THINGS BELOW THE GROUND
Some months ago I came across the story of the Coatlicue Mayor, a colossal Aztec sculpture that was buried and uncovered repeatedly
during a period of more than 500 years. The account is as follows:
On August 13th 1790, while working on a new drainage system, builders discovered a colossal stone sculpture underneath Mexico City’s main square,
After some research, the university scholars realized that the sculpture was the Coatlicue goddess. The viceroy of the time, Viceroy Revillagigedo, had the sculpture placed at the Catholic University as a monument to ancient times. After a short while, the scholars realized that some locals where secretly worshiping the sculpture and thus decided that having it in public view could revive old Aztec beliefs among indigenous people. In order to protect the catholic Spanish colony, they chose to bury the monolith once again, this time under the university’s patio. However, before it was dug in, the scholar Antonio de Leon y Gama had time to make a detailed description of it.
In 1804 Leon y Gama’s notes were published in a book entitled, “Historical and Chronological Description of Two Stones that were found in the Plaza of Mexico Upon the Occasion of Laying the New Pavement.” Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist and explorer, found Leon y Gama’s book and, fascinated by the account, travelled to Mexico to request permission to examine the sculpture. The Coatlicue was unearthed for him; he saw it and then it was buried once again.
Some time after, William Bullock, an English traveller and antiquarian, requested the unearthing of the sculpture once more in order to make a cast that was going to be shown at the London Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly as part of an exhibition named “Ancient Mexico.” In 1821, after the Mexican Independence, General Iturbide had the statue uncovered for good and placed it in the open air in the back patio of the university. From there, it was later moved to a monolith salon founded by President Porfirio Diaz and finally recognized as a key relic of the Aztec culture. It now occupies a central place at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.
I will not delve into the Coatlicue symbolism or any of the fascinating tales of religious syncretism that surround the sculpture as these can be found in any history book. Instead, it is the transitions of the object, as if abstracted from history, what interest me more. The episodes of visibility and invisibility, of showing and hiding by means of placing things, periodically, above and under the ground.
In some voodoo rituals, objects are dug and later unearthed as a way of loading or unloading them with power. In these ceremonies digging in and digging up is used as a way to change the function, meaning and use of objects. In voodoo, it is believed things could have strong effects from the underground, and so one could be blessed or cursed from below the earth.
The Coatlicue monumental sculpture measures more than 2.5 meters in height and weighs over two tons, as much as a small whale or an SUV. In order to get a clearer picture of the monolith tale, I have made a sketch of its episodes above and under the ground, including the replicas that were left on top while the sculpture was removed from man’s sight
The story brings to mind many questions: How was it buried? How deep was it buried? How shallow can one safely bury an object? How deep can one bury an object before it is at risk of getting petrified, fossilized or absorbed by the Earth´s strata? And if something is buried and not destroyed, does that mean that the burier had always the future in mind? Will the object be in expectancy of reaching the top once again, will it be waiting for a future discovery? And how does a burier make sure something will be found? Or won’t be found?
I remember a documentary on nuclear waste that a friend recommended. The dilemma in the film didn’t seem to be so much an environmental one, or even a matter of engineers. The question was whether it was best to leave a message for future generations warning them to never unearth the nuclear waste, or if leaving a cautionary message was going to in fact, have the opposite effect and tempt future generations to unearth it. Could they rely on the reasonable nature of human beings, or be certain of their untrustworthy and irrational curiosity?
Perhaps it is to do with the fact that discovering things underground has always been seen as an opportunity, from the gold rush period to the still current practice of looking for valuables hidden during war times. Some blocks away my house, in a central neighbourhood in Mexico City, there is a strange metal detector shop decorated by photographs of people who claim to have found gold coins or jewellery in Mexico. Every time I walk by I remember a family tale of a distant relative who was unexplainably rich and who, whenever asked about the source of his wealth, would tell the story of a recurrent ghostly apparition in his garden leading him to a treasure. I was always suspicious of the veracity of that tale, yet perhaps that shop around the corner is proof that digging in the ground still offers real opportunities.
Man has always been aware that most objects outlast human beings, and that when it comes to preserving them from possible atrocities above ground the safest place to keep things is under the ground. So if the viceroy, on the first discovery of the Coatlicue, did not destroy the monolith, would that mean that he was unconsciously leaving a message for future generations? A time capsule?
In 1939 Westingtonhouse created one of the first time capsules for the occasion of the World’s Fair, sponsored that year by General Motors and developed around the idea of the future. The trend was to become popular and perhaps nowadays even school assignments would request students to make time capsules of their own. Yet, the 1939 New York time capsule seemed to be, more than a romantic or political act, a real hope to communicate with the future, addressing generations to come as if they were to be completely alien to their own. It included a collection of items mostly selected by a group of Americans, which were supposed to represent the human race and its principal categories of thought, activity and accomplishment. It also included greetings to upcoming societies by Einstein and Thomas Mann. Among the buried objects was a cosmetic make up set by Elizabeth Arden, a guide to the sounds of English words and a woman’s hat designed by Lilly Dache. The capsule is meant to be unearthed in the year 6939. If the request is ensued these objects still have a long way until they reach the top again. One can only speculate if then, a hat could and would still be a hat.
Paz, Octavio. “El arte de México: materia y sentido. Diosa, Demonia, Obra Maestra”, Los Privilegios de la vista II, Obras Completas. Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Solis, Felipe. “ El Taller de la Coatlicue” México Desconocido. Source: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/el-taller-de-coatlicue.html
“ The Time Capsule”, Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Source: http://www.archive.org/details/bookofrecordofti00west
Capsule Contents Source: http://davidszondy.com/future/timecapsule/timecontents.htm#list
Into eternity, documentary directed by Michael Madsen
Futurama, produced by General Motors. Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74cO9X4NMb4