 AD (Sugiyama 1993). The principal facade of the FSP was covered by a new construction called the Adosada platform, and some sculpted heads on other facades were probably mutilated or pulled off of the facades. One large grave pit in front of the main facade was looted, and the temple atop the pyramid was most likely burned and desecrated by the time of the Adosada construction (Cowgill and Cabrera 1991). In addition, at least two multiple burials inside the pyramid nucleus were thoroughly looted by 400 AD by intruders who entered through an ancient tunnel. The data indicate that there were significant changes, perhaps not only in ritual meanings of the main temple, but also in associated socio-political organizations. The FSP seems to have become a target of new ritual actions and the exploitation of symbols from the past.
Although the original meaning and political significance of the FSP were apparently not in effect by that time, certain activities were still carried out in later periods in the Ciudadela. Extensive excavations by the INAH indicate that the residential compounds and other structures were used continuously and often modified within the Teotihuacan cultural tradition until the last ceramic phase (Metepec). The mass production of censers discussed herein was among the most characteristic specialized activities carried out in the Ciudadela during this later period of the city.
Excavation context of the censer workshop
The ceramic workshop was located in a large compound attached to the northern platform of the Ciudadela (Compound 2 of N1E1 in Millon et al. 1973). Although the compound was located outside of the large platforms surrounding the Great Plaza, it can still be considered functionally an extension of the Ciudadela complex (Figure 2: left). Completely enclosed within thick walls, the workshop was accessible directly from the Ciudadela by way of two masonry staircases. Múnera (1985) believes that the space, still largely unexcavated, was a production area where items necessary for the daily life of the people residing in the palaces were made. He proposes that the production of censers was among the principal activities of this workshop (Figure 3). In fact, many molds and ornaments for censers were also found in the North Palace, as if this area and the workshop were closely related. Therefore, it is a logical assertion that the production of censers was an official state activity, assuming that the palaces in the Ciudadela were still functioning as a ritual-administrative center in the city during that later period.
We do not know exactly when the production of this particular censer type began. The stratigraphy of the workshop does not provide precise information on its chronology, because the layers with censer materials were shallow and several Teotihuacan floors on which the materials were found had been seriously disturbed. The only other kinds of datable ceramic materials discovered in this area and other sections of the city where censer materials were found suggest that they were in use by the Late Tlamimilolpa phase and were continuously produced until the Metepec phase (Berlo 1984:45; Múnera 1985). Within the Ciudadela precinct, no pieces related to theater-type censers were found in the extensive excavations of the nucleus of the FSP (Cowgill 1997 personal communication), which stands in sharp contrast to its significant presence outside the pyramid in the palace area. This indicates that censer production post-dated the FSP and probably began some time after the beginning of the Early Tlamimilolpa phase. In the North Palace, censer ornaments were found in grave contexts in relation to the last architectural level, according to a brief preliminary report by excavators (Jarquín and Martínez 1982:117). In addition, excavations conducted by the FSP project in 1988-89 uncovered hundreds of censer ornament fragments on the upper (latest) floor on the East side of the main pyramid in the Ciudadela. A more detailed review of the excavation contexts and analyses of the materials may provide more precise chronological evidence for censer production.
In the following section, I will suggest that the iconography of censers also supports the sequence of events archaeologically reconstructed for this particular location. Images created at this workshop referred predominantly to the Ciudadela tradition of military symbolism that originated at the FSP, although significant socio-political shifts are implied by iconographic changes in censers. The data led me to hypothesize that in the fourth century the Ciudadela became a source of prestigious symbols related to militarism and authority, major themes in the original program of the FSP, and that at the same time this location was a key place in the production of a new state ideology. As described below, the censer complex seems to have been one of the primary emblems referring to the state with strong military connotations all the way until the violent end of the metropolis. Incidentally, this was also the period of ubiquitous Teotihuacan presence in many parts of Mesoamerica, including southern Guatemala where abundant Teotihuacan type censers were found.
Given that the function of censers implies ritual use, the meanings of images and symbols used in them have often been interpreted in mythical terms mainly projected from 16th century ethnohistorical sources on Aztec deity complexes. Central figures on censers have been identified as Xochiquetzal, butterfly deities, gods of agricultural fertility, and the like (Gamio 1979:200; Caso 1967), although martial aspect of censers also has been pointed out as a central attribute of censers (Berlo 1983; Langley 1986; Winning 1987:122). Iconographic studies focusing on the social implications of censers suggest that the central figures explicitly represent soldiers seen in front view and who were adorned with a rich array of elements of a representational or semiotic character. However, most of them are masked, and in only a few cases is half or the entire body shown.
These censers have often been described as miniature temples or "theaters" because of structural resemblance and the characteristic emphasis on frontality (Gamio 1922: 199; von Winning 1987:118). However, no censer with clear representation of a temple has been found to date; to me, this interpretation is misleading. Berlo (1984) rigorously classified a broad sample of censers from Teotihuacan and related sites in Mexico and Guatemala into 12 Formats based primarily on structural and compositional differences. In her classification, she included censers from Guatemala (particularly those from Lake Amatitlan), which barely resemble Teotihuacan censers, in order to elucidate provincial particularities. In this preliminary review, I selected 77 complete or almost complete censers (40 from Teotihuacan, Azcapotzalco, or Xico, in the Central Mexican Highlands; 37 from Escuintla or Amatitlan in Guatemala) which share structural similarities and/or iconographic elements. Censers with zoomorphic figures, female or deity representations in her collection from Guatemala are thus eliminated because they lack counterparts in Teotihuacan. In total, 90 % of the Teotihuacan type censers studied can be interpreted as representations of human figures or human masks, with their adornos attached around them. In fact, only a few censers from Teotihuacan had clearly non-human imagery occupying the central place of the censer composition. They include one with the Storm God that Berlo (1984:41) tentatively identified as a modern copy. One conical lid of quite different type had no any central figure, besides the representation of a single shell and a half-circular object (Séjourné 1966:49).
The most standard compositional style of the censer complex, which Berlo identified as the Format 1 group, basically consists of four sections; a main human figure or a mask in the center; a headdress complex in the upper section (in her second category, Format 2, a trapezoidal shape surrounds the headdress complex); shields, spear bundles, "knuckle-dusters", or other unidentified elements at the sides, often grasped by the central figure; and an abstract symbol complex at its lower section. Complex symbols, were arranged around this human or mask core on the censer lid often with a rectangular structure framing the central face. Representations of butterflies, birds, martial objects, miniature plants, animals, shells, reptile's eye glyphs, manta compounds, and so forth, dominate representations, in addition to ubiquitous simple elements such as feathers, scroll signs, circle elements, etc.
The percentages of these adornos vary significantly depending on provenance. For example, mantas (Figure 4; left), usually attached under the central figure, are frequent (71 %) in Teotihuacan, while they are completely lacking in censers from Guatemala (See Langley's paper in this volume). The frequency of some other elements relevant for this paper is also suggestive. Censers with pure butterfly representations (Figure 5; right), often identified as warrior symbols (e.g., Berlo 1983; von Winning 1987:122), or those with butterflies, birds (also interpreted as warrior symbols), or creatures combining avian elements are abundant both at Teotihuacan (61 and 81 % respectively) and Guatemalan sites (62 and 73 %). Representations of explicit warrior symbols, such as spears, spear bundles, or shields held by human figures, are also highly frequent in Teotihuacan censers (77 %), although their percentage in the Guatemalan collection is interestingly low (27%). These frequencies would be higher if "knuckle-dusters" or other unidentified objects held or worn by the main figures are interpreted as martial attributes.
These censers may not have conveyed merely general meanings of militarism. The abundant, greatly varied "adornos" attached to the censers may have communicated specific meanings in complex ways. The fact that there are no two censers combining identical elements among the censers found to date suggest that artisans composed them to endow each censer with a specific meaning, as Berlo (1984) pointed out. Information from the workshop discovered at the Ciudadela supports this assertion. Iconographically speaking, almost all elements from known censers can be found at the workshop. The most common elements at the workshop (that is, groups consisting of more than 100 pieces of applications or molds) in the "Phytomorphic" category (Figure 6; left) are the flower with four petals, cotton (?), water lily, and various other flowers; in the "Zoomorphic" corpus, butterfly, bird (Figure 5), bivalve shell, and spiral shell; in "Anthropomorphic" representations, Storm God, masks (Figure 7;right), and nose pendants; and then in the category of "Representations and Symbols" (Figure 8; below), feathers, circles, scrolls, Manta complex, earspools, arrows, shields or lateral plaques, ropes or knot, bundles, knives, water or drop, and Reptile's Eyes. In addition to them, the exceptionally wide variety of molds and applications found together in a limited area at the precinct may imply that craftsmen were able to manufacture censers with almost any kind of combination of adornos. The excavation contexts also suggest that, although censers appear to have been widely distributed and used on household levels and in grave contexts, production of censers was rather restricted to certain social groups, who worked in this closed workshop controlling symbolic notational system.
The most complex area with attached symbolic elements are the upper portion (namely the headdress) and the lower part (often the area covering the body). These parts of the figure are where identification codes for names of individuals or affiliated groups were conventionally situated in human representations in other Mesoamerican societies. In Teotihuacan censers, elements with significant variety and regularity within this category, such as the manta complex and the Reptile's Eye which insinuate their use as glyphs, were most often attached to the bottom section. Although no associated numbering system, which was the most common form of designating personal names by the individual's calendrical signs in Mesoamerica, has been identified in these symbol sets, systematic analyses of some key elements may assist to understand specific messages involved in censers (e.g., Langley in this volume).
In summary, an overview of censer iconography with a historical and social emphasis suggests that most Teotihuacan censers were based on a composition with a warrior represented in the center. These complex images and symbols may primarily have represented historical individuals or social groups with military attributes, although mythical entities and religious atributes attached to them are aften represented more conspicuously than individuals are. The argument is supported by the fact that censers were often discovered in mortuary contexts for individuals with rich offerings (suggesting higher social status) in residential compounds at Teotihuacan. For example, a censer complex recently excavated with well-controlled archaeological data by Linda Manzanilla and her associates at Oxtoyahualco demonstrate that the censer was associated with the most important dead buried in the compound (link to the censer in Ort’z's paper). This suggests that some censers were used for mortuary rituals, representing specific dead soldiers or groups affiliated with each social unit.
In this paper, I have briefly summarized a historical trajectory of military symbolism in the Ciudadela that originated at the FSP around A.D. 200. The censer imagery that emerged at this particular location after the third century may be better understood in this social, historical context. Emblems of warfare and rulership seem to have been largely related to feathered serpent symbolism in the early phases. The people living in the Ciudadela in later periods may have manipulated these traditional military emblems embedded at the location, by ritually killing the FSP and by exploiting symbolic items from teotihuacan's rich heritage in new contexts. At the same time, they also seem to have created new representations, attributes, and notational symbols of militarism, particularly those from the butterfly and bird complex, to be integrated into this traditional symbolism. The Ciudadela was most likely one of the places of origins, if not the actual spot of origin, for the Teotihuacan military emblem expressed metaphorically via avian imagery in censers and other type of materials. On-going detailed analyses may yield additional information about the meanings and functions of the censer complex in the Teotihuacan social history at home and abroad.
I am very grateful to Debra Nagao and Jim Langley for their comments and English corrections.
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