Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jigsaw Puzzle at Xochicalco

For 37 years I have led study groups to Xochicalco in Morelos, one of my favorite archeological sites. The stellar Temple of the Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcóatl) is a masterpiece with its carved relief depicting what many scholars believe records a meeting of Mesoamerican astronomers, hosted by Mayas in a city far from their homeland.
Overlooked by many is a collection of large carved stones near the temple – most likely stones that fit into blank spaces on the temple face. Each time I lead a group I pose the challenge that someone in that group might figure out where these stones fit, as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Albeit a heavy jigsaw puzzle. I even suggest it might be a worthy Ph.D. project. So far no one has taken the bait.
In 1910 archeologist Leopoldo Batres first worked on that colossal jigsaw puzzle located on an unusually high hilltop surrounded by flatlands in central Morelos. When Batres looked down into the valley he could see sugar haciendas in every direction. I doubt Batres, or even the hacendados themselves, were aware that the festering social unrest among workers on those plantations was about to erupt into the southern front of the Mexican Revolution. A year later Emiliano Zapata was a household name and the nation would plunge into a decade-long war that decimated the population of Mexico. A century later Emiliano Zapata remains a symbol of demands for social justice throughout the world.
Batres remained focused on the hilltop and the huge project he had started – putting Xochicalco’s Quetzalcóatl Temple back together stone by stone.
President Porfirio Díaz had appointed Batres, his personal friend, curator of archeology for the republic. Despite Díaz’ patronage and friendship Batres voiced a common complaint among archeologists – not enough funding. In order to make good use of the funding he did receive Batres demanded a full day’s work of his crew and awakened them before dawn with a cannon blast. He was reportedly quite a sight. Photos of the time show him sitting in a prominent place where he would shout out orders while dressed in a three-piece suit, monocle, and top hat.
Batres also worked at other important archeological sites, including Mitla, Teotihuacan, and the Templo Mayor. He is often criticized for his heavy-handed excavation and restoration techniques. At Teotihuacan he was under tremendous time pressure to restore the Pyramid of the Sun in time for the hundredth anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain on September 16, 1910. To hasten the project he used Alfred Nobel’s recent invention – dynamite. Batres claimed he only used small charges of dynamite to remove accumulated soil and vegetation. However, it was one of his “scientific explosions” that blew the temple off the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Batres’ restoration at Xochicalco was much more precise since there is only one place where each sculptured stone can fit. This jigsaw-puzzle nature of the restoration project guided Batres in restoring the slope and panel design of the temple – a trademark of Teotihuacan’s architecture and evidence that during most of its history Xochicalco functioned under the tutelage of much larger Teotihuacan.
After Teotihuacan’s collapse around 750 A.D., Xochicalco continued using Teotihuacan’s style of architecture, embellishing it with a cornice along the top of the horizontal panel. As Batres discovered, there was no other place for those triangular carved stones.
For most of the year the sun beats down on the south side of Quetzalcóatl’s Temple, causing it to expand and contract much more than the north side. Only from mid May – starting this week – through July is there direct sunlight on the north side of the temple. Consequently, it has fewer missing puzzle pieces and the carving is in much better condition.
I have always wondered how the deteriorated south side fits in with the rest. What more would we learn about the meeting of astronomers if the south side were properly restored?
The pyramid has what seems to be repetitive carvings of astronomer-priests sitting cross-legged among the undulations of the feathered serpent. Closer observation shows they are actually individualized portraits. Older participants have wrinkled and sunken cheeks, younger ones more youthful faces. Some keep their lips tightly clenched, and others’ more relaxed faces show their teeth. Fingers and toes are carefully carved; jewelry and feathered headdresses accurately portrayed. Deformed foreheads give away Maya ethnicity. Other astronomer priests are from various ethnic groups and each is accompanied by an emblem glyph of his city.
With today’s technology it would be possible to complete Batres’ jigsaw puzzle in a virtual way. No heavy lifting. On a computer screen, photographs of the sculptured stones piled just south of the temple could be moved around over a photograph of the temple itself and repositioned in their proper places. Will a reader visit Xochicalco, take the photos, and achieve archeological fame? All I’ve ever asked is that “thanks to Charlie for the idea” be included in the introduction to the thesis.


  1. I am so glad I saw this post! I took that trip back in 2007! And remember those words you spoke- so I took pictures of all the stones that sat beside the temple! My computer that held the pictures crashed and then the flash drive i tried to recover my files broke...so now I'm thinking that the Temple has a curse! But at least I have some great photos of it saved on Facebook! lol

  2. Maybe it's time for you to return and take up Charlie's challenge!