Sunday, 17 November 2013

Of Markets and weaving and other crafts

One of the pleasures in touring with Exodus  is that you also get to experience some of the local culture as well as visiting the  archaeological sites.

One morning on our way to Mitla we stopped to sample a local market

This is a daily event here. The villagers have a tradition of just shopping for what they need that day and it's all over by lunchtime.

Very much a social event as well as the chance to buy just about anything you could really want from fresh vegetables and meat to nail varnish and deep fried grasshoppers.

The traditional dress is still very much the normal thing to wear. This is not for the benefit of the tourists though - it is their way of life.

We bought bread and cakes to try and some grasshoppers to bring home.

Our next stop was at a local weavers - yes obviously the idea was that we bought something but we were invited into the family home and given a traditional welcome in their altar room.  Like most of their neighbours they were staunch Catholics and we were ritually greeted and blessed. I did try not to smile when we learned that the youngest daughter was  named Ixchel ( the Mayan Goddess of the moon and patroness of weaving)

The daughter in law of the  house made wax candles for the church. Traditionally these are bought by the bridegroom for this bride. Despite costing the best part of a year's income they are lit at the wedding.

The detail is quite amazing. You can certainly see why they cost so much.

The main reason for our visit though was to see the old Mayan style of dyeing and weaving. 

The colours used are all natural dyes found and prepared locally. Some were familiar to me like lichens and marigold but others were new.

OF particular interest was the red - cochineal from the cochineal scale insect (Dactylopius coccus) The family farm them on cactus and once they have completed the life cycle they are collected. The dye is carminic acid and it is released by crushing. 

The intensity of the colour produced  from the dried grey insects was quite amazing.

Our host was a very skilled weaver indeed.

He is producing carpets and rugs of his own design and also based on some of the ancient Mayan artwork from Mitla which is close by.

The area also has a wealth of cave paintings which predate the Mayan empire. This rug is a  woven reproduction of a typical design.

I'd have happily bought any number of rugs if there had been anyway of transporting them home. At present they are sent to a wholesaler and sold that way. I suspect for a very great deal more than the weaver was asking for. I had to content myself with a bag.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Inside Stonehenge

I know I've been here before. OK and more than once maybe as well!

But this is different. I've never been able to go inside the circle before but last Monday English Heritage had a special members only event which allowed us early morning access to the stones themselves. This was a chance I wasn't going to miss so even I was prepared to get up early for once for the hour or so drive.

It is a bit surreal there now. They are in the process of closing the old road to the stones so we had to pass a manned roadblock  by the new visitors centre ( not yet open) and display a laminated permit giving us permission to drive down to the old car park and visitor centre.

Although we were there on time it seemed ages until we were allowed down to the stones with two guides and a couple of security men.

It was strange also to see Stonehenge empty except for our party. normally of course it is surrounded by visitors, all being kept a respectful distance from the stones themselves of course.

First close up view into the circle from just outside. We were told we could wander around but not to touch the stones themselves. They are covered with rare lichens which they want to protect. How they survive the crowds at the summer solstice then, goodness only knows.

However we were good....

It was well past dawn by now but it's getting late in the year and the sun is still low in the sky.

Once inside the circle you become aware of just how massive these stones are. They are huge. You don't get anything like the effect of them from the path.

I was very amused to see the jackdaws living in the gaps on top of the uprights. Even more so when they started to steal the twigs from each other that they'd collected!

The tallest upright with the altar stone in the foreground.

and finally - not quite from the inside but the approach up the avenue now looks quite different since they removed that section of road and grassed it over.  Our hour was up by now so we had to leave before the general public arrived and it didn't take long for it to be business as usual.

It was a fabulous experience to be able to go into the circle. I have  sympathy for the Free Stonehenge movement which is campaigning for open access but with close on 1m visitors last year, there is no realistic way that number can be accommodated in the circle without them being damaged.

Now to book to do it again!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Monte Albán

One thing we discovered about Mexico was that each site seemed even better than the last and this feeling persisted throughout the trip. If we thought Cholula was impressive, Monte Albán outclassed it. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtec it has been extensively excavated.

It started off rather low key; these are the remains of some of the housing of the non elite.  So far interesting but not that impressive.

Many tombs have been discovered here - it was also common practice to bury the deceased under the floor of the houses above. This was taken in pitch dark with the flash and bent double so isn't very straight!
Then we got into the main plaza and some very big constructions indeed.

The monumental centre of Monte Albán is the Main Plaza, which measures approximately 300 metres by 200. A series of platforms housed the main ceremonial, civic and high status housing.

Neatly arranged along the wall we found a series of carved stone monuments in the Olmec style.

Originally they were considered to be Danzantes or "dancers" but this is now discredited. These are reproductions with the originals being safely preserved in the on-site museum.

Here's one of them. The latest interpretation is that they are in fact early medical textbooks intended to record and teach. Some of the tablets show the process of birth and even an early cesarean section - whether the mother would have survived the process seems remote.

This was taken looking down on to the plaza from the highest platform. You also get a sense of how high up in the hills the whole site is.

The importance of some of the residents here was underlined by this private altar; normally these would have been in public areas but at Monte Alban there were both.
Looking at the site everything looks very neat and tidy ( there were workman manicuring the grass as we visited) but a few of the platforms have not had the same restoration - this one gives a good idea of what they would have looked like before being cleared and cleaned up.

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