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.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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