The Ancient Mural Art of the Cholula Archaeological Zone

In the buildings of the Archaeological Zone of Cholula, one can appreciate one of the most important mural groups of the Mexico of the past.

The Ancient Mural Art of the Cholula Archaeological Zone
The Murals of Cholula Archaeological Zone. Photo: INAH

Among the numerous vestiges that are located in the Archaeological Zone of Cholula, very close to the city of Puebla, the murals that despite the centuries that have passed, are still preserved in some of its buildings stand out. They depict narratives, as in the Mural of the Drinkers, and symbolic motifs, such as those admired in the buildings of the Courtyard of the Altars.

The ensemble is truly impressive and allows us to learn more about the civilizations that populated the region in pre-Hispanic times. When you have the opportunity, it is worthwhile to visit the city of Cholula and see the mastery in pictorial art that Mexican ancestors possessed.

Butterfly Mural

During the explorations of the interior of the Great Pyramid, it was discovered that it is formed by different superimposed buildings. In Building B, one of the oldest structures inside the pyramid, perhaps built between the second and fourth centuries A.D., a magnificent mural was found, which has been called the Butterfly Mural.

Despite the excavation technique, which was carried out through tunnels, which did not allow the full extent of the paintings to be released, it is possible to appreciate them quite well. The mural occupies the entire panel and was painted in fresco on a black background with stylized figures in red and yellow tones, in a repeated form, which according to archaeologist Alfonso Caso, are images of grasshoppers or butterflies.

The heads were drawn from the front, with a kind of toothed mouth, which gives them the appearance of skulls. Each of the designs is complemented by antennae and by the body, drawn diagonally, which is intertwined with the following motif.

Drinkers Mural

In 1969, during the exploration of the structures that make up the so-called Patio de los Altares, a subway building was discovered where one of the most important pre-Hispanic mural groups was located. Due to its depth (7 meters from the current level of the patio), the exploration of archaeologist Ponciano Salazar was carried out utilizing tunnels, which allowed them to find two structures and notice that the upper one covered part of the paintings. Despite this, the building is decorated with a large mural that covers an area of 56 meters long, which had an original height of 2.50 meters, making it one of the largest that have been discovered to date.

Some of the characteristics of the building lead archaeologists to suppose that it was a palace-like those of Atetelco and Zacuala, in Teotihuacan, and that its construction and paintings were made around 200 AD. The structure that covered it must have been erected around 350 AD.

For the painting, the tempera technique was used, applying the dyes on dry plaster, in some parts consisting of mud and in others of lime and sand. A red background was applied on the plaster, which when combined with the colors used in the different painted motifs, caused variations in the tonalities of the drawings.

It is assumed that it was painted by several artists because different qualities are observed in the finish. The main colors used are black, to delimit the motifs and the faces of characters that possibly represent priests; white for the loincloths and the headdresses of some individuals, and blue, with which the stripes that delimit the central scene were colored.

The design comprises three horizontal planes. The central one contains more than one hundred anthropomorphic drawings and is framed by bands ornamented with several alternating motifs; one of them, composed of intertwined ribbons forming a tie, has been identified as a tezcacuitlapilli, a kind of brooch with which the loincloth or maxtlatl used to be girded.

There are also lozenges decorated with scrolls or hooks on the edge, with an interior motif representing a flower with four petals. It has been suggested that the borders that frame the main motifs in their upper and lower parts represent a richly decorated tapestry, in which case the brooch would be used to support it, or the cornices of a platform or altar, on which the personages would be found.

The central scene represents a gathering or festivity, in which the characters (mostly men) toast each other and are shown seated in pairs and various postures. The scene may allude to the festivities that accompanied the periodic commemorations of some gods or that it refers to a ceremony related to fertility and harvests. It is also likely to be one of the oldest representations of the festivities dedicated to the pulque gods, whose cult seems to be a long-standing tradition in Cholula.

A polychrome cup, dated between 1300-1500, shortly before the Spanish conquest, shows motifs alluding to the deities of pulque, such as the crescent-shaped nose ring related to the goddess Mayahuel, and the glyph of the third god of pulque, Tezostzontécatl, meaning "The mirror covered with straw".

The scene may represent a real event. The characters are dressed in maxtlatl and wear elaborate cloth headdresses whose tips fall on their shoulders. Some wear blue sashes wrapped around their waists and circular necklaces and earrings. Others, possibly warriors, wear masks in the shape of birds and feline heads, among others. It is worth mentioning the representation of two old women, identified by the characteristic way they kneel on their legs, with protruding breasts and wrinkles on their faces.

It is interesting to note that according to the chronicles of the time of the conquest, it was precisely the men and women of age, as well as the warriors destined to sacrifice, who were allowed to participate in drunkenness ceremonies. The characters drink a liquid that they extract with glasses or jícaras of the vessels that are between them or behind them. Some of the seated lords drink the liquid provided by some characters that could be servants since they are represented in a smaller size and standing. The vessels and vases are similar to those found during archaeological explorations in burials and offerings in this area.

In addition to the human ones, there are other representations, such as those of a coyote and an insect. The latter has been identified by some researchers as a bee, which is related to honey wine. For others, it could be an acocote with its leather strap. This is an instrument made with a long calabazo or guaje, which is used to suck the mead from the maguey. The supposed wings of the bee would be, in this interpretation, the stalks of the maguey that were used for ritual self-sacrifice.

Murals in the Patio of the Altars

They are located in Building 4 and consist of a pictorial decoration on the panel, consisting of diagonal stripes in turquoise blue, yellow, red, and black, on which stars are observed, or the cross-section of snails illuminated in turquoise blue with a red is possible that the building was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, since the cut snails are a symbol frequently associated with that deity, in his invocation of Venus or Star of the Dawn.

Building 4A: It is a structure built before Building 4, which also has remains of murals whose main motif consists of large black squares framed by white stripes. For some researchers, this type of decoration resembles the niches used in the architecture of the archaeological zone of El Tajín, in Veracruz. Similar motifs can be seen in Building D, inside the Great Pyramid.

Teotihuacan Building: It receives this name because it presents architectural characteristics similar to those of the buildings of the Archaeological Zone of Teotihuacan. On the board, there are remains of murals in red, green, yellow, and blue colors. It shows the drawing of a feathered serpent highlighted by a black line.

Building 3-1: It is the oldest structure of the superimposed buildings that make up the Patio de los Altares. The lower body is ornamented with inclined stripes of green, ocher, red and black colors. On the black stripes, stars or snails were drawn in white and red colors. The slope on the first body is decorated with motifs in the form of hooks in red on a black background. The upper panel is ornamented with interlaced green and red stripes, which gives the appearance of the weaving of a mat. As its ends are rounded, in the form of feathers, this motif may symbolize feathered serpents.

For your information

The Archaeological Zone of Cholula is located 8 kilometers from the city of Puebla and can be accessed by the Mexico-Puebla free highway, or by the one that leads directly from the capital of the State. It can be visited every day from 10:00 to 17:00 hours. There is an excellent site museum and guide service.