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.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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