Martínez and Córdova dig in the spring and fall when the temperature tops out in the 90s; last November they enjoyed a freak two-day cold spell, and their team bulked up in sweaters, jackets, and scarves. Martínez led a crew digging into a platform near the city’s center. At the springs, Córdova searched for the ancient channels that drained to the lagoons, digging pits where the springs’ eternally seeping water stood a foot deep, clear and blue as tinted glass.
Here, in about 400 B.C., a still-unknown culture founded Tamtoc. They turned this clutch of springs into a place of sustenance, work, and worship. Post holes mark where a sweat lodge or temple overlooked one spring. Stone platforms where residents gathered water bear the swirls, furrows, and hooked shapes carved on all the city’s monuments. At a second spring, Zaragoza and Davila had found a stone carvers’ workshop and portions of two finely carved reliefs: on the surface, the striding legs of a man and, buried six-feet deep, a pair of flamingoes.
Towering above a third spring is the giant slab where the modern Teenek gather for their Xantolo celebration, a hunk of stone twenty-three feet long and fifteen feet high. Hewn from hard sandstone in the Tanchipa Mountains, it was hauled through the jungle, floated twenty miles down river, dragged here and set upright. In 2005, archaeologist Guillermo Ahuja needed a construction crane to re-erect it – it weighs twenty-six tons.
Known prosaically as Monument 32, the slab’s macabre depictions of the skull-masked priestess and two headless women suggest to archaeologists that it was linked to the concept of female fertility and renewal. A dozen jets of blood spray from the women’s necks. The priestess grasps two jets with upraised arms, while two more morph into birds that stretch their liquid wings toward her navel. Below this bloody line is the underworld where the headless figures dwell; they wear skulls for shoes and only their arms emerge to proffer what look like crowns to the sky. The priestess, however, is only an underworld visitor—she stands on skulls to lift her upper body into the land of the living.
In the mud beneath the slab a stone box held another masterpiece. Amidst shells, ceramics, and chunks of green fluorite (a mineral Mesoamericans linked to water and fertility), was a life-sized female torso carved from the same mountain stone as the slab. Polished to a high sheen, the elegant carving so evokes the statues of ancient Greece that the archaeologists quickly named her “Venus.” Like the slab, she is of hard mountain stone. Her skin, polished to a high sheen, is dotted with fifty-two scars above each breast and fifty-two more on each thigh.
Yet Venus was ritually murdered, chopped to pieces gangland-style. Her waist is cleanly snapped, her thighs severed, her left shoulder and right breast sheared away, her left nipple slashed. Her parts were then reassembled in the box; her arms and most of her head are missing, save for a chunk of scalp in a headdress of armadillo scales.
Four clay naked feminine figurines in the box resemble others from the region dating to about 400 B.C. But Venus displays a sophistication so unlike the slab’s stiff figures that Daniel Salazar, the team’s illustrator and art historian, believes it was either made hundreds of years later or is the product of an entirely different culture. “No other monument here is symmetric and with such perfect composition,” he says.
When the slab was erected in 400 B.C. Tamtoc had “dense demography, a developed religion, surplus manpower to bring the stone from afar, to erect it, dig the canals and the lagoon,” Córdova says, but the occupied area was surprisingly small. He calls it an “urban embryo,” a stymied city that died stillborn. Within a few generations, whether from flood, fighting, or famine, the inhabitants vanished. The giant slab cracked, fell, and sank into the mud.