Monday, November 11, 2013

Chiapas Part 16: The Great Acropolis of Toniná

The Acropolis of Toniná is filled with palaces, temples, and altars. Level by level, the Acropolis rises high above the Great Plaza seen in the previous posting. Each of the seven successive levels can be reached by way of broad staircases stretching from east to west across the face of the Acropolis. At the very top is the Temple of the Smoking Mirror, also known as the Temple of Agriculture. The total number of steps leading up to it is 260, equal to the number of days in the Tzolkin, the sacred calendar of the Maya. In Toniná, political/social status dictated the level on which a person lived. Not surprisingly, the ruler occupied the top, giving him great vistas of the surrounding forests, mountains and, far below, the maiz (corn) fields of the Valle de Ocosingo. The common people cultivated those lush fields, and their work supported the whole society. On the several levels between the ruler and the commoners lived the elite warriors, priests, astronomers, architects, and administrators. Today, much of the Acropolis is covered by earth and vegetation. This gives the ruins an organic appearance, making it seem to grow right out of the ground. However, in its days of glory, Toniná would have been clear of the detritus of time, its limestone surfaces plastered, stuccoed, and vividly painted. In this posting and the next, we will look at the Acropolis and some of the structures found on it.

Scale model of Toniná, from the site's Museum. This gives a feel for what the Acropolis may have looked like at the beginning of the 10th Century AD. Note that each of the seven levels is made up of multiple platforms, a total of 13 in all, just as there are 13 levels of heaven in the Maya Cosmos, and 13 months of 20 days each in the Tzolkin. There are also 13 temples on the several levels, each devoted to a different Maya god. While there are various pyramidal structures on different levels, the entire Acropolis is itself one vast, stepped pyramid. As such, it is comparable in grandeur with such famous structures as the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan near Mexico City. At level seven, the very top, stand two pyramids. On the right, the Temple of the Smoking Mirror is the tallest part of the overall structure, reaching 80 meters (262 ft) above the Plaza level. The Pyramid of the Sun, by contrast, rises 75 meters (246 ft). To the left of the Smoking Mirror Temple is the Temple of War. These two temples represent the two most important responsibilities of Toniná's ruling elite: control over the agricultural economy, and the conduct of war. Politics, religion, war, and the all-important cultivation of maiz (corn) were seamlessly interwoven in ancient Maya societies. In the lower right quadrant of the photo, you can see palaces and administrative buildings, with their latticed roof combs. These were the residences and offices of the elite.

El Palacio del Inframundo

Three doorways provide entry to El Inframundo, an underground labyrinth. The Palace of the Underworld is located on the eastern side of the Acropolis. This complex labyrinth is pitch dark inside, except for a few small windows in the thick walls. This structure, on the bottom level of the Acropolis, represents the place of darkness into which the dead descend. In the Maya Cosmos, Xibalba ("Place of Fear") actually has 9 levels. However, the builders of the Acropolis were not prepared to go so far as to build a 9 story substructure under the Acropolis. They apparently felt that one level would be sufficient to get the point across.

A Mexican tourist peeps out of a side passage within the labyrinth. In the photo above, the passage appears well-lit. While there is a tiny square window at the bottom of the end of the corridor, nearly all the light in this photo was provided by my flash. Otherwise, the space would have been darker than the inside of a black cat at midnight. The ceiling of the long corridor uses a corbel, or "false" arch, made by stepping the sides of the wall in until they meet at the top. Master architects that they were, the Maya never achieved the true arch. The rituals of the priestly elite must have been illuminated by smokey torches, adding to the mystery and terror of Xibalba.

A window through the thick walls is shaped like a cross. The appearance of crosses like this thoroughly confused the Spanish friars who arrived shortly after the Conquest. Could the people who built these great edifices have been a lost group of early Christians who somehow wandered into the New World, scattering such crosses behind them? In truth, the meaning of the Maya cross is very different from that of the Christian version. The Maya cross represents the World Tree, with roots in Xibalba, a trunk that represents daily reality, and a broad canopy of branches (the cross piece) which represents the heavens. The ancient Maya believed that the Ceiba tree, found widely in their world, was the earthly manifestation of the World Tree. Even today, Maya loggers are reluctant to cut down a Ceiba.

Carole sits among some of the ruins of the Palace of the Underworld. I took this shot from Level 2, just above the three doors entering El Unframundo. The structure behind Carole has a row of columns across its front and is part of the  Palacio del Inframundo's complex. The labyrinth under the grass at my feet winds and twists below Level 2. The passages ultimately lead to stairways that bring you up, at last, into the sunlight. The ancients who trembled as they crept through the inky blackness must have been as relieved as I was to finally emerge.

Back down on Level 1, a stela adorns a small altar in front of a row of broad staircases. Other than the Palacio del Unframundo, Level one has only a few other features. The length and width of the Level 1 platform is such that it could have accommodated quite a crowd. The steps of the staircase would have formed seating areas where hundreds of people could watch the ceremonies at the altar.

Closeup of the small altar and stela. Stelae were important features of many Maya cities between about 400 AD to 900 AD. Some were carved, while others were decorated with stucco designs. The one above was probably  covered with stucco which has worn or fallen away over the centuries. Stelae were closely associated with the concept of divine kingship, and were used to detail dynastic histories, to commemorate important evens such as military victories or the accession of a new ruler, and to display the images of great kings or other persons of importance.

Wall of the Grecas

Another grand staircase leads from Level 2 to Level 3. This set of stairs has a small altar at its base, partially visible at the lower left. Above the staircase, you can see a long colonnaded structure. This may have been a temple, or perhaps a barracks for the warriors and lower level officials who lived on the west side of the Acropolis. Still higher, at the base of the tree in the upper right, is the base platform for one of the temples of Level 4.

The Wall of the Grecas is one of the Acropolis' most unusual features. The abstract symbol is a huge stone relief mural set on a sloping wall. Its dimensions are 7 meters (23 ft) high and 21 meters (69 ft) wide. Greca is a Spanish word referring to a repeating architectural design. Some archaeologists claim the grecas' "X"-shaped design represents Kulkulkan, the feathered serpent, known in non-Maya areas as Quetzalcoatl. Other archaeologists suggest that the "X" design represents Witz, the Sacred Mountain, and the three levels of Maya spiritual thought. The design reminded me of others I have seen at the Mixtec ruin of Mitla near Oaxaca, a state which borders Chiapas, and from which such designs could have migrated through trade. Above the wall, you can see several columns that were part of a structure known as the Palace of the Grecas and of War, or the Palace of the Stepped Frets. All these different names and interpretations show how much we have yet to learn after more than 150 years of archaeological studies of this site.

A side view of the Wall of the Grecas shows clever engineering. The zig-zag designs of the arms of the "X" are revealed to be steps leading up the wall to the palace above. After ascending the seven steps of an arm leaning toward the center, a climber must turn 180 degrees on the landing and ascend seven more steps on the outward leaning arm. Because the angle of the wall, the ascent is not as precarious as it might at first appear. It is useful to remember that the people who designed and built the Acropolis had no metal tools, no wheeled vehicles to transport the stones, and no draft animals to pull such vehicles. What they did possess was a sophisticated system of mathematics and engineering, and a wonderful eye for design. And, of course, they also had a huge supply of very low-cost labor at the command of the rulers.

The Venus Throne

Local Maya workers perform maintenance on the Venus Throne. The workers are employed by INAH, the Mexican federal government agency that protects and preserves Mexico's ancient heritage. This small but impressive structure is located immediately to the right of the Wall of the Grecas on the eastern end of Level 3. The constant flow of tourists clambering about the ruins means that the workers have plenty to keep them busy. At the base of the stairs leading up to the throne you can see a small wooden sign with the yellow imprint of a foot. This indicates the proper route a visitor should take to remain safe and avoid damage to the structure. Unfortunately, such footprint signs were about the only kind I found throughout the Toniná ruins, with the exception of a large sign at the entrance containing general information. Nearly all of the specific information I present here about the Acropolis' fascinating structures has been gleaned from other sources, including the internet. Some sources contradict others, and I have tried to use the sources that seem most authoritative.

A closer view of the Venus Throne. The feet of the throne resemble jaguar paws and the stucco design at its back represents Venus (hence the name) and contains designs carved to resemble precious stones. It is unclear whether the throne area was originally covered by an awning made of perishable materials as it is today. It seems logical that anyone important enough to sit on a throne like this would have been shielded from the sun and rain. Contemporary sculptures of Maya figures on thrones like this show them sitting, not with legs draped over the sides, but kneeling or cross-legged on the platform.

Another view of the Throne. Notice the stucco sculpture behind the throne, shaped like the letter "W". This is one of the symbols that represents Venus, a celestial body that appears twice a day as the Morning and Evening Stars. This dual aspect of Venus connected it to the Hero Twins who, by defeating the Lords of Xibalba, made the present world possible.  Venus was also closely associated with both Kulkulcan and Chaac, the god of rain. Kulkulcan (called Quetzalcoatl elsewhere), was believed to have given the gift of maiz to mankind. The rain brought by Chaac was essential to its cultivation. Only a person of great power and authority would have sat on the Venus Throne.

View from the Venus Throne over the Ocosingo Valley to the southwest. This area, now used as pasture for horses and cattle, would have been covered with fields of maiz in ancient times. A portion of the Wall of Grecas can be seen in the lower right corner. Also visible are various grassy mounds on Levels 2 and 3 that were once the bases of temples and altars. In the center of the left side of the photo, between the two palm trees, you can see the parallel walls of Ball Court 2 on the Great Plaza. The view from the Venus Throne seems truly fit for a king.

The Water Shrine

Sheltered by a palm frond palapa, the Water Shrine is a large sculpture of stucco and rock. Notice the small carved opening in the top from which the water would have flowed. It would have cascaded down, possibly to fall into the rough stone bowl seen at the bottom. Since there are apparently no springs near this spot, someone would have had to pour water into an unseen opening higher than the one you see above. How this was done, what sort of ritual was involved, and to what god it was dedicated remain a mystery to me. Generally speaking, ready access to water was extremely important to all the ancient Mesoamerican societies. The economic foundation of all those societies was the large scale production of maiz. Archaeologists believe that a key factor in the collapse of the Classic Era Maya civilizations in Chiapas, Guatemala, and southern Yucatan may have been a prolonged drought. This may have been caused by centuries of deforestation. Huge amounts of wood were needed to burn limestone to create plaster and stucco for great cities like Toniná.

Side view closeup of the Water Shrine. Here, you can clearly see the trough from which the water flowed. Also visible is one of the stucco carvings to the right of the trough. The design has the appearance of a spiral, or perhaps a conch shell. Conches were used as  trumpets to draw the attention of Chaac, the rain god.

Temple of the Earth Monster

This shrine stands in front of the Temple of the Earth Monster. This stone and stucco sculpture represents Witz, the Sacred First Mountain. The hole in the base represents a cave. The Maya believed caves were openings into the Underworld. The round stone has been interpreted as either the earth, or the sun, being swallowed by the Witz. That it would be the sun makes sense to me, since the sun is swallowed by the mountains surrounding the Ococsingo Valley on a daily basis. On either side of the mouth of the cave are writhing snakes, often associated with caves in Maya mythology.

On top of the shrine, above the cave, are the remains of what appear to be a stucco head. This may be the bust of an important ruler, who wanted to associate himself with Witz and the primal forces of creation. By making themselves the intermediaries between the people and the gods, the rulers and the priestly elite who served them were able to solidify their power, and command respect and obedience. Significantly, this shrine was built about the time when the stelae associated with divine kingship began to appear in Toniná.

Stucco design on the right side of the Witz' mouth. In the Maya creation myth, the Hero Twins, Hunapu (One Blowgunner) and Xbalanque (Jaguar Sun) had to enter the Sacred First Mountain's cave and match wits with the Lords of the Underworld. After undergoing numerous trials and tests, they tricked the two most important of the Lords into allowing themselves to be sacrificed. The rest of the Lords fled in terror and thereafter only had authority over the Underworld.

This completes Part 16 of my Chiapas series. Next week, I will continue our survey of the Acropolis at Toniná, focusing on the temples, pyramids, palaces, and stucco sculptures of the upper levels. I hope you enjoyed this posting. I always appreciate feedback, and if you would like you may either leave a comment in the section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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