Sunday, February 19, 2017

Xochicalco Part 4 of 9: 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.

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


  1. Something went a little wacky with the font, starting with "Stone block containing a glyph".

    1. Yes, I know about the problem. I'm attempting to fix it and hopefully it won't recur in the next posting. In the meantime, everyone should just use the "zoom in" feature of your browser. Sorry about the problem, everyone.


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