. . . 200 years after the collapse of Maya civilization
Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
One Summer In Mexico ~ Part 71
Yesterday, while working on an article on Totonac architecture and a video on the Totonac city of Tajin, I made an astonishing discovery. I was digitizing a color slide that I had not seen since September 1970. It was a close up view of one of the structural details of the Temple of the Niches at Tajin, Veracruz, seen above. At the time, I merely thought it interesting that blue stucco, like I has seen traces of at the Maya city of Palenque, 436 miles (702 km) to the southwest, would still be surviving in the harsh tropical climate of Tajin, Veracruz. Palenque had been incinerated by the super-volcano, El Chichon, in 800 AD. The stucco on this Totonac building could be no older than 1000 AD, possibly closer to 1200 AD, when Tajin was sacked by Chichimec barbarians.
The Maya Blue stucco at Palenque and Tajin had no great significance to me until 2012 AD, when scientists at the University of Minnesota determined that the key ingredient in Palenque’s blue stucco . . . attapulgite . . . came from a mine in the Chattahoochee River Basin of Georgia, USA. Until its demise from a super-heated cloud of volcanic dust, Palenque was essentially the capital of the Itza Mayas, who called themselves Itsate. At the time, the colony of Georgia was settled in 1732, most of the Creek Indians there spoke the Itsate-Creek language, which English speakers spelled as Hitchiti.
Attapulgite chemically reacts with pigments, such as indigo from the indigenous anil plant, plus calcium carbonate and calcium hydroxide, to form a dense mineral which is chemically inert and resistant to erosion from rains and temperature changes.
Mexican scientists now know that attapulgite was a key ingredient of most colors on the famous murals created at Teotihuacan, the Maya cities and Tajin. The only problem is that there is very little attapulgite in the Yucatan Peninsula and none farther north in the main part of Mexico, where the Totonacs lived.
I placed a drop of acid , used by geologists to determine sedimentary rocks, on the red mural from Tajin that was featured in a recent article. There was absolutely no chemical reaction.
You can thank Architect Ike Saporta (1910-1998) for the discoveries made from long-forgotten color slides. He was a Georgia Tech professor, my faculty advisor and President of the Atlanta Archaeological Society. He arranged a grant from the Atlanta Archaeological Society to make it possible for me to take over 2500 slides, while on my fellowship in Mexico. He then instructed me to record with color slides everything that was different or interesting, not just standard architectural photos. Having the luxury to photograph anything at a Mexican archaeological site that caught my eye has resulted in many reinterpretations of what I first experienced as a young man.
Isaac “Ike” Saporta was quite an interesting man. He grew up in Greece, but was able to study architecture and urban planning in Austria and Germany by describing his ethnicity as being Greek, not Sephardic Jewish. The Nazi’s there never knew.
During World War II, he fought the Nazi’s in the mountains of Greece as a Partisan. His future wife, also from Greece, somehow survived being in a concentration camp much of the war. After the war, they immigrated to Atlanta, Georgia, where he soon became the driving force behind the founding of the Metropolitan Atlanta Planning Commission. His daughter, Maria, as a teenager would hang around the architectural design studios at Georgia Tech, when I was there. For decades, she has been one of Atlanta’s most respected journalists.
Ike had one very funny idiosyncrasy. Almost every time that he ate at a restaurant, he would sketch patrons on the napkins . . . in particular, pretty young women. He then would present the sketches to the person on the way out of the restaurant.