Mysteries of El Tajin

For centuries, since their discovery in 1785, the ancient ruins of El Tajin located along the Mexican Gulf coast in the state of Veracruz have been shrouded in jungle and in mystery. Over the past several decades, Dr. Jeffery Wilkerson, who has a temporary laboratory in Harlingen and a research station in Veracruz, has helped uncover much of El Tajin's intriguing history and recently helped unravel the strange disappearance of some 3,000 pounds of priceless replicas from the historic site that had been missing for half a century.

"The story is about El Tajin. El Tajin is the nearest major ancient city to the Valley, and a city that was buried in a rainforest until the 1930's, 40's and 50's," said Dr. Jeffery Wilkerson. "El Tajin was a major center in ancient times between 300 and 1000 AD that was full of all manner of architecture, paintings and sculpture."

Dr. Wilkerson, who has his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Tulane University, is Director of the Institute for Cultural Ecology of the Tropics founded in 1976. He authored a cover story for National Geographic Magazine on El Tajin and is a world renowned authority on pre-Columbian cultures of the region.

"In the first half of the 20th century perhaps the greatest art historian of the United States dealing with pre-Columbia, pre-Hispanic art was Herbert Spinden," Wilkerson said. "In 1929 Spinden make a trip into the rainforest of eastern Mexico looking for a site that he knew had been mentioned over a century before, but had not really been examined."

"Getting there was not an easy thing. There were no roads. It required going by train to Mexico City and Veracruz and then taking what was called a "packet boat," a little coastal boat from Veracruz to the Nautla River. El Tajin lies 25 miles inland on a tributary of the Tecoluta River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico thru mangrove tangled banks."

"Once the boat dropped him off he got on horseback and went thru the jungle for several days. When he finally reached the site he realized that one, it was very big, two it was very important and three, it had sculpture which most interested him. He decided to come back and make casts because that was the best way to study the sculptures."

Spinden got permission from the Mexican government, and he cobbled together an expedition with several sponsors to return to El Tajin in 1931. The plan was to make precise papier-mâché molds of the intricate sculptures surrounding the sacred ball court and carry them back to the United States for extensive study.

"He returns to Papantla, at that time a very small Indian town, and from this base he begins work at El Tajin. "He returns to Tajin and starts pulling out the big blocks of sculptures that are mostly hidden beneath huge trees and massive roots as the site was pretty much unchanged since its discovery in 1785."
Today, nearly 225 years since El Tajin's discovery only 20 percent of the structures stretching over 2,550 acres have been excavated. In 1939, Professor Garcia Payon began peeling back the jungle from the extensive site and over many decades the story of El Tajin began to slowly take shape. El Tajin was revealed to be a distinctive culture that formed a strategic bridge between the civilizations of the Maya and central Mexico.

The people were of Huastec Indian stock and cousins to the Maya. Today the ruined city is in possession of the Totonac who consider it to have been built in the time of their "grandfathers." "Tajin was probably never entirely vacated but by the 15th century it appears to have become Mictlan, or "place of the dead," Wilkerson said. "In the language of present day Totonac, the name Tajin means "lightning" or "place of the invisible beings."

Various illustrious personages visited and wrote about the site since Diego Ruiz an engineer first chronicled his travels in 1785. Nearly all focused on the magnificent building called the Temple of the Niches, but Spinden realized there was much more to discover.

"He began making papier-mâché molds of the sculpture using the techniques of the time, perhaps backed up with plaster. As of now, I don't know how exactly he managed the papier-mâché," Wilkerson said.

Through rainstorms, mosquitoes and all the obstacles of working in a road less tropical wilderness Spinden prevailed and eventually embarked on his return to a museum on the east coast. The precious molds ranged in size from a few feet wide to about eight feet and probably weighed more than 3,000 pounds. With much effort, men and mules hauled the massive load out of the jungle and to the coast for the voyage home.

Upon his triumphant return, one-time casts were made and the molds destroyed. The impressive casts became the central display of a very successful exhibit. After a few years of great popularity and scientific acclaim Spinden moved on to other explorations, and thru a series of curators the casts seemingly vanished.

"We don't know when they disappeared, but by the 1960's they are totally lost. I suspect they may have actually vanished shortly after the Second World War. In the 1960's I started querying them about the casts. The initial response was no, they are not here. I kept asking every successive curator and really began pressing them in 1989 and 90, because I was in New York for a museum opening as I had written part of the catalogue."

"Amazingly, in 2000 the museum found some casts in the basement and sent me some photographs thinking they were Mayan," Wilkerson said. He wrote back and informed them the casts were not Mayan but were from Tajin and were part of the lost casts. A personal visit to the museum's myriad dark corridors and narrow passageways winding thru a vast basement resulted in Wilkerson positively identifying the dusty casts as those from Tajin.

Several more years passed and in 2004 the museum started renovating. As they began tearing down walls they suddenly discovered the remaining lost casts. They had been entombed within the walls of the museum. "There was probably a change of directors, and they decided they were going to do something real fast in this big ground level hall and they had a limited amount of time and weren't going to take the time to pull these items out and curate them properly. They probably considered it a temporary remedy."

The casts are of sculptures form the two most important ritual ball courts, and they represent work that is at least 1,000 years old, perhaps 1,500. They are the only casts that are in existence of El Tajin outside of Mexico.

"They include panels showing the initiation of the ritual ball game by elaborately dressed participants and human sacrifice in the presence of the gods. They also depict deities and players in other rites associated with the ritual game. They are unique objects with a very high educational value," Wilkerson explained.

The museum, perhaps in gratitude and respect for Dr. Wilkerson's persistence and acumen in locating the lost casts, has transferred ownership of them to the Institute for Cultural Ecology of the Tropics. They recently arrived in Harlingen by semi-trailer in 14 carefully constructed crates with a total weight exceeding 4,000 pounds.

Dr. Wilkerson is hoping to showcase the historic replicas at a permanent location in South Texas. "The Institute is considering staying in the Valley if there is adequate support," Wilkerson said.

If you are interested in contacting Dr Jeffery Wilkerson the email address is

On December 18 at 10 p.m. eastern, Dr. Wilkerson will be featured in a Discovery documentary entitled "Flooded Civilization." The documentary was produced by Discovery and will air on the Science Channel.

If you are interested in visiting El Tajin, a world heritage site, it is a long day's drive of approximately 500 miles and well worth the visit. The closest major town is Papantla.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore