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Ancient Mexican Temple Precinct Housed Specialized Priesthood

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Excavations at Mexico’s Valley of Oaxaca have recovered the region’s earliest known temple precinct, which, according to a new study by the American Museum of Natural History, existed about 1,500 years earlier than similar temples described by colonial Europeans. Archaeological investigations during the past 20 years suggest that the temple precinct was staffed by a specialized priesthood. The findings are described this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Aerial view of El Palenque's temple precinct

Aerial view of El Palenque’s temple precinct, facing southwest toward public plaza, during excavation. Three temples linked by enclosure walls face the public plaza. Behind them are two priests’ residences, located in the left foreground of this view. Also visible is the entrance to the masonry-lined tunnel directly behind central temple. 

AMNH/ C. Spencer and E. Redmond  


Museum research associate Elsa Redmond and curator Charles Spencer, both in the Division of Anthropology, led the excavations at the archaeological site known as El Palenque. The data document a 300-100 BC walled enclosure that included three multi-room temples and two priests’ residences.

Priests' residence

View of one of the temple structure’s priestly residences under excavation, facing northeast. The paved platform at the front of the residence and the paved passageway lead to the sunken room in the rear. 

AMNH/ C. Spencer and E. Redmond


Perforating tools, along with animal and human remains in a room with hearths, suggest that the officiating priests performed bloodletting rituals, animal sacrifices, and possibly human sacrificial rituals. Cooking and producing cloth for priests were likely carried out in a specialized facility. A masonry-lined vaulted tunnel was found leading to the public plaza, which Redmond and Spencer suggest might have been used by priests and other individuals to secretly access the plaza on special ceremonial occasions.

Temple structure

View of one of the temple structures under excavation from its southeastern end. The hearths and burned floor are visible as is the rear staircase being exposed in the right foreground.

AMNH/ C. Spencer and E. Redmond


 

Together with a royal palace, previously discovered at the site and reported in 2004, the buildings and artifacts suggest that the pre-Columbian people of Oaxaca had developed an intricate political and religious hierarchy during this time. 

You can find the paper here.

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