Finding Tollan at Xochicalco

Over the course of centuries, beginning with Fray Bernardino de Sahagún's mention during the sixteenth century, the ancient Mesoamerican site of Xochicalco, which is in the state of Morelos, Mexico, has captured the attention of explorers and researchers. The ruins of Xochicalco have continued to inspire a sense of awe among visitors, as well to intrigue the interest of archaeologists and historians. Built upon a series of three hills that is enclosed by multiple mountain ranges, inclusive of the snow-capped peak of Popocatépetl, a panoramic view surrounds the ruins of Xochicalco. While situated in a naturally fortified area, the inhabitants of Xochicalco, for reasons that remain unclear, added rock walls and moats, or what German explorer Baron von Humboldt referred as the “military entrenchments of Xochicalco” in 1810. [1] In addition to Xochicalco being a military fortress, Xochicalco's Temple of Quetzalcoatl is a clear indication that the site was a religious center. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl is positioned precisely at the center of Xochicalco. The hill on which the temple structure is built upon has also been transformed to represent a mountain. A spiraling roadway was carved into the terrace, and from the base to the esplanade on top of the summit, the retaining walls of rock used to support the roadway were coated with stucco to adorn and signify the landscape as sacred space. Moreover, the two hills adjacent to the temple structure of Quetzalcoatl each contain a series of passageways leading through the hill, which feature a total of seven documented cave chambers. However wondrous in feeling this marvel of engineering inspires, if to consider the billions of tons of rock removed to create a sacred mountain accompanied by caves, Xochicalco's history remains a mystery. While a handful of historians assert Xochicalco’s founding as during the Late Classic period of Mesoamerica, A.D. 650 to A.D. 900, archaeological evidence points Xochicalco was rather built during the Formative period. Mexican historian and archaeologist Cecilio A. Robelo (1839-1916), exclaimed when explorers stand “in the presence of [Xochicalco]…thirty centuries are looking upon us.” [2]

The riddle of Xochicalco’s ruins largely derives from its scarce mention in ethno-historical texts and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, which contains a handful of peculiarities that distinguishes it as innovative as it is puzzling. Xochicalco’s Temple of Quetzalcoatl, like other Mesoamerican temples consecrated to the deity of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacán, Cholula, Tula, Tenochtitlán, and Chichén Itzá, is positioned at the center of the settlement, or what Davíd Carrasco refers as the axis mundi. [3] As a point of difference, however, Xochicalco’s Temple of Quetzalcoatl demonstrates a fusion of Teotihuacano and Mayan cultural elements. The incorporation of different cultural elements is evidenced by the engravings of warriors featuring Mayan characteristics, and the use of plumed serpents to narrate the engravings of warriors and date glyphs. Additionally, it is the only known temple structure on record to feature Mayan-style cornices, a unique adaptation to the talud/tablero architectural design, in all the Central Highlands of Mexico. Who built Xochicalco, and when? What was Xochicalco’s primary function, and were there any significant changes to the function of Xochicalco over time? Why is there a huge discrepancy within the timeline (between what is historically asserted versus archaeological backed)? What did Quetzalcoatl mean to the people of Xochicalco? These are a handful of the many questions that have baffled historians and archaeologists.

Xochicalco does provide, however, a wealth of archaeological evidence. Specifically, Mexican and Mexican-American historians and archaeologists like Robelo, Eduardo Noguera (1896-1977), Alfonso Caso (1896-1970), and Davíd Carrasco (1944-present) have analyzed a wide vary of archaeological evidence in an effort to decode the history of Xochicalco. This article utilizes their input to review and examine archaeological evidence related to Xochicalco’s Temple of Quetzalcoatl to explain the site’s history and what Quetzalcoatl meant to Xochicalco.

Firstly, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl indicates Xochicalco's actual founding predates the Classic period. Archaeologist Robelo pointed multiple stages of construction appear in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. In his work Ruinas de Xochicalco, Robelo estimated the first stage dated as far back to the timing of construction projects undertaken at Teotihuacán, which he accredits to the Vextoti, who migrated from the south to Teotihuacán in the “year 955 before the present era.” [4] Robelo supports his argument by revealing how the east side wall of the temple structure does not exhibit the same rate of weathering and erosion as the other sides. Two investigations, one from 1984 to 1986 and another from 1991 to 1994, which involve radiocarbon dates, affirmed Robelo’s 1888 claim by concluding that a total of three construction stages lied behind the history of Xochicalco’s Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Explanatory as to why a discrepancy exists in the timeline is the lack of transparency over what samples have been extracted from which structure and used for radiocarbon dating. [5] While the use of radiocarbon dates has resulted in the breakthrough discovery of three construction stages, these investigations also minimize any acknowledgement regarding the degree of possibility over how materials excavated may consist of those around the timing of the temple structure's final completion. Moreover, Mexican archaeologist Caso identified one key glyph date located on the front of the temple structure, which reads: 10-Solar Ray (year) and 9-Reptile Eye (day). According to Caso, this date translates as A.D. 743, which is believed to mark the date of its consecration. [6]

Importantly, each stage of construction lends insight to the history of developments in the social structure of Xochicalco. The first model consisted of a room featuring two pillars, which formed a portico. This portico immediately signifies Xochicalco was originally designed to function as a military fortress. The second model shows signs of the structure having been expanded with the addition of two walls and two more pillars. It was not until the third construction stage that this portico became re-purposed as a temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.

Xochicalco’s portico turned into the Temple of Quetzalcoatl marks the key transition from Xochicalco prioritizing political-military communication to re-organizing the city in accordance to the Mesoamerican paradigm of primordial order. As Carrasco explains, this paradigm of primordial order consists of a cosmological/earthly setting, the organization of a ceremonial city, and a hero, which are all featured in the legend of Tollan, the mythical capital and kingdom of Quetzalcoatl. [7] Some historians like Silvia Garza Tarazona postulate the idea that “the image of Quetzalcoatl humanized in the Central Highlands originated in Xochicalco.” [8] Given the explicit religious importance of Teotihuacán's Temple of Quetzalcoatl versus the inexplicit religious importance of Xochicalco's artificially terraced hills, the image of Quetzalcoatl is more than likely to have originated in Teotihuacán. However, following the fall of Teotihuacán during the 700s, it does appear Xochicalco first introduced the use of the image of Quetzalcoatl as means to vie for control to fill the power vacuum. Specifically, the elites of Xochicalco legitimized their rule by claiming Xochicalco’s ties to the legend of Quetzalcoatl and his city of Tollan, and perhaps substantiated this claim by re-framing their military citadel into a ceremonial center.

Xochicalco’s key role rests on the revival of ceremonial city traditions associated with Teotihuacán. In post-Teotihuacán Xochicalco, religious ideas shaped and sanctified all levels of leadership and goals set by the ruling elites. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl stood as the central structure for all 25,000 inhabitants living in Xochicalco. Representing the meeting point of “heaven, earth, and hell,” the Temple of Quetzalcoatl functioned to pull in the city’s social energies in return for divine energies needed to disperse sacredness throughout the city. [9] In Xochicalco, the image of Quetzalcoatl was used to sanctify warfare and the protection of residents. The use of Quetzalcoatl’s image to sanctify warfare and the protection of residents is indicated by the proximity of the armory's location, which faced the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Additionally, the architectural design of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl offers a key insight as to what Quetzalcoatl meant to the ruling elites of Xochicalco. The main motif of plumed serpents that is used to bridge Mayan and Teotihuacano cultural elements is indicative that the image of Quetzalcoatl served to mediate old and new traditions to bring about a new beginning in authoritative rule. Specifically, the imagery appearing on the talud (inward-sloping) panel, which features Mayan-conceptualized warriors wearing a cipactli headdress (known from Teotihuacan's Temple of Quetzalcoatl), suggests a revival of Teotihuacano tradition that has been reformulated “in an ideology of renewal.” [10] The glyph date of 9-Reptile Eye served to officiate and sanctify by the authority of Quetzalcoatl the start of Xochicalco's rule. The timing of this temple's consecration is expressive of Xochicalco's prioritization of attention to detail as part of maintaining cosmological order between the natural and the supernatural realms mediated via Quetzalcoatl.

While reviving Teotihuacano traditions, Xochicalco's rulers strived to create and invent their own traditions. Carrasco explicates that Tollan was envisioned as a place of supernatural abundance, with stories describing how cotton “miraculously” grew in eleven shades of color, and its people remembered for their “feats of discovery, invention, and skill.” [11] Historians such as Debra Nagao believe cotton may have been cultivated and processed at Xochicalco, with the people of Xochicalco gaining access to resources primarily through Xochicalco functioning as a commercial center along trade routes. These trade routes connected Xochicalco with the Toluca Basin, the Balsas River Basin, the Gulf Coast via the Valley of Puebla, and Oaxaca. Xochicalco, in the process of re-branding itself a Tollan, became a cultural junction site giving way to new creative expressions and architectural ingenuity. Relative to Xochicalco's “marginal location in terms of agricultural productivity,” Carrasco explains that Xochicalco's rulers forged trade relations with Teotihuacán, what appears to be El Tajín (central Vera Cruz), and with Tula (during the Post Classic period). [12] Xochicalco’s success in securing trade relations explains how Xochicalco attained objects of “obsidian, green stone, and clay,” and plentiful food sources able to sustain a sizeable population. [13] The fusion of Mayan and Teotihuacano cultural elements observed in Xochicalco's Temple of Quetzalcoatl results from either one, possibly both, events: participation as a commercial center along trade routes facilitating cross-cultural exchanges, and/or the incorporation of former residents of Teotihuacán. In addition to the cornices featured on the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Xochicalco introduced other innovative architectural designs. Unique to Xochicalco is the use of columns in public courtyards and in caves, an “I” shaped ball court (believed to be a prototype for the ball court in Tula), as well as adding a stela in the middle of shrine platforms.

Xochicalco is an exemplary case of how the legend of Tollan inspired change, if to assess the course of its history from a military fortress to serving as a marketplace, a military citadel, and an administrative center revolved around the worship of Quetzalcoatl, followed by Tláloc. Xochicalco's apogee occurred at the collapse of the city-state of Teotihuacán. This archaeological site is located on a series of natural hills in Morelos, Mexico, which Xochicalco's elites transformed to represent a sacred mountain as part of the society's cosmological vision.