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New technologies virtually reconstruct the pre-hispanic city of Tingambato
New technologies reconstruct the pre-Hispanic city of Tingambato virtually, in today’s Michoacan. Photo: Archaeologist José Luis Punzo. INAH.

Translated by Liz Marie Gangemi

MEXICO CITY.- In the 70’s, two archaeologists, Román Piña Chan from Mexico and Kuniaki Ohi from Japan, undertook an extensive exploration project in Tingambato, Michoacan, finding, among other structures, a game involving a ball and a mass burial grave, which is still under investigation by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

From that project anecdotes remain of how Piña Chan used his privileged sense of smell to know where to dig, or about the karate lessons that Kuniaki gave in his spare time to the children of Tingambato, in exchange that they read at least one book a month.

This is what archaeologist José Luis Punzo Díaz, of the Michoacan INAH Center, announced in a video conference that he participated in on April 30th in the series "Archaeology Today", coordinated by archaeologist Leonardo López Luján at El Colegio Nacional.

Via remote methods, in accordance with the measures of the National Day of Safe Distancing Campaign to avoid mass gathering and mitigate the infection of COVID-19, the researcher read the essay entitled “Tingambato: LiDAR, Drones and Tombs in a City of Michoacan from the Classic and Epiclassic”.

The conference addressed the way in which, thanks to devices like drones, high-resolution cameras and LiDAR instruments -acronym in English for Light Detection and Ranging-, made possible the innovation of traditional archaeology and generation of digital models, based on the most recent research led by Punzo since 2013, which reconstruct Tingambato at its peak.

Thus, in places such as the INAH Media Library, a portal that added its contents to the national "Contigo en la Distancia" – “With You by Long Distance” - campaign of the Ministry of Culture, a virtual tour of Tingambato can be accessed, as it must have been 1,500 years ago.

These technologies, together with studies of DNA, mass spectrometry and geophysics, among others, developed with academic centers such as the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), the laboratories of the Museum of the Greater Temple (MTM), the UNAM, the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, as well as the universities of Strasbourg, France, and Auckland, New Zealand, have allowed new data to be obtained from the pre-Hispanic city.

A specific case, Punzo explained, is dating, because when Piña Chan and Ohi explored Tingambato, they established its temporary association with Teotihuacan from architectural similarities such as the construction of facades with the so-called "talud-tablero" style – a steeply sloping wall (talud) surmounted by a table-like, right-angled panel with an inset (tablero).

However, the scientific data clarify that Tingambato lasted over nine centuries, divided into three major stages of occupation: the initial one, from 0 to 300 AD; an intermediate one between 300 and 550 AD, and the highest surge, between this last date and the year 900 of our era.

In addition, the archaeologist pointed out, "outside the "talud-tableau" there is no great ceramic or architectural evidence to indicate a Theotihuacan presence in Tingambato," which contradicts the theory given by Ohi and Piña Chan, relative to the city being an enclave of the great metropolis of Michoacan.

A new interpretation is that, whereas Teotihuacan began to record its decline coinciding with the third phase of Tingambato -archaeologists such as Linda Manzanilla and Leonardo Lopez point out that when the great fire of the “Calzada de los Muertos” - Causeway of the Dead - occurred in 570 A.D.-, many of the inhabitants expelled from the great metropolis returned to their places of origin, one of them Tingambato, seeking to leave behind symbols, such as the “talud-tablero”, to be remembered by and associated with the splendor of the fallen capital.

José Luis Punzo commented that another area currently being worked on for academic purposes is a virtual reconstruction, that could serve as a dissemination tool through the augmented reality of “Tombs I and II of Tingambato”, discovered in 1979 and 2012, respectively.

He further said that a particularity of the visualization of “Tomb I” -already available in the virtual tour of the media library of the INAH- is that it gives visitors a perspective not only of how it currently looks, but also of how it looked at the moment of its discovery.

For this, it was necessary to contact, via the University of Kyoto, the family of Kuniaki Ohi, who provided the project with the site plans, notes and drawings that, layer by layer, were elaborated by the Japanese archaeologist, commissioned to Tingambato by Piña Chan.

Meanwhile, the objective in the virtual reconstruction of “Tomb II”, undertaken by archaeologist Alejandro Valdes, is to "bring to life, or perhaps to the moment of her death," a young woman of high status who was found there, said Punzo when contrasting how while more than 100 individuals were found in one tomb, only one was located in another.

It was, he said, a woman between 15 and 29 years old, with a cranial deformity, who was buried with a rich trousseau composed of 19,428 stone and shell objects, many of them exotic and imported.

The aim of all of these projects, concluded Punzo, is that archaeological research does not stay only as technical reports, but be taken advantage of through new communication and dissemination platforms to reach wider audiences.

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