Monday, February 13, 2017

Xochicalco Part 3: The Plaza of Porticos & Staircases and the Temple of the Three Stelae

Altar and sunken courtyard atop the Temple of the Three Stelae. The temple (also known as the Pyramid of the Stelae and the Palace of the Stars) is located in the southeast corner of the great ceremonial space known as the Plaza Principal. You are looking north in this photo. Behind me, when I took the shot, was the back side of the Great Pyramid, seen in Part 2. Three broken and ritually buried stelae were found here, which led to the naming of the site. To the right of the sunken courtyard are stairs leading to a small and very private temple with a mysterious pit in its center. Before examining the Temple of the Three Stelae, we will first have a look at the Plaza of the Porticos and Staircases. To locate Xochicalco on a Google map, click here.


Plaza of the Porticos and Staircases

Plaza of Porticos and Staircases. The view here is toward the northeast. The plaza is the three-sided area with a small altar in its center, seen at the bottom of the model. On the platform above the plaza, in the center-right, is the Great Pyramid. Directly behind the Great Pyramid, on top of an even higher platform, is the Temple of the Three Stelae. The three successive staircases in the center-left of the photo form one of the only two entrances to the Plaza Principal. The Plaza of the Porticos and Staircases was one of the few areas of this hill-top fortress that was open to the common people.


Ground-level view of the plaza. The altar in the center of the photo would have been used during ceremonial events open to the general public. Rising to a point in the upper center is the southwest corner of the Temple of the Three Stelae. In the upper left is the first of the series of staircases that lead up to the elite areas. Xochicalco existed in a time of intense competition and strife between city-states with expansionist ambitions. The city's elite built their citadel on a high hilltop and they restricted access to the topmost areas as a defensive strategy.


Public markets were conducted in the Plaza of Porticos and Staircases. People of all ages and social classes came from far and wide to exchange their goods. These might include food items, clothing and textiles, jewelry, tools, conch shells, ceramics, feathers, monkeys, parrots, and much more. Xochicalco not only sponsored the exchange of goods, the city itself manufactured many items for sale. Key among these were objects made from the volcanic glass known as obsidian.


Obsidian spear heads, knives, and arrow heads. Xochicalco had no local sources for the obsidian from which these blades were chipped. Analysis of the obsidian found in the city's ancient workshops shows that almost all of it came from the Ucaréo area near Zinapécuaro, Michoacan. Although a major source near Teotihuacán was much closer, very little came from there. This was probably because it had been pre-empted by Xochicalco's trading competitor Cacaxtla. Obsidian tools and weapons could easily be chipped from rough blocks called "cores". The finished products were remarkably sharp and, importantly, of relatively light weight. These qualities made the volcanic glass one of the most important trade items in Mesoamerica. A city-state which could dominate a major source of obsidian was somewhat equivalent to a modern state possessing large oil deposits.


Ceramic products were made by local potters, but also imported. I was intrigued by the figure on the side of this censer (incense burner). He looks a bit like Mickey Mouse wearing a bow-tie. Artisans making ceramics at Xochicalco tended to specialize. Some made products showing great skill and artistry, like this one. It was probably destined for the private altar of an elite household. Other potters focused on items needed by the common people in their day-to-day lives. Of the imported pottery, grey ceramics from the Zapotecs of Monte Albán were especially popular.


Small censers intended for ordinary households. These censers are smaller, simpler--and undoubtedly cheaper--than the version seen in the previous photo. Their creator could not resist adding some decorative touches. These bear a striking resemblance to coffee beans. However, coffee was not introduced into the Americas until 1720, 800 years after Xochicalco was abandoned. The city's craftsmen needed a regular supply of materials to produce goods for inter-city trade as well as the local market. Unfortunately, Xochicalco's natural resources were limited. This required the city's leaders to look elsewhere for many of the necessary materials. Sometimes, access could be gained through marriage alliances with other city-states. When this was not possible, conquest was often the next resort. This was how the city ended up dominating most of western Morelos and northern Guerrero. For example, the Taxco area was seized because it was the source of valuable green stones used to make jewelry. If neither marriage nor conquest were feasible, raw materials could sometimes be acquired from long-distance traders who brought in cotton from the Gulf Coast, obsidian cores from Ucaréo, and oxides of copper and iron from the Puebla area to make pigments for paint. As a last resort, desirable items could be purchased as finished products from visiting traders. However, this tended to be costly and Xochicalco's leaders preferred to manufacture trade items themselves because that was the route to wealth and power.



Plaza of Porticos and Staircases from the top of the first staircase. In the upper right, you can see the top of the west temple on the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs. The Great Pyramid is in the upper left, behind a screen of trees. The "porticos" part of the plaza's name can be seen lining the fronts of the two long, narrow rooms just above center. The pillars that used to form the porticos are now just low stumps of stone. The purpose of these and other rooms around the plaza is not clear, although they may have been for storage or ceremonial purposes. Their size and shape indicate they were probably not living spaces but had some connections with the markets held there.


The main staircase leading to the Plaza Principal. This is the topmost of the three staircases that begin on the north side of the Plaza of the Porticos and Staircases. This would have been the main entrance to the ceremonial plaza and would have been a key point of defense. The area in front of this broad staircase is yet another of the many platforms cut from the hilltop and leveled to enable construction. This platform is elevated above the Plaza of the Porticos and Staircases. In Part 2, we looked at the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs, which is laid out on a strict north-to-south alignment. By contrast, the Plaza Principal is aligned 15 degrees clock-wise from true north. This was no accident or vagary of the terrain. Both Teotihuacán and Monte Albán share similar orientations. These alignments match the positioning of celestial bodies on particular days of the year.


View of the Plaza Principal's main staircase, looking west. Here, again, you can see the stepped terraces that form the borders of the platform. Imagine the difficulty an attacking enemy force would have encountered. Attempting to climb the staircase and terraces, they would have to face showers of arrows, spears, and rocks from slings wielded by warriors lining the tops of the stairs and walls. In addition to opposition in front, they would have been exposed to attack on their flank by those standing where I am. In the distance, under the trees, is the Acropolis. It is the highest point in Xochicalco, where the ruler, his family, and his retainers lived. Behind me, when I took this shot, is the Temple of the Three Stelae.


Temple of the Three Stelae

Model showing the Plaza Principal and the Temple of the Three Stelae. The view here is looking southwest. The temple is the structure in the center-left. It is attached to the left end of the long rectangular structure bordered by high walls on its north, east, and south sides. In the photo's center is a square, hollow structure. This is the famous Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. In a future posting, I will focus on this pyramid and its remarkable relief carvings. The Acropolis is shown in the upper right.


Temple of the Three Stelae from the top of Plaza Principal's main staircase. Here, you are looking southeast. The complex includes not only a temple but the palace of a person of very high status. It may have been the residence of the high priest. The temple sits on the southern edge of the platform that makes up the Plaza Principal. The only part of Xochicalco that is higher than this one is the ruler's complex, called the Acropolis.


Temple of the Three Stelae and its Palace, looking south. This structure had multiple functions. It was both a site for religious rituals and a place of residence for the high priest. Additional purposes included the administration of justice and the collection of tribute from subject towns and villages. From the top of the temple, you have a 360 degree view of the horizon. This suggests an additional role was celestial observation. The layout of the temple and its palace bears a remarkable resemblance to similar structures at the Zapotec capital of Monte Albán. Between 400 AD and its fall in 650 AD, Teotihuacán maintained a close connection with the Zapotec Kingdom. The refugees from Teotihuacán who built Xochicalco may have brought Zapotec architectural styles with them. Alternatively, Zapotec architects may have helped design the complex. Another unusual aspect of this structure has to do with the three stelae unearthed there in 1961.


 The three stelae are covered with glyphs on all four sides. The stelae seen above are faithful reproductions of originals that are now on display at the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. Archaeologists determined that the original stelae had been painted red, broken in pieces, and then buried more than 1000 years ago. This ritual is thought to signify killing them, but the reason for doing it is still a mystery. The reassembled stelae tell the story of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent god. The glyphs include his emergence from the jaws of a snake monster; his creation of the World of the 5th Sun (the age of humans) through sacrificing himself; his rebirth as the "morning star" Venus; and his gift of maiz (corn) to humans. Also included among the glyphs is the goggle-eyed face of Tlaloc, the rain god. Quetzalcoatl has many facets, one of them being Ehecatl, the god of wind. The wind god is linked with Tlaloc because the wind pushes the rain so that it will arrive to nourish the maiz. Various elements of the glyphs display features characteristic of Teotihuacán, Maya, and Zapotec styles, once again demonstrating the multi-cultural nature of Xochicalco.


Censer decorated with the figure of a priest. This male figure provides an idea of how the person who occupied the temple/palace may have appeared. He is scantily dressed in a loincloth called a maxtlatl and sandals. On his head he wears a simple headdress and large ear rings. Around his neck is a broad collar painted in a blue-green color, suggesting precious stones. The figure's body shows faint traces of black paint and he carries a bag in his left hand. Both of these aspects identify him as a priest. In his right hand he carries a rain-stick, which indicates a connection with Tlaloc.


Pillars stand in what was once a covered terrace on the platform's edge. This section is part of the palace living area. In the shelter of the covered terrace, the high priest/judge/administrator could stand and gaze at the broad vista to the south. A look at the physical layout of the Plaza Principal shows that it is perfectly square, except for this section. The part of the platform on which the Temple of the Three Stelae stands projects out toward the south and appears to have been added at a later time. This projection creates a particularly private zone in an area of the city that is already highly restricted. The occupant of the Temple of the Three Stelae was obviously a person of high status.


The staircase leading up to the temple is wide and stately. At the top stand a row of pillars. These once supported a portico/entrance which opens into a sunken courtyard. The courtyard is bordered by living areas and an altar.


The living spaces of the complex are unusually large. This room is much larger than some of the other elite living areas around the Plaza Principal. Since this room was used as a living area rather than for religious rituals, the two fire pits seen above were probably for cooking and heating. The size of the rooms and their grand views give an impression of sumptuous living. Imagine the colorful woven materials and beautiful ceramics with which it must have been filled. Through the doorway, you can see the stumps of the pillars that formed the portico on top of the temple's entrance staircase.

A female dancer ritually brandishes handfuls of sticks. The sticks represent flowering branches. The dancer wears a head dress called a quexquemetl, probably made from her own hair. In real life, her large ear rings might have been made from jade, a popular choice for jewelry of that sort. Draped over her shoulders is a shawl and around her hips is an ankle-length skirt. Such dancers were a regular feature of religious rites.


An altar stands at one end of the sunken courtyard. Just behind the altar is another living area. The sunken courtyard would have served both for elite ceremonies and as a patio for the living areas. Along the right side of the photo is the row of pillars that makes up the entrance portico. The view here is directly to the south. In addition to conducting the more private rituals of the elite areas, the high priest performed ceremonies open to the public in the Plaza of the Stela of Two Glyphs and the Plaza of the Porticos and Staircases. He would carefully costume himself with feathers and masks to imitate the patron god. Part of the ritual involved praying for the welfare of the people and seeking to exalt their minds. All this helped ensure balance in the cosmic order and, of course, maintain the social order with himself and the other elites on top.


Along the east side of the sunken courtyard is the inner sanctum. The front of this temple is made up of a staircase and a row of pillars. This "inner sanctum" is a kind of temple-within-a-temple. The very private nature of the structure once again indicates the status of the individual who occupied this complex. Only the most privileged people would have access to this area.


The main feature of the temple's inner sanctum is a large square pit. The view is from the rear of the temple toward the west. The row of pillars stands on top of the staircase leading up from the sunken courtyard. In the center of the room is a square pit. Just in front of it are two small fire circles. My first thought was that the large pit may be for ceremonial fires. There was no explanatory sign and I have found no mention of this curious opening in any of the literature about the site. Looking at it, I am reminded of the openings in the center of ancient Anasazi ceremonial kivas found in the US Southwest. During ceremonies, the shaman would emerge through the openings, as if from the underworld. At present, the pit's purpose and the part it played in ancient rituals remain a mystery to me.

This completes Part 3 of my Xochicalco series. I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. If so, please feel free to leave comments or questions 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 can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim





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