Sunday, February 19, 2017

Xochicalco Part 4: Dwellings and artifacts of the elite

Stone bust of a member of Xochicalco's elite. When I snapped a quick shot of this sculpture, I thought it looked a bit odd, with its jowly face and unusual slanted eyes. Later, when I enlarged the photo in my computer, I discovered that the jowls are actually hands pressed to either cheek. The pressure of the hands forces the skin up and the eyes to slant, just at they would on a live person. The expression is one of either delighted astonishment or dismay. The bust provides a sense of how a member of Xochicalco's elite would have appeared, including a rather interesting hairstyle. In this posting, we'll look at how person like this lived, including some of the day-to-day objects he might have used.

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View of the residential area along the east side of the Plaza Principal. The Temple of the Three Stelae (seen in Part 3) is in the upper left corner. The living quarters begin just to the right of the temple. They extend along the length of the east wall of the Plaza Principal's platform to where it turns to form the north wall. Warriors, priests, and city officials lived in these apartments. Some of the space was also used as work shops and storerooms for trade goods and small, mass-produced religious statues.


Typical elite home. The functions of the various rooms are indicated by their color on the chart. The light blue space in the upper right is a granero (granery), which would have been filled with containers of harvested maiz (corn). The purple room in the upper left is the almacén (storeroom), which contained various household supplies, tools, as well as trade goods. The deep red rooms on the upper and lower right are cocinas (kitchens). Since there are two, the residence may have been built for more than one family and, if so, they were probably related. The light green spaces are habitaciones  (bedrooms). The brown spaces on either side are bodegas (pantries), for food. This, again, suggests more than one family. The small blue room at the bottom of the patio contained the household altar. Along with statues of gods, one or more censers (incense burners) would have been kept here, along with a supply of copal incense. At the chart's bottom is the pórtico, a terrace entrance with a ceiling supported by a line of pillars. In the center of the residence is the patio interior, an open-air atrium that was the focus of the entire complex. It was here, and under the pórtico, that the members of the household would gather, socialize, grind maiz, repair weapons and tools, make or mend clothing, and manufacture trade goods.

Over view of east-side residential area

View of the residential area, looking north. I took this shot from the top the Temple of the Three Stelae. To the right of the line of dwellings is the edge of the Plaza Principal's platform, which drops off sharply to the East Ball Court complex. The small temple in the upper-right background is part of that complex. Along the front of the dwellings are the pórticos, which still contain the bases of their pillars. The dwellings had flat roofs made of wood covered by lime stucco. The types of wood used for construction included fir, piñon pine, white cedar, oak, madrona, and Mexican hawthorne. All these were plentiful in the heavily wooded mountains surrounding Xochicalco. In addition to their use for construction, logs from some trees were turned into charcoal and the resins of others were employed as medicines or burned as incense for rituals.



Stone block containing a glyph indicating the dwelling occupant's rank. Xochicalco's architects were meticulous in their planning and this included glyphs for each dwelling indicating the social rank of the occupant. There was no translation available for the glyph shown above. However, the hand clutching the arrow at the top may indicate a warrior. The symbol below it shows an entrance portico, possibly of the warrior's residence. The sides of the structure show the slanting talud y tablero style from Teotihuacán, previously discussed in Part 2. The three dots at the bottom stand for the number 3 in the numeric system widely used in the Late Classic period of Mesoamerica. 



Stucco home decoration. Shaped like a caracol (snail), a series of these stucco decorations lined the edge of a roof. Snails and conches are often associated with Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. Snail shells represented birth, death, and resurrection, which were key elements of Quetzalcoatl's mythology.



Building block containing the outline of a clawed foot. This fragment of a wall mural was once part of a painting in an elite residence. Xochicalco's artists were talented and knew how to get the best out of their materials. To make a mural on a rough stone block like this, the artist would first cover the area with a plaster of lime and sand to create a flat, smooth surface. While he was waiting for the plaster to dry, he would pulverize various pigments in a stone mortar and mix them together to obtain the desired colors. Once the surface was dry, the artist would draw an outline and then apply the colors. The images had to conform to rules set down by the priests. 



Relief carving of a maiz cob. Archaeo-botanists have found evidence that maiz was domesticated as early as 8,700 years ago in the Central Balsas Valley of southwest Mexico, spreading from there throughout the Americas. Maiz was the single most important food in a diet that also included squash, beans, domesticated turkeys and wild game. Maiz could be grown in a wide variety of different soils, climates, and altitudes. In addition, its kernels could be stored for long periods before being consumed or replanted. Anything this important to a culture will naturally become the subject of myths. Mesoamericans came to believe that their ancestors had received the gift of maiz from Quetzalcoatl.



Daily Living in the elite areas



A long covered pórtico, containing multiple pillars. The pórtico not only gave the residence a stylish appearance, but it provided an area protected from sun and rain where life's daily activities could be comfortably conducted. Similar pórticos adorn many buildings in modern Mexico and are still used for the same sort of purposes. The main entry into the interior of the residence can be seen in the center of the photo.



The implements of daily life. Seen above are several kinds of woven baskets, pots, bowls and grinding stones. Some of the bowls are ceramic while others appear to be cut from hollow gourds. These items are arranged on petates, woven fibre mats used for sitting or sleeping. In the Mexican village where I live, street vendors still sell petates like these. The weaving material for the petates above was probably fibre stripped from the leaves of the maguey plant, a succulent that grows all over Mexico.



Mano and metate. The use of stone implements for grinding food has a history of extraordinary length. Paleolithic (pre-agricultural) people used stone devices to grind up nuts, seeds, grasses, and tubers. To grind maiz or other material, the small, cylindrical mano will be rhythmically scraped against the metate, the large shallow stone pan. The person doing this (virtually always a woman) will grind the maiz into a flour. A dough called masa results when the flour is mixed with water. The masa will be shaped by hand into thin circular cakes which are then cooked over a fire on a clay griddle known as a comal. The result will be tortillas, a staple food familiar to millions of people. The process I have described dates back to very early pre-hispanic times, but is still used today. In fact, manos and metates, indistinguishable from those seen above, can be purchased in Mexican ferreterías (hardware stores). 



A shallow clay bowl that may--or may not--be a comal. Notice the decorative edge around the bowl. Pre-hispanic artisans even decorated simple kitchen implements like this one. The bowl's purpose is not clear. However, the person who designed this exhibit decided to place some partially burned sticks in it. It is possible that this was some sort of portable fire-pit. 




The large bowl and small pot are simple, utilitarian, but still stylish. The blackened surface of the pot indicates that it was used for cooking over an open fire. The still-bright paint on the bowl was applied by a potter over 1000 years ago.



Long-handled ladle. Any modern person, viewing this ladle, could easily visualize someone using it to dip out a serving of food from the dotted bowl from the previous photo . One of the charms of visiting these ancient sites is how it enables me to reach across the millennia and almost touch the humans on the other side.



A simple but elegant pot. I was intrigued by the clever addition of a spout to this pot. Pouring over the lip of the pot might be clumsy and messy. However, using the handles, the contents could easily be poured through the spout. 


Artisans and their tools


Residence at the north end of the complex. Notice the patio in the center with the remains of a staircase. Where these stairs once led is unknown, but it is possible that the occupants may have used their flat roof for additional living space.



Bone tools were among those used by artisans to craft their wares. The artisans of Xochicalco had no access to metal tools and had to rely on those of natural origin, such as bone, wood, stone and volcanic glass. Even with this limitation, their creations display great skill and artistry. The stone bust seen in the first photo of this posting is an example. New World metallurgy originated in South America, possibly in Peru, and subsequently spread to North America through seaborne trade routes. It did not reach central Mexico until around 900 AD, about the time when Xochicalco was abandoned. 



Tool used to pound amate bark into paper. This stone tool is about the size of a large bar of hand soap. Amate trees are a species of ficus, and there is an abundance of them in the mountains around Xochicalco. The paper was produced through a multi-stage process. This included soaking the inner bark for hours and then pounding it so that the fibers were pressed into a thin, cross-hatched mass. Archaeologists have found the remains of clothing made from bark paper that dates back to at least 2000 BC. The Olmec left stone relief carvings showing nobles wearing paper head gear. As writing developed, amate paper began to be used to create painted glyphs on paper that was folded in panels, accordion-style. Because most of these glyphs were related to religious subjects, amate paper itself became sacred and use was generally restricted to the elite. Its elite status and light weight made the paper an attractive trade good. The use of amate paper has continued through the millennia to the 21st century. In fact, there is a young man who makes beautiful amate paper artwork in a stall he sets up in the plaza near where I live. One of the tools he uses is almost identical to the one shown above.



Stone mortar, typical of those used to grind pigments to make paint. These were also used by potters to pulverize clay and by priests to grind up exotic plants as part of religious rituals. Although metullurgy was unknown in Xochicalco, artisans did grind up oxides of copper and iron to make paint.



Arrowheads made from various types of stone. Few, if any, of these are made from obsidian. Xochicalco had no local source of obsidian and therefore it had to be imported and was expensive. Other types of stone used to make arrowheads included flint and chert.  Some archaeologists have tried their hands at making arrow points in the traditional way. Once the technique is mastered, this can be done with surprising speed. 


Small flat statues like these were used in religious rituals as offerings. A large number of these were found in the residential area, indicating that they may have been mass-produced there, or at least stored. The litte statues were probably used both for local ceremonies and as a trade item.

This completes Part 4 of my Xochicalco series. In my next posting, I will focus on the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, and the remarkable relief carvings that cover its sides. If you enjoyed this posting, please leave any questions or comments 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










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





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