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This Totonac concrete from Mexico is at least 1200 years old!

This Totonac concrete from Mexico is at least 1200 years old!


The mural and its concrete base laid face down on the damp, acidic soil of northern Vera Cruz for around 750 years!

The Totonacs of northeastern Mexico were the only known indigenous people in the Americas to independently develop true concrete. It was composed of crushed limestone, volcanic clay and sand.  The mixture was heated to a red hot temperature to form a hydraulic cement.  Water, crushed shells and fibrous vines were added to the mixture then the slurry was poured into forms and allowed to cure.   They used this concrete to construct both floors and walls.   Its formula was similar to that used during the same era by the Romans, but not quite the same.  Their concrete was not quite as strong structurally as that of the Romans, but much more durable in humid, acidic soils.  You see . . .  the Totonacs mixed attapulgite into both their concrete batches used as bases for murals and their fresco murals.   However, their favorite color was Totonac Red, not Maya Blue.  Where did the Totonacs, Toltecs and Aztecs get their attapulgite?   That’s a good question.  There are only a couple of minute deposits of Attapulgite in Mexico.  These mines were barely large enough to meet the needs of one Maya metropolis.

Opening boxes that have remained sealed for many years is bringing back memories from the recesses of my mind.  At the time that Georgia Tech architecture professors and Georgia State anthropology professors prepared the syllabus for my Barrett Fellowship,  there was little interest among academicians in the United States in the cultures of Northeast Mexico.  They included the Totonacs, Huastecs, Tamaulis and a Mayan people without a name in western Tamaulipas.   When re-writing my syllabus, Dr. Roman Piña-Chan, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, added two weeks of study in this region.  The sites to be studied in person included El Tajin, Vera Cruz, Las Flores in Tampico, Tamaulipas,  Balcón de Montezuma, Tamamaulipas and Cuitzío or Tammapul, Tamaulipas.d

The province around Tampico was originally known as Am Ixchel (Amichel in Spanish) which means “Place of the Maya goddess Ixchel.”   Many decades later, I would learn that the region on the Gulf Coast of the United States between Mobile Bay and the mouth of the Apalachicola River was also known as Am Ixchel!   Obviously, there was maritime trade between the two regions.  Attapulgite was transported by sea craft down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers to ports in both Provinces of Am Ixchel.

The Mexican Consul in Atlanta was an architecture graduate from Georgia Tech.  He arranged for me to be designated an Official Guest of Relaciones Exteriores (Mexican State Department) which among other things meant that I was given a photo ID card from the Institutio Nacional de Antropologia E Historia (INAH), which made guards assume that I was an INAH employee, not a Gringo architecture student.  That was a carta blanca to go anywhere on INAH archaeological and historical properties. 

I wandered at will across many sections of archaeological zones, guarded by Mexican Army soldiers, which were off-limits to most tourists.  This access resulted in many extraordinary experiences, which bore fruit in the 21st century.  I was also allowed to bring home 100 kg of artifacts to use as teaching aids in the United States.  All artifacts were to be personally inspected and approved by Dr. Piña-Chan then shipped directly under diplomatic seal from Relaciones Exteriores in Mexico City to the consulate in Atlanta.  None of the artifacts were to be unique examples of the patrimonio nacional of Mexico.

While wandering around the suburbs of El Tajin I noticed a large chunk of concrete protruding out of the muck of the jungle floor.  Several pieces on its edges had broken off when the city was sacked by Chichimec raiders around 1200 AD.  I picked up the smallest chunk and tossed it into a plastic bag within my over-sized camera bag.

I did not realize the full significance of this chunk of concrete until several days later, when I was back in Mexico City at the home of the Sotos in Colonia Nueva Sta. Maria.  Washing off the accumulated 1200 year old  muck, I discovered that the large chunk of concrete was actually a brightly colored mural!  OMG!   I was in big trouble now.   Murals were taboo.  They were considered unique works of art by the INAH.   I didn’t have time to return to Pozo Rico and deposit the artifact back where I had found it.  Besides, I was searched before and after being in remote sections of archaeological zones.  It would be difficult to explain the situation with the soldiers.

So . . . I decided to bring the chunk of the mural along to my next scheduled meeting with Dr. Piña-Chan.  He probably wouldn’t be too angry if I was upfront and honest with him.  I planned to give him the slide, showing the location of the mural, so INAH archaeologists could excavate it.  

Dr. Piña-Chan’s response surprised me.   He grinned ear-to-ear and thanked me for my discovery of the mural.  He said that a team of INAH archaeologists had scoured the suburbs of El Tajin for months, yet had missed the priceless mural.   He let me keep the little chunk of the mural’s edge as a reward.  I had already returned to Atlanta when the newly-discovered mural was excavated.  However, I suspect that it looked something like this mural below, which was excavated during the 1960s by archaeologists, working at El Tajin.  I photographed it while visiting the El Tajin Museum. 

The mural portrays the ancestors of the Totonac People crawling out of the mouth of a great volcano.  They are taught how to grow maize (Indian corn) then learn the ways of civilization.  Those readers, who are Creek or Seminole, will immediately recognize this story as the opening paragraphs of the Kashete-Creek Migration Legend . . .  which begins on the slopes of the Orizaba Volcano in Vera Cruz State, Mexico.

This mural portrays the Totonacs being created by crawling out of the mouth of a great volcano.

Ceramic statue-brazier of the Ancient God

Commonly called the Old Fire God by anthropologists,  this deity is among the earliest recognized in Mesoamerican cultures.    Note that he is wearing a goatee beard.   The Hernando de Soto Expedition stated that once the Conquistadors entered the region that is now the State of Georgia, they observed that most of the kings and town chiefs wore goatee beards.   The king of Okvte (Ocute)  had a beard, which reached down to his belly button.

The motif on the side of the brazier atop his head is the glyph for the planet Venus.  This glyph was also used by the Mayas and ancestors of the Creek People.  It can be seen on several shell gorgeots, excavated in Northwest Georgia and Southeastern Tennessee


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Hey Richard, this is Charles Johnson. Enjoyed your article just then. Yesterday I drove over to the indian shell ring I was reporting to you on Lighthouse Point on James Island near where I live. My late folks, my dad a Tech grad of 1951, lived right across the marsh and creek, on the marsh. I lived with them off and on. My dad’s oldest brother was the architect of that house, and he was an Architecture grad from Tech and a Summa Cum Laude grad. His name is Vernon Johnson and he’s still alive in his 90’s and lives in Vero Beach now. This is why I have interest in over there. The shell ring was large in circumference, grown over with grass but mowed, no shells visible, a couple of large trees, and maybe 4-5′ high at the highest. The private gated community right there at the shell ring that the indian artifacts were found in when making the roadway was again closed. I went by City Hall over there, got the mayor’s business card, but haven’t called him yet. I want to ask him about what is going on with the cover up of the indian artifacts, where are they, why wasn’t a plaque put up there, plus an open public gate to drive through to access seeing the historical plaque. I took photos of the shell ring which had a historical plaque. There was also a plaque that said no trespassing, so you can’t walk on top of the ring. It would be time consuming depositing the photos online. They are of the ring and the fancy brick and wrought iron entrance to the neighborhood named Belle Terre. That’s the state of my little research project on indian preservation. My little brother married a girl that is 1/4 Lumbee so that’s what I’m doing lately. I might just drop the search. If I post the photos online I’d have to create a Blogger page. Maybe I can send them to Google Drive. Haven’t had time to do a transfer yet. It’s not much to see. I got way more artifacts here on the beach that came up with beach renourishment, and on Jul 5th a new renouirishment will start from a borrow spot in the Folly River in back of me here, and I’m sure ALOT of artifacts will be dredged up, including shark teeth, Civil War stuff and maybe pirate stuff. I better get my beachcombing basket ready, plus my back! There were 2,000 Union troops on Folly in the Civil War, and I’ll bet alot of weapons were dumped in the river from ships when the war ended.


    Richard, Another Great article from you. The Totonac People made it across the Gulf so there should be some remains of their concrete along the Gulf and the Apalachicola river which would provide access to the “Maya blue” of SW Georgia. The bee hive type building of SW Georgia close by was a big clue for a trade city at that location. The people who were mining the Maya Blue for generations perhaps for several different civilizations. The Spaniards of 1540 called the people by the flint river in that area the A-capa-chi-ki possibly related to the people of Peru (Para). The Colla people of Peru built a more advanced silo building perhaps for the same reason….mummification of the dead.
    “On the other bank we found a province, which is called Acapachiqui, very abundant in food of that which the Indians ate. We saw some towns of the province, and others we could not see because it was a land of very great swamps. Here we found a difference in the houses of the Indians; we found them as caves below the ground, while up to there they were covered with palms and straw.”


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