Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Xochicalco Part 2: Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs

The plaza gained its name from the stela in the center of this altar. A stela is an upright stone on which images ("glyphs") are carved, painted, or sometimes formed using a stucco overlay. Stelae are usually, but not always, associated with altars. The Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs lies at the south end of Xochicalco. In my series, we'll examine the city section by section, as you would find it if you were to visit. This week, we'll look at the various structures to be found within and around the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs. In addition we'll examine the South Ball Court, just to the southwest of the plaza.


Approaching the Plaza

View of Xochicalco's ruins from the museum. Both the museum and the ruins spread out along high ridges that are separated by a deep and heavily wooded ravine. Invisible through the trees, ancient terraces line the slopes. During Xochicalco's prime, these terraces were covered with the small fields and dwellings of the commoners. Most of these areas have not been excavated. The portions of the city that have been unearthed were the domain restricted to the elites, i.e. nobility, priests, and warriors. These are the areas on which my series will focus.

Site map of the elite areas of the city. The city is laid out on a north-to-south and east-to-west axis. At the bottom (south) end is the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs. This was the main entrance to the city in ancient times, as it is today. To the left (west) of the plaza is the South Ball Court, shaped like the capital letter "I" lying on its side. On the north side of the two-glyph plaza is the Great Pyramid. To the north of that pyramid is the complex known as the Plaza Principal, or Ceremonial Plaza, with the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent in its center. To the right (east) side of the Plaza Principal is the East Ball Court complex. To the left (west) side of the plaza is the Acropolis, the highest point in the city where the ruler and his family lived. At the very north end are the North Ball Court and the water storage areas, including a temescal (sweat bath). The northwest corner contains a entrance to underground chambers that include an astronomical observatory.


Scale model of the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs. You approach along the pathway seen at the bottom of the photo, running from right to left. The plaza is entered by ascending the staircase seen in the center of the left of the photo. At the top of the stairs, you find yourself on a broad platform filled with a variety of structures. This may have been the first part of the city completed, and its original center. The structures you encounter are a pair of rectangular buildings, one on the east and another to the west. Each has a long dividing wall down its length, with rooms on either side. Through the broad space separating these two structures, you can see temples on the east and west sides. Exactly between the temples is an altar with a stela. Beyond the altar is a broad staircase leading to a higher platform on which the Great Pyramid stands. In the space between the east temple and the southeast corner of the pyramid is another small temple.


View looking directly south from the top of the staircase leading to the plaza. The people occupying the elite areas of the city had a spectacular 360 view of the valley surrounding them. While this may have been aesthetically pleasing, it is also indicative of the strong defenses necessary to survive in the Epi-Classic Era. The collapse of the Teotihuacán Empire left Central Mexico in turmoil. Conflict between city-states over trade routes and resources was endemic. In addition, hostile populations of nomadic migrants periodically roamed the country. The lake in the background was one of the sources of the city's water supply, the other being rain-water runoff into the city's well-engineered system of drains, channels, and catchment basins. Since the food grown on the terraces immediately below the elite areas was insufficient to support Xochicalco's population of 10 - 15 thousand, the main agricultural areas were primarily around the lake and in the valley to the north.


The rectangular building on the west side of the platform. Carole stands at the edge of the platform, looking down on the South Ball Court. There is a nearly identical building on the east side. The purpose of these rectangular structures is not certain. However, all the rest of the structures surrounding the plaza are clearly for ritual/ceremonial purposes. This indicates that the rectangular buildings may have been repositories for ceremonial goods and supplies, such as clothing, feathers, copal incense etc. In addition, priests may have used these buildings to dress themselves and paint their bodies in preparation for ceremonies. This would be the rough equivalent of the sacristy in a Catholic church where the priests don their vestments and keep other items important to church rituals. In addition, since the staircase leading to this point is, in effect, the entrance to the elite section of the city, warriors may have been stationed as guards in one or both of these structures.


Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs

The Great Pyramid, with the altar and stela in the center. The first stage in building the city was to carve out the series of broad, flat, artificial platforms on which all the temples, pyramids, and other structures stand. The bedrock removed to accomplish this provided some of the building materials for the structures. The grassy area above is the platform for the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs. It took enormous effort to build these platforms, but they had to be hacked out and leveled before construction could begin on anything else. Given the limited population in the area when refugees from Teotihuacán arrived, it is unclear who actually did all this work, but it almost certainly wasn't the elite group. The laborers may have been Teotihuacán commoners who volunteered--or were drafted--to accompany the elites in their quest for a new home. In addition, warriors would certainly have been among the leaders of the refugees. It is possible they picked up war captives during the long journey from Teotihuacán. Further, once they had arrived and picked a location, the warriors may have set out on wide-ranging slave expeditions.


Construction model used in designing the city. Unlike most other pre-hispanic cities, this one was not built over a long period of time, with larger and grander structures gradually replacing smaller and simpler ones. Archaeologists have uncovered only a handful of widely scattered remains from times earlier than 650 AD. Apparently, one of the reasons the site was chosen by its ancient architects was precisely because it was unoccupied. Having selected their site, Xochicalco's builders planned it in advance and built it from a specific design, using carved stone models as guides. The whole process occurred over a relatively short period of time. It was not just the elite areas that were carefully designed, but also the lower terraces on which the common people constructed their homes and planted their gardens. Created in an era with no metal tools, no draft animals, and no wheeled vehicles, Xochicalco was a magnificent architectural achievement.


View looking east showing the stela and altar and the east temple beyond. The stela seen above is a replacement for the original, which is now in the site museum. In general, the purposes of stelae included commemorating significant events, such as a battle, the birth or death of a ruler or high-ranking individual, or the founding of a pyramid, temple, or even a whole city. The east temple was a two-story affair, with a staircase leading up onto a base platform. On top of the platform is a room containing four pillars. These once supported a roof which may have been made of perishable materials such as wood and thatch.


The two glyphs from the stela may be related to the founding of Xochicalco. In the counting system widely used in Mesoamerica, a dot represents 1, while a horizontal bar represents the number 5. At the base of the upper glyph, you can see two horizonal bars, meaning "10". The symbol above the number means "Cane or Reed". The lower glyph has one bar, plus four dots, meaning "9". The associated symbol means "Reptile Eye".  The upper glyph is thought to be a date, while the lower one may refer to Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent god. He was brought to Xochicalco by the refugees from Teotihuacán who founded the city. The two symbols together may refer to the founding of the plaza or even of the city itself. It would certainly make sense to place a stela proclaiming the date of the city's founding and its adherence to Quetzacoatl at the entrance to the city.


This small temple stands just north of the plaza's east temple. This little temple is unique in the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs. Every other structure is perfectly balanced with the others around it. The temple above, located between the east temple and the southeast corner of the Great Pyramid, has no corresponding structure on the west side of the plaza. Although it follows a similar design to that of the east and west temples, it is only about 1/4 of their sizes and only about 1/2 as tall. It may have been dedicated to some lesser god.


The west temple is similar in basic design to its mate on the east. However, the interior of the top level is more elaborate. Both temples show elements of Teotihuacán style. The strict orientation of the plaza to the four cardinal directions may indicate a celestial purpose. The west temple faces the rising sun and its promise of a new day. The one to the east faces the sun as it drops into the underworld.


The talud y tablera style is typical of Teotihuacán. Talud refers to the sloping surface. Tablera is the vertical, rectangular surface above it. This style can be found wherever Teotihuacán's influence extended, even in far-off Maya areas. These features can be seen on both levels of the temple.


View from the inner sanctum of the west temple toward the east temple. The west temple has two rooms in its top structure. The outer room is entered through the portals created by the two columns and is open to the outside. The inner room is the same width as the outer one, but narrower. The room can only be entered through the doorway above. The threshold of stones between the walls of the doorway shows that the inner room is slightly elevated above the outer one. In order to keep the temple's rituals secret, the doorway may have been covered by a curtain or even a door. A priest standing in the portal would be directly facing the sun as it rose over mountains behind the east temple.

The Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid looms over the plaza, facing directly south. Anyone entering the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs is immediately confronted by the massive structure occupying the entire north end of the plaza. Visitors would have been awed. This was, no doubt, one its main purposes. The pyramid sits on its own platform, raised above the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs by a series of six stepped terraces. The platform can be accessed by a broad staircase, now partially covered by grass. Along with the east and west temples, the pyramid plays a role in the plaza's celestial functions. Positioned half way between the two temples, it marks mid-day. Since it is a short distance to the north of both temples, it further marks the direction the sun travels to the north as the summer progresses.


View of the west side of the Great pyramid's terraces. Aside from its religious purposes, and the desire to achieve an emotional impact, the pyramid may have been an initial bulwark in the city's defenses. An enemy assaulting the city from the south--the only practicable direction--would have to clamber over these many levels while dodging a hail of arrows, spears, and rocks from the warriors on top.


View of the northwest corner of the Great Pyramid. The back part of the pyramid has been partially rebuilt, showing steep, smooth sides. Above the rebuilt section you can see the inner construction of rubble and rough stone. When the smooth sides extended all the way to the top, it would have been impossible for an enemy to climb them, leaving the front as the only point of attack. Warriors on top would have had a clear field of fire in all directions This is not just a temple, it's a bastion.


The South Ball Court and Palace

Scale model of South Ball Court and Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs. The ball court is at the bottom center of the photo, on a level below the plaza. To reach it, city residents would walk down the stone ramp seen at the right center. Out of sight below the bottom of the photo is a ruin that archaeologists call the Palace.


View from the top of the stone ramp down toward the South Ball Court. The ball court is out of sight among the trees, but you can pick out the Palace just above the center of the photo. The wall on the right side of the ramp contains regularly spaced altars showing the 20 months of the sacred yearly cycle. The ball game was not just athletic entertainment, but an integral part of the religious rituals of Mesoamerica. It was seen as a re-enactment of the eternal struggle between the forces of light and darkness and was related to rebirth and renewal. Human sacrifice was often a key part of ball game ceremonies, although it is not clear whether this was true at Xochicalco.


The South Ball Court, seen from its east end. This is the largest of the three balls court at Xochicalco. The main playing area is the narrow grassy corridor down the middle, with rectangular spaces at either end, similar to the top and bottom cross pieces of a capital "I". The secondary areas of play were two sloping sides with stone rings set into the boundary walls about 1/2 way down the court on either side. Archaeologists believe that this court may have been used as a model for later ball courts throughout Mesoamerica.


The ring on the south wall. Rules of play seem to have varied from place to place. Some ball courts in Mesoamerica have rings, others don't. Generally, the ball could only be propelled by the shoulders, hips, and knees. The use of hands or feet was forbidden. One way to score was to pass the ball through the ring (assuming a court had one). This would have been difficult because the opening was only slightly wider than the ball. As with soccer, final scores were probably low. Injuries, and occasional deaths, weren't unusual since the rubber ball was solid and quite heavy. To protect themselves, players wore armor, helmets and a heavy stomach protector called a yoke. When human sacrifice occurred it sometimes involved the players. There is disagreement about whether the losers were beheaded as a penalty for defeat, or the winners to "honor" their victory. Go Team!


The Palace lies a short distance south west of the ball court's western end. It is a residential area which includes kitchens, workshops, storerooms, and a temescal. What relationship it might have had with the ball court is unknown. Perhaps this was where a visiting team stayed prior to a game. On the other hand, it might have simply belonged to a wealthy noble. The structure occupies an odd position, however, since it is outside the heavily defended area.

This completes Part 2 of my Xochicalco series. Next time we will take a look at the Plaza Principal and its temples, pyramids, and elite residential areas. I hope you enjoyed this posting. If so, please leave any questions and comments in the Comments section below or email them to me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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