Xochicalco Archaeological Site
The name Xochicalco, in Nahuatl, means “Place of the House of Flowers.” The Mesoamerican city rose to power in the Late Classic period (AD 700—900) during the power vacuum created by the demise of the great metropolis Teotihuacan, several hundred kilometers to the northeast. Surrounded by a fortified wall and moat, Xochicalco was built atop a series of low hills, undoubtedly for defensive purposes.
Although this area had poor soil not well-suited for crops, the Xochicalcos obtained what they needed by trading and also by controlling surrounding towns, which produced food and also provided manual labor and raw materials. Archaeologists guestimate that at the height of civilization Xochicalco accommodated at least 15,000 inhabitants.
The bureaucratic city was a center of trade with other cultures near and far, including the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Maya, and people from the Gulf Coast. This association with other cultures influenced Xochicalco (and other Central Plateau cities such as Tula), and naturally, vice versa. An example of the cross-pollination of ideas is the importance in both Xochicalco and Maya cultures of the cult of Quetzalcoatl (called Kukulcan by the Maya). According to the Official Guide from the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City, the cult of the god-king Quetzalcoatl is believed to have originated at Xochicalco.
Xochicalco’s Temple to Quetzalcoatl is the most striking of the buildings found throughout the extensive site. Eight representations of the Feathered Serpent, covered in cloud symbols, are carved around its slanted base. (Quetzalcoatl’s legendary father was named “Cloud Serpent.”) Wearing breast-plates and plumed headdresses, the figures carved above and below the serpents’ undulating bodies are depicted in Maya style. The figure is labeled in hieroglyphics as “9 Wind,” the birthdate of Quetzalcoatl. The temple was mostly likely consecrated---with great ceremony and many visitors from far-away tribes---in the year AD 743, to mark a solar eclipse.
The Quetzalcoatl Temple is one of a series of buildings sharing the most important and highest part of Xochicalco. Accessible only to the city’s elite, this part of the city housed the Acropolis, a central altar, and a palace as well as a temazcal (ritual steam bath) and other important buildings.
Adjacent to this important ceremonial area is a cave modified to create an underground observatory. Although it was unmanned when we visited, the observatory is supposedly open to visitors between 10AM and 5PM. If you visit around May 14—15 or July 28—29, you may be able to witness the phenomenon of a beam of light (from the sun at its zenith) passing through a manmade slit to illuminate the interior. This is most likely another idea imported by the Maya. In his book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, the archaeologist Michael D. Coe suggests that Xochicalco forms a kind of bridge between Classic and Post-Classic central Mexico, influenced---or even directed---by the Maya.
Three ball courts survive at the site. The ritualized game symbolized such concepts as good and evil, life and death. A heavy rubber ball was kept in play by hips (and possibly other body parts) with the object of putting it though one of two stone rings located on either side of the ball court.
Throughout the site are placards giving information about the various ruins in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl.
The site’s ecologically correct museum is well worth a visit; we recommend stopping by on your way in, not on your way out, when you may be hot, thirsty, and tired. The six rooms have interesting archaeological pieces on display as well as information, in Spanish only for the most part, about Xochicalco’s history. The museum boasts solar lighting, is turbine cooled, and captures rainwater for use in the lavatories.