Long, long ago in a Mexico, now gone with the wind, one of the world’s most respected archaeologists instantly recognized a direct connection between artifacts unearthed in the Lower Southeastern United States and Southern Mexico.
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
After all these years, what I remember most about Dr. Román Piña Chan, Curator of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was that he never directly criticized students or professional colleagues. Instead, he always asked questions for us to answer . . . the Socratic Method. He wanted us to THINK rather than memorize ironclad orthodoxies. By the way, Román Piña Chan was 1/2 Maya . . . from the State of Campeche.
The first question that he ever asked me? It was a time bomb for the 21st century. I had missed the scheduled orientation meeting with museum staff at the beginning of my fellowship in Mexico, due to a severe case of salmonella food poisoning. In addition to getting my INAH credentials and introducing myself, a tour of the entire museum had been arranged several months before then by the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta.
The next time that both Dr. Piña Chan and Dr. Ignacio Bernal, Director of the Institutio Nacional de Anthropologia E Historia (INAH), had a simultaneous opening was the morning of July 6th . . . over two weeks later. In the mean time, I began studying the Aztec and Pre-Aztec sites in the Mexico City Metropolitan Area. One of them, Copilco, was actually on the edge of Colonia Nueva Sta. Maria, where I was based.
When the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta had set up the tour several months earlier, I had no clue, who Piňa-Chan and Bernal were. However, when I told my hosts, the Soto Family who my fellowship coordinators were, they were flabbergasted. It was like I was going to be socializing with the coach and team captain of the World Cup champions. Archaeologists, architects and structural engineers were the superstar celebrities of Mexican society in that era.
Bernal quickly left the tour, when he realized that I was (1) an architecture student, not a wealthy architect, wanting to donate money, (2) Not from a rich Gringo family that was going to donate money for an archaeological dig and (3) was just beginning to learn Spanish. I never saw him again.
Dr. Piňa-Chan was much more empathetic. As we walked through the six underground floors, he and his beautiful graduate assistant, Alejandra, helped me to learn the technical Spanish, used in architecture and archaeology. Alejandra was fluent in several languages, including English. Her undergraduate degree in Anthropology was from from the University of Texas. However, she was from a wealthy Mexican family that had homes in several parts of Mexico.
At the end of the tour, I gave Dr. Piňa-Chan two books on the Indians of the Southeast. They were traditional Mexican gifts to a professor from a student, who was about to receive special tutoring. He told me that it was time for his next appointment and so I left the museum. I would be back early the next morning to begin studying the individual exhibits.
As I waited for a bus at the edge of the entrance plaza, Alejandra ran up to me. She said that Dr. Piňa-Chan would cancel his appointment, if I could come back and have lunch with him in his private office, while we discussed the two books. It would be the first of several “talking lunches” in his private office, followed in early September by an afternoon with Dr. Piňa-Chan, his anthropologist-wife Beatrix, Alejandra and several bottles of wine at a posh restaurant, overlooking the Paseo de la Reforma. The Piňa-Chans were playing matchmakers.
While I was in southern Mexico all of August, Dr. Piña Chan had been fired by the new president Luis Echeveria. He was delighted to expend his remaining entertainment funds on Alejandra and I. Román despised Echeveria, because two years earlier, Echeveria was the Mexican Attorney General, who ordered the Tlatalolco Massacre, just before the Olympic Games.
How many Gringo archaeologists have ever even been within the Inner Sanctum of the Museo Nacional de Antropoligia? <chuckle> Those memories got me through the endless ridicule from Georgia archaeologists, occultists and USFS bureaucrats in 2012.
Beatrix and Román Piña Chan
I was in awe. On the wooden shelves of his office were some of the most famous Mesoamerican artifacts . . . the stuff that one sees on book covers. Immediately, the famous archaeologist told me that he had never known that the Indians from my part of the United States were so advanced.
As Dr. Piňa-Chan ate lunch and thumbed through the books, he made many comments that I did not quite understand because being “wet behind the ears” in archaeology . . . and also the fact that he mixed Spanish with his English. For the same reason, he asked several questions that I could not answer.
The Southeastern USA – Southern Mexico Connection
As he was munching on a sandwich and examining Sun Circles and Human Hands, Román came to the section on statuary. Most of the examples were from the Etowah River Valley in North Georgia. He was especially intrigued by the famous marble statues from Etowah Mound C. They wore simple cloth turbans identical to those worn by Maya laborers and slaves as a badge of their cast. He suddenly looked up and asked:
“Ricardo, why did your Indios in Georgia make marmel (marble) statues of Maya slaves?”
Dr. Piňa-Chan said that the copper plate art found at Etowah Mounds was superior to any copper art in Mesoamerica. Only in the southern tip of Veracruz and western Tabasco, did he ever find skill in working copper that was displayed on a large scale on the Etowah River. He squeezed his chin with his fingers and uttered, “Hmm-m, I see something.”
He reached into his file cabinet and pulled out a folder of photographs. He showed me a photo of a copper plate that he had unearthed in either southern Veracruz, Tabasco or Chiapas. I did not recognize the name of the archaeological site. The copper plate portrayed the supreme deity of the Itza Mayas, Sky Serpent, their sun god. Dr. Piňa-Chan pointed to the copper crown on Sky Serpent then pointed to the copper crown of what apparently was the king or high priest of Etowah. They were identical!
At the time, I had no clue how important Dr. Piňa-Chan’s observation that about the crown on the Sky Serpent was. I asked if I could borrow the photo to have a color slide completed. He said that he could not release the photo, but requested the photography lab in the museum to make me a color slide.
He was puzzled why there was no gold art at Etowah Mounds, since it is a much easier metal to work with. He asked me why there was no gold in Georgia. I told him that, actually the first gold rush in the United States was in Georgia and that even today, there is gold in the sands of the Etowah River, which flows past the mounds. I had no clue.
He said that the architecture and the towns in Alabama and Georgia were very similar to those of the peoples in the Olmec Civilization, southern Veracruz, Formative Period Mayas and later, the Mayas, living in the Coastal Plain of Tabasco and Campeche. These branches of the Mayas typically only built earthen pyramids, because there were very few fieldstones in the Gulf Coastal Plain.
He pulled a book off the shelf that he had written about the Toltecs. Their decorative motifs and pottery were virtually identical to those at Moundville, Alabama.
Georgia’s shell-tempered redware pottery was identical that made by Maya Commoners, who composed about 90% of the population. Georgia’s stamped pottery was unlike anything he had seen in either Mesoamerica or North America. He told me that the motifs were from some place far away. Over 42 years later, I finally realized what he meant. Swift Creek motifs originated in Eastern Peru.
Less you thinking I am BSing you!
I wrote the following page of my Mexican journal on the Soto Family’s dining room table on the morning of July 7th, the day after my first visit to the National Museum. Both Soto daughters are members of LinkedIN. They would chat with me at the dinner table, when I recorded events and observations in my journal.
The bottom of this page drifts into a description of my first official date with Alicia Rozannes Moreno. She was fluent in four languages and had near genius IQ, plus a perfect French figure and beautiful black, curly flowing hair. I had met her three days earlier. The previous evening, while I was visiting her home, we were astonished to discover that we were telepathic.
After dining at a romantic Italian restaurant in the Zona Rosa, she suggested that we go to a certain movie at the Teatro Zona Rosa. This Hollywood movie was entitled “John and Mary”. Fairly quickly into the movie, I realized that the plot was about a young man and woman, who spend the night on their first date. Alicia was an incredible, beautiful young lady. Being actually French, not Latin American, if she liked you . . . she REALLY liked you.
I think that I am going to really, really like Mexico!