Sharp-eyed gamers may have noticed that the same colossal sculptures appear repeatedly throughout the Peruvian levels of the original Tomb Raider (1996), most notably in the Tomb of Qualopec. These sculptures are, in fact, based on the real-life Atlantes, or Atlantean pillars, found at Tula, a Postclassic archaeological site in the Mexican state of Hidalgo.**
The four Atlantes of Tula are basalt pillars carved in the form of Toltec warriors and are thought to have once supported the roof of the Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (“The Morning Star”), which once stood atop Pyramid B. The warriors themselves can be seen wearing their full battle regalia: butterfly-shaped breastplates, feathered headdresses, spears, spear throwers (or atlatl), decorative sandals, and sun-disks on their backs. It is thought that the warriors represent the god Quetzalcoatl in his manifestation as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the warrior Lord of the House of the Dawn who was associated with Venus as the morning star.
When the Toltec Empire crumbled in the 12th century, many of Tula’s statues, including the four Atlantes, were torn down and unceremoniously dumped in a trench that had been dug into the north face of Pyramid B. The warriors were eventually reassembled and returned to their original positions following the excavations of the Tula site in the 1940s. Visitors to the site can now see them gazing eastwards and downwards onto Tula Grande, the ancient city’s political and ceremonial centre.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the presence of these warriors in the original Tomb Raider is that they probably should not have been there in the first place. The Pre-Columbian cultures of Peru would have had little contact with the Mesoamerican cultures of Mexico so it is unlikely that Toltec art would have found its way into Vilcabamba, an Inca city nestled away in the Andes. However, since the Vilcabamba in Tomb Raider I is thought to be the final resting place of a fictional Atlantean king, we can allow the game developers some artistic license. After all, perhaps in their view, the artistic traditions of the Toltecs and Aztecs have Atlantean origins and the Tula warriors are merely copies of those found in Qualopec’s final resting place. 😉
If you’d like to learn more about Tula, the Atlantes and the Toltec Empire, check out some of the links and books listed below:
- Tula of the Toltecs: Excavations and Survey, edited by Dan M. Healan, University of Iowa Press (1989)
- Ancient Tollan: Tula and the Toltec Heartland, by Alba Guadalupe Mastache, Robert H. Cobean, and Dan M. Healan, University Press of Colorado (2002)
- An Archaeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico, by Joyce Kelly, University of Oklahoma Press (2001)
- The A to Z of Ancient Mesoamerica byJoel W. Palka, Rowman & Littlefield (2010)
- Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar Moreno, Oxford University Press (2007)
- Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World, edited by Jeff Karl Kowalski and Cynthia Kristan-Graham, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (2011)
- Tula (Wikipedia page)
- Sacred Sites: Tula
- Poblar.Com: Toltecs
** The use of the word “atlantean” here has nothing to do with the mythical lost island of Atlantis that features so heavily in Tomb Raider I and Anniversary. “Atlantes” is simply the plural form of the architectural term “atlas”, which refers to the use of a male human figure as a supporting column. Those who are familiar with Greek mythology will probably remember that Atlas was a Titan who was condemned to hold up the heavens for all eternity as punishment for his involvement in the war against the Olympian gods.
I must write an Obscure Pre-Columbian Sunday post on the (In)Tolerable Toltecs. I love that all the sources seem to delight in saying that, though the Aztecs were big fans of Toltec art (I think “Toltec” actually means “artesan” in Nahuatl), they didn’t seem to produce much that was impressive–except for the Atlantes, of course!
Please do. I’d love to read it. 🙂
I have to admit I’m not too familiar with Toltec art or history. They seem to be ignored in most of the books I’ve read. The Olmecs, Aztecs and Maya just keep stealing their thunder. 😉
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