Tollan, the Toltec Capital

Tula de Hidalgo, Mexico

Coatepantli Frieze at Tula

lauranazimiec / Flickr / CC BY 2.0


The archaeological ruins of Tula (now known as Tula de Hidalgo or Tula de Allende) are located in the southwestern part of the Mexican state of Hidalgo, about 45 miles northwest of Mexico City. The site is located within the alluvial bottoms and adjacent uplands of the Tula and Rosas Rivers, and it lies partially buried beneath the modern town of Tula de Allende.


Based on extensive ethnohistorical research by Wigberto Jimenez-Moreno and archaeological investigations by Jorge Acosta, Tula is considered the likely candidate for Tollan, the legendary capital of the Toltec Empire between the 10th and 12th centuries. Also, Tula's construction bridges the Classic and Postclassic periods in Mesoamerica, when the power of Teotihuacan and the southern Maya lowlands were fading, to be replaced by political alliances, trade routes, and art styles at Tula, and at Xochicalco, Cacaxtla, Cholula and Chichén Itzá.

Tollan/Tula was established as a fairly small town (about 1.5 square miles) around 750, as the Teotihuacan empire was crumbling during the Epiclassic period (750 to 900). During the height of Tula's power, between 900 and 1100, the city covered an area of some 5 square miles, with a population perhaps as high as 60,000. Tula's architecture was set in a diverse environment, including a reedy marsh and adjacent hills and slopes. Within this varied landscape are hundreds of mounds and terraces that represent residential structures in a planned cityscape with alleys, passageways, and paved streets.

Coatepantli Frieze or Mural of the Serpents

The heart of Tula was its civic-ceremonial district called the Sacred Precinct, a large, open, quadrangular plaza surrounded by two L-shaped buildings, as well as Pyramid C, Pyramid B, and the Quemado Palace. The Quemado Palace has three large rooms, sculpted benches, columns, and pilasters. Tula is justly famed for its art, including two interesting friezes worth discussing in detail: the Coatepantli Frieze and the Vestibule Frieze.

The Coatepantli Frieze is the best-known artwork at Tula, believed to date to the Early Postclassic period (900 to 1230). It is a carved into a 7.5-foot tall, free-standing wall running for 130 feet along the north side of Pyramid B. The wall seems to channel and restrict pedestrian traffic on the north side, creating a narrow, enclosed passageway. It was named coatepantli, "serpent" in the Aztec language, by excavator Jorge Acosta.

The Coatepantli Frieze was made from slabs of local sedimentary stone, carved in relief and brightly painted. Some of the slabs were borrowed from other monuments. The frieze is capped by a row of spiral merlons, and its facade shows several reclining human skeletons intertwined with serpents. Some scholars have interpreted this as a representation of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent in pan-Mesoamerican mythology, while others point to the Classic Maya Vision Serpent.

Frieze of the Caciques or Vestibule Frieze

The Vestibule Frieze, while lesser-known than that of the Coatepantli, is no less interesting. A carved, stuccoed, and brightly painted frieze that illustrates a procession of ornately dressed men, it is located on the interior walls of Vestibule 1. Vestibule 1 is an L-shaped, colonnaded hall that links Pyramid B with the main plaza. The hallway had a sunken patio and two hearths, with 48 square pillars supporting its roof.

The frieze is in the northwest corner of Vestibule 1 on a nearly square bench measuring 37 inches high by 42 inches wide. The frieze is 1.6 by 27 feet. The 19 men shown in the frieze have been interpreted at various times as caciques (local chiefs), priests, or warriors, but based on the architectural setting, composition, costumes, and color, these figures represent merchants engaged in long-distance trade. Sixteen of the 19 figures carry staffs, one appears to wear a backpack, and one carries a fan, which are all elements associated with travelers.

Resources and Further Reading

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Tollan, the Toltec Capital." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 28). Tollan, the Toltec Capital. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Tollan, the Toltec Capital." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).