Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Xochicalco Part 1: "The Place of the House of Flowers"

The Great Pyramid of Xochicalco.  This imposing structure looks directly south over the Plaza of the Two-Glyph Stela on the southern end of the ancient city. Visiting this World Heritage Site was a high priority when Carole and I stayed at Taxco (see Taxco Parts 1-9 on this blog). Xochicalco (pronounced Soshi-cal-co) is one of the finest examples of a city of the Late Classic Era in pre-hispanic Mexico. Its ruins can be found atop a high hill overlooking the modern pueblo of Xochicalco. Excellent cuotas (toll roads) connect the ancient city with Taxco, about an hour's drive to the southwest. In addition, the city of Cuernavaca is less than 1/2 hour by cuota to the north.  To locate Xochicalco on a Google map, click here.

This five-petal flower emblem reflects the city's name. Xochicalco means "Place of the House of Flowers" in Nahuatl, one of the pre-hispanic languages still widely used in Mexico. However, the people who spoke it arrived in the area during the 13th century, three hundred years after the city was abandoned. These Nahuatl-speakers still inhabited the area around Xochicalco when the first Spanish arrived in the 1520s. Numerous decorative stone emblems like the one above have been found in various parts of the city. The name the Nahuatl-speakers gave to the ruins may reflect the prevalence of the stone flower emblems. While people have inhabited the area as early as 200 BC, they lived in small villages until about 650 AD, when the city was founded. The long delay in urbanization may have been caused by the eruption of Volcan Xitle, sometime between 50 AD  - 350 AD.  Once founded, Xochicalco's rise was meteoric, but its history lasted only 250 years, the flicker of a candle in the vast span of pre-hispanic history. The end came suddenly in flames and destruction around 900 AD. What language the people spoke during Xochicalco's Late Classic occupation, and what they called their city, are still unknown. 


Teotihuacán-style mask used by priests in religious ceremonies. The mask was suspended from the neck of the wearer by a cord through the hole in the forehead. This sort of symbolic decoration is called a "pectoral" because it covered the wearer's chest. The style of the mask is significant. The great empire of Teotihuacán (100 AD - 650 AD) had a tremendous influence not only on Xochicalco but on the rest of Mesoamerica. That influence was still potent almost 900 years later during the Aztec Empire (1236 AD - 1521 AD)


Xochicalo was a fortress city, built on a high hill with a 360 degree view. The scale model above can be found in the site museum. It is no coincidence that Xochicalco was founded about 650 AD, almost the exact moment when Teotihuacán fell. While the city was beautifully designed in an architectural and artistic sense, it was also carefully constructed for defense. This reflects the chaos and conflicts that erupted when Teotihuacán collapsed. Xochicalco may well have been founded by refugees of that collapse


One of three stelae unearthed at the Pyramid of the Stelae.  A stela is an upright stone on which glyphs containing language, dates, and sometimes the image of a god or ruler are carved. Stelae are usually associated with altars and are often found either at the base or on top of a temple or pyramid. Although there are definite Teotihuacán elements in the stelae, there are also Maya designs. This indicates a strong Olmeca-Xicalanca influence. These people were Maya from the southern Gulf Coast area of Mexico. Despite their name, they should not be confused with the ancient Pre-Classic Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC). The Olmeca-Xicalanca dominated another fortified hill-top city--Cacaxtla--during a period that was almost exactly contemporaneous with Xochicalco. In addition to these stelae, other examples of Maya influence can be found throughout Xochicalco and those, too, are often closely associated with Teotihuacán designs. It appears that Xochicalco may have been a multi-cultural trading community that included not only former Teotihuacanos and Olmeca-Xicalancas, but other groups as well. Stone carvings containing Zapotec numeric symbols have been found here. The Zapotecs were based in Oaxaca and their capital was the hill-top city of Monte Alban.  


Plaza of the Two-Glyph Stela looking west. The two glyphs are carved into the upright stone standing in the middle of the altar in the upper left. The temple in the upper right is one of two on an east-west axis that face each other across the plaza. The rubble in the lower right is part of the southeast corner of the Great pyramid. The two glyphs contain dates that have been interpreted as "Reptile Eye" and "10 Cane" and may be associated with Quetzalcoatl, one of Mesoamerica's most important gods. His name means "Plumed Serpent" because he was part bird (quetzal) and part snake (coatl). Teotihuacán devoted a huge complex entirely to Quetzalcoatl and the god is also depicted at Xochicalco in a number of places. 


Censer bearing the wrinkled face of Huehueteotl, the Fire God. A censer was a device for burning incense, usually copal, during pre-hispanic religious rites. The Fire God (later called Xiuhtecuhtli by the Aztecs) was yet another important deity shared by Xochicalco and Teotihuacán. The huge Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán was once thought to be dedicated to the Sun God. However, the name "Pyramid of the Sun" was an Aztec invention. They came along much later and had their own political reasons for associating the long-abandoned pyramid with their chief deity, the Sun God. Recently, excavations on the top of the Pyramid of the Sun uncovered the remains of a temple devoted to Huehueteotl, whose name means "Old, old god". Discovery of the means to control fire dates back to Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) times. It was one of the earliest and most important human discoveries and long pre-dates agriculture. Given the Fire God's importance and antiquity, it makes sense that the Huehueteotl would be given the honored position atop the greatest pyramid of the greatest empire of Mexico's early pre-hispanic history. Given Xochicalco's association with Teotihuacan, it follows that he would be honored here too.


Bowl ringed with dancers demonstrates a high level of artistic expression. The multicultural nature of Xochicalco's population attracted artists from many places. Works like this no doubt ended up in traders' packs as they journeyed throughout Mesoamerica. The basis of Teotihuacán's power had been its domination of a far-reaching trade network. These routes extended from the US Southwest to the ancient Maya city of Copán in northern Honduras. Well-trod trails also ran east and west between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. When Teotihuacán's empire collapsed in 650 AD, Xochicalco and Cacaxtla quickly emerged as regional powers, due to their strategic locations. Xochicalco controlled trade from southern Mexico and the Guerrero Coast, while Cacaxtla dominated the routes from eastern Mexico and the Gulf Coast. Near modern Zacatecas, another hill-top-fortress we now call La Quemada sat astride the main network coming down from the north. La Quemada's founding and abandonment almost exactly match that of both Xochicalco and Cacaxtla. Interestingly, La Quemada means 'The Burned Place". Early Spanish explorers gave the ruins that name after noting traces of a great conflagration, much like that which occurred at Xochicalco at approximately the same time.


Conch shells were highly valued and thus became important trade goods. These probably came from the Pacific Coast area, possibly gathered along the shores of the coastal kingdom of Xihuacán which reached its peak between 650 AD and 959 AD, contemporaneous with the other trading cities already mentioned. Conch shells were primarily used as trumpets by military commanders and temple priests. Although the pair above don't appear to be decorated, many such conches have been heavily incised with elaborate designs. Blowing a conch produces a low, mournful, wailing sound that carries for long distances. The soldiers of Conquistador Hernán Cortéz listened helplessly while native priests blew long blasts on their conch trumpets as, in the distance, captive Spaniards were dragged to the top of a great temple to be sacrificed to the Aztec War God. 


Image of a monkey from the Ramp of the Animals. The graceful fluid energy of this relief carving shows Maya influence. Monkeys are not native to the area around Xochicalco, indicating that these creatures were also part of the trade that that flowed through the city. The monkeys may have served as pets, as well as sources of food. When I first began to study the pre-hispanic period of Mexico's history, I viewed the 200-300 year intervals between the great empires of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Mexica (Aztecs) as chaotic dark ages. It appears, however, that these periods abounded with vibrant city-states, intense trade activity, and multiple forms of artistic expression. True, armed conflicts sometimes broke out between city-states, primarily over control of trade routes and resources. In addition, migrations from the north by Chichimec nomads sometimes resulted in destructive raids (the burning of La Quemada may have been the result of one of these). Still, for the most part, these were periods of great energy and creativity in art, architecture, and trade. There is, no doubt, a relationship between all this and the cross-fertilization of ideas that occurred within the multi-cultural societies upon which these trading communities were based. 


Sunken courtyard with a stone altar atop the Pyramid of the Stelae. This is one of the highest points at Xochicalco and the view toward the south is extraordinary. The lake in the upper left provided part of the city's water supply. Water was also captured through a series of drains and catchment ponds within the city itself. These display a high level of hydraulic engineering skills on the part of Xochicalco's builders. The three stelae referred to earlier, which show mixed Teotihuacan and Maya designs, gave the Pyramid of the Stelae its name when they were discovered here. The pyramid occupies the southeast corner of the great open area, called the Plaza Principal, around which numerous other religious structures and elite residences were built. The area would have been reserved for nobility, priests, warriors, and their families.


Censer decorated with the face of Tlaloc, the Rain God. Tlaloc is one of the most recognizable gods in the Mesoamerican pantheon. He is distinguished by the "goggles" around his eyes, his fangs, and the forked tongue that droops from his mouth. Among the top tier of pre-hispanic gods, Tlaloc is possibly the second oldest, after Huehueteotl. It is certainly true that, after control of fire, the next greatest development of archaic times was agriculture. Squash was cultivated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 BC. Water is an essential element for the cultivation of crops. Unless you live close to a river, lake, or year-round spring, rain is the source upon which you most depend. Hence, the Rain God. Tlaloc was revered for the crop-sustaining water he brought, but also feared for his great storms which brought lightning and hail. When the Spanish arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, 600 years after Xochicalco was abandoned, they found a temple to Tlaloc atop the great pyramid they called the Templo Mayor. The Aztecs gave the Rain God equal billing with Huitzilopochtli, their own Sun/War God, a relative newcomer to the ancient pantheon. More than 1000 years before the Aztecs arrived on the scene, artists at Teotihuacán filled the walls of their palaces with murals of Tlaloc. He appears there very much as you see him on the Xochicalco censer above.

A pair of Tlaloque. Keeping the earth green was a big job and Tlaloc couldn't be expected to do it all on his own. His assistants were four dwarf-like Tlaloque, who lived with the Rain God on cloud-shrouded mountain tops. The rain water was kept in huge clay jars and, when the Tlaloque broke them, the sound produced was thunder. Lightning resulted when the falling clay shards struck the earth.

Sculpture of a fanciful mammal, possibly a fox. Xochicalco's artists used a wide variety of natural materials including clay, stone, bone, and shells. They were very knowledgeable and sophisticated about the characteristics of their various media and in the ways to achieve the best results. However, some of the materials were not locally available, particularly certain stones with desirable colors. In order to obtain a regular supply for the manufacture of trade goods, as well as for local use, marriage alliances were formed with other groups in areas that had the necessary materials. When such alliances were not possible, conquest was the next resort. Xochicalco conquered the area around Taxco because of the availability of highly-sought-after green stones. 


Mask carved from a section of human cranium. You can see two holes on either side of the mask where cords were used to secure it to the wearer's face. The creation and use of masks in Mesoamerica has had an unbroken history from at least 3000 BC until modern times. Masks are often worn during ritual dances and one of these, the Danza de los Tlocoleros, has been practiced in the area of Xochicalco since pre-hispanic times. The dance, which is still performed today, involves a group of Tlocoleros (hunters) who search for a jaguar that has been destroying their fields. The Tlocoleros represent rain deities and the jaguar represents the dry season. Pre-hispanic people were not in the least squeamish about using human remains, especially bones, for various purposes. Recent analysis of bone fragments found at Teotihuacán has revealed that, shortly after death, human bodies were sometimes de-fleshed and the bones used to create buttons, combs, spatulas, and needles. The analysis showed no signs of ritual sacrifice and the bones were from people native to Teotihuacan, rather than foreign war captives. Apparently they were the bones of recently deceased adult relatives. The cranial mask above indicates that this practice may have been brought to Xochicalco by early Teotihuacan refugees.


The Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent is richly decorated. It stands in the middle of the Plaza Principal. The pyramid once had a temple on top but that was either destroyed during the great conflagration of 900 AD, or it may have gradually collapsed during the following millennium. Quetzalcoatl was another of the most important deities of pre-hispanic times. He was the patron of merchants, arts, crafts, learning, and knowledge, seemingly a perfect fit with Xochicalco. The lower, sloping parts of each side of the structure contain high relief sculptures of writhing Plumed Serpents in a distinctly Teotihuacan style. In the spaces created by the curves of the snakes' bodies, human figures appear in the Maya style. They are each seated cross-legged with their faces turned in profile. Richly dressed, the figures apparently represent kings, priests, and warriors of the Xochicalco elite. Other sections of the pyramid are decorated with various animal, floral, and abstract designs. In a future posting of this series, I will show you details of all this.


Segmented serpent displayed in Xochicalco's museum. Notice how the segments are fitted together. With enough of these, the snake sculpture could be made to appear to writhe or coil. Snakes have been revered as mystical creatures at least since early Olmec times. The skin-shedding cycle suggested renewal and rebirth. In addition, since many snakes can move freely between water, the earth, and the forest canopy, this quality suggested an ability to act as an intermediary between the different parts of the cosmos. Further, the tendency of snakes to make their nests underground matched beliefs about the underworld origin of life. Finally, since snakes can be viewed as both beneficial and dangerous, the pre-hispanic concept of cosmic duality was reinforced.


Sculpture of a sitting feline. This snarling cat wears a pectoral. that indicates high rank. From its size, the figure probably represents a jaguar, although pumas and ocelots were also revered. Such felines were believed to have a mystic connection to the earth and fertility and to exercise power over nature. Since jaguars are powerful hunters who prowl for prey at night, they were believed to move freely between the world of darkness (the underworld) and the world of light (daily reality). These powers made them important religious symbols, while their power and skill at hunting made them important figures within the military cults.


How the Xochicalcans saw themselves. This sculpture is interesting in several respects. First, its remarkable realism suggests that it was modeled on an actual person. From the jade necklace and earrings, he was probably of high rank. The Maya perfected the sculpture-in-the-round style so the sculptor may have been of that background, or at least trained by someone who was. The figure openly displays a dislocated shoulder and deformed hand, perhaps as a badge of honor. This suggest that at one time he had been a great warrior who was injured in battle. In sum, the sculpture seems to portray an actual person who was at one time a great lord of Xochicalco.


Xochicalco shared Mesoamerica's preoccupation with death. The skulls are "life" sized. Death was another aspect of the duality of the cosmos, it's opposite being life. Death was not to be feared, since it simply involved a transition to a different plane of reality. Xochicalco's brilliant 250-year life came to an abrupt end some time around 900 AD. The archaeological evidence shows smashed and scattered materials throughout the portion of the city occupied by the nobility, priests, and warriors. Those materials, and the structures around, them were covered by a layer of ash, suggesting that the elite area was sacked and then burned. The neighborhoods on the terraces and hills surrounding the elite area were not burned, and their goods were left intact and in their normal places. This indicates a gradual abandonment over time. All this creates a strong probability that the destruction was the result of an internal revolt, the reasons for which remain unknown. However, a similar sacking and burning, restricted to elite areas, occurred at Teotihuacán in 650 AD. Apparently, in the end, Xochicalco could not escape its heritage.

This completes Part 1 of my Xochicalco series. If you enjoyed it, please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. 

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Hasta luego, Jim

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