Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Puebla Part 13: The hilltop citadel of Xochitécatl

Pyramid of the Flowers, Xochitécatl. You are viewing a telephoto shot of the pyramid's east (back) side as seen from its nearby sister ruin, Cacaxtla. The two ruins are less than an hour's drive northwest of Puebla, not far from the intersection of the #190D cuota (toll road) between Mexico City and Puebla, and the new Arco Norte cuota. Carole and I visited the ruins on our way back from Puebla to our home in Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, in Jalisco State. The ruins, located in Mexico's smallest state, Tlaxcala, sit on the tops of twin volcanic knobs at the crest of a mountain surrounded by a vast, lush valley. There is a stunning 360 degree vista. The two knobs are about 1 km (.62 mile) apart, separated by a shallow ravine thickly covered by vegetation and small, intensively-cultivated fields. Although we stopped at Cacaxtla first before visiting Xochitécatl, I decided to reverse the order of presentation because Xochitécatl is by far the oldest of the two. In my next two postings, I will focus on Cacaxtla and its temples and palaces filled with gorgeously painted murals. For a Google map of the sites, click here.


Site map of Xochitécatl. It is not a large or extensive site, as you can see, but it is well worth visiting. Both Carole and I were struck by a sense of its great antiquity. It is definitely the oldest prehispanic site we have visited in Mexico. Four major structures are grouped on a broad, leveled-off space on top of the volcanic knob. A long, winding road to the site takes you to a parking area and a set of steps leading to a small museum, some of the artifacts of which I am including. Just beyond the museum you encounter the Spiral Pyramid, identified by the red arrow above.  At the south side (bottom) of the map is the Serpent Temple. Located on the east side is the large Pyramid of the Flowers, seen in the first photo of this posting. Between the Spiral and Flower pyramids is a low rectangular structure known as the Platform of the Volcanos. No ruins of habitations have been found in this site, leading archaeologists to believe it served a purely ritual function. The people would have lived in the fertile valley surrounding the volcanic knobs.

Clay figure of a woman, Xochitécatl museum. Although small, the museum has a large number of artifacts, both inside and in the small plaza outside. Some were labeled, but many were not, so some of my comments about them are just educated speculation. The female above, well dressed in a flowing shawl, a long skirt, and an extensive head dress, probably represents a woman of some importance. There are many representations of women among the museum's artifacts. Many of these pieces were used in fertility rites. Figures like the one above help us understand how the people saw themselves at a particular time. The word Xochitécatl is Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It means "home of the flower lineage", and is pronounced "So-shee-tek-atl." The site was built more than 1500 years before the Aztecs arrived in the area, and what the original inhabitants called it is unknown. The Pyramid of Flowers, Serpent Temple, and Spiral Pyramid all date back to the Middle Preclassic era (800 BC - 300 BC), making early Xochitécatl contemporary with the Olmec Civilization, the "Mother of Cultures." Except for one significant gap in time, people used the site from then until around 950 AD, when the Classic era civilizations all over Mesoamerica collapsed. Between 150 AD and 600 AD, the site was abandoned because of the eruption of the nearby, and still-active, Popocatépetl volcano. The volcanos Iztaccihuatl and La Malinche are also visible from the site. Between 600 AD and 950 AD, the ruins were reoccupied by the people of Cacaxtla as a subsidiary ceremonial site. During this period, the Platform of the Volcanos was constructed and the Pyramid of Flowers was used for the ritual sacrifice of children.  Even though Xochitécatl was abandoned again about 950 AD, there is evidence that ritual activity continued well into the Spanish Colonial period, and may continue even today. Major archaeological work did not occur until very recently, in 1993-94.

The Spiral Pyramid

The Spiral Pyramid sits on the extreme west side of the leveled-off volcanic knob. On its top sits a Christian cross, erected in 1632, about 110 years after the Conquest. It was the practice of Spanish civil and religious authorities to plant crosses, or even erect churches, on top of indigenous temples. Their message was clear: "we're on top now." My sources vary on the time when the pyramid was erected, one saying 700 BC and another 300 BC. In either case, it is very old, pre-dating not only the Aztecs, but also the Toltecs, and even the great civilization of Teotihuacan.

The spiraling levels of the pyramid are unique. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only spiral pyramid in the entire area of Mesoamerica. There are 10 tiers to the structure, which is built from boulders and tiles. The interior does not contain other structures or previous pyramids but is entirely filled with volcanic ash. Since no steps have been found, it is believed that access to the top was by following the spirals in a priest-led procession that must have been quite spectacular.

Ritual figure found at Xochitécatl. Figures like this may have been used in the rituals held on top of the Spiral Pyramid. The figure is nude and, although it doesn't possess genitals, it does appear to have a navel. Note the extensive head dress, probably representing feathers. Two human burials were discovered inside the structure of the Spiral Pyramid.

The flat, grassy top of the pyramid provides a spectacular view. Since the Spiral Pyramid sits on the edge of the plateau, the ground to the west drops sharply down the mountain. Standing here, you are provided with a 360 degree view of the valley and the volcanos in the distance. Archaeologists believe that the structure functioned either as an astronomical observatory or for the worship of Ehecatl, the god of wind. The top of the Spiral Pyramid was certainly breezy the day we visited.

The Serpent Temple

The Temple of the Serpent. The building is rectangular, and built with 4 stepped tiers. The overall structure was constructed in 3 successive stages. My sources differ again, placing its erection in either 700 BC or 300 BC. It is constructed of riverbed stones, which would have had to be hauled up a considerable distance from the valley below.

Serpent's head, found at the temple. This sculpture gave the temple its name. It was found along with two other sculptures in a large, hand-carved, stone basin on the top level. The other two sculptures represented a jaguar-man, and another man with a sceptre. All of them were in post-Olmec style. The Olmec civilization ended about 400 BC, but its influence continued to reverberate through Mesoamerica for another 1500 years until the arrival of the Spanish.

West side of the Serpent's Temple, showing the 4 stepped tiers. The total dimensions of the temple are 80 meters (262.5 ft. ) by 50 meters (164 ft.). A room was discovered along this side of the temple containing large amounts of worked obsidian, including cores, chippings, knives, projectile points, and scrapers. Bone tools and antlers were also found. Apparently this part of the temple was used as a workshop. Ceramic remains date the workshop to the late Preclassic period (350 BC-100 AD).

"I'm the man!" This small figure stands with arms extended and thumbs up, pointing toward himself. It seems like a rather triumphant posture, although this might merely be my modern interpretation. Otherwise nude, he wears a necklace, large spool earrings, and a flat hat of some kind. 

The sole entry point to the Serpent Temple was from the north side. The ramp seen above is a modern construction. Archaeologists believe the temple was used in rites related to water. The view here is from the plaza in front of the Pyramid of the Flowers looking southwest. In the background, the peak of Popocatépetl is shrouded with clouds.

Platform of the Volcanos

Steps on the west side of the Platform of the Volcanos. The Platform is believed to be the base of a building that has now disappeared. The structure is 50 meters (164 ft.) long and 35 meters (114 ft.) wide. The Teotihuacan Empire fell in 600 AD, but its influence was still powerful in 750 AD when the platform was built. An example of this can be seen in the wall that extends down vertically to a sloping panel, called a talud, a characteristic of Teotihuacan architecture. In addition, the orientation of the platform is 16 degrees from magnetic north, similar to that of buildings at Teotihuacan. The builders were the neighboring people of Cacaxtla, who constructed their city long after Xochitépetl was abandoned due to Popocatépetl's eruption in 150 AD. Needing more ceremonial space, and no doubt impressed by the antiquity of the ruin across the ravine, the Cacaxtla people cleaned up the area, built the Platform of Volcanos on the remains of a previous structure, and began using it for religious rites.

Figure seated on a throne may have presided over rites at the Platform of Volcanos. The figure is richly dressed and may be a ruler or chief priest. Notice his elaborate head dress and the fine sandal he wears on his left foot (the only one remaining). The slitted eyes are another characteristic feature of the Teotihuacan style.

Female heads of fertility offerings. More than 200 such female figures were found at the platform in the 1960s by German archaeologist Bodo Spranz. A figurine representing the female goddess Tlazolteotl was one of those found. She was the goddess responsible for purification from sins, particularly those of a sexual nature. This provides an interesting connection to all the fertility figures. In addition, evidence of the burial of human infants was discovered in the upper section of the platform. The sacrifice of infants is known to have been conducted at this time in Xochitécatl. The overall placement of the Platform of the Volcanos in the center of the large plaza formed by the Spiral Pyramid, the Serpent Temple, and the Pyramid of Flowers indicates that it was a ritual site of great importance. 

The Monolithic Basins

Two large Monolithic Basins are located immediately in front of the Pyramid of Flowers. Their function was to hold water, a liquid considered essential to fertility. The one above is buried to ground level, the other sits on top of the ground. It is believe that children and infants destined for sacrifice were first washed in these basins before ascending the steps to their fate. 

Disfigured stone face found in one of the Monolithic Basins. There were 4 stone sculptures found in the basin, including this one. People born with disfigured faces were often considered holy in these early societies. Other stone artifacts found in the basin include a toad, a serpent, and another with the face of a human corpse.  

A human face emerges from the mouth of a serpent. This was one of the stone sculptures found in the basin. Serpents were potent symbols in Mesoamerica, often associated with Quetzalcoatl, the creator god. On the back of the Temple of Warriors at Tollan, the Toltec capital, there is a wall covered with relief carvings of skeletal figures emerging from snake mouths.  

Flower petals float in the Monolithic Basin. The area near the basin contained no plants that might produce such flowers, and I came to the conclusion that these were deliberately deposited by someone as an act of reverence. If true, the ancient religions show remarkable resilience. In fact, a very large number of people living in Tlaxcala and Puebla States still speak Nahuatl as their first language. Local festivals still feature dances and other rituals that are traceable to prehispanic times.

Pyramid of the Flowers

Pyramid of the Flowers seen from the west side of the plaza. The pyramid is quite large, measuring 100 meters (328 ft.) by 140 meters (459 ft.), similar in size to the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. However, it does not stand as high as its Teotihuacan counterpart. That such a small site should possess such a large pyramid is remarkable. The structure was constructred with 8 tiers using riverbed stones, blocks cut from the bedrock and tiles. It must have been an immense job to drag all that up to the top of this mountain.

Infant in cradle was one of many in the museum. I found more than a dozen of these figures in the Xochitécatl museum. More than 2000 clay figures and 15 stone sculptures were found on the great stairway that leads up to the top of the pyramid. A very large proportion of the figures represented females, from infancy through old age. They include pregnant women, some of whom are shown with abdomens split open which contain richly dressed babies inside. The heavy emphasis on women and children indicates that fertility was the focus of this pyramid, particularly in its later period. 

View of the south side of the pyramid. This photo was taken from the top of the Serpent's Temple. It clearly shows the multiple platforms that make up the Pyramid of the Flowers. The edge of the east side of the plateau is just behind the pyramid. 

The great staircase, looking down from the top. Carole, standing in the upper left of the photo, provides a sense of scale.The two Monolithic Basins sit right at the base of the stairs. The children to be sacrificed would be ritually washed there, and then, with great ceremony, brought up to the top level. I can't imagine what must have been going through their minds, and the minds of their parents.

Obsidian blades and 2 jade objects. Excavations at the pyramid also revealed that there was a large obsidian workshop located there, in addition to the one at the Serpent's Temple. I found no mention of how the children were actually killed, but many Mesoamerican societies used obsidian blades like these for human sacrifices. Obsidian is volcanic glass and very hard. It can be brought to a sharpness equivalent to a modern surgical scalpel. Buried in the top level of the pyramid were the remains of more than 30 children and one adult. The children had beads of jade placed in their mouths, apparently to ease their journey into the underworld. 

The Pyramid of the Flowers has its own version of Stone Henge. The top of the pyramid is a large, flat, grassy rectangle. Near the head of the staircase are the remains of a structure a bit like that found at pre-historic Stone Henge in England. The 2 upright stones are crowned with a stone lintel. The fallen stones lying about indicate that the structure above was one of a series that enclosed an area. Astronomical observations from the top of the pyramid reveal that from this point every September 29th, the sun appears to rise from the mouth of the La Malinche volcano. 

View from the top of the Pyramid of the Flowers, looking east. The ground drops away steeply on the back side of the pyramid. Below is the ravine separating Xochitécatl from Cacaxtla. The land that isn't forested is intensively cultivated in small fields, as it would have been in ancient times. The Cacaxtla ruin is covered by the structure seen on top of the hill in the upper right of the photo.

This completes Part 13 of my Puebla series. In the next two postings, I will show Cacaxtla, with its dramatic and colorful murals, painted on the walls of temples and palaces unearthed only recently. If you enjoyed this posting, I invite you to comment, either directly by email or in the Comments section below.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Just discovered your blog and wow! Really enjoying the pictures and stories you share about your experiences in Mexico.

    My husband and I have our house up for sale and are making plans to move to Ajijic with our three boys ASAP. I look forward to seeing the places and people you describe in person soon!


  2. This is a really interesting post! Rituals at this site seems unlike those at others we've seen. Thanks for the detail.

  3. I've just begun looking at your blog and am enthralled by it. It's my new way to travel into that part of the world. I just wanted to express my gratitude to you for your wonderful site.

    Billy Blair


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim