Xochicalco: New Wave Mayan City That Was a Prime Target for Destruction
After the collapse of Teotihuacan and other major centers of the Mesoamerican Classic Period (circa 250-750 AD) such as Monte Alban, Tikal, and Palenque, Mesoamerican civilization entered uncertain times in the new Mesoamerican world order. Many urban settlements were left in ruins and the loss of the hegemony created by the large powerful cities of the Classic Period led to increased warfare. While this broken civilization was in turmoil, new cities emerged from what were originally simply fortified citadels. These became connected with other cities through trade and tribute, creating an international culture united by a common religion and visible in the architecture and art of the period. An example of this would be the city of Xochicalco in Morelos State, Mexico, known for its three-tiered city structure, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent and an underground observatory, among other interesting structures.
The Pyramid at Xochicalco (Public Domain)
A Triple Terrace Citadel City
Xochicalco was founded sometime during the 7th century AD. It was established, like many cities at the time, with heavy fortifications to fight off potential invaders. As the city grew, it came to have a complex structure with three terraces surrounded by the city walls. The lowest terrace consists mainly of the remains of residential areas most likely inhabited by common people. The second terrace contains a plaza famous for its stele, more residential areas, and a ballcourt.
The primary ballcourt at Xochicalco. (Public Domain)
The highest terrace represents the most impressive part of the city. The terrace includes several temples, residential areas for the ruling elites, and an underground observatory. One of the temples is the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. Along the sides of the pyramid are panels consisting of images of many different human and animal figures. The panels are separated into larger lower panels and smaller upper panels.
The lower panels contain stone carvings of feathered serpents. In between the curves of the serpents’ bodies are men sitting wearing animal headdresses. These are considered most likely to be priests. The upper panels contain glyphs and associated warriors in a sitting position.
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Temple of the Feathered Serpent (CC BY 2.0)
There is also a ballcourt adjacent to the plaza containing this pyramid. The ballcourt is separated from the rest of the complex by a ramp paved with stone engraved with a variety of animals. Among these animals are birds, reptiles, mammals, and even insects. This ramp is appropriately known as the Ramp of Animals.
Another feature of interest is an underground observatory also found at this terrace. The observatory appears to have originally been a quarry which was later converted into an observatory. For its association with astronomy, it has been nicknamed the Cave of the Astronomers. On the roof of the cave is a shaft where sunlight enters the cave at a certain time of the year. Two days out of the year on 14/15 May and 28/29 July, when the sun is at its zenith, the sun’s light will enter the shaft in such a way that the solar disc will appear very clearly on the floor of the cave so that even sunspots and solar flares can be seen if the width of the shaft is made to be very small.
The underground astronomical observatory found on the upper terrace (CC BY SA 3.0)
Although there is some disagreement over whether it was also meant to detect the motion of the Moon, most scholars would agree that it had an astronomical purpose. The most common explanation is that it was used to constrain the length of a year to increase the accuracy of their calendars. Most Mesoamerican cities were built near the tropic of Cancer where the sun is directly overhead at noon on the summer solstice. Because of this, Mesoamerican astronomer-priests would build solar observatories to catch the sun’s light as it passed directly overhead. An option not open to astronomers of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, or the West.
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Shaft of light entering the observatory (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Short-lived Power Base
The During the Epiclassic period (700-900 AD), the city became a major military, political, economic, and religious center which had influence over a large confederation of city-states. This would not last long however and after 900 AD the city was destroyed by invaders and abandoned. It is possible that the dominance of the city was not appreciated by its neighbors.
Deeper Historical Understanding
In addition to telling us about the culture of Xochicalco itself, these structures are indicative of a larger phenomenon occurring in the Mesoamerican world during the Epiclassic and Postclassic (circa 900-1697 AD) periods. Architectural and artistic styles seen at Xochicalco and motifs such as the feathered serpent are found in many other Mesoamerican sites both West Mexican and Maya. The worship of the Feathered Serpent, for example, appears to be almost universal in Mesoamerica at this time and evidence for its worship or veneration is found as far north as the American southwest where emulates have been found featuring a feathered serpent among the sites of Ancestral Pueblo.
Although there is disagreement regarding the reason for the homogeneity, many scholars believe that it was because of the rise of an international culture or “world system” based on a common religion centered on a feathered serpent deity called Quetzalcoatl in Nahuatl-speaking Mexico and Kukulkan in the Maya world. In addition to a common religion, this international culture also had a common architectural and artistic style which is seen in the monuments at Xochicalco and other sites of the time period, such as the Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza. A non-architectural line of evidence for this international culture is that kings from all over the Mesoamerican world would later go to the same holy city of Cholula to be consecrated.
Close up of feathered serpent motif on the temple at Xochicalco (CC BY-SA 3.0)
If this is the case, then the reason for the similarity of the art and architecture of monuments and temples in Xochicalco to other Mesoamerican sites is the same reason for architectural and artistic similarity between religious structures across Medieval Europe. Medieval Christendom is a known example of an international culture based on a common religion, Christianity. Cathedrals across Western Europe all look very similar even though some were built by Germans, others by Italians, and yet others were built by the Spanish. This is just a sample of the many different ethnic divisions that existed across Europe united by a common Christian faith.
This is also seen today, though today’s global international culture isn’t really united by a common religion as much as a common economic system, global capitalism. It also includes a common architectural style. All the major international cities of the world, New York City, London, Singapore, etc., look very similar, all with soaring skyscrapers and factories.
View of the steps at Xochicalco (CC BY SA 3.0)
Xochicalco, in this case, would represent the beginnings of an international culture in the Epiclassic Period that would later come to full bloom in the Postclassic Period as the religion of the Feathered Serpent spread across Mexico and Central America. The way we look at Xochicalco today is the way that future archaeologists may look at ruins of a city like Los Angeles, the remnants of an extinct world system.
Top image: Aerial view of the archaeological site and surrounding area at Xochicalco (Credit: Morelos Tourism)
By Caleb Strom
“Archaeological Monuments Zone of Xochicalco.” UNESCO World Heritage List. Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/939
Lebeuf, Arnold. "Cave of the Astronomers at Xochicalco." Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and
Ethnoastronomy (2015): 749-758.