Sunday, March 19, 2017

Xochicalco Part 7: The ruler's residence within the Acropolis


Clay emblem of Tlaloc, the rain god. In addition to altars in temples, pyramids, and other ceremonial areas, each household had an altar. Images like the one above have been found around residential altars, along with censers (incense burners) and other ritual items. The living spaces of the ruler's palace in the Acropolis were no exception. The "goggles" around the figure's eyes are a dead giveaway that this is Tlaloc. Notice the halo of bisected conch shells surrounding the face. Tlaloc had long been closely associated with conch shells. Xochicalco was founded by refugees from the great city of Teotihuacan. At Quetzalpapalotl Palace, an elite residence located near Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon, a wall mural shows a goggle-eyed Tlaloc peering down upon a jaguar blowing a feathered trumpet made from a conch shell. In this posting we will take a look at the residential areas of the Acropolis and at some typical artifacts.


Overview of the residential areas


Model of the Acropolis, looking toward the southwest. The grassy area at the lower left of the photo is the the Plaza Principal. The residential area is located on the eastern side of the Acropolis, overlooking the Plaza. The ruler and his family lived in this part of the complex.


Entrance into one of the living areas. The view here is toward the east. The flat roofs of these dwellings were places to enjoy the view over the city and its surrounding countryside during the day. At night, the roofs could be used for celestial observations. The thick stone walls would have maintained a steady, comfortable temperature. The rooms would have stayed warm in the cooler seasons and provided a cool refuge during hot weather.


Lattice painting on this stone block shows Maya influence. Lattice designs can also be found at Cacaxtla, one of Xochicalco's trade rivals. Teotihuacan was not the only cultural influence on Xochicalco. The Olmeca Xicalanca were a Maya group from the Gulf Coast of Yucatan. When Teotihuacan declined after 650 AD, the Olmeca Xicalanca moved up into its former territories and founded Cacaxtla. The lattice painting is one of many indications of Olmeca Xicalanca influence at Xochicalco.


Another residence contains raised stone benches in the back of the room. These platforms were probably used for sleeping. At one end of the bench is a stone cube which may have been an end-table for the bed. On the wall overlooking the room, a young man stands, looking at his cell phone. I am always amused by the juxtaposition of ancient times with the the 21st century to be found in Mexico.


Carved bone flutes. Skilled musicians would have used instruments like these at ceremonial functions. At other times, they would have performed for the amusement of the ruler and his family. The flute on the left has a human face with an elaborate head dress. In Mesoamerica, human bones were sometimes used to make flutes. Carved bone flutes go way back into pre-history. In 2008, archaeologists discovered a 40,000-year-old flute in a cave in Germany, the oldest musical instrument ever found. It was carved from the bone of a vulture.


A three-bedroom apartment. On the right are three of what may have been bedrooms. They share a common entrance into a large open room (left of center). This was probably the general family area. Of course, one of the smaller rooms could have been a kitchen/pantry. As with modern dwellings, it is possible that rooms could have served different functions over time.


Shell and bone jewelry. Jewelry like this would have been crafted by artisans of the common class, but worn by the elite. The bone materials used might have been obtained locally, but the shells would have been brought along the trade routes from the Pacific Coast. The kingdom of Xihuacán, a contemporary of Xochicalco, may have been the source.


More apartments, overlooking the Plaza Principal. The rulers of Xochicalco undoubtedly had large extended families. In fact, polygamy was common among the rulers of the regional states in the Epi-Classic Era. This was not just a social phenomenon, but a political necessity. Marriage was one way to form alliances with other city-states and the more wives, the more alliance possibilities. Sometimes these marriages opened access to important resources. At other times they would have been crucial in offsetting threats from competing alliances. However, the practice seems to have been confined to the rulers and perhaps the elite class. Monogamy seems to have been the practice of ordinary people. In any case, the existence of all these different apartment units within the Acropolis points to polygamy in the ruling circle.


Obsidian jewelry. Tools and weapons were not the only products crafted by artisans working with obsidian at Xochicalco. This necklace, pendant, and other items of jewelry are all chipped from the volcanic glass. The city imported all of its obsidian, primarily from Ucaréo in modern Michoacan State. However, Xochicalco employed many artisans skilled in working with this material. It is likely that one of them made these items. I can imagine them proudly worn by a member of the ruler's extended family.


Rooms with an unknown purpose, but possibly used for food preparation. The commoners were generally excluded from the Acropolis area. However, someone ground the maiz, cooked the domesticated turkeys, prepared the cacao drinks, and performed all the innumerable mundane tasks associated with a royal household. It is hard to imagine the wife (or wives) of the ruler bent over a stone metate, laboriously grinding up maiz for the family meals. After all, what's the point of being rich and powerful if you have to do all this for yourself? It is likely that a select staff of commoners performed these duties. Whether they occupied living areas within the Acropolis is unknown. However, given the extraordinary restrictiveness of this complex, as reflected in its architecture, the commoners probably lived outside the Acropolis and went home for the night.


Pot typical of that which was used in the ruler's kitchens. The knobs on the side of the pot mystified me at first. However, they may have functioned to hold cords in place. These pots would have been suspended from the ceiling to ward off rodents and insects. This further suggests that the contents might have been food.


Ancient pitcher with graceful lines. The purpose and use of some ancient artifacts can be puzzling. However the functions of others are immediately recognizable. I can easily imagine a servant using this pitcher to pour a tasty drink into the ruler's goblet.


Multi-room complex in the northeastern corner of the Acropolis. Most of the rooms are fairly large, indicating that someone unusually important may have lived here, perhaps the ruler himself. Just right of center is an area with what appears to be a sunken patio with two raised blocks at one end. It is likely that one of the rooms above contained the household altar.


Household censer adorned with a snarling cat. Felines were especially revered in Mesoamerica and imbued with god-like qualities.The creature wears an interesting braided collar and is posed in a crouched position. The collar loops over the shoulders, while the back legs and feet can be seen on either side. Such censers were used to burn copal incense, a fragrant resin. Incense burners like this were typically kept near the household altar.

Food Storage and workshops

Graneries occupy the northwest corner of the Acropolis. These small, rectangular spaces have no obvious entrances, except possibly the one on the far right. Even that entrance is too narrow for anyone but a child. The only use I could deduce when I first viewed the rooms was food storage. Sure enough, when I examined a site map of Xochicalco, these were identified as graneros, meaning granaries. They must have been accessed through a hatch on the top of each granero. That would have inhibited pilferage either by humans or, more likely, by rodents or other pests. The grain, undoubtedly maiz, would not have been stored loose, but in large pots which could be further sealed.



The author views a large pot, similar to those used in the Acropolis' granary. With a tight cover, such a pot would have been quite secure against pests. It has the capacity for a large volume of grain. Maiz, stored in cool dry conditions, will remain both edible and plantable for long periods. Notice the small pot with the knobs on the side, similar to the one shown earlier in this posting.


Built onto the Acropolis' exterior wall on the south side are two long narrow rooms. You are viewing the long room on the southeast. This room is separated from the one on the southwest by the wall seen in left of center in the photo.  At the back of the long rooms, abutting the Acropolis' south wall, are a number of rooms which seem too small for living. There was no sign to explain the purpose of the long rooms and their small subdivisions. However, I have found mention of workshops within the Acropolis complex, and this may provide the answer. The rulers apparently retained highly skilled artisans to make luxury goods for their personal use. The long rooms would have served well as work areas to create obsidian jewelry, feather adornments, clothing, etc. The small spaces would have been used for storage of tools and materials. It is likely that the artisans, like the cooking staff, were sent outside the restricted areas at night.


Skull necklace. People of pre-hispanic Mesoamerica, and in New Spain and Mexico in later times, have always been fascinated by death and all its symbols. This necklace of little skulls, finely crafted from bone, fits well in the ancient tradition. It is the sort of luxury item that would have been created for the ruler and his family in the Acropolis' workshops.

This completes Part 7 of my Xochicalco series. I hope you enjoyed this visit to Xochicalco's Acropolis. If so, and you'd like to leave a comment or ask a question, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Xochicalco Part 6: The Acropolis' ceremonial areas


View of the ruler's palace called the Acropolis, looking southwest. The large grassy space in the lower left quadrant of the photo is part of the Plaza Principal. Archaeologists believe that the eastern side of the complex, overlooking the Plaza, was the residential area of the Acropolis. The area on the west side, facing the forest, appears to have been used for ceremonial purposes. In this posting, we will examine those ceremonial spaces and some of the artifacts that were discovered there. In the following posting, we'll take a look at the residential areas, including spaces used for food storage and as workshops for luxury goods. As you can see from above, this is quite a sizable complex containing a large number of rooms of various sizes and shapes. I did not photograph all of the rooms, nor would I have space in my blog to show all the photos that I did take. What I include here and the following posting are simply a representative sample. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia images).


Overview of Xochicalco and its Acropolis


Site map of Xochicalco, with the north side at the top. The Pirámide Quetzalcoatl (Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent, see Part 5) is located in almost the exact center of the Plaza Principal. The Acropolis forms the west side of the Plaza.  Xochicalco was built on a 130 m (426 ft) hilltop and the Acropolis complex is its highest point. In ancient times, access to most of the areas shown above was restricted to elite groups such as priests, warriors and their families. Access to the Acropolis--the home of the ruler--was the most highly restricted of all.


View to the north, from the Acropolis. Out of sight below the wall in the foreground are the Cancha de Pelota del Norte (North Ball Court) and the Temescal (steam bath). The rolling valley in the distance was part of the agricultural area that sustained the city. This photo gives you an idea of how Xochicalco, and particularly its Acropolis, towered over the surrounding countryside. Due to the turbulent times in which it existed, the city was built as a hill-top fortress, much like its various trade rivals, including Cacaxtla and La Quemada.


View to the east, showing the Pirámide Quetzalcoatl in the distance. The grassy area around the Plumed Serpent Pyramid is the center of the Plaza Principal. In the foreground are two of the residential area's rooms.


Ceremonial areas and artifacts

A group of three ceremonial rooms lines the Acropolis' western side. The view here is looking toward the southwest. The rooms pictured here are set on a platform a few feet below the main area of the complex. A terrace, bordered by pillars, runs along the outside of the group. The terrace forms the western edge of the Acropolis. The long, narrow, central room is entered from the terrace through a doorway which once had two pillars. Two smaller rooms, one on either end of the long room, open onto the central room but neither has an opening onto the terrace. Clearly these smaller rooms are subsidiaries to the narrow, central room. They might have been used as priests' dressing rooms or spaces to store ceremonial supplies, equipment, or clothing. Along the back wall of the central room are openings into areas which are too small for anything but storage. The central room is composed of a sunken patio surrounded by paved walkways. An altar stands in the grassy center of the sunken patio.

Block carved with glyphs, found over an altar in the Acropolis. The glyph on the front is the symbol for Ojo de Reptil (Reptile Eye). Under it are four dots representing the Zapotec number 4. The curved, snake-like symbol to its right indicates that the glyph represents a date. On the top of the block are two glyphs, flanked by two hands. The left glyph stands for 2 Movement (referring to the earth's movement), while the one on its right means 1 Death. Bracketing these glyphs are a hand on the far left that holds a punch or awl, while another hand on the right holds a circle. Overall, the symbols appear to refer to two separate events that occurred in the year 4 Reptile Eye. The events must have been of considerable importance to justify all the work of carving this block, as well as its placement over an altar in the ruler's complex.


View toward the northwest of the sunken patio and its altar. The altar has a hole in its middle, which might have been used for ritual fires. In the foreground you can see the small storage areas along the back wall. In the upper left corner, you can see the bases on which some of the pillars stood that lined the terrace on the western side. Visible on the upper right is one of the small dressing/storage rooms.



Circular stone sculptures of five-petal flowers. They look a bit like ancient hub caps. Actually these formed the capitals, or tops, of pillars in the Acropolis and possibly elsewhere in the city. A couple of hundred years after Xochicalco was destroyed and abandoned, tribes of Nahuatl-speaking people moved into the area. The presence of large numbers of these five-petal flowers led them to give the ruined city its name, "Place of the House of Flowers." The meaning of the flowers is obscure, but in Mesoamerica, the center of a flower was thought to provide a passageway for supernatural spirits, including the breath spirit, to enter the world from under the earth. Paintings and carvings of four-petal flowers is much more common, with the four petals representing the four sacred directions. Five-petal flowers are much less common, in my experience.



Large room supported by thick pillars. This rooms is divided in half by a wall. In the middle of the wall are two pillars which form a passageway between the halves. In the half of the room shown in the foreground, the roof is supported by three pillars. On the other side of the dividing wall, there are only two. In the upper left of the photo, you can see a narrow opening into a small room. On the other side of the small room is a space that duplicates the divided room seen above, only in reverse-mirror image.  This physical layout suggests a ceremonial function since a central tenet of Mesoamerican beliefs is the duality of the cosmos. Duality was seen in everything: day vs night, life vs death, man vs woman, etc. In this case, duality is expressed through the architectural design of these mirror-image rooms.

Clay sculpture found in the Acropolis of a macaw emerging from foliage This was one of a number of similar sculptures which decorated the rooflines of ceremonial rooms. At the bottom, the bird's head pushes forward with its beak open. At the top, the long tail feathers fan out. The macaw represented both the sun and the day and was a special symbol of power to the Maya. The use of macaw feathers persisted for over 2000 years. The vivid plumage was prized as a ritual item and as an adornment to the clothing of rulers, priests, and warriors. At first the birds were captured in the wild, but eventually they were raised in pens in order to more easily acquire the feathers. The plumes were traded throughout Mesoamerica and as far north as the American Southwest.



Large ceremonial room with the bases of 10 slender pillars. These supports are much more numerous than those of the previous room as well as being considerably thinner.  Because so many more were used they would still have been able to support the weight of the roof. The result would have been a much greater sense of openness. Notice the staircase in the upper right. This may have been for access to the flat roof. Since the Acropolis was the highest point in the city the day-time view from the roof would have been spectacular. At night, the ability of priests to make celestial observations in all directions would have been unobstructed.


Statue of "The Red Lord", patron of Xochicalco's elite. The arc at the top is part of a broken circle, made up of feathers. The completed circle would have represented the figure's head, as seen in the sign in the background. The middle section represents the root of a tree, but also a torso, with arms, and splayed legs, sitting on a looping glyph at the bottom. The glyph represents the movement of the earth. The striking color of the sculpture is the result of the application of brick-red cinnabar (mercury sulfide), which was often used for ritual purposes by the Maya. The figure represents the God of the Sun, who nourishes the earth. He was the patron god of the ruling elite. The statue was found in a small chamber underneath one of the Acropolis' ceremonial rooms. The extraordinarily private location, in an area that was already the most restricted of the whole city, indicates the great importance that Xochicalco's elite attached to their patron deity.


Two smaller rooms are attached to one end of the large ceremonial room. The view here is to the north. The remains of several of the slender pillars can be seen in the lower left. Just above them is a door. Through the door is an anteroom which separates two small rooms, one on either side. The anteroom serves as the main passageway into and out of the large ceremonial room. Similar to the previously shown group of rooms containing an altar, these small rooms may have been used to store ceremonial materials and as dressing rooms.



Stone mask and jewelry carved in the Teotihuacán style. Such masks and jewelry were often used in funerary rites. They would have been kept in storerooms such as those we have seen attached to ceremonial spaces. Some masks were worn on the face, while others were used as pectorals, i.e. hung on the chest by a cord around the neck. There are no eye holes in this mask, but there are holes in the ears, so it was probably worn as a pectoral. Archaeologists originally thought such masks were carved from a very hard stone called jadeite. However, recent electron beam technology has shown that most are from softer material such as serpentinite, limestone, and travertine. Scientists have also detected traces of the earth used in polishing the masks. They determined that it came from the area of Puebla, to the northeast of Xochicalco. Unless this mask was brought by the refugees from Teotihuacán who built Xochicalco, it probably arrived in a trader's pack from the ancient city of Cholula, in modern Puebla State.

This completes Part 6 of my Xochicalco series. Next time we will have a look at the ruler's living quarters within the Acropolis. I hope you enjoyed this posting. If so, and you would like to leave a comment or ask a question, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Xochicalco Part 5: The enigmatic Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl

Carving of a Maya "Lord of Time" on the side of Pirámide Quetzacoatl. The Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent is unusual for a variety of reasons:

  • First, and foremost, are the wonderful high-relief carvings that richly cover its walls. Traces of colored paint have been detected on the relief carvings, including red, green, yellow, blue, black, and white. The effect must have been stunning. Their meanings are enigmatic and I will discuss several different theories about them later in this posting. 
  • Second, the co-mingling of the Teotihuacán, Maya, and Zapotec styles found in this structure is greater than anywhere else in the ancient city. 
  • Third, Xochicalco's builders intentionally placed the pyramid near the exact center of their most important ceremonial space, Plaza Principal, making the Plumed Serpent pyramid the focal point of the entire complex. 
  • Finally, the pyramid is hollow, unlike any of the others at Xochicalco or anywhere else that I have visited. 
All of these factors demonstrate the high level of importance placed upon this structure by its ancient architects.

Overview of Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl

View of the Plaza Principal from the northeast. The Plumed Serpent pyramid is the hollow square structure in the center of the photo. There is another structure to its right, also square and covered with grass. However, archaeologists don't think that the second structure held the same level of importance as Pirámide Quetzalcoatl. If you were to draw lines connecting the opposite corners of the Plaza Principal, you would find the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent at the point where they cross in the middle. It is the focal point of all the other temples, palaces and other structures surrounding the plaza.


Site map of Xochicalco showing the location of Quetzalcoatl's pyramid. The overall alignment of the city is north-to-south. However, the upper part deviates from a true north orientation to one that is 15.5 degrees off north. The reason has to do with celestial observations. Xochicalco was built by refugees from the collapse of the great city of Teotihuacán. That city was built half a millennium before Xochicalco, but with the same, slightly off-kilter orientation. Archeo-astronomers theorize that this orientation is connected with an ancient desire by priest-astronomers to record sunrises and sunsets on particular days of the year. They needed to calibrate their all-important calendars, with which they tracked the cycles of the world including those of planting and harvesting. Along with their celestial orientation, Teotihuacán's refugees brought with them a deep reverence for QuetzalcoatlThis reverence clearly manifests in the most extravagantly decorated structure in Xochicalco.


Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl, viewed from the Plaza Principal's west side. Although the pyramid is relatively small, it is the most highly decorated structure in Xochicalco. Quetzalcoatl gets the first part of his name from the Quetzal, a bird highly valued by the ancients for its colorful plumage and long tail feathers Coatl means "snake" an animal of great symbolic power. Joined together, they become the Plumed Serpent, the Creator-God who gave life to humans as well as the all-important gift of maiz (corn). In the lower left of the photo you can see a small square altar which was probably used during the ceremonial occasions when the Plaza Principal was filled with people. In the center-right, behind some trees, is the Temple of the Three Stelae. It was the abode of the high priest, which I covered in Part 3 of this series.


How the pyramid once appeared. An artist's rendering shows a covered structure on top of the base. The roof has long-since disappeared, exposing the pyramid's hollow interior. As is often the case with Mesoamerican ceremonial structures, archaeologists found an earlier structure underneath the Plumed Serpent pyramid.



The architecture shows the classic Teotihuacán "talud y tablero" style. The talud sections are the sloping lower walls, while the tablero parts are the vertical panels above them. The tableros are topped by an overhanging cornice, another unusual feature of this pyramid. Such cornices are not found on any of the other tableros of Xochicalco's structures. The talud sections on all four sides are the best-preserved parts of the temple's decorative elements. The tableros once contained extensive relief carvings, but only fragments now remain.


The Lord of the Serpents, found at Pirámide Quetzalcoatl. This large statue was intended to connect Xochicalco's nobility with the Plumed Serpent creator-god. The male figure's posture is regal and severe. He is adorned with a jeweled headband, large ear rings, a necklace, bracelets, and wears a short, kilt-like garment. His left hand holds one serpent while others twine about his body. The power of the rulers, priests, and nobility was based upon their connection to, and ability to communicate with, Quetzalcoatl and the other gods of Xochicalco's pantheon. This power could only be maintained if common people believed in the ability of the elite to intercede with the gods to maintain the balance of the cosmos. That balance was expressed in the regular arrival of the rains, good crop harvests, and the avoidance of weather disasters, earthquakes, epidemics, lost battles, etc. The elite used these beliefs to justify their wealth, authority, and privileges. If the common people's beliefs ever wavered, a popular uprising might be the result. There is evidence that the destruction of the elite areas of Teotihuacán in 650 AD may have been related to a great drought caused by deforestation. The elite of Teotihuacán found itself unable to deal with the drought or with the famine that followed it. This led to a loss of faith and a great revolt. The surviving nobility and priesthood fled south, where they founded Xochicalco. They brought with them a sophisticated culture, an understanding of urban design and trade practices, and a continuing fealty to Quetzalcoatl.


The relief carvings along the pyramid's sides


View of the north side of the pyramid. Each of the taluds on the sides and back have a similar design: two long writhing snakes, with their heads at the corners turned to face each other. The tails meet in the middle of the talud. The two snakes on the front of the pyramid are separated by the staircase. The design of the snakes shows a strong Teotihuacán influence.


View of the northwest corner of the pyramid. In this photo, you can clearly see the snake head turned and the body looping along the side of the talud.


The Plumed Serpent's head, from the northwest corner. The head and neck are fringed with feathers, clearly identifying the serpent as a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl. The mouth gapes open, showing upper and lower fangs curving back. Protruding from the mouth is a long forked tongue. The fork in the tongue has been interpreted as a symbol of the New Fire ceremony, which took place at the end of each 52-year cycle in the sacred calendar. This was a ceremony of great significance because the change-over from one cycle to the next was a moment of cosmic death and rebirth, a time of great danger. On the day of the New Fire ceremony, all fires were extinguished and could only be re-lit when the ritual was complete. Quetzalcoatl was himself a symbol of death and re-birth, which probably is the connection with the New Fire symbol.


Maya-style figures sit between the undulations of the snake's body. There are a series of similar--but not identical--figures on all four sides. For reasons I will explain later, these individuals are sometimes called the "Lords of Time." The seated postures and the figures' profiles show a strong Maya influence. The attire is similar to that of the Lord of the Serpents, except that the head dress is more elaborate. However, these Maya figures are much more artfully created, indicating that the Lord of the Serpents may not have been crafted by a Maya artisan. To the right of the figure is a symbol which may indicate either speech or a place of origin. The combination of Teotihuacán-style Plumed Serpents with Maya-style figures shows that the great empire's refugees apparently shared power with the Olmeca-Xicalanca, a Maya group from the Yucatan's Gulf Coast. The Olmeca-Xicalanca moved into the territories of the Teotihuacán Empire as it began to collapse. They founded Xochicalco's trade rival, Cacaxtla, at about the same time Xochicalco was built.


These symbols were placed inside other curves of the snakes' bodies. At the bottom, you can see a single bar with four dots below it. The dots each represent the number 1 while the bar represents 5. Together, they form the number 9 in the Zapotec numeric system. The inclusion of Zapotec numbers shows the third major influence on Xochicalco's architecture and culture. The complex symbol above the number means "Eye of the Reptile". Above it, the symbol for New Fire occurs again. All together, this forms a written version of Quetzalcoatl's name. However, it can also be read as a date, 743 AD, when an eclipse occurred.


A lattice decoration was placed at the point where the snakes' tails meet. This decoration appears at the mid-point along the talud, where the snakes' tails meet. Lattice decorations can also be found at Cacaxtla. Both cases form additional examples of Maya influence.


A series of stylized conches for the cornice of the tablero. The connection between conches and Quetzalcoatl can be found in his myth. The Plumed Serpent volunteered to populate the newly created world with human beings, but needed materials. To obtain them, he had to enter the underworld and undergo many trials in order to recover bones from perviously destroyed worlds. Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death, refused to give up the bones unless Quetzalcoatl traveled around the underworld four times blowing a trumpet made from a conch shell. However, this was a trick because the conch had no holes for blowing. Quetzalcoatl overcame this obstacle by persuading underground worms to drill the holes. He filled the conch with a swarm of bees to amplify the sound. When Mictlantecuhtli heard the Plumed Serpent blasting on the trumpet, he was forced to give up the bones. A final trap set by the Death God caused Quetzalcoatl to fall and break the bones into many pieces of various sizes and shapes. This is the reason that people appear to be different from one another.

The pyramid's top level and interior

Lord of the Serpent Helmet, found near the Pirámide de Quetzacoatl. The sculpture above is another example of an artist making the connection between Xochicalco's nobility and Quetzalcoatl. The figure shows a great serpent with its mouth wide open. On either side are large, fierce-looking eyes and at the top is the snake's nose. Drooping from the lower jaw is a short, bifurcated tongue. Between the jaws is a human head, worn and somewhat indistinct, but still discernible. The sculpture is another reference to Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulkan, his Maya incarnation. The image of a human face emerging from a snake's mouth is common in Yucatan and the other Maya areas. Over time, the image spread throughout Mesoamerica. This may have come about through a campaign by Olmeca-Xicalanca merchant-traders from the Yucatan's Gulf Coast. They actively propagated the feathered serpent cult throughout Mesoamerica as a way to create a common bond with people of different ethnicities, languages, and customs. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that profitable business would be greased by religious proselytizing.


Interior of the pyramid. From this view, it appears that there may have been at least two floors, the upper one supported by the pillars. There is no staircase or other obvious route down into the bottom level. In the center-left, behind a pair of pillars, is a low square platform which was probably an altar.


Wall support in Teotihuacán style with a small niche in the side. This buttress supports the back wall of the pyramid on the lower level. Just above the sloping talud, in the center of the buttress, is a small niche. This may have once contained an image or object relating to Quetzalcoatl or possibly a candle or lamp to help light what must have been a dark space.


Conches found inside the pyramid. These don't appear to be trumpets, since--like the one the God of Death gave to the Plumed Serpent--they lack blowing holes. These offerings probably originated on the Pacific Coast and were brought to Xochicalco through the trade networks.


Relief carving from the right side of the pyramid's upper level entrance. Originally there were a number of similar--but not identical--carvings on the back, sides, and front walls of the second level. This is one of the few that is nearly intact. The figure in the center is seated in a cross-legged position. The face is worn away, but other elements of the carving are still clear and sharp. A cluster of arrows is strapped to his back, suggesting a military commander, or possibly a ruler. An elaborate necklace is draped around his neck and shoulders and he wears a bracelet on his right hand. Both of these indicate a high-ranking individual. The outstretched hand grasps a staff of power. To the left of the figure is a date glyph with the Zapotec number 8 at the bottom. On the right, at the top, is a fruit-bearing tree or possibly a stylized maiz plant with the ripe cobs. Below it is a rather abstract image of a crocodile sitting upright with the tail curled. While the seated human figure in each three-panel carving is similar to the others on the second level walls, the images, symbols and numbers on either side of the figures differ from one three-panel group to another.


Fragment from the upper entrance on the left side. The seated figure in the center is gone, except for the feet, a hand holding a scepter on the right, and the fletched ends of the arrows of the left. There is a date symbol on the right. It is similar to the previous carving, except for the Zapotec number 10 at the bottom and a New Fire symbol at the top. On the left, the coyote seated on the mat indicates royalty or rulership.



Glyph containing a jaguar head with the number 7 at the bottom. This is all that remains of a three-part grouping. Absent are the human figure and the date glyph. As we have seen, animals such as snakes, quetzal birds and coyotes were important symbols in the pre-hispanic world. Big cats, particularly jaguars, were among the most powerful of these symbols. Jaguars are the third largest of the big cats, after African lions and Indian tigers. They are also skillful hunters. That they seek their prey in the dead of night was especially significant. It implied that they could move freely between the worlds of darkness and light, and of death and life. Jaguars have long been a preferred symbol for warriors and rulers.


Another powerful symbol was the eagle. The fierce nature and hunting ability of eagles made them another favorite as a warrior symbol. Their ability to soar across the heavens associated them with the sun and the gods. It is no coincidence that the two most important warrior cults were named for eagles and the jaguars. At Cacaxtla, a huge ancient mural depicts an epic battle between warriors of the eagle and jaguar cults. Some archaeologists think that the mural may have been modeled after an actual conflict.

So, what does all of this add up to? Why was Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl built and what did it actually represent? As I said at the beginning, the answer is enigmatic. There are several theories:


  • The pyramid may have been built as a political statement and historical record to celebrate Xochicalco's conquests. In this version, the defeated rulers are depicted on the upper level walls, with each three-part grouping listing the dates of victories and tributes levied. At the Zapotec capital of Monte Alban, conquered cities are depicted in relief carvings in somewhat the same way. The figures entwined in the Plumed Serpents' coils may be the Xochicalco lords who defeated the rulers shown on the upper level. Their Maya style might be due to the Olmeca-Xicalanca origins of the artists.
  • Another possibility is that these upper-tier figures are rulers of other regional powers, such as Cacaxtla and La Quemada, who may have come together at Xochicalco to participate in the observation of an eclipse in 743 AD. The symbols and animals accompanying each figure might indicate their kingdom and the dates of their accession to their thrones or of their alliances with Xochicalco. The Maya figures entwined by the snakes on the lower level would then be the "Lords of Time", i.e. Maya priest-astronomers who had arrived hoping to use the occasion of the 743 AD eclipse to re-calibrate their calendars. The Maya mastery of astronomy, mathematics, and calendric calculations was far in advance of the rest of Mesoamerican societies. The glyphs that appear in the snakes's coils can be read either as the name of Quetzalcoatl or as the date 743 AD. Under this theory, the Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl would have been a monument to commemorate the occasion when this great gathering of political leaders and astronomer-priests assembled to observe an eclipse.
  • Still another possibility involves a legendary human leader who had taken the name of the god Quetzalcoatl. The theory is that he ruled Xochicalco for a time before going to Tollan (modern Tula), to become the ruler of the Toltecs, an emerging power in the late Epi-Classic era. After he was forced to leave Tollan, he is said to have ended up at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. It is thought that the figures shown on the upper level are the heirs he had left in Xochicalco, with the dates and locations of their conquests placed beside them in the glyphs. The Maya figures on the talud level may represent priests of the Quetzalcoatl cult originally established by the leader who had adopted that name while he ruled Xochicalco.


The mists of time long ago closed over Xochicalco. No one knows for sure which of these theories, if any, is closest to the truth.

This completes Part 5 of my series. Next time, we'll look at the ruler's palace, called the Acropolis, along with many of the items found within it. I hope you enjoyed my posting on the Plumed Serpent pyramid. If so, and you would like to leave a comment or ask a question, please use the Comments below or email me directly. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim