Cempoala Archaeological Site

Cempoala Archaeological Site


Description of Cempoala or Zempoala

Location: 44 km (27 mi) North of Veracruz, Veracruz   Map

Open: Tue- Sun



Cempoala or Zempoala (Nahuatl Cēmpoalātl, 'twenty waters') is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the municipality of Úrsulo Galván in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. The word Cēmpoalli comes from the Nahuas roots Cēmpoal-, which means "twenty", and ā, which means "water", "twenty waters", perhaps because the city had a large number of irrigation channels and aqueducts that provided the vital liquid to the numerous gardens and surrounding farm fields. The place was inhabited mainly by Totonac and Chinantec and Zapotec. Another version considers that it is probably in reference to the commercial activities that, according to some sources, were carried out every 20 days in this place in pre-Hispanic times. It was one of the most important Totonac settlements during the Mesoamerican Postclassic Period. Another version suggests that the name meant "abundance of water".

According to some sources, the city of Cempoala was originally populated at least 1,500 years before the arrival of the Spaniards and there are indications of Olmec influence. Although not much is known about the Preclassic and Classic periods, the Preclassic city was built on hills to protect it from flooding. The Totonacs came to this area during the height of the Toltec empire and were forced to emigrate from their populations on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The Totonacs ruled the Totonacapan area, along with Zacatlán, Puebla district, with an estimated combined population of approximately 250,000 and around 50 villages. Not much is really known about what happened during the pre-classic and classical period.

Cempoala was the Totonac capital and was occupied by Totonacs and Chinantecs and Zapotecs, and the largest city was in the Gulf of Mexico. At its height, it had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000 people, and was one of the most important Totonac settlements during the Postclassic period. It is located one kilometer from the Actopan riverbank and six kilometers from the coast.


History of Cempoala

The Totonacs came to this place during the height of the Toltec empire (1000-1150 AD). Archaeologists believe that the Toltecs had driven the Totonacs from their settlements on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental and towards the coast. Cempoala is located on a flat coastal plain about six kilometers from the Gulf and a little over a kilometer from the Actopan river bank (also called the Chachalacas River).


In the mid-fifteenth century, Cempoala and many other coastal centers of Veracruz were attacked and defeated by the Aztec army of Moctezuma I. They imposed a high tribute of property and victims for sacrifice that forced them to send hundreds of children each year as a tribute for sacrifices and to be used as slaves. This treatment at the hands of the Aztecs was exploited by Cortés in the sixteenth century to defeat the Aztecs.

When Cortes and his forces reached the coast of Veracruz in 1519, the Totonacs had been suffering Aztec rule for several years. When the Spaniards marched north from their first camp affected by malaria in San Juan de Ulúa, they learned of a city on the road named Cempoala. He sent a message of his imminent arrival, and they were found on the outskirts of the city by 20 dignitaries from Cempoala. In the center of the city, they met with the local leader "Fat Chief" Xicomecoatl, who fed them and gave them rooms. After the Totonac gave numerous gifts to Cortés, including gold jewelry, Cortés asked how he could return this hospitality. It is said that Xicomecoatl gave a deep sigh and told many bitter complaints against Moctezuma.

Cortés promised to consider the matter and the next day he left for Quiahuiztlan, where the Spaniards and Totonacs forged their transcendental alliance against the Aztecs. The Totonacs were committed thereafter to the same fate as the Spaniards. In August of 1519, Cortés and his men departed with 40 Totonac warriors and 200 porters for the Aztec capital of the Aztecs-Tenochtitlan. During the following months, they won one victory after another through force and deception. Finally they ended up in the heart of Tenochtitlan and took Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor, as their hostage.


The City
The structures of this site show impressive squares and fortifications, surrounded by vegetation that invades this area permanently; It was called "Place of the accounts" by the dominant metropolis, because there they collected taxes from the Gulf Coast. It is thought that the site was the most important political-religious center in the region; their constructions are made of river stones, with mortar and plastered with lime; the buildings shone like that in the distance as if they were built of silver.

The site complex includes buildings and important structures, not only for architecture, but for historical importance. For example, at the site known as Sistema Amurallado IV, Cortés faced the forces of Pánfilo de Narváez.


Buildings in Cempoala

The main structures of Cempoala are as follows:

Temple of the Sun or Great Pyramid
Built on the same platform on which the Templo Mayor rises; they are separated by a wide square. It is probably the most spectacular structure of the site. The great temple resembles the temple of the sun in Tenochtitlan. The temple of Quetzalcoatl, the god of the feathered serpent, is a square platform, and the temple of Ehécatl, god of the wind, is round.

Main temple
The upper part is surrounded by battlements.

Temple of the Chimneys
It has a series of semicircular pillars a meter and a half high; by this particular form it has its name.

The Palace of Moctezuma

The Temple of the Cross
It maintains sections of fresco murals with celestial motifs.

The Temple of little faces
It is located around 200 meters to the east; It is a two-level structure decorated with fragments of stucco reliefs. Its name comes from the hundreds of stucco skulls that once adorned the facade of a small structure at the base of the staircase. Temple archaeologists believe that this complex was dedicated to the god of death. These are two superimposed foundations that contain two decorative strips in the upper part of the open area, the lower one with murals that allude to the Sun, the Moon and Venus, as a morning star, and the upper one with a large number of "caritas" or calaveritas in mud. It is decorated with stucco faces on the walls and hieroglyphics painted on the lower sections.

Other mounds
There are more mounds, mostly unexcavated, that can be visited because they are located between the houses of the town of Cempoala. Some of the more modest structures here are built in the same style of thatched wooden roof and adobe walls as were the residences of the pre-Hispanic workers.


Astronomy in Cempoala
Some research by Vincent H. Malmström, professor emeritus of geography at Dartmouth College, describes an interesting astronomical relationship that exists due to the three circular rings found in Cempoala.

"In the central square of Cempoala, just below the massive pyramid in the northeast corner, there are three intriguing stone rings, each made of rounded beach stones cemented together to form a series of small, stepped pillars. of the rings contains 40 of the stepped pillars, the medium ring has 28 of these and the small circles, 13 pillars around its circumference.It seems that the three rings were used to calibrate the different astronomical cycles, possibly moving a marker or an idol from one pillar staggered to the next with each day that passed (in some way similar to the way that has been suggested to record the passage of time in the pyramid of the niches).

The three stone rings of Cempoala, as seen from the top of the main pyramid. To the extent that the three rings are crowned by 13, 28 and 40 pillars, respectively, it seems that they were used by the Totonac priests as account devices to track the eclipse cycles.

It is, therefore, quite possible that by using the three rings together, the Totonac priests have been able to calibrate the movements of the Moon close enough to know when the next might be. In any case, there are reasons to believe that the three stone rings of Cempoala allow more evidence, which testifies to the intellectual curiosity and architectural ingenuity of the first Mesoamericans."


History of the site after 1519
Cempoala was a prosperous city until 1519, the year in which the Spanish conquerors arrived in Mexico and established alliances with their settlers to march towards the capture of Tenochtitlan. By then, the city of Cempoala had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants and was the most important ceremonial and commercial center of the entire Aztec empire, above Tlatelolco. The Spaniards initially called Villaviciosa, which means "fertile village", due to the large number of festivals and huge gardens and gardens they had and the festive and cheerful character of its inhabitants; later it was known as Nueva Sevilla because of its similarity, according to the Spaniards themselves, with that Iberian city.

Between 1575 and 1577 an epidemic of smallpox (matlazahuatl) decimated the population; It is estimated that two million people lost their lives in Mesoamerica. Cempoala was totally abandoned and the few survivors, moved to the city of Xalapa. Over time, it fell into oblivion, until the archaeologist Francisco del Paso y Troncoso rediscovered it.

After the victory and conquest, the Totonacs of Cempoala would soon take account of their new destiny alongside their foreign allies: they were relocated and had to leave the city, since they were Christianized, they were forbidden to practice their ancient cults and, following the royal ordinances they were asked for work as a tribute to the way of European serfs. Slavery was not allowed among the natives. Manual workers had to till the cane fields of the new Spanish lords.


Astronomy in Cempoala

Some research by Vincent H. Malmström of Dartmouth College describes an interesting astronomical relationship that exists because of the three round rings found at Zempoala. We will quote a part of his discussion concerning the Three Ceremonial Rings of Zempoala.

Beneath the massive pyramid (north eastern corner) in the central plaza of Zempoala, are three puzzling stone rings, each made from rounded beach cobbles jointed together to make small, stepped pillars. The largest rings has 40 stepped pillars, the middle ring has 28, and the smaller ring 13, around its circumference. It seems that three rings were used to calibrate different astronomical cycles, possibly by placing a marker or an idol from one pillar to the next, day after day.

The stone rings viewed from the top of the main pyramid, are surmounted by 13, 28, and 40 step like pillars, might have been counting devices to keep track of eclipse cycles, by Totonac priests.

It is possible that by using the rings, Totonacs priests were able to calibrate movements of the moon. There are reasons to believe these rings provide further evidence of the intellectual curiosity and architectural ingenuity of the early Mesoamericans."