The Wild Ups and Downs of Discovering Xochicalco

From its first exploration by José Antonio Alzate in 1777 to modern-day excavations, the ancient Mesoamerican city of Xochicalco has captivated historians and archaeologists alike. Situated atop a hill and fortified with ingenious natural defenses, the site is a treasure trove of temples.

The Wild Ups and Downs of Discovering Xochicalco
The enigmatic base of the Temple of the Feathered Serpents at Xochicalco, where the mythical figure of Quetzalcoatl comes to life in intricate stonework. Credit: Wikimedia

In the annals of history, explorers and scholars have often taken on Herculean efforts to understand the world's hidden gems, be they under the earth or hidden in plain sight. One such remarkable endeavor began in 1777 with José Antonio Alzate, who set out to explore the ancient Mesoamerican city of Xochicalco. But the story doesn't end there; it stretches through centuries, bearing witness to historical struggles, academic debates, and, ultimately, an evolving comprehension of Mexico's rich indigenous past.

José Antonio Alzate was no ordinary adventurer. In 1777, he made one of the first explorations of Xochicalco, a city perched on a hill whose name in Nahuatl means 'in the place of the house of flowers.' His meticulous work, “Description of the Antiquities of Xochicalco,” published in 1791, became a groundbreaking text that vividly described the fortified city's ingenious natural defenses and notable structures.

Among those was the renowned base of the Temple of the Feathered Serpents, featuring in its architecture the mythical figure of Quetzalcoatl. This deity, often represented as a feathered serpent, has long captured the imagination of scholars and enthusiasts alike. Alzate's efforts essentially placed Xochicalco on the map of significant archaeological sites and offered a counternarrative to prevailing stereotypes that labeled indigenous peoples as 'savages.'

Over time, the interest in rediscovering Mexico’s indigenous past through its archaeological remains grew exponentially. However, internal strife and a lack of specialized institutions stymied these efforts. Yet even in these challenging circumstances, the Mexican State took initial steps to enact laws to protect these historical sites from the plunder of opportunistic explorers, particularly those from abroad.

The establishment of the National Museum in 1825 and the Public Museum of Natural History, Archaeology, and History in 1865 heralded a new era. Once a hobbyist pursuit, archaeology in Mexico began to attract dedicated professionals, culminating in the creation of the first chair of archaeology at the Academy of San Carlos later that century.

Xochicalco site facing formidable challenges yet making groundbreaking discoveries.
Xochicalco site facing formidable challenges yet making groundbreaking discoveries that would reshape our understanding of Mesoamerican history. Credit: Mediateca INAH

The Twists and Turns of Modern Archaeology

The dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz saw a renewed focus on archaeology, including revisiting sites like Xochicalco. Challenges, however, were aplenty. Transportation of materials to the elevated location was a significant hurdle, and allocated resources often proved insufficient. Leopoldo Batres, who led the reconstruction project in 1910, had to seek additional funding to complete the ambitious undertaking.

Despite these logistical setbacks, the team uncovered an archaeological treasure trove. Squares, temples, and well-paved roads sprawled across the hilly landscape, but the excitement was not without its share of controversies and mishaps. Errors in reconstruction and damage to existing structures ignited academic debates, but the endeavor persevered.

Just as things were progressing, the Mexican Revolution brought the work to a screeching halt. Workers faced terrible conditions, and the tumultuous political climate added another layer of complexity. During the Revolution, the archaeological site faced the risk of destruction from military tactics and even arson, signaling the uneasy relationship between politics and the pursuit of historical knowledge.

Post-Revolution, new institutions and specialists resumed work at Xochicalco. Today, thanks to documents stored in the General Archive of the Nation and ongoing research, the rich tapestry of this ancient Mesoamerican city continues to unfold, revealing a history we are only beginning to understand fully.

In this labyrinthine journey from discovery to modern-day explorations, Xochicalco stands as a testament to both the splendors of ancient civilizations and the enduring human quest for knowledge against all odds. It serves as a vivid reminder that the story of our past, buried in the earth or etched in stone, is never fully told. It waits patiently for those driven by curiosity and respect for ancient wisdom to unearth it for future generations.

Source: Nación, Archivo General de la. ‘Descubrimiento, reconstrucción y protección de Xochicalco’., Accessed 14 Sept. 2023.