The Toltecs (10th – 12th century) were a culture located in the North of Mexico’s valley where they built their capital Tula. To the Aztecs, the Toltecs were the civilizing ancestors, the ones that brought knowledge, science and religion.
The most important building in Tula’s ceremonial center is Temple B, which was built in Early Post-classical times (between 950 and 1200). The temple is made of a base of five spread out bodies and a central staircase on one side. On the top, the only remains of a spacious sanctuary are the four atlas figures and pillars sculpted in low relief. At the bottom of the temple, a series of pillars marks the location of a big room hypostyle which was used as reunion room for warriors. Behind the temple, the coatepantli (“snakes wall”) delimits the sacred area. This wall shows the sculpted decoration, in painted low-relief, that was on Tula’s buildings. We can see friezes of jaguars alternating with eagles devouring human hearts and feathered serpents’ heads. Those iconographic elements constitute the main themes of Toltec sculpture, which mixes mythic references to the glorification of orders of warriors and the justification of human sacrifice. On this coatepantli, the upper and lower strip bare the stepped frets motif, while the middle one depicts snakes swallowing men half-emaciated; an openwork crowns the whole. As did all the buildings in Mesoamerica, this wall had a rich polychromy: red background, blue and yellow snakes, white fangs and bones.
The roof of the temple rested, on its frontal part, on four big sculptures 4.5 m high depicting men. These atlas figures are made of four blocks of basalt superimposed and fixed by a system of tenon. The four characters, all identical, are static, arms along the body. On one side they hold the atlatl (the throwing spear which was used by populations in the North of Mexico), and on the other side they hold a purse of copal (usually associated with priests). This double aspect – military and religious – helps linking those atlantes to the well known mythical king of Tula: Quetzalcoatl in its astral aspect – Venus, the morning star. The atlas figures’ heads are covered with a headgear made up of a wide headbands, which seems decorated with a jade or turquoise mosaics, topped with a stiff panache of feathers. They wear a triangular apron lined with pearls tied on the front, as well as shoes that leave toes free. On the heels, there are a low reliefs depicting the feathered serpent. They wear big pectorals in the shape of geometrical butterflies, bracelets, and kneepads. These atlas figures were completely painted with white, red, blue, and several shades of green.