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Marion Stirling kneeling next to Tres Zapotes Stela C. stirling_14. M.W. Stirling Collection, National Anthropological Archives

Tres Zapotes Field Notes 1939


December 30, 1938

Began excavations at Cabeza in afternoon, despite light rain. Sherds appeared at depth of about 50 cm; more numerous at back of Cabeza than in front; coarse sandy ware occurs with finer polished black ware.

Opposite lower part of back of head found large fragment of deep dish (red) and small shallow plate (black) nearly complete in two pieces (one piece subsequently broken).

Digging being carried out most intensively at back and on west side to avoid toppling.

December 31, 1938

Continued excavation of Cabeza in forenoon, exposing chin in front and undercutting in rear to depth of two to three feet establishing fact that the Cabeza is head only and that it rests on foundation of unworked stone slabs. Sherds continued to appear throughout depth of excavation. Found a spherical foot of vessel with orifice and rattle. Decided to proceed no farther until arrival of Stirling.

In afternoon assigned two crews to large mount NE of Cabeza and began trenches from east and west sides with view of getting cross-section. Extremely massive, sandy, red sherds appeared at depth of about 25 cm.

January 1, 2, and 3, 1939

Excavation of trenches in mound continued. West trench producing about twice as many sherds as east trench. First figurine, red sandy ware with characteristic headdress, turned up at distance of 8.50 m from beginning of west trench at depth of 1 m from surface. Second one with very high headdress occurred at depth of 3.20 m (see map).

Part of flat seal found in dirt taken from beginning of west trench

And 2 m., 25 cm. From beginning of trench. Scattered sherds, heavy, coarse, sandy, redware predominating, turning up throughout excavation along with a few of the polished black.

January 4-11, 1939

On the 4th began the excavation of an area about 15 x 30 feet in front of the Cabeza and the next day a somewhat smaller area in the back toward the Mound B. The work on these areas has continued to the present, and one in front now being almost down to the base level of the head. The heavy rain the night of the 4th filled the excavation around the head, covering g it to the forehead, and had to be bailed out. The soil is heavy black adobe to the depth of about a foot and a half and below it is equally heavy yellow clay. Both extremely sticky when wet and very hard when dry, so that the digging progresses slowly. From the area surrounding the head 3 typical figurine fragments have been found. Two heads and one female torso. The trench in the west side and top of Mound A has been continued. On the 98th, at a depth of about 8 feet and 30 feet in from the beginning of the trench, a flight of three steps was encountered. Extending horizontally in the direction of the plaza was a floor area of packed clay and sand about 2” thick but which extended only about 4’. The steps have flat flagstones of sand stone on them and extend beyond the width of the trench on either side. Above the top step a red clay ramp seems to slope upwards at an angle of about 30 degrees to a height of about 3’ above the top step where it seems to level off into what may be the top of a primary mound. Further excavation will be necessary to make this structure clear. The trench in the top of the mound is now down about 10’. Potsherds, a few deer bones, and charcoal are found throughout the cross-section. All is hard packed clay, but the central portion appears to be somewhat more sandy and works more easily than the sides. Occasional figurine heads of red clay and torsos occur with the other potsherds which it is still too early to classify. However there are several types of ware.

On the 9th went on horseback with a guide, Procopio Olayo, to a group of small mounds about 2 miles to the NW of camp where he said there was a stone “mujer.” The stone turned out to be a very well carved stela in the form of the Earth Monster with three human figurines in the flat area formed by the back of the open mouth. They were standing on a sort of shelf formed by the lower lip of the monster and the upper lip formed a sort of awning above them. The entire stela is about 5’ long by 3’ wide and 18” thick. The left-hand figurine is kneeling, facing to the right. Facing him are two standing figures, the second of whom carries a long slender staff. All, especially the central figure, wear elaborate headdresses. On the sides of the stela (the cheeks of the monster) are a series of well carved glyph-like ornaments. Made photos and sketches. At present the stela is lying on its back in a mud hole in a section of jungle. Will return later with enough men to set it up and clean it for good photos.

NE of the camp about a kilometer, encountered a very large stela about 16’ long and 5’ wide lying on its back between two mounds. It is made of a rather poor quality of conglomerate stone. Before falling, the figure faced west. The figure on the stela is that of a standing man carved in almost full relief. He wears a very elaborate headdress which forms the upper half of the stela, and carries a ceremonial baton in his right hand. There are traces of intricate carving on each side of the figure, but the monument has eroded badly and has been mutilated. The head has been knocked off and apparently carried away. In falling the stela broke transversely into two pieces. Unfortunately it fell face up.

On the 10th, hearing of more stones, went on foot with a guide to the northeastern most group of the zone which lies on rather elevated ground, near the arroyo. Here a group of five mounds form more or less of a plaza in the middle of which is a group of five large stones or boulders weighing about 200 or 300 pounds each. Near the base of the northern mound of the group is a large piece of worked basalt mostly buried which may possibly be a stela. On the way to this group in a patch of woods is a large flat slab about 5’ in length, which has been worked smooth. This may be a stela fallen face down, and will turn it over later. Just to the east the plaza falls away in a little precipice consisting of a massive sandstone outcrop which may show sighs of quarrying.

At a lower level and somewhat south of this group are three more mounds with three cylindrical stone columns in front of one. These are about 16” in diameter and 4 1/2 feet high. One of them is still upright. They are covered with a dense jungle growth and it was necessary to cut trails with machetes to reach them. They are worked smooth on the surface but are undecorated.

The northern mound of the NE group is on elevated land and gives a commanding view of the whole zone.

About a kilometer NE of camp is a small group of mounds and what appears to be a stone covered platform. Besides this three deep trenches form a couple of artificial ridges about 15 yards wide and 15’ high. These are about 40 yards long. South of the platform are three small mounds. This whole area is literally paved with potsherds and obsidian blades are very numerous. The natives are superstitious regarding this place and say that a green light hovers over it at night. This seems a very promising spot for excavation.

On the morning of January 11th, the agrarian surveyor from San Andres Tuxtla, Ing. Revilla appeared and this afternoon began the survey.

January 12, 1939.

Yesterday the superintendent of the hacienda here was murdered by two local men and this morning officials from Tres Zapotes called in our crew to accompany the body to Santiago Tuxtla. After going into Tres Zapotes they all paid a fine of one peso and did not have to go but we lost most of the morning. Work continued around the head and in the main trench through Mound A. We started a lateral trench over the stairway in order to follow out the stairs but have not reached the end of either side. Made a careful examination of Group 2 with the idea of beginning excavation s there. All of the area to the NE of camp to Group 2 is covered with sherds and appears to represent the principal village site. Pottery and figurines in this area are extremely abundant. We dug out one almost complete olla, the lip of which projected above the ground. Bought a nice collection found in the arroyo including ear plugs, stamps and figurines.

January 13, 1939

Continued work on Mound A and around the head. Started a long trench in front of the head across the plaza. Used a team of oxen and a plow to break the top soil Made good progress in this manner. After threatening all morning it began to rain in earnest at noon. Went with Weiant to measure the group of small mounds of Group 2 with the ranchita on them.

January 14, 1939

Continued work around the head and on the lateral trench following out the stairway. At the close of work encountered some slabs of clay painted a bright red. There are two painted areas about an inch apart. Cannot make out as yet what it is. The stairway appears to have been covered over by the secondary mound and roughly faced with slabs of standstone about 3’ above the stairs.

January 16, 1939

Went today with a crew of 12 men to turn over a large flat rock in Group 3 that looked like it might be the reverse side of a stela. Succeeded with considerable effort but the stone proved to be blank on both sides. Then proceeded to the south foot of the high mound of Group 3 where on the edge of a small milpa about 6” of a hard stone projected. Excavating around it found it extended into the ground about 3 1/2 feet. It proved to be a transverse section from the middle of a large stela that had been set up by a later people. Just to the south of it and touching the stela was a large, irregularly round and perfectly flat altar buried about 3’ deep. It was unworked on the surface. The south front of the stela had been carved all over its surface in low relieve, but had been so badly weathered before being set up, that few details could be made out. However several rectangular cartouches suggested the former existence of glyphs. On clearing away the back of the stela it was found that a beautifully carved initial series date ran transversely across the middle of the stela (it had run vertically down the middle of the back of the stela as it was originally carved). The bar and dot numerals were in sharp low relief and could be clearly read. The introductory glyph and the cycle reading are missing, having been on one of the parts broken off, however fortunately all of the remaining numerals, including the terminal glyph and number were preset, making it easy to read the date, which proves to be 6 Eznab 16 Yaxkin of the Maya chronology (478 A.D. by the Spinden correlation) 9-15-6-16-18. The numbers do not have glyph signs accompanying them (excepting for the terminal glyph) but are positional exactly as on the Tuxtla Statuette.

January 17, 1939

Began work excavating around and clearing the huge fallen stela in Group 2. Found that it had been packed with thousands of obsidian n flakes all around the edges, but particularly around the upper end. A large sack was filled with sherds taken from the excavation. Four figurine heads of Tres Zapotes types were found at the foot and also an effigy of a king vulture (small). Most of the obsidian flakes were small chips but there were many complete prismatic knives, some of rather large size. The carvings on the edges of the stela were quite well preserved by being buried, but the sides had been much broken, probably by later Indians occupying the site. One large piece had been broken away from the middle of the south edge and carried away. It would seem that these later people also placed the obsidian around the edges of the fallen monument. On the north side can be made out the figure of a jaguar and a death’s head. On the south side is a bent arm grasping a baton. Plan to tunnel under the stela to see if there is a carving on the back.

Also took a crew of 4 men to excavate a large carved stone box in Group 2. All of the upper part has been broken off and carried away. Cleared the north side and the two ends, and cleaned out the inside, which is smooth. All of the exterior surface is covered with extremely elaborate carving in fairly deep relief, with involved curvilinear patterns featuring. The box presents one of the most beautiful examples of stone carving from Mexico and constitutes a major art object. Will complete the excavation tomorrow. Also Simeon Nato who has pointed out most of our monument finds, tells me he knows of another in Group 2 by the highest mound. Reached the end of the stairs at the north end of the transverse trench in Mound A Group 1. About 3 1/2’ above the second flight is a row of flagstones parallel to the steps.

January 22, 1939

Completed the excavations of the steps in Mound A. They consist of 5 flights and are curved in a slightly circular form. They lead to the top of primary mound of very heavy red clay, flat on top. Over this are 10’ of brown earth divided into two distinct levels which seem to indicate two additions to the mound. In the center of the mound after going through 2 or 3 ‘ of sterile material a single sherd of incised heavy black pottery was found resting on top of the red clay. This on first examination looks different from the type of ware which occurs so abundantly in the upper levels.

On the 21st I revisited Stela C and in the early morning light was surprised to see what appeared to be another dot in exactly the proper position above the three bars of the Katun numeral. Brought Weiant and Mrs. Stirling to look at it and they agree the dot is there, but it must be seen from the E side to show clearly, which explains why we did not notice it the first time. The bars and dots were made by abrading grooves to the proper depth outlining them. Then the remaining surface was polished down to this depth, leaving the figures in relief. The bottoms of these primary grooves still show a little below the depth of the background surface. This particular Katun dot has been badly defaced being adjacent to the broken edge, but about a quarter of the circular groove can still be distinguished and the raised portion of the dot is still sufficient that it shows rather clearly when the light strikes it at an angle. Measuring the spaces between the uppermost parts of each numeral and the lowermost part of the next, it appears that one corner of the lower bar of the cycle numeral would show in the space above the left hand edge of the Katun numeral if the upper of the three bars constituted the uppermost element of the figure. The fact that there is not sign of this cycle bar strengthens the visual impression that a dot must be above the bars of the Katun numeral. Working out the date on the basis of this new rereading find it to be 7-16-6-16-18 6 Eznab – 1 Uo or, November 4, 291 B.C. Spinden-Morley or 31 B.C. Thompson.

Completed two tunnels under Stela A and find the back perfectly smooth and uncarved save for some longitudinal grooves. Too bad since the back is perfectly preserved.

It rained on the 19th making it too wet to continue work at the Stela, but not before the excavations revealed a smooth polished floor of clay or stucco about 4’ below the stela and at three different levels. The highest level being at the head and the lowest level at the base. The stela lies on top of 3’ of sterile deposit that must have accumulated after the floor had been made. Presumably the site was abandoned during this time. Then the stela fell or was felled by the later people of the red figurine heads and the obsidian flakes, who knocked out and removed a large slab from the middle of the south edge of the stela. Have hopes of finding pottery under the floor thus establishing a stratigraphy.

Just to the NW of Mound A, Group 3 is a small mound on the top of which are two round stone columns about 5’ long and 16” in diameter. Leading up to them from the south base of the mound are two rows of huge unworked granite boulders. These rows are about 10’ apart and lead up the full height of the mound. The stone columns are fallen and nearly buried. They are precisely similar to the two round columns on the nearby mound SE of Mound A, Group 3 and also to the column at the ranchita site.

Yesterday Simeon brought me to see four other worked stones all in Group 2. One is located between the twin mounds lying due W of Mound A, Group 2. It is a huge grotesque head with bent arms attached to a long tenon and seems to be very similar too the stone now in the arroyo at Tres Zapotes. Simeon also showed me the spot this latter had been removed from. It lies about 50 yards W of a small mound which is about 300 yards north of the long mound of Group 2.

Just E of Mound A, Group 2 is a low, inconspicuous mound. On this is a rather small head and bust of stone shaped somewhat after the manner of the red figurines. The eyes and long ears can be made out but the rest of the features are smooth. It is broken off at the height of the chest. Just S. of the twin mounds lying SE of the long mound about 200 years is a small mound with a deep depression lying just N of it. At the south base of this mound is a section of round column and a human head with an elongated headdress (plain) broken off just below the nose. These round columns are crudely carved heads seem to belong to the late phase of occupation.

January 25, 1939

On the 23rd went with Simeon to see a new mound he had described to me lying W of Group 3. After leaving Group 3 we had to cut a way with machetes through a strip of uncleared jungle to a section with a lot of freshly cleared milpas which still had the newly felled trees lying on the ground. In one of these about 1/2 mile W of Group 3 was the mound. It was built on the end of a natural low promontory and was quite steep, presenting a particularly high face on the lower or N side. It had many large natural boulders on it, similar to the small mound just NW of the high mound of group 3. Being covered with felled trees and brush it was difficult to see much of the surface. W and S of this are many more mounds, some cleared and some not, and the ground over a large area hirer is heavily littered with potsherds. About 400 yards S of the mound just described is another uncleared mound but with a freshly cleared milpa just S of it. At the S base of this mound the top of a very large stone projects. It looks as though it is in the position in which it was set up. It cannot be told without excavation whether or not it is worked, but it should be cleared. The ground in this area which lies N and NE of camp is gently rolling.

After the rain of the 19th began an excavation between the twin mounds just N of Stela “A”. First ran a trench in an E-W direction about 50’ long and 8’ deep. The upper 2’ consisted of heavy black soil containing numerous potsherds of coarse red ware. Below this was a layer of brown clay and earth about 3’ thick which also contained sherds. At the bottom of the black level was a stratum of potsherds containing many specimens of a fine black incised ware with red pigment in the incisions. This ware continued occasionally through the deeper brown level. In the brown level was also found a figurine head of Tres Zapotes type, but with the face painted black. Several other unpainted figurines (solid) of red ware were found. Teapot spouts were common from the bottom of the black layer down and also a red ware of fine texture covered with a white slip. Two teapot spouts of this ware and some sherds with incised geometric patterns. Below the brown level was a layer of coarse sandy soil, below this a layer 1’ thick of heavy white clay and below this a hard-packed coarse sandy deposit. Everything below the brown level was sterile. Started two broad trenches in a N-S direction from the E-W trench, one going into each mound and following out the same structural levels. It appears that the two mounds were erected on a small natural mesa projecting from the main terrace, thus increasing their apparent height.

On January 23rd began with half the crew excavations on the ranchita site. Began a broad trench on the W edge of the first mesa, heading for the small “altar” which lies a few yards N of the two parallel mounds. Also started a trench parallel to the E end of the N mound and another trench in a N-S direction interesecting this mound. The whole surface of the ranchita site consists of a heavy deposit of rich black earth varying apparently from 2’ to 4’ in depth, heavily laden with potsherds, Figurines, stone fragments and obsidian. The first two days’ work produced many fine animal and human figurines, whistles, etc., both solid and hollow. The Ranchita site is located on the promontory of the main terrace, almost due N of Mound A, Group 2. It consists of a small steep mound at the angle of the promontory, whose E face falls to the full height of the terrace plus the artificial height of the mound. Due W of it is a narrow, flat depressed area flanked on the N and S by two small elongated mounds. Just N of the northern of these is a small mound in which the remains of a stone structure can be seen. Just W of this portion of the site, and running in a N-S direction and three broad deep trench-like depressions which divide the site into three elongated mesas, each about 100 yards long by 20 yards wide, flat on top with rounded edges. The mounds and structure are on the E mesa, but all appear to be covered with the same heavy sherd-bearing deposit.

January 25, 1939 – Rain, cold.
January 26, 1939 – Rain, cold.
January 27, 1939 – Rain, cold.

February 5, 1939

Worked all the past week with a full crew at the Ranchita site. Worked a small crew running a cross-section through a small mound on the second mesa. The remainder of the crew started a long trench 30 yards wide on the west side of the E mesa and carried it forward towards the small round mound just N of the little Ranchita group. Later in the week the first group was moved to an E-W trench started about ten yards S of the mound group. Another group was put to work on a trench just N of the small round mound. We established the fact that the Ranchita site is a burial ground, the surface burials being cremations excepting for a few infant burials. There appear to be two levels of burials. The lower which occur at a depth of 4 or 5 feet have the uncremated bones under inverted round-bodied ollas of coarse buff paddled ware. These ollas have narrow necks with flaring lips. In several instances from two to four small pots were placed against the olla on the N side. The human remains in most instances were entirely disintegrated, but in a few cases teeth and a few other bone fragments remained. At this level red T.Z. figurines are found but not associated definitely with the burials. Polished black incised ware, with red in the incisions, is fairly common. Most of the pots are flat bottomed and some have straight sides. Cazuela shapes, bowls, dishes with incurving rims and olla shapes are characteristic.

The surface burials are in the black surface soil about one foot under. They consist of a pot containing the cremated bones with another pot inverted over it as a cover. Characteristics of this ware are vessels with unusually thin walls, painted chili grinders with tripod supports in the form of loop handles. Painted teapot spouted vessels with strap handles over the mouth. Two very thin bowls were found with delicately incised intricate designs around the upper part of the vessel. The painted designs are in red and black. The combination of the two is unusual. Red T.Z. figurines are occasionally painted black (with asphalt?). Broken pottery pieces are sometimes mended with asphalt. Broken fragments of metates and manos are scattered throughout as are T.Z. figurines. Hollow figurines appear to be more abundant near the surface. In the trench on Mesa 2 through the small mound, a very fine broken pot of thin yellow ware was found, with an effigy human face in full relief.

As the digging progressed a depth of 6’ was reached without hitting bottom, so we will run a stratigraphic trench into Mesa 1, from the base.

February 7, 1939

Continued work at Ranchita. At a depth of 3’ just 10’ N of the small round mound, a mosaic of potsherds was found making a perfect circle 4’ in diameter. The sherds were carefully fitted together so that there was no space between them. Three broken pots were sitting along the North circumference of the circle or disc. This disc lay just below a burial R-9 containing eight pots. As the main trench advanced towards the E away from the edge of the mesa, no more surface burials were encountered and the deep burials in ollas almost stopped. Just before reaching the base of the highest mound, the main trench reached a depth of 8’. Dog and deer bones appeared occasionally at this level. At this depth also we encountered a line of terra cotta “drain pipes” one telescoped within the other sloping slightly upward and heading towards the middle of the main mound. Decided for the time being to let the trench advance naturally rather than follow them up especially.

February 8, 1939

Yesterday afternoon in the trench in front of the small round mound, at a depth of 6’ a piece of a well carved decorated stone yoke was recovered. This now makes three pieces from Tres Zapotes. One that I saw here last year found in a milpa, one that we got from Procopio Olaya found in the arroyo, and this one which we have excavated. This morning in almost the same place we found a rim sherd of fine chocolate brown sculptured Mayan pottery, with a human head, flowing plumes, etc., sculptured in relief.

Yesterday afternoon in the main trench at a depth of 8’ a miniature effigy urn was found in association with one of the typical lower level olla burials. It is about 3” high in redware and very much in the style of the typical T.Z. figurines.

Started a trench this morning over the "drain-pipe in order to clear a considerable section of it for photographing. Went up to Stela "C" yesterday and found it had been knocked over, date side down. Today I went up again with 14 men to turn over the altar. this was done and the altar was found to be flat and perfectly plain on both sides. Left it standing on edge against the S wall of the pit so that Stela C would not hit against it if someone took a notion to turn it over.

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