Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Pyramid Network - Part I, The Valley of Mexico

Part I - The Valley of Mexico
An overview of the system of alignments of ancient sites that we have discovered across the Valley of Mexico. The great Aztec capital of México-Tenochtitlan occupies the most privileged spot in this scheme, at the intersection of two major alignments. Texcoco, Chapultepec, Tenayuca and Cerro de la Estrella represent equally important focal points in the same scheme. [Reconstruction by Author, courtesy Google Maps]
                “A great, scientific instrument lies sprawled over the entire surface of the globe. At some period, thousands of years ago, almost every corner of the world was visited by people with a particular task to accomplish. With the help of some remarkable power, by which they could cut and raise enormous blocks of stone, these men created vast astronomical instruments, circles of erect pillars, pyramids, underground tunnels, cyclopean stone platforms, all linked together by a network of tracks and alignments, whose course from horizon to horizon was marked by stones, mounds and earthworks”

[John Michell, The New View over Atlantis, Thames & Hudson, Reprinted 2001]

                This is the first part of a series of articles on what will be considered by many as a very controversial subject. The topic is that of the alignment and placement of ancient sites. There are many theories and speculations on why a particular location was chosen for the placement of ancient pyramids, ancient temples and sanctuaries, ranging from Giza’s Orion correlation theory to New Age beliefs in the existence of such things as ley lines and Earth energies.

A number of studies and the advances in the still relatively new discipline of archaeoastronomy have revealed important elements of the connection between the ancients and the Sky. Nevertheless, when this approach is applied outside of a single site or landscape feature to encompass multiple ancient sites (as in the case of the Egyptian pyramids or the ancient city of Angkor, in Cambodia), the results are, at best, controversial.
Even more controversial is the idea that the placement of ancient sites, even over very long distances, would be ruled by geodetic or mathematical proportions having little or no connection at all with the local geography or other strategic reasons usually advocated for explaining the location chosen for the founding of a city or a temple.

Geodesy, that is the science of measuring of the Earth, is not something commonly ascribed to ancient civilizations. The accurate determination of latitude and longitude has only been possible in relatively modern times, with the invention of precision chronographs. While latitude can be calculated with sufficient accuracy with the help of a quadrant or astrolabe, by observing the altitude of the sun or of certain “fixed” stars above the horizon, the problem of longitude remained without a solution until the invention of the marine chronometer in 1773. [1]

Without such knowledge, establishing a “grid” or network of ancient sites over a large enough area would have been highly unpractical, if not impossible. This is why such a theory of long-distance alignments of ancient sites – which would moreover need to take into account the curvature of the Earth or some advanced surveying and projection techniques believed to be the exclusive domain of modern science -  is nowadays utterly dismissed as a wishful fantasy.

This often turns into a circular argument. Because no ancient civilization clearly possessed the scientific or technological instruments required to achieve such precision alignments, then any alignment must be the product of chance or coincidence. This is, not to speak of the reason why ancient civilizations should have deliberately placed their sacred sites along a grid or system of geodetic and landscape alignments of some sort. More on this later.

Three Pyramids and a “Star” Mountain
This was the likely aspect of the great Aztec capital of México-Tenochtitlan at the time of the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in 1519. A city of 250,000, larger than any Western European city at the time, built on an island in the middle of the lake of Texcoco. Its ruins lay buried underneath present day Mexico City, while even the lake has succumbed to the growth of the modern-day Mexican capital. [La Gran Tenochtitlan, original painting by Miguel Covarrubias, Museo Nacional de Antopologia, Mexico City]
                Ancient Mexico is an excellent ground for the study of ancient alignments. Not only do we find a continuity of civilization and beliefs going back thousands of years, from the Aztecs, Toltecs, Maya and Teotihuacan, down to the mysterious Olmecs; but we also find more pyramids than in any other Country in the world to verify such a theory (there are no accurate estimates, but the number might easily be in the thousands).  
The Valley of Mexico, with its vast flat plain once occupied by the ancient lake of Texcoco and surrounded by high mountains, will be the perfect setting to verify our theory of alignments.

When drawing on a map the major ancient sites around the Valley of Mexico, almost immediately an interesting pattern starts to emerge. 
There are three major Aztec pyramids within the boundaries of present day Mexico City: these are the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlán, the Templo Mayor of Tlatelolco and that of Tenayuca.

All these constructions share very similar characteristics: they were built around the same time period, between the XIV and the early XVI Century AD, and were all subject at some point to Aztec rule, erected by people sharing a similar system of myths and beliefs. They all consist of a large pyramid platform, surmounted by a double sanctuary and enclosed within a sacred precinct. Let me state this again: These are the three largest pyramids within present day Mexico City, and are virtually identical in construction and design [2]; yet, no one has apparently noticed (up to this day), that they are also very precisely aligned among each other.

Let’s take a closer look:

A model reconstruction of the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan, from the Museo del Templo Mayor. One of the major archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century, this ancient pyramid had laid buried for almost 500 years underneath one of Mexico City's busiest squares. Excavations began in 1978, and are still ongoing. [Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City]
                The great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was built on an island in the center of the lake of Texcoco, subsequently enlarged with the construction of artificial dykes and canals. At the very center of the City, within the sacred precinct, was the great Teocalli, the Templo Mayor, with its twin sanctuaries dedicated to the gods Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. Built as a massive pyramid, the temple had at least seven stages of construction, dating from 1337 to 1521 AD. At its peak, the temple measured 100 by 80 meters at its base, and reached between 45 and 60 meters in height. Its impressive ruins, discovered in 1978 after centuries of abandonment and deliberate destruction, are still one of the major tourist attractions in downtown Mexico City.    

The ruins of Tlatelolco, in present day Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Archaeological excavation have revealed the main ceremonial center of the city that was the sister twin of México-Tenochtitlan and rivaled with it in power and splendor. [Photo by Author]
After the conquest, the Spanish built a large church and a convent, named after the Colegio de Santa Cruz, on the site of the former Templo Mayor of Tlatelolco. The ruins of the massive pyramid still bear evidence of several layers of construction, being almost identical to the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan. [Photo by Author]
                Tlatelolco was a sort of sister city to México-Tenochtitlán, also built on an island in the lake of Texcoco. The city itself was founded by a dissident Aztec faction only 13 years after the founding of México-Tenochtitlán, in 1338 AD. Like the Templo Mayor of its sister city, also the great pyramid of Tlatelolco underwent several construction stages – at least seven, whose imposing ruins still survive in what is today Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The last construction stage had similar dimensions to the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlán, measuring some 80 by 70 meters at the base, and also included a double sanctuary at the top dedicated to the gods Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli.  

The great pyramid of Tenayuca is one of the best preserved constructions of the post-classic period in the valley of Mexico. The massive pyramid also contains the remains of at least 7 other earlier stages of construction. The great pyramid of Tenayuca, with its twin sanctuaries and double stairway is considered the prototype for both the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan and of Tlatelolco. [Photo by Author]
The base of the pyramid of Tenayuca is surrounded by a massive Coatepantli, that is, a "wall of snakes", which incorporates as much as 140 sculptured serpent heads. These sculptures were originally painted in bright colors, to indicate the different cardinal directions. [Photo by Author] 
                Tenayuca was an old settlement of the Chichimecas, whose foundation might be traced back to as early as 1064 AD. The last stage of construction of this pyramid, which was likely the prototype of all later Aztec pyramids, measured 68 by 76 meters at its base, and also underwent several stages of construction and reconstruction (at least eight). Also at Tenayuca, a twin stairway led to the double sanctuary on top of the massive pyramid.  Interestingly, the pyramid of Tenayuca does not share the same equinoctial orientation as the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco, but is rather oriented towards the setting of the star Aldebaran, in the constellation of Taurus, 17 degrees north of the ideal East-West orientation on the day of the passing of the Sun at its zenith. [3]

The Alignment Tenayuca – Tlatelolco – Tenochtitlán – Cerro de la Estrella
The main system of ancient alignments around the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan. [Reconstruction by Author, courtesy Google Maps]
                It is easy to realize that a line drawn through the summit of the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlán and the Templo Mayor of Tlatelolco would terminate exactly on the main sanctuary of the pyramid of Tenayuca.

To further confirm and reinforce the existence of this alignment, it should be noted that one of the major road arteries in present day Mexico City, the Calzada Vallejo, follows exactly this same alignment between Tlatelolco and Tenayuca. This is not surprising, given that the modern road follows the track of one of the ancient causeways that crossed the – now dry - lake of Texcoco in Aztec times.

A detail of the alignment along the Calzada Vallejo, which follows a straight line that would have originally connected the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan to the great temple-pyramids of Tlatelolco and Tenayuca. Note also the right triangle formed between Chapultepec, Tenayuca and Texcoco. [Reconstruction by Author, courtesy Google Maps]
A prolongation of this alignment towards the South-East also leads to another very important landmark in Mexico City. This time, it is not a pyramid, but rather a steep, forested hill called Cerro de la Estrella. Again, this can be no chance: The Cerro de la Estrella played a very important role in the sacred geography of the Valley of Mexico, as it is the spot where the Aztecs celebrated the New Fire ceremony every 52 years, at the end of each calendar cycle and the beginning of a new one. 
The etymology of the name is unclear; Cerro de la Estrella meaning “Mountain of the Star”, supposedly after a colonial hacienda by the same name built on its slopes soon after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The ancient name of the hill, which rises 224 meters above the surrounding plain, was Huizachtecatl, meaning a forested hill in ancient Nahuatl. Yet the highly evocative name of “Mountain of the Star” could have a much more profound astronomical significance that we do not yet fully understand.

A pyramid was built by the Aztecs on top of the Cerro de la Estrella, but the occupation of the site dates back at least 3,000 years. A large settlement occupied the slopes of the hill between 100 and 650 AD, contemporary with the rise of the power of Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, on the North-Western shore of the lake of Texcoco.

Interestingly, the alignment would not appear to point towards the summit of the hill, but rather deviates a couple of degrees to the West towards a little eminence on its Western slope.
In 2006, a massive pyramid was discovered on the Northern slopes of Cerro de la Estrella, measuring as much as 150 meters at its base, one wonders what might still lie buried at this fascinating site. [4]

The picture expands
The two major systems of alignments that cross modern-day Mexico City - the line Tenayuca-Tlatelolco-Tenochtitlan-Cerro de la Estrella and the line Chapultepec-Tenochtitlan-Texcoco cross at a right angle on the site of the great pyramid-temple of México-Tenochtitlán, as can be easily verified from the picture above. [Reconstruction by Author, courtesy Google Maps]
                For how interesting the alignments we have discovered so far, these would have been certainly within the technical capabilities of the Aztecs: The longest distance in the alignment, that is the one between Tenayuca and Cerro de la Estrella, is only 22.5 Km, meaning that the hill would have been within a clear line of sight connecting Tenayuca to the great temples of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán. This was even truer in ancient times, without the pollution and haze of modern day Mexico City.

Interestingly, the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan is located exactly at the same distance of 11.3 Km from Tenayuca and Cerro de la Estrella, being at the exact center of the imaginary line connecting these two points (1:1). 
And what about the position of Tlatelolco? The great pyramid of Tlatelolco is located only 1.9 Km from the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán. That means, Tlatelolco divides the line connecting the pyramid of Tenayuca to that of Tenochtitlán in two segments of 1.9 and 9.4 Km; the total segment length being 11.3 Km. This means that the distance Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco is exactly 1:5 of the distance Tlatelolco-Tenayuca. 

And there is more. This first alignment Tenayuca-Tlatelolco-Tenochtitlán-Cerro de la Estrella appears to be at a right angle with another equally impressive alignment, also crossing through the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlán.

The alignment Texcoco-Tenochtitlan-Chapultepec

This second alignment connects the ancient city of Texcoco to the sacred hill of Chapultepec, and in doing so crosses the axis Tenayuca-Cerro de la Estrella at a right angle exactly in its center, that is on the spot occupied by the Templo Mayor of México Tenochtitlán.

The Cerro de Chapultepec, whose summit is now occupied by the castle built for Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in the XIX century, was considered sacred by the Aztecs. There the Aztec emperors had their baths and gardens, and a temple likely existed on the summit. Several astronomical and geodetic markers are still to be found on the high cliffs below the castle, including some fine bas-reliefs of Moctezuma II and a giant rock sculpture of a snake.

On the opposite end of the alignment, Texcoco was one of the cities of the Aztec triple alliance, together with México Tenochtitlan and Tlacopán (Tacuba). A city of the Acolhuas, Texcoco became one of the most important cities in ancient Mexico during the reign of Netzahualcoyotl, extending itself over 450 hectares on the shores of Lake Texcoco. The city became a major center of learning, and has been often described as the “Athens” of ancient America; home of poets, philosophers and astronomers, as well as to one of the largest libraries of the pre-Columbian world. The great temple of Texcoco was apparently second only to the one of México-Tenochtitlan, and the legendary palace of Netzahualcoyotl, consisting of some 300 rooms and all built of dressed stone, was still a wonder to behold at the time of Bullock’s visit in 1824. [5]  
An ancient depiction of the Templo Mayor of Texcoco, with its twin sanctuaries at the top, from the Codex Ixtlilxochitl , early 16th Century [Codex Ixtlilxochitl, fol. 112V]
Very little remains nowadays of the former glory of Texcoco. The last remnants of the great temple of Texcoco were demolished sometime around 1880 to make material for construction, but its location is accurately marked in XIX century maps at a place known as “Cerro de La Simona”, along the present day Calle Guerrero, and between the Calles Allende and Aldama. This position allows drawing a precise alignment between the Templo Mayor of Texcoco and the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan, pointing to the sacred hill of Chapultepec (itself a major natural landmark on the immediate shores of what was then the lake of Texcoco).

The alignment Texcoco-Cerro de la Estrella-Cerro del Ajusco

Something very interesting also happens when observing the alignment between Texcoco and the Cerro de la Estrella. A prolongation of this line points straight to the summit of the Ajusco; the highest peak, with its 3,930 meters, within modern Mexico City boundaries and one of the most easily recognizable landmarks in the entire valley of Mexico (its highest point, called Pico del Aguila or Eagle’s peak was considered sacred since ancient times, and does indeed resemble a giant spread eagle from the distance).

The triangle Texcoco-Teotihuacan-Mount Tlaloc

Texcoco is also at the vertex of an isosceles triangle, that if forms with the ancient sacred sites of Teotihuacan and Mount Tlaloc. The distance between Texcoco and Teotihuacan and between Texcoco and the summit of Mount Tlaloc is the same and equals 12.5 Km. This is suggestive of a system of survey points or triangulation markers.

Teotihuacan was one of the major ceremonial centers of the classic period in the valley of Mexico, a city whose influence extended as far as Guatemala and the Maya region. On the other hand, Mount Tlaloc, with its 4,151 meters, is one of the highest points in the valley of Mexico, and a sacred mountain connected with the cult of the rain-god Tlaloc. The pre-Hispanic sanctuary on its summit is believed to be the highest archaeological site in the world, and consists of an imposing platform approached by a stone causeway, from whose summit the view easily embraces the entire valley of Mexico and beyond.

Connecting the dots  
The two interconnected systems of alignments centered on the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan and on the great pyramid-temple of Texcoco. The lines in black are hypothetical lines of sight drawn from the holy city of Teotihuacan and the pre-Columbian sanctuary on the summit of Mount Tlaloc. These two points are equidistant from Texcoco. The apparently arbitrary placement of the Templo Mayor of Tlatelolco along the axis Cerro de la Estrella-Tenochtitlán-Tenayuca now becomes clear once a new line of sight is drawn from Teotihuacan to the Cerro de Chapultepec. [Reconstruction by Author, courtesy Google Maps]
After connecting all the dots, the resulting figure resembles an enormous kite, having at its four vertices the sacred sites of Texcoco, Tenayuca, Cerro de la Estrella and Chapultepec. The observation points of Cerro del Ajusco, Monte Tlaloc and Teotihuacan remain outside of this figure, but are placed symmetrically with respect to each other and to the overall figure on the ground. The Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan occupies the center of this scheme, at the intersection of the two major alignments.

It is interesting to note that while the location of the great temples of Texcoco, Tenayuca, Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, as well as of the sacred city of Teotihuacan, reflects a deliberate artificial construction, the natural landmarks of Chapultepec, Cerro de la Estrella, Mount Tlaloc and Cerro del Ajusco are prominent landscape features over which human design could have had no role.

It was probably from the observation that the remarkable hill of Cerro de la Estrella lies virtually at the center of the triangle formed by three other major natural landmarks: the Cerro de Chapultepec, Cerro del Ajusco and Monte Tlaloc, that the position of all the other sites could be determined. 

The prominent role of Teotihuacan in this system of alignments suggests that at least part of this design might date back to the time in which the great city exerted its dominion over all of Central Mexico (that is, at least in the 2nd Century BC), a time therefore much earlier than that of the Aztecs.

The location of the great temple and the city of Texcoco was likely defined relative to that of Teotihuacan (which already existed at the time), of Mount Tlaloc, Cerro de la Estrella, Cerro del Ajusco and Chapultepec. This location is almost “miraculous” in that it is exactly equidistant between Teotihuacan and Mount Tlaloc, and is also found on the prolongation of the natural alignment between the Cerro del Ajusco and Cerro de la Estrella.

The position of the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan was subsequently defined along the line of sight between Texcoco and Chapultepec, in such a way that it would perpendicularly intersect a line drawn through the Cerro de la Estrella and to Tenayuca.

The location of Tlatelolco is even more interesting, in that it is situated along the axis Cerro de la Estrella – Tenochtitlan – Tenayuca, and also marks the point in which a line of sight drawn from Teotihuacan to the Cerro de Chapultepec intersects this latter axis.

The final picture of all the major alignments and lines of sight discussed in the present article. The major triangles and geometric figures are highlighted in different colors. The base of the triangle having Texcoco as its center (highlighted in red), marked by the axis Chapultepec-Mount Tlaloc, corresponds to the parallel of latitude at 19° 25´ North. Tenayuca and Cerro de la Estrella are also at the center of two other large triangles (in green), with the Templo Mayor of México-Tenochtitlan located at the (perpendicular) intersection of the lines connecting the centers of these 3 geometric figures. [Reconstruction by Author, courtesy Google Maps]
This systems suggests a very advanced (for the time) knowledge of cartography and trigonometry for the purpose of triangulation, and also highlights the existence of a network of alignments of sacred sites based on ancient lines of sight, which has surprisingly gone virtually unnoticed for the past 500 years. It also suggests that the location chosen for some of the major temples and ancient cities in the valley of Mexico, including the very Aztec capital of México-Tenochtitlan, is not arbitrary, but rather the product of an elaborate geodetic scheme that incorporates pre-existing natural as well as artificial landmarks. 


[1] The Board of Longitude, established in 1714, rewarded John Harrison for the invention of the marine chronometer in 1773. Before that, longitude could only be crudely determined with the so called “Lunar distance method”, first devised by Galileo Galilei in 1612, who noticed that the relative positions of the Moon and Jupiter could be used as a sort of universal clock; a method which however required accurate knowledge of their orbits and cycles.  
[2] The chief archaeologist and director of excavations at Tlatelolco, Salvador Guilliem, even goes to the point of suggesting that these three pyramids, those of Tlatelolco, Tenayuca and Tenochtitlán, bear such close similarities to each other that can only be explained if they were erected by the same builders.
Descubren en Tlatelolco Pirámide más antigua que Tenochtitlán, in La Jornada, 27/12/2007, accessed on-line:
[3] Enrique Juan Palacios, La Orientación de la Pirámide de Tenayuca y el principio del año y siglo indígenas, Contribución al XXV Congreso de Americanistas de la Plata, Buenos Aires, 1932. Accessed on-line:
[4] Massive Ancient Pyramid Discovered in Mexico, The Guardian, 4th May, 2005. Accessed on-line:
[5] William Bullock, Six Months Residence and Travels in Mexico, London, 1824, p. 383-395

Friday, July 31, 2015

The pyramid of Xochicalco: A monument to the end of times

Does the pyramid of Xochicalco tell the history of Atlantis?
The pyramid of  the feathered serpents at Xochicalco, as seen from the front, with the main stairway facing West. [Photo by Author]
                Does the pyramid of Xochicalco tell the history of Atlantis? This apparently outlandish claim first appeared in the works of British-American antiquarian and amateur archaeologist Augustus Le Plongeon (1825 – 1908) around the year 1880. A fervent believer in the history of Atlantis himself, Le Plongeon believed the Maya area to be the true cradle of civilization, which then spread from there to ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean world, through the fabled lost continent. Nowadays, Le Plongeon is mostly remembered (other than for his priceless collection of early photographs and daguerreotypes of ancient Maya sites) for his fanciful translations of the Troano (Tro-Cortesianus) codex, which he also believed told the history of the destruction and sinking of Atlantis. [1]

Le Plongeon also took a keen interest in the so called “Pyramid of the feathered serpents” at Xochicalco, which resulted in the publication of a posthumous book in 1914, with the title “The Pyramid of Xochicalco”.
Although the translation provided for the glyphs, at a time when Maya and ancient Mesoamerican studies where still in their infancy, is no less fanciful than the one he made of the Troano codex, many authors have ever since quoted his claims to support the most various theories.

As Le Plongeon’s interpretation of Maya writing has been now thoroughly discredited and dismissed as a romantic flight of fantasy (at best), still the question remains. What is the message of the pyramid of Xochicalco? And more important, is it somehow connected to Atlantis?

The pyramid of Xochicalco

                The ancient site of Xochicalco, in the highlands of Morelos and a short drive from the state’s capital of Cuernavaca, is visited by hundreds of tourists every day. Its present name was given to it by the Aztecs, meaning “Hill of Flowers”. Between 650 and 900 AD, Xochicalco was one of the major city-states in central Mexico that tried to fill the power void left after the fall of Teotihuacan.

The major ceremonial center was built around that time as a large acropolis occupying the summit of a natural eminence.  Among the many remains of monumental architecture at Xochicalco are several pyramids, three ball court games, as well as palaces and residential areas occupied by the priests and the nobility. Massive stone walls surround the site, forming the terraces of the acropolis, a clear hint to Xochicalco being also an important military stronghold.  

The "plaza of the two glyphs" at Xochicalco. The name comes from a stela bearing the glyphs "10 reed" and "9 eye of reptile". The plaza was built on a set of artificial terraces and faces the largest pyramid at the site, a massive stepped pyramid, built in the typical Talud-Tablero Teotihuacan style. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the main pyramid, as seen from the plaza of the two glyphs. The very broad stairway in the front was one of the few monumental accesses to the acropolis. [Photo by Author]
Some of the artificial terraces and retaining walls of the main acropolis. A fortified site, Xochicalco occupied a very strategic position along the major trade routes connecting the two Oceans - the Pacific and the Atlantic - across the Mexican highlands. [Photo by Author]
All the main entrances to the acropolis were closely guarded. Guard posts were placed at all the main entrances. Some very intense fighting seems to have taken place at this particular spot, where about 20 human skeletons were found under the collapsed roof of the main gate house; probably the consequence of a fire started by the attackers. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the impressive system of artificial terraces and fortifications leading up to the acropolis of Xochicalco. The summit of the hill was artificially leveled in order to create a large platform that served as the foundation for several smaller pyramids and temples, and also housed large palace structures. [Photo by Author]
The reasons of the fall and abandonment of Xochicalco might never be known or fully understood. Certainly, the city had a violent ending around 1100 AD, with extensive traces of burning and looting. Whether that was the work of foreign invaders or the product of an internal revolt of the lower classes against the ruling elite, is still the matter of considerable debate. In support of this later interpretation, all signs of violent devastation seem to be limited to the elite areas of the city and the acropolis, whereas the lower class residential areas would seem to have been largely spared. After its sudden abandonment, the city was never reoccupied and survived as a ruin until its modern rediscovery.

The building at Xochicalco that has most attracted the interest of antiquarians and archaeologists, ever since colonial times, is the so called “Pyramid of the Feathered Serpents”, occupying a privileged spot on the acropolis. Already in 1810, Baron Alexander von Humboldt was very moved by the ruins of Xochicalco. Even earlier still, in 1791, José Antonio de Alzate y Ramirez (1737-1799), a clergyman, had published a first sketch of the site, accompanied by drawings of the bas-reliefs decorating the main pyramid, which he took for a military building. Dupaix also published many very fine drawings of the pyramid and the site (after Castañeda) in his monumental Antiquités Mexicaines (1805), which made the ruins of Xochicalco known for the first time to the general public outside of Mexico. Notwithstanding the extensive restoration works carried out in 1910 by Leopoldo Batres, the pyramid doesn’t seem to have suffered any major damages from those early times, with most of the original stones of the first two platforms still remaining in situ.

Another view of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, on the main acropolis of Xochicalco. The pyramids is roughly square at the base, with each side having a length of about 20 meters. [Photo by Author]
A view of the Acropolis of Xochicalco, from the top. The pyramid of the feathered serpents is to the left. [Photo by Author]
The Pyramid of the feathered serpents, or Pirámide de las serpientes emplumadas, as it is known in Spanish, is unique in all of Mesoamerica for being built of large, megalithic basaltic stones, all covered in exquisite bas-relief carvings. An earlier stage of construction is also visible within the now exposed core of the pyramid, although lacking the fine bas-reliefs.

Feathered snakes, lost cities and the Lords of Time

                The pyramid has an East-West orientation, with the main stairway facing the setting sun, and consists in its present state of two superimposed bodies arranged in the typical Talud-Tablero Teotihuacan architectural style. It measures 19.6 by 21 meters at the base, and while the lower level survives almost intact, the upper frieze band is highly fragmentary. Only few decorated stone blocks remain of the actual temple, occupying the second level. Several more decorated stones have not yet found a collocation within the partially restored pyramid, and now lie quite chaotically in a small storage area to its side. 

An artist's impression of how the pyramid of the feathered serpents might have originally looked like (After Brantz Mayer, 1847, Mexico as it was and as it is). Brantz Mayer quotes José Antonio Alzate as stating (in 1777) that "no more than twenty years before, the five terraces of which it consisted were still perfect", but that the work of destruction started by some local farmers had left barely the first terrace and part of the second intact.  
The most striking feature of the bas-reliefs that decorate the lower portion of the pyramid is the undulating serpent motif occupying three of its four sides, a total of 60 meters in length.

The serpent is clearly a symbol of Quetzalcoatl, the legendary culture hero and civilizing god, and this is reinforced by at least two attributes: the cut snail glyph, believed to represent the Wind (in the image of Quetzalcoatl as Ehecatl, the god of Wind), and the glyph 9 “eye of reptile”, itself one of the calendric names of Quetzalcoatl. The coils of the snake are also suggestive of the waves of the Sea, an imagery which is reinforced through the analogy with the pyramid of the feathered serpents at Teotihuacan, itself considered to be the prototype of the one at Xochicalco. At Teotihuacan, the marine imagery is further stressed by the presence of different types of seashells among the volutes of the snakes; which are also recalled at Xochicalco in the form of the cut sea snail glyph (itself the most recurring glyph on the pyramid walls).

The feathered serpent motif on the outer walls of the pyramid of Xochicalco. The serpent appears multiple times on all the four sides of the pyramid, and might be interpreted as a symbol for comets and recurring catastrophes. [Photo by Author]
The same figuration appears on the Southern face of the pyramid. A seated figure, possibly Quetzalcoatl himself in human form, is being carried above the waters on what might be interpreted as a boat of snakes, accompanied by the glyph of the wind. Behind his shoulders, what appears to be a flaming temple on an island is hit by a giant wave and submerged by the waters, again symbolized by the cosmic serpent. The depiction of the sacred island is accompanied by the glyph "9 eye of reptile", associated with the Wind and with Quetzalcoatl as the god of Wind. [Photo by Author] 
According to some interpretations, the giant snake is highly suggestive of a global cataclysm. Astronomers William Napier and Victor Clube argued in their books The Cosmic Serpent and The Cosmic Winter that the mythical imagery of sky serpents and dragons, which is found throughout the world, was in fact a metaphor the ancient astronomers used for comets.  [2]

There is also abundant evidence of the association of Quetzalcoatl with comets. In its starry aspect, Quetzalcoatl was associated with the planet Venus, being the brightest “star” in the night sky. Venus was often referred to as the “smoking star” [3], a name that the ancient Mexicans also associated to comets [4]. This makes Quetzalcoatl also an astral deity, somehow associated with wind, fire, the planet Venus and comets (as well as, interestingly, with water).

The other most recurring imagery on the lower band is a curious set of glyphs, appearing a total of 6 times within the coils of the snake. This set of glyphs contains the calendric date “9 eye of reptile”, also associated with Quetzalcoatl, surmounted by what appears to be a temple from which emanate large tongues of fire. Interestingly, a glyph in the shape of a volute, emanating from the serpent’s tail, appears to be hitting the temple as a giant wave. Similar volutes are also to be seen underneath the temple, as if the intent of the artist was to represent the construction sinking underneath the waves.
An enlarged detail of the glyph combination that we suggest might represent the original homeland of the gods, the "Island of the Winds", in its final moments before its sinking. Great flames rise from the temple on top, while the wave-like symbols underneath it might suggest the idea of it sinking or being submerged by the waters. The tail of the cosmic snake takes the form of  a giant wave, hitting the temple from the East. The glyph "9 eye of reptile", inserted within a cartouche, might hint to the original name of the island as the "Island of the Winds". [Photo by Author]
The overall picture is a highly suggestive of a fiery catastrophe terminating in a giant flood that consumed the original homeland of the gods.

A seated figure, possibly Quetzalcoatl himself in human form, is depicted 10 times among the volutes of the snake. The posture, with the legs crossed, and the hand gestures are highly reminiscent of Maya royal iconography, and there are words coming out of the mouth of the seated figure in the form of speech. It is as if the figure was being carried by the waves - that is, the serpent coils – on top of what might be interpreted as smaller serpent or snake-like forms in the shape of the letter S. There might be a connection here with the legend of Quetzalcoatl sailing across the ocean towards the setting sun on a boat of snakes. There is also a curious resemblance with the Olmec Monument 19 of La Venta, dating between 1200 and 800 BC and considered the earliest known representation of the feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.   

Another enlarged detail of the seated figure, whom we might interpret as Quetzalcoatl in his human form. The curious shapes underneath the figure resemble the "boat of snakes" that the legend associates with the departure of Quetzalcoatl from Tollan. [Photo by Author]
The upper frieze, occupying the tablero portion, shows a number of similarly seated features accompanied by the same enigmatic set of glyphs. These figures have been called the “Lords of Time”, as they bear attributes usually associated with the year. There were probably 22 of those, but the sequence is fragmentary, with many of the original stones missing. They all seem to carry a sort of bag, again highly reminiscent of the iconography found on the Monument 19 of La Venta. To their right, is a glyph showing of a circle divided into four quarters, with an open jaw to its side.  There is no agreement about the meaning of those glyphs, but they seem suggestive of place names.

A detail of one of the "Lords of Time" depicted on the lower Tablero. The seated pose is similar to that of Quetzalcoatl in the lower Talud, but the human figure here now carries a headdress with the trapeze and ray sign for the year, and a curious "bag" in his left hand (compare with the Olmec bas-relief below from La Venta). The open jaws with the circle divided in four are conventional signs believed to accompany important place names. According to our interpretation, this section should be read as a list of the cities founded by the gods after the deluge that destroyed their insular homeland. [Photo by Author]
One of the earliest depictions of the feathered serpent from Mesoamerica. Dating between 1200 and 800 BC, the so called "Monument 19" of La Venta shows a figure wearing an elaborate headdress, seating within the coils of a giant snake and carrying a highly enigmatic "handbag", which finds its parallel in the bas-reliefs of Xochicalco. [Photo by Author, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City]
The bas-reliefs of the uppermost surviving registry, comprising the second layer of the pyramid – or what was possibly the inner temple chamber – are too incomplete to hazard any kind of reconstruction. Again there appear the usual seated figures with their legs crossed, wearing some sort of large hats or turbans and a carrying a staff. The interpretation of these figures as military lords is reinforced by the set of three arrows and a shield that they carry in front of them. Unless, of course, these items have a different ritualistic meaning that we do not yet understand.

Some of the glyphs and bas-reliefs that decorate the upper portion of the pyramid, possibly the depiction of military Lords or deified ancestors. [Photo by Author]
Each one of the great Lords depicted on the uppermost surviving level of the pyramid is shown as carrying a staff of command, with a set of arrows and a rectangular shield covering the chest. The headdress, similar to a large turban, is also very peculiar. [Photo by Author]
 Another glyph in particular – one of the few surviving from the upper portion – deserves attention. It shows what would look like a man with only the head emerging from the water – again more imagery associated with the idea of a deluge.

This glyph, from the South-East corner of the pyramid, shows a man of which only the head is visible above the water. Yet another depiction of a deluge? [Photo by Author]
The conventional interpretation of the glyphs

                Although there is no agreement among scholars on the meaning of the bas-reliefs and glyphs of the pyramid of Xochicalco, two main interpretations have emerged; that of a genealogy of rulers and of a correction to the calendar.

The genealogy of rulers interpretation is quite straightforward in that it sees in each one of the seated figures the representation of a lineage of kings, connected by the symbol of the feathered serpent and each one accompanied by a date glyph. This is a rather simplistic explanation of the very complex symbolism of the pyramid bas-reliefs, and does not moreover account for the hundreds of other glyphs and carvings that do not seem to be associated with the images of the assumed rulers or kings.

The second hypothesis of interpretation is based on a specific tablero located to the left (North-East) of the main access stairway of the pyramid.  In it, a glyph is found which can be interpreted as the date “5 Calli” or “5 House”, which is tied by means of a rope to another date glyph “11 Ozomatli” or “11 Monkey”. This is somehow interpreted as the “pulling” of a date, that is to say, a recalibration or adjustment to the sacred calendar. The pyramid would therefore represent (and was built in order to commemorate) an astronomical conference, or a meeting of the “Lords of Time” from all over Mesoamerica in Xochicalco to decide on the calendar correction – that is, as the calendar had apparently gone out of sync with astronomical observations. This event is believed to have occurred sometime around the year 743 AD, when the pyramid was dedicated. This interpretation was first suggested by Enrique Juan Palacios in 1920, and later supported by renowned archaeologist Roman Piña Chan in his doctoral thesis in 1970.

A particular of the combination of glyphs from the left Tablero, in which the calendric glyph "5-Calli" appears to be pulled by the glyph "11-Ozomatli" by means of a rope. This is commonly interpreted as the depiction of a calendric correction or adjustment, but this interpretation is by no means certain. [Photo by Author]  
Starting from the 1970s, however, skepticism started to emerge in the academic community towards this reading of the glyphs. Hanns J. Prem (1974), firmly denies this interpretation, and the whole subject of the glyphs of Xochicalco seems to have become the matter an archaeological taboo ever since. In a 1994 article, Mexican archaeologist Ruben Morante Lopez goes as far as saying that since then “The majority of studies on the Mesoamerican calendar and the history of Xochicalco barely mention the tablero, and do not dare to take a stance on the very tricky matter of the interpretation of those glyphs”. [5]

An alternative interpretation

Another view of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, on the main acropolis of Xochicalco. The relative position of the different superimposed levels can be easily appreciated, as well as the sequence of the main bas-reliefs. [Photo by Author]
                Here I will propose an alternative interpretation of the glyphs and bas-reliefs based on the idea that the pyramid of Xochicalco contains a mythical account of historical events, which does not by itself exclude other interpretations of portions of the glyphs as related to the sphere of astronomy or to the calendar.

Lower Talud

                 As noted earlier, the cosmic serpent, itself the most prominent feature on the pyramid, can be interpreted as the metaphor for a comet and a deluge (the undulating movement) – the two being possibly interconnected – and might therefore be taken as the symbol of a global catastrophe. The obsessive repetition of the same motif on the four faces of the pyramid could, in turn, hint at the cyclical nature of such global catastrophes, brought by comets or other celestial bodies.
The flaming temple, overthrown by the waves and sinking in the waters appears to be an allusion to a lost “Land of the Gods”, identified by the glyph “9 eye of reptile”, and associated with wind and Quetzalcoatl (as the god of wind). The name of this mythical island might have been therefore “Island of the Winds” if we take the glyphs for their literal value.  This is again obsessively repeated for a total of 6 times on 3 of the 4 sides of the pyramid. 

A deluge seems therefore to have been responsible for the final destruction and sinking of the island of the gods, after it was first hit by a fiery catastrophe (the high flames rising from the temple) possibly caused by the impact of a large celestial body, such as a comet.    

The seated figures (10 in total), could represent the survivors from this catastrophe leaving towards the different cardinal directions and spreading into the world, carried by the waves (on what appears to be a boat of snakes, again reminiscent of the legend of Quetzalcoatl). This company of gods or demi-gods, whose leader can be identified as Quetzalcoatl – the feathered serpent – (himself depicted in a sort of “boat” on the sides of the main entrance stairway), was probably at the origins of the city of Xochicalco, or seen perhaps as a mythical ancestor to the city’s royal lineage.  

A detail of the right Tablero, towards the South-West corner. A rather curious glyph amid the coils of the snake is believed to represent the figure of a "Sky bearer", carrying upon his shoulders a starry sky glyph. [Photo by Author]
A general view of the Southern side of the pyramid of the feathered serpents, as taken from the South-West corner. [Photo by Author]
Lower Tablero

                The frieze occupying the entire length of the Tablero of the lower platform would have originally contained 22 depictions of the “Lords of Time”, each one associated with a specific glyph indicating a place name. This could be interpreted as an account of the mythical foundations of the gods, a list of cities founded by the same company of gods depicted in the lower Talud upon their arrival in Mexico. Each one of these “Lords of Time” carries a peculiar bag, which might be interpreted as a bag containing the metaphorical seeds of civilization, or a symbol related to the introduction of agriculture – itself one of the gifts of civilization brought by Quetzalcoatl to ancient Mexico. The peculiar hat that they seem to be wearing contains the symbol of the year, in the tradition of Teotihuacan, a symbol usually associated with great Lords, and perhaps with astronomy. There also seems to be a snake head coming out from the front. Interestingly, each one of these figures seems to be wearing some sort of “goggles” or “eye-glasses”, itself a symbol commonly found in ancient depictions of Tlaloc, the god of rain. Perhaps more curious, the strange figures appear to be bearded.  

Upper Talud

                This whole section is very fragmentary, but contains depictions of what are usually interpreted as military Lords, each carrying a staff, a shield and a set of three arrows. These might be the lords of Xochicalco and other places, who inherited rulership over the land directly from the gods. The very complex symbolism and glyphs associated with this figures suggests however there might be something else. One interpretation is that the figures on this level of the pyramid have to do with the “gifts” of the gods, which might explain the vegetal motifs of what appear to be crops, the calendric glyphs as well as the other animal figures. So far, there are not enough elements to attempt a satisfactory interpretation of this section of the pyramid.

A monument to the end of times?
In this famous mural by Diego Rivera, in Mexico City's Palacio Nacional, Quetzalcoatl is depicted as a civilizing god, the inventor of writing and of the calendar, the god who taught men how to cultivate crops, to wear clothes and live in cities. [Photo by Author; Palacio Nacional, Mexico City]
                If the above interpretation is correct, then the pyramid of Xochicalco might be interpreted as a monument erected to commemorate the mythical ancestry of the lords of Xochicalco, descendants from a company of gods that were the sole survivors of a cataclysm that destroyed and sunk their primeval homeland, the “Island of the Winds”. This cataclysm appears to be related to the impact of a comet or another celestial body, and there is moreover a suggestion of cyclical or recurring cosmic events. In this sense, even the calendric glyphs on the pyramid of Xochicalco might be interpreted as referring to some recurring astronomic event, perhaps the passage of a comet, which was believed to cyclically bring devastation to the world.
The story goes on with the arrival of this company of gods, the “Lords of Time”, to Mesoamerica, where they founded a number of cities and temples, taught agriculture, astronomy and the arts of civilization to the still primitive inhabitants of the valley of Mexico, and also established a lineage of kings to whom the rulers of Xochicalco and other places in Mesoamerica traced back their ancestry and, ultimately, their divine right to kingship.    

A leap to the other side of the Atlantic

A page from the Codex Boturini, showing the mythical migration of the Aztecs from their ancestral homeland of Aztlan, the "place of whiteness" or the "place of reeds and herons", here depicted as an island in the middle of a sea or lake. [Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City]
                This story, if correct, bears some remarkable similarities to other cosmological myths of a global cataclysm from across the Atlantic, particularly to the famous Edfu building texts.  The similarities are so striking that one might be induced to think that the pyramid of Xochicalco and the Edfu building texts do indeed tell the same story.

The Edfu building texts are a collection of hieroglyphic writings found on the outer walls of the Ptolemaic temple of Edfu, in Egypt, dating to the 2nd Century BC. No doubt, however, the Edfu building texts were copied after some much older material, possibly dating to the Old Kingdom. The story told in these ancient Egyptian texts is almost identical to the one represented on the walls of the Mexican pyramid of Xochicalco.
This corpus of texts, which has only been partially translated, also seems to refer to a primeval abode of the gods, which was destroyed in a violent cataclysm and was later submerged. The similarities, however, don’t stop here.

In the Edfu building texts, this primeval “Land of the gods” is depicted as an island, variously called “Island of Creation”, “Island of Trampling”, “Island of Combat”, “Island of Peace” or “Island of the Egg”, names that might all possibly relate to mythical events in the island’s history. This island, the original abode of the gods and seat of the first, mythical ancestor of the Temple, appears to have been destroyed in a violent attack by a “snake” or “serpent”, which caused the island to split and sink in the primeval Ocean, causing all of its divine inhabitants to perish. 

According to E.A.E. Reymond, author of The Mythical Origins of the Egyptian Temple:

The homeland of the primeval ones […] having been constituted by the creators themselves, came to its end at a definite moment of the primeval age. A storm, perhaps, came over the island, during which an attack was made by an enemy pictured as a snake. The aggression was so violent that it destroyed the sacred land with the result that all of its divine inhabitants perished[6]

Concerning the “snake” itself, which was apparently responsible for the destruction and sinking of the island, she adds:

He refers to a snake, the nhp-wr, the Great Leaping One, who appears to be the chief enemy of the god […] his feet were pierced and the ground of the domain was split. This is a clear picture of a disaster[7]

The attack was so violent that it caused the primeval island of the gods to sink and be submerged:

The primeval water might have submerged the island as a consequence of a fight, and the island became the tomb of the original divine inhabitants[8]

This serpent, also called in the Egyptian text “The Great Leaping One” is highly reminiscent of the feathered serpents depicted on the outer faces of the pyramid of Xochicalco, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for comets. There is also an idea in the Edfu text of recurring catastrophes, as the text explicitly references multiple cycles of creation and resurrection of the primeval island.

The “company of gods” that survived the destruction and sinking of the primeval island of creation (otherwise known from other Egyptian sources as the Shemsu-Hor – the companions of Horus), seems to have played a role in the rebirth of civilization after the catastrophe which is very similar to the one attributed in Mesoamerica to Quetzalcoatl and his companions.

There is also another striking analogy in the names used to describe the new homeland of the gods after the catastrophe. The Edfu text mentions that reeds were all that survived of the primeval island of the gods after its sinking, and that the island itself was covered in reeds:

The beginning of the first Edfu record does not tell us that the new generation of creators arriving in the island would perceive the island itself when the sun shone once more on the primeval waters. It is stated that they saw only the reeds on the surface of the water[9]

And also:

The Edfu cosmogonical records begin with a picture of the primeval island where the gods were believed to have lived first…which, in part, was covered with reeds[10]

Interestingly, the mythical capital of Quetzalcoatl after his arrival in Mexico was called Tollan, which in Nahuatl means “the place of reeds”. Tollan was considered an ancestral place of origin for the civilizations of Mexico, and was the legendary capital of the Toltecs (meaning “people of the reeds”). The very name of Quetzalcoatl is often associated with the glyph “Ce Acatl”, or “1 reed”, with the reed glyph appearing several times on the pyramid of Xochicalco itself.

In Aztec myths, the original homeland of the Aztec people is named “Aztlan”, a name somehow associated with the color white, whose literal meaning is “place of herons and reeds”. One might also find interesting, and it is certainly matter of speculation, that while the ancient Egyptians located the homeland of the Gods in the far West, Quetzalcoatl was believed to have come to America from the East, that is from across the Atlantic. It is on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico that the earliest known Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs, developed, and it is with the Olmecs that the earliest depictions of the feathered serpents are found.

Perhaps the pyramid of Xochicalco does not tell the same story as Plato’s Atlantis, but the parallels with the ancient Egyptian myths from across the Atlantic, and the Mesoamerican legend of Quetzalcoatl as a civilizing god who came from the East, all point to a common belief in a primeval homeland of the gods, that was destroyed and sank in a time beyond recorded history, from which civilization spread to both the Old and the New World.

A panoramic view of the Northern side of the pyramid of the feathered serpents at Xochicalco. [Photo by Author]

[1] A good online biography of Augustus Le Plongeon can be found at the following website:
[2] Victor Clube, Bill Napier, The Cosmic Serpent, Faber & Faber, 1982
[3] For instance, Venus is depicted as a “smoking star” in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, as well as in the Songs of Dzitbalche, suggesting a connection between Venus and Comets. See Susan Milbraith, Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore and Calendar, University of Texas, 1999
[4] in Nahuatl, “Citlalin popoca”. Source: Remi Simeón, Diccionario de la lengua Nahuatl o Mexicana, 17th edition, México, 2004 (1st Spanish edition 1977)
[5] Rubén Morante López, El Templo de las Serpientes Emplumadas de Xochicalco, no. 94, Universidad Veracruzana (1994), accessed online:
[6] E.A.E. Reymond, The Mythical Origin of the Egyptian Temple, Manchester University Press, 1969, p. 113-114
[7] Ibid., p. 113
[8] Ibid., p. 109  
[9] Ibid., p. 109
[10] Ibid., p. 59