Cuicuilco's main pyramid is quite different from most Mesoamerican pyramids. Two differences are apparent at first sight: a round floorplan and, with the exception of a central core of stone, its construction of mud and adobe.
In the 1920s-30s, archeologists used a poorly regarded archeological tool -- dynamite -- to blast their way through the ten meter thick lava flow. They claim to have done their dynamiting carefully; using small charges and calculating where they expected to find ground level. Fortunately, they did not destroy the ramp or stairway going up the front of the building.
Once they reached original ground level, leaving what looks like a crescent-shaped moat around the base of the pyramid (which you can see if follow the path to the onsite museum) they tunneled into the center of the building in search of an earlier building on the same spot. The mouth of the tunnel is still barely visible; eight decades of erosion have almost obliterated it.
No earlier building was found. Instead, archeologists discovered the pyramid is an earthen mound covered with adobe bricks and plaster on the outside. They also realized that the building grew in size every year. Annual torrential summer downpours probably transformed the sloping adobe outside surface into an array of gullies -- unsightly for a temple dedicated to Huehueteotl, the important god of fire and volcanoes. Each year, at the beginning of the dry season, the pyramid received a new layer of adobe plaster and, where needed, adobe bricks. It grew in diameter just as a tree grows with tree rings; it also grew in height with a new layer of adobe plaster at the top.
At the top of the pyramid -- accessible via the ramp on the front of the building -- new altars would periodically be built on top of old ones. Archeological digs allow us to see five altars at the top of the pyramid. The oldest is at the bottom of a pit, surrounded by vertical planks. Keep in mind that, when it was in use, it was at the top of the pyramid. Above it are two altars made of adobe, the second of which was protected in the 1960s, with volcanic stone.
The fourth altar shows a dramatic change in the style of construction. Its core of mud is surrounded by a wall of river-smoothed stone that was probably slathered with adobe plaster on the outside. Its appearance would have been the same as the previous altars, but it would prove longer lasting. From then on other structures were probably made of stone instead of adobe.
The riverstone altar has been taken apart and the plan is that it will eventually be restored -- hence the numbers painted on each stone. The fifth altar, at the very top of the pyramid and having been exposed to the elements for centuries, is the most damaged,.
What was once a small domed room is the only other building you can see in the Cuicuilco Archeological Park. You pass it on your walk towards the museum. It was named the “Kiva” by Byron Cummings, an Arizonan, who discovered it in 1923. Had it been discovered by someone from anywhere other than Arizona or New Mexico, it probably would have been more properly named the temazcal, a Nahuatl name for a steam bath and a common building at Mesoamerican archeological sites. What is unusual about the one at Cuicuilco is that it is built on one of the stepped landings of the wedding cake-shaped pyramid, not at original ground level. It is perched ten meters up the side of the building -- probably an indication that it was built after the lava flow that destroyed the ancient city of Cuicuilco.
In a temazcal, rocks, previously heated in fire, are set in the middle of the small room; once all participants are seated and a blanket has sealed the doorway, cold water is poured over the rocks, creating steam. If the steam bath is for cleansing, hot steam is an effective way to bathe using very little water. If for medicinal purposes there are applications of poultices and teas made from roots, bark, leaves or fruit,. Temazcals were also used for the purification of the bodies of those who were going to participate in a religious ceremony. Because of its location, this temazcal was probably used for the latter purpose.
Imagine the itinerant Cuicuilcans -- who had fled as lava flowed into their city -- returning, hoping to salvage something of what had been their bountiful farms and bustling lakeside city, only to find that Huehueteotl had destroyed everything except his temple -- now surrounded by the blackness and bleakness of a lava field.
They needed a steam bath for the ritual purification of the priests who would be carrying out ceremonies for pilgrimages at the top of the now miraculous temple -- saved by the god himself. The temazcal was probably built on what appeared to be the only soil, but was really one of the landings of the stepped pyramid. Stare at the inside of the small room and red designs will start appearing to you. Painted with iron oxide, red lasts longer than other colors. Some of those designs may date from the time of Christ, set in a city founded contemporaneously with Jerusalem.
On a more contemporary note: for readers in Cuernavaca, tomorrow at 5 pm a National March for Peace and Justice, led by poet Javier Sicilia, will walk from the Glorieta de la Paz to the Zocalo. I hope to see you there.