The apex of Totonac architecture at Tajin, Veracruz

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

One Summer In Mexico ~ Part 72

Aerial view of Tajin’s acropolis. The city was much larger.
Satellite image of Tajin Acropolis

Tajin (pronounced Tä : hēn) [aka El Tajin] was the last Mesoamerican city that I visited during my fellowship, prior to flying back to Atlanta. It is named after the Totonac god of thunder and lightning. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located  4 mi (6.44 km) west of the city of Paplantla, Veracruz.

Tajin was the principal city of the Totonac elite from around 600 AD to 1200 AD. However,  humans first lived at the site from around 5600 BC and the city was founded around 100 AD.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the town was occupied by Huastecs from around 100 AD until around 600 AD, when Totonac elite refugees arrived from Teotihuacan.  Tajin was sacked by Chichimec barbarian invaders around 1200 AD.  The survivors returned to the region and then founded Paplantla. 

I visited Paplantla first, because it is still the cultural capital of the Totonac People.  There I watched a Volodores ceremony, but found very few ruins, which dated from the Pre-Hispanic era. There was none of the drama or romantic adventures that accompanied my visits to archeological zones in southern Mexico, immediately prior to this trip.  Perhaps that was because all the French college students and archaeologists had just flown home. 

Very frankly,  most of what I know about the Totonacs comes from my independent research in the past few years, not from experiences in Mexico on the Barrett Fellowship. Totonac architecture was magnificent and technologically, the most sophisticated in the Americas. Nevertheless, I don’t know why, but both my architecture professors at Georgia Tech and my fellowship coordinator in Mexico, Dr.  Román Piña Chán, were not terribly interested in either the Totonacs or Tajin in particular.

El Tajin is NOT an Arabic word and the city was NOT founded by a Muslim explorer around 800 AD as now claimed in several websites and in videos on YouTube.   My Mexican friends tell me that these delusions have so permeated the literature of the Middle Eastern world that the government of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly tried to build a massive mosque and Islamic theological school adjacent to the archaeological zone. It ain’t gonna happen.  The Totonacs will see to that.

Uniqueness of Totonac architecture

Three characteristics of Totonac architecture make stand out, when compared to the architecture of other indigenous American peoples.

  • There was great diversity in the size, architectural details and usage of buildings with the central core of Tajin
  • Totonac architects designed multi-story buildings with concrete walls, floor slabs and roof slabs.
  • Unlike most other Mesoamerican peoples, the Totonac architects designed ornate details on the faces of pyramidal bases for temples.  The most striking features are eaves that protrude out from the sloping surfaces.
Chunk of Totonac concrete

Totonac concrete

If mentioned at all in North American archaeological texts, Totonac concrete is described as a form of thick lime mortar.   It is NOT.  Lime mortar deteriorates rapidly in humid climates such as Veracruz and the United States.  When a structural engineer and I began work on the 1869 Bartow County, GA courthouse, we were shocked to discover that the mortar had the consistency of sand. Only gravity was holding the multi-storied building up.  The 1754 lime mortar that bonded the limestone rocks in the walls of my Shenandoah Valley house’s basement, had the consistency of dry clay.  That same description could also be applied to the 1770 plaster on the interior walls of the house.

The concrete at Tajan has been exposed to far harsher conditions than those in Virginia and North Georgia, in the tropical climate of Veracruz.  It is literally hard as a rock.  I applied a drop of malic acid to both of my concrete samples from Tajin, plus a sample of what looked like “rock hard” lime plaster.  All three were chemically inert.  Limestone and powdered lime would have both fizzled as they gave off carbon dioxide.

The Totonacs discovered pozzolanic minerals which could be mixed with sand, hydrated lime and crushed shells to make a form of true concrete. According to research at the TECNOLÓGICO NACIONAL DE MÉXICO,  in a report entitled, “Evaluation of mechanical and physical properties of an additional cement added with cheap chicken manure as a substitute for conventional Portland cement”  there are an abundance of volcanic and calcined clays in Veracruz, which could have produced a construction material similar to present day concrete. [Engineer Alberto Zapata Valencia – 2018]

While in Tajin, I closely studied the concrete. Virtually all tourists didn’t even notice that they were looking at concrete. Stout timber frames were erected first that would support the heavy load of wet concrete. The walls were formed by making forms from hand-split boards or bundled saplings. The molds for the floors were placed over temporary timber columns and joists. A mat of logs, interwoven saplings and large leaves formed the concrete floors and roof slabs. I noticed that many walls and floor slabs seemed to have river cane tubes running through them, which functioned like steel reinforcing bars until the cane tubes disintegrated. Many of the palaces had rooftop scuppers, formed from concrete, which directed rainwater from the flat concrete roofs to drain away from the buildings.

Magnified piece of Totonac concrete illuminated with ultraviolet light. Note the air holes in the concrete. This is called “air entrained ” concrete today. The lighter the color, the greater the percentage of calcium.
Magnified piece of concrete illuminated with ultraviolet light. Note that the sample contained short vegetative fibers, which have replaced by tubes of calcium carbonate. The darkest chunks are either charcoal or sand high in iron oxide.

Models of Tajin in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia

Temple of the Niches
Walls, floors and roof are concrete!
Walls, floors and roof are concrete!
Walls, floors and roofs are concrete!

Views of Tajin in 1970

This is a roof drain that conducts water down to a culvert, which then fed water to a cistern.
These concrete slots are window openings for an atrium.
Second floor of royal palace
Second floor hallway



    On Wed, May 12, 2021 at 1:16 PM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner > One Summer In Mexico ~ Part 72 Aerial view of Tajin’s acropolis. The city > was much larger. Satellite image of Tajin Acropolis Tajin (pronounced Tä : > hēn) [aka El Tajin] was the last Mesoame” >


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