Sunday, January 18, 2015

Guerrero's coast Part 2: The unique pyramid at ancient Xihuacán

A broad staircase ascends nine stepped-platforms of Pyramid A. This is the only one of Xihuacán's many pyramids yet excavated. One of my goals when we re-visited the Zihuatanejo area was to return to this ancient site. I wanted to see if we could gain access to the large pyramid that archaeologists had been unearthing on our previous visit. At that time, our guide Eduardo had told us the structure was off-limits. Tantalized by what I could glimpse from afar, I had to satisfy myself with a few telephoto shots. This time, to our delight, the pyramid was at least partially open to visitors. While we were restricted to an established walkway, we could see and photograph everything. The return visit to the site was well worth it because, as it turned out, the pyramid is highly unusual in several important respects. For a Google map of the area, click here.

Pyramid A is located in the center of the chart behind where the dotted lines converge. Except for the ball court--the long, narrow structure to the left and below Pyramid A--all the other structures above were still covered with earth and brush at the time we visited. The chart shows how this ceremonial center was consciously constructed to align with astronomical phenomena such as the March equinox and the December solstice. From the altar immediately in front of Pyramid A, the priest-rulers would take sightings of the position of the sun as it appeared over three different cerros (mountains). These sightings helped them prepare calendars showing the correct dates for planting and harvesting crops, especially maiz (corn). Keeping accurate calendars meant the ability to predict the future. This gave rulers great power over agricultural societies such as Xihuacán. The ceremonial structures seen above formed the center of a city that covered at least 8 hectares (19 acres). At its peak, as many as 15,000 people lived here. Today, there are only about 500 residents in nearby La Soledad de Maciel.

Pyramid A is still not completely excavated, as can be seen above. The front part of the stepped-pyramid has been revealed, but behind it rises a huge eroded mound that remains relatively untouched. The stairs are a modern addition and are part of the walkway created by archaeologists so visitors don't disturb the site. Pyramid A is quite large. At its base, it measures 100 m (328 ft) on each of its four sides. Its nine platforms rise to a height of 16 m (52.5 ft). Xihuacán and the area around it was almost continuously occupied for 3000 years, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. Some archaeologists believe that the great length of its habitation may make it one of the most important sites ever discovered in Mexico. Artifacts found here show connections with the Olmecs of the Pre-Classic period, the Teotihuacans of Classic era,  and the Toltecs of the Post-Classic. Xihuacán remained an important power until the Aztecs under Emperor Ahuitzotl invaded the area in 1433 AD. By the early 1500s, Xihuacán had been reduced to a tributary province. Its power and glory were all but forgotten. This era of continuous habitation was broken only by a great tsunami which inundated the coastal area, resulting in a relatively brief period of abandonment. Some of the ceremonial site's ruins are still buried under tons of sand from that cataclysm.

The stepped platforms are unique in their construction. Unlike similar structures in any other part of Mesoamerica, their smooth outer surface is covered with terra-cotta (baked clay). In those ancient times, this would have been an extraordinarily difficult process. It required detailed knowledge of the behavior of clays and great skill in managing the temperatures created by open, wood-fired furnaces. To evenly bake the clay over such vast surface areas presented an immense challenge. Even so, the method was clearly effective. The platforms on this pyramid have maintained their hard, smooth surfaces for more than 1500 years. For an aerial view of Pyramid A, click here. At the bottom center of the aerial shot is Pyramid A. The circular wooded area just above Pyramid A is an un-excavated pyramid of even greater dimensions. Above the un-excavated pyramid, and slightly to the left, is the Ball Court which has been partly truncated by the road. It is second in size only to the great Ball Court of Chichen Itza.

View from the top platform of Pyramid A, looking west. To your right, where now corn fields and orchards grow, a great plaza once spread out, bordered by pyramids, palaces, and the ball court. The Pacific Ocean is only a few kilometers away to the west. Nearby ponds and canals once linked Xihuacán with the lagoon that runs behind the beach, and from there to the sea. This water route, and the access it allowed to the ocean, was beneficial for trade. Some of the most valuable trade items included conch shells, sea salt, cotton, and cacao. Artifacts indicate that Xihuacán's trade networks extended to central and southern Mexico, Guatemala and even to the Pacific Coast of South America. Another source of power and wealth came from the conquest of outlying towns and settlements. These then became sources of tribute. At its peak between 450 AD and 1100 AD, Xihuacán dominated a considerable stretch of Guerrero's Pacific Coast.

The Ojos de Dios (Eyes of God) are a series of holes on top of a large boulder. The boulder stands about 15 m (50 ft) from the western corner of Pyramid A. About one third of the rock has split off, probably due to natural causes. The boulder is at least 2 m (6.5 ft) tall, with a diameter of about twice that. I wasn't able to get close enough to count all the holes, but there are at least 25, with more out of view. The function of the Ojos de Dios is not clear. According to one theory, they were used for astronomical observations. Upon filling them with water, particular stars in the night sky would reflect in particular holes and thus aid calendric calculations. Another interpretation asserts that the act of filling the holes with water represented feeding the rock, thus encouraging the water god to send rain.

The top of Pyramid A 

The level top of the pyramid forms its own plaza containing smaller pyramids and altars. This is another very unusual aspect of Xihuacán. Carole and I have visited ancient sites throughout Mexico, and several in Guatemala. The only other place where we have encountered a huge pyramid with smaller pyramids on top is Tonináan ancient Maya city in the highlands of Chiapas. The total area encompassed by the top, or ninth, platform is about 76 m x 76 m, (250 ft x 250 ft). In the foreground above, you can see the corner of a long rectangular pyramid. In the background at the top is another, this time square. In front of the square pyramid is a low altar, also square. In the left-center of the photo is a rectangular depression that was once part of a temescal (sweat lodge).

The central location of the altar indicates its importance. Sacrifices here may have included human offerings. In the right foreground is a circular pit that our guide described as a place for sacred fires. In the upper right you can see part of the square pyramid.

Another view of the altar and square pyramid includes a section of a water channel. Several of these ancient channels interlocked to direct rain water off the plaza. Xihuacán's builders lacked metal tools, draft animals, or the wheel, but nonetheless exhibited a sophisticated understanding of engineering principles. The water runoff was directed to pools which provided both a water supply for drinking and irrigation and a transportation link to the sea.

The foundations of a temescal stand near the rectangular pyramid. The entrance to the temescal extends out like the handle to a skillet. Temescales were used for religious purposes in ancient times, and still are by indigenous people in today's Mexico. The sweating process is intended to cleanse the participant. This may occur prior to a religious ceremony, or perhaps after an experience which may have left the person spiritually unclean. Use of a temescal was also considered medicinal and they were sometimes used by women during childbirth.

The narrow entrance to the temescal required participants to crouch low and crawl. Once all participants were assembled in the dark room, heated rocks from an outside fire--perhaps the sacred fire pit--would be brought in and sprinkled with water. Quickly, clouds of hot steam would fill the chamber.  Sometimes, the effects were hallucinogenic These experiences were considered sacred since they represented contact with spirit beings from other worlds.

The rectangular pyramid runs along the west side of Pyramid A. In the foreground you can see a section of the cobblestone paving that once covered the whole surface of the platform's plaza. Although archaeologists have aware of a pre-hispanic site in this area since at least 1925, little formal excavation occurred until the first decade of this century. For many years prior to that, local farmer's plows regularly turned up artifacts. Sensing an opportunity to bring tourist dollars to their very low-income community, some residents began to press the government to investigate. Finally, only a few years ago, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began a major dig. According to Eduardo, a total of 16 pyramids have been identified to date. These include some built on nearby mountains after an ancient tsunami flooded the ceremonial center. Even taking into account the work displayed in both of my postings, the vast majority of Xihuacán is still untouched by archaeologists' trowels. Given the great length of time the site was occupied, and the important part Xihuacán played in pre-hispanic times, the future may hold some eye-popping discoveries.

Deciphering the stones

Glyph on a stele at the Museo de La Soledad de Maciel. The stele was recovered during the reconstruction of the Ball Court. However, that may not have been its original location. INAH has identified the glyph as the ancient place-name for Xihuacán. One interpretation of the word Xihuacán is "Place of the people who possess turquoise", a possible reference to Xihuacán's position as a center for trade. Another is "Place of the people who control eternity (or time)", referring to the city's association with astronomy and the ancient calendars. Recently I was contacted by Javier Urcid, Associate Professor of Archaeology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. He had stumbled across my previous blog posting on Xihuacán and was interested in additional photos of the site's stone carvings, including the one above. I agreed to email him a number of shots that I had not included in that earlier posting. Since Carole and I were about to re-visit Zihuatanejo, I also volunteered to take additional photos that might be helpful in his research. Javier was delighted by my offer and I, in turn, was happy to collaborate with a professional archaeologist from such a distinguished university.

Javier's interpretation of the stele's glyph. One thing I have discovered about archaeologists is how often they disagree with one another. Although he is careful to note that he cannot claim to have the definitive answer, Javier believes that INAH's interpretation of the glyph is not accurate. He believes that his research shows a different and better substantiated meaning. He compared the Xihuacán glyph to similar glyphs found in ancient sites in Oaxaca and Yucatan, seen above on the left. The comparative glyph that INAH used is shown on the right. It is Javier's belief that Xihuacán's glyph means "Slide Knot", and refers to the 10th day of the ancient calendar. He notes that INAH's glyph contains four small circles with dots in them that surround the perimeter of the cartouch. Those circles appear on neither the Xihuacan glyph nor on those that Javier presents. Javier also believes INAH has displayed the stele upside down and that his drawing above shows its proper orientation.

Stele of "The King" is currently displayed in front of the church in La Soledad de Maciel. Javier fully agrees with INAH that this figure, known locally as La Chole, represents a ruler. La Chole wears an elaborate head dress and is portrayed with three faces. The middle one is a full frontal view. The other two are right and left profiles and may relate to the Mesoamerican concept of Duality. This is a very important part of pre-hispanic cosmology. Within the concept of Duality, everything is intimately and inextricably connected to its opposite, i.e. day-night, light-dark, life-death, male-female, evil-beneficial, etc. Any half of a duality cannot be understood without also taking into account, and accepting, its opposite.

Javier specializes in line drawings of ancient stone carvings. Above, he has drawn La Chole from the photos I sent him. Line drawings bring out details that are easily missed when viewing the original carving. Notice, for example, the ear rings, the pectoral (necklace), the bracelets, and the belt with its buckle. The legs are no longer attached to the original statue, but are displayed separately at the museum. Is this a representation of a real person, perhaps an important ruler in his time? Future excavations may reveal the answer.

Ring from the Ball Court. This, and another ring, would have been placed about half way along the length of the Ball Court, one on each side. One method of scoring was to pass the ball through the ring. The hole in the ring is only about 20 cm (8 in) across, so the hard rubber ball couldn't have been much bigger than a grapefruit. Although the Mesoamerican  ball game was played almost everywhere, from Honduras to Arizona, specific rules seem to have varied from one place to another. Under some rules, the ball could not be touched by hands or feet and could only be propelled by a hip, shoulder, or head. Protective leather armor was sometimes worn because the heavy ball could injure or even kill an unprotected player. In some locations, including Chichen Itzá, certain players might sacrificed after the game. There is some dispute among archaeologists over whether the sacrificed players were the losers or the winners. In some Mesoamerican societies, being chosen for sacrifice was considered a great honor. While archaeologists have found evidence that human sacrifice was associated with Xihuacán's ball game, it is not presently known whether this involved the players themselves.

The Ball Court ring displays two snakes, nose to nose. When I first photographed the rings, I didn't pay much attention to the swirls and squiggles on the surfaces. It was only later, after I had used my computer to enlarge and enhance the exposures, that I thought I saw evidence of snakes. It was a bit like looking for a hidden image in a puzzle. After I received Javier's drawings, I immediately saw what I had missed. The snakes are in profile, with their curling noses pressed together at the top. The right and left eyes of the two snakes are represented by the small oval spaces which, on the actual stone ring, are carved into the granite. The two mouths are open in toothy grins and the curling tails loop down on either side. These may be "fire serpents", associated with war and the planet Venus. The ball game symbolically expressed the duality of light and darkness and the on-going war between them. The ball game was played--in part--to defeat the darkness and ensure the rise of the life-giving sun. In this context, the presence of two opposing fire serpents makes sense. In addition, the ancient people also recognized Venus as both the Evening and Morning Star and thus also connected to the duality of darkness and light.

This large stone disk was found in the plaza in front of Pyramid A. It may have been the focal point for the ritual sun-sightings over the three surrounding cerros that established the arrival of an astronomical event such as a solstice or an equinox. The dimensions of the disk are approximately 1.8 m (5 ft) in diameter and .3 m (1 ft) thick. I don't know the weight, but it must be considerable. The top surface is covered with a low-relief carving of the rain god Tlaloc. The museum had no step ladder available for me to climb, and there was no other way to shoot a photo directly over it. In the end, I had to shoot photos of the surface by quadrants. Javier was particularly interested in the designs around the rim. He had asked me to photograph them with a continuous, overlapping series of shots so he could draw and analyze them. He hasn't completed his work on these images, but I hope to hear from him soon about his findings.

Tlaloc's fanged, goggle-eyed face was immediately recognizable of the upper quadrant.  Surrounding his head is a five-pointed star, representing Venus. Notice the round "goggle eyes".  Other significant features include circular ear rings, long fangs, and a forked tongue that droops from his open mouth. Carvings, sculpture, and pottery images of Tlaloc almost always include these elements.

Javier's drawing of the surface of the Tlaloc disk. Some of the other interesting features include a large target-like pectoral, a decorative loincloth, and two snakes that appear under his legs. I am not familiar with the objects he holds in each hand. Perhaps Javier will enlighten me.  Tlaloc is one of the two oldest gods in the Mesoamerican pantheon. The other is Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old God" of fire. Statues and carvings of both of these gods have been found at sites of some of the earliest pre-hispanic civilizations. They continued to be central to Mesoamerican cosmology right through the Spanish Conquest. When you consider the importance of fire and water to ancient civilizations, and to the archaic hunter-gatherers that preceded them, the great antiquity of these two gods makes sense.

Painting of Tlaloc at Teotihuacan, one of its many links with Xihuacán. The peak of Xihuacán's power and prosperity overlaps that of Teotihuacan. The ruins of that great city are located northeast of Mexico City, many hundreds of miles away from Guerrero's coast. However, Mesoamerican trade networks linked them commercially and culturally. Notice the similarity between the painting and the Tlaloc on the stone disk. The painting has the same five-pointed star representing Venus, goggle-eyes, round ear rings, drooping fangs and a forked tongue. Tlaloc had many aspects, but he was above all the god of rain, floods, thunder and lightning. True to the concept of Duality, he was considered both beneficial to the growth of crops, and destructive in his ability to send floods and lightening strikes. The Tlaloc disk's placement in the plaza connects astronomy, the calendar, the prediction of the seasonal rains, and the correct time to harvest the all-important main crop.

This completes Part 2 of my three-part series on the Guerrero Coast. I hope you enjoyed it and can visit this remarkable site in the future. If you'd like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Jim. This civilization seems much more centralized than the contemporaneous indigenous cultures that I'm more familiar with, in the Pacific Northwest. Comparing the two also makes me wonder about the stories that were told here, since I'm somewhat familiar with origin myths of some of the Coast Salish people.

  2. Nice piece. Makes me want to visit my folks (Pat and Sandy) in Ajijic again.

  3. Hola Actualmente estoy escribiendo un artículo sobre la pirámide de Xihuacan, pero investigando en otros artículos, me estado encontrando con otras similitudes, por ejemplo con en el monolito dios Tlatecuhtli, se describe igual como el otro dios del templo mayor Tenochtitlan LA diosa Tlatecuhtli. Qué me dices al respecto de esas dos deidades que se parecen. Saludos Mi correo es


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