Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, The Central Mexican Plateau-Xochicalco

  1. Xochicalco
Aerial view of the ruins of Xochicalco (Miacatlán Municipality, western part of the state of Morelos). The main ceremonial center is located on top of an artificially leveled hill with long terraces covering the slopes.

A site that quite clearly reflected the changes that occurred at the end of the Classical period (200-1000 AD), and that to a certain extent announced the following Post-Classic period, was Xochicalco located in the valley of Morelos, whose ruins occupy an impressive succession of artificial terraces which give it the appearance of a semi-fortified acropolis.

The name Xochicalco comes from the Nahuatl and means “in the house of Flowers”. Although the site was first occupied by 200 BC, it didn’t become an urban center until the Epiclassic period (700-900 AD). Nearly all the architecture known today at the site was built at this time. Xochicalco was founded ca. 650 AD by the Olmeca-Xicallanca people, a Mayan group of traders coming from Campeche. Around 900 AD the city was burned and destroyed and the site then was abandoned quickly.

Xochicalco reached its peak after the fall of Teotihuacan. The architecture and iconography of Xochicalco show affinities with Teotihuacan, the Maya area, and the Matlatzinca culture of the Toluca Valley.

Top: The Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xxochicalco. This temple has fine stylized depictions of the Feathered Serpent in a style that shows apparent influences of the Teotihuacan and Maya art. Bottom: The high taluds of the pyramid base bear reliefs depicting towns that paid tribute to Xochicalco as well as several seated figures that look Mayan as well as representations of the Feathered Serpent.

Considered as a true crossroads of cultures, the inscriptions found in Xochicalco present a conjunction of elements that relate to almost all the cultural traditions existing in Mesoamerica during the end of the Classical period, and that also anticipated some of the Post-Classic cultures such as the Mixteca and the Nahuatl. Apart from the influences exerted by Teotihuacan and other surrounding areas, Xochicalco shows strong relationships with the Maya, as reflected in some of the reliefs of the Temple of the Feathered Serpents, arguably the most representative monument of this city, or the famous and very stylized head of a Guacamaya (macaw) that is today one of the artistic treasures of the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City.

A step-pyramid temple at Xochicalco.

On the other hand, Xochicalco apparently introduced for the first time in the Mexican plateau the custom of building the typical courts or fields in the form of an “I” to be used for the practice of the Mesoamerican ballgame. This ballgame fields were a very frequent element in regions like occupied by the Zapotec and the Maya, but did not exist in Teotihuacan (whose ballgame style was different). The layout of these courts was adopted almost unchanged by the builders of the city of Tula, the Toltec capital, whose foundation around the year 968 of our era, marked the beginning of the so-called Mesoamerican Post-Classic period (ca. 1000-1697 AD).

Macaw head from Xochicalco made in stone, Late Classic period (ca. 600-900 AD) (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico). This sculpture was found in one of Xochicalco’s ballcourts. The association between macaws and ballcourts has been also documented in Tula and the Maya site of Copán.
Top: One of the ballcourts at Xochicalco with the characteristic ” I ” shape and the rings placed at the center. Bottom: Stone ring from the above pictured ballcourt at Xochicalco, in this particular ballcourt* the setting sun shines through the ring during the equinox.

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Mesoamerican ballcourt: A large masonry structure used in Mesoamerica for over 2,700 years to play the Mesoamerican ballgame. More than 1,300 ballcourts have been identified. Although there is great variation in size, in general all ballcourts have the same shape: a long narrow alley flanked by two walls with horizontal, vertical, and sloping faces. Although the alleys in early ballcourts were open-ended, later ballcourts had enclosed end-zones, giving the structure an I, heavily serifed.png-shape when viewed from above.

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