The architecture and iconography of Xochicalco, which is a pre-Columbian archaeological site, show affinities with Teotihuacán, the Mayan area and the Matlatzinca culture of the Toluca Valley. The site was first occupied 200 BC, but did not develop into an urban centre until the Epiclassic period (AD 700–900). At its peak, the city may have had a population of up to 20,000 people.
Xochicalco is located in the Municipality of Miacatlán in the western part of the Mexican state of Morelos. The name Xochicalco may be translated from Nahuatl as “in the (place of the) house of flowers”. The site is located 38 kilometres southwest of Cuernavaca, about 120 kilometres by road from Mexico City. The site is open to visitors all week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., although access to the observatory is only allowed after noon.
The most iconic elements at Xochicalco are sculptured reliefs on the sides of buildings. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent has fine, stylised depictions of the deity in a style showing apparent influences of Teotihuacán and Mayan art. It has been speculated that Xochicalco may have had a community of artists from other parts of Mesoamerica.
The high taluds (inward-sloping walls) of the pyramid have relief carvings that depict towns which paid tribute to Xochicalco, as well as several seated figures that look Mayan. Other monuments at the site include several other step-pyramid temples, palaces, three ball courts, sweat baths, an unusual row of circular altars, and a cave with steps carved down into it. The site also has some free-standing sculptured stelae; others were removed from their original location.
Xochicalco was founded circa 650 AD by the Olmeca-Xicallanca, a Mayan group of traders from Campeche, at a site that gave them an excellent position along several of the major Mesoamerican trade routes. It was an important fortressed commercial and religious centre following the decline of the great Mesoamerican city states.
The poor farming conditions in the area indicate that the site was probably built for defence purposes and trading. At some point around AD 900 the city of Xochicalco was burnt and destroyed. Many of the excavated houses and temples have layers of burning and destruction. Underneath destruction layers, numerous objects were left in place in the houses, indicating that the site was destroyed and abandoned quickly. A small remnant population lived on, however, on the lower slopes of the hill. Later, around 1200, the site was recolonised by the Nahuatl-speaking Tlahuica people, ancestors to the Nahuatl-speaking populations of the modern state of Morelos. The ruins were first described by explorer Antonio Alzate in 1777. Alexander von Humboldt, a famous Prussian explorer, published illustrations and a description of Xochicalco in 1810. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent was restored by Mexican archaeologist Leopoldo Batres in 1910. Major archaeological excavations and further restorations were done in a project from the 1940s through the 1960s by Eduardo Noguera and César Saenz.
The observatory is a cave modified to allow study of the movement of the sun. The cave was covered with stucco and painted black, yellow and red with a chimney that measured 8.7 metres from the base to the surface, and which is hexagonal on the top. The chimney has a slight slope allowing the sun’s rays to be projected on the floor of the cave.
During the 105 days running from 30 April to 15 August, the sun shines into the cave. In the sun’s movement towards the Tropic of Cancer and upon its return, respectively, on 14/15 May and 28/29 July, the sun is at its zenith and the astronomical noon, the beam of light falls directly through the chimney showing the image of the sun on the floor of the cave. Surely, taking advantage of the solar phenomenon, the site was also used for religious ceremonies.