Sunday, April 16, 2017

Xochicalco Part 9 of 9: The East Ceremonial Complex and its Ball Court

The East Ball Court's Ceremonial Complex, looking northeast. The photo was taken from the top of the Temple of the Three Stelae. In the upper right is a rectangular pyramid overlooking a large grassy plaza surrounded by the remains of colonnaded porticos. Carole is the figure approaching the plaza's southern entrance. The ball court is out of sight behind the rectangular pyramid, running parallel to it on a lower level. A small pyramid stands just to the north of the rectangular pyramid. The North Pyramid's twin stands on the south end, out of sight. The East Ball Court is one of three at Xochicalco. They are different from one another in both structure and function. The South Ball Court (Part 2) was constructed on a lower level some distance from the elite part of the city. It was associated with the sacred 260-day calendar. The high-walled North Ball Court (Part 8) was linked to the underground astronomical observatory and to the worship of Tlaloc, the Rain God. The East Ball Court was the main arena where Xochicalco's elite, along with important visitors from other cities, would gather to watch the players settle political issues according to the favor of the gods.


Satellite view of the East Ball Court Ceremonial Complex. The top of the photo is the north end. Shaped like a capital "I", the court is located in the center of the complex. On its west side is the rectangular pyramid and the grassy plaza with its surrounding porticos. Two smaller pyramids stand to the north and south. On the north end of the playing field are rooms where players prepared before the games and cleaned up afterward. The open area on the south of the "I" was a plaza for post-game ceremonies lauding the winners. The losers were probably sacrificed on the altar in the lower right corner of this open area. On the middle of the east (right) side of the "I" is an additional viewing area for the use of dignitaries, probably from the visiting team's city. (Photo from Uncovered History).


The Ball Court


The East Ball Court, looking north. The shape of this court is similar to that of the South Ball Court. The long narrow playing area is bordered by low, slanting walls, very different from the steep, high walls of the North Ball Court. Like the other two courts, the East Ball Court had two rings through which a ball could be passed to score. They were set into the low walls on either side of the court at the mid-point. The tops of the low walls would have served as viewing areas for lower-status members of the elite. The players' preparation / cleanup rooms can be seen at the far end of the court. The games were sometimes used to settle political or military disputes. At other times, their function was to simulate the on-going struggle to maintain the balance of the cosmos and its astral cycles.


A ball court and pyramid sculpted from volcanic rock.  This carved stone clearly illustrates the sacred nature of the ball game. It is not known for certain whether the sculpture served as a construction model or was used during sacred rituals related to the game, or possibly both.


Ring from the East Ball Court. Unlike the other two courts, the East Ball Court's rings were covered with sacred animals carved in relief. The rectangular arm to the side of the ring was set into the wall to secure it. The hole in this ring appears to be somewhat smaller than the ones on the North and South Ball Courts. It may be that balls of different sizes were used, or perhaps the smaller size in this ring was to make the scoring on this court more difficult.


Drawing of the designs on the East court ring. At the top is a fanciful feline crouching with its claws on either side of the ring hole. The cat, perhaps a jaguar, wears a somewhat sinister smile. To the left of the creature's head are a pair of crossed bones. It may be that a similar pair once appeared on the right, but that area is too worn to tell. The bottom half of the ring is occupied by a pair of birds, one following the other. Given their long drooping tails, they may be quetzals. The highly revered birds were much sought-after for their plumage. Small dots drop from the birds' beaks. A dot in the Zapotec numeric system represented the number one.  If these are numbers, then they can be translated as two and three. Felines and quetzals were considered sacred in ancient Mesoamerica.



Ceremonial stone yokes represented the protective armor of the players.  Player's yokes were normally made from wood, leather, or rubber. They were worn around the mid-section of the body to protect the stomach and lower chest from the impact of the heavy rubber ball. This stone version would obviously have been much too heavy and cumbersome for use in actual play.  Stone yokes like the one above could weigh as much as 20 kg (45 lbs). Instead, they may have been used as trophies for winners or as grave goods for deceased players.


Caiman skull found near the ball court. The caimans is another animal symbolically linked to the ball game. It represents the Earth Monster whose devouring jaws consume the stars at sunset, seeds when planted, and human beings at death. The Earth Monster's entrails represent darkness, cold, and death. On the other hand, the elements are the prelude to the coming day, life, and the sprouting of seeds and fruits. The ancient ball games were reenactments of the cycles of life, conducted to ensure that these cycles continued uninterrupted.

The Ceremonial Complex

The North Pyramid. Below the back of this small pyramid are the players' preparation and cleanup rooms at the north end of the ball court. The function of this structure is unclear. Perhaps the ruler used it to exhort his team--sort of a pre-game pep talk. In addition, it would have been a good viewing once the game started.


The central, rectangular pyramid and part of its grassy plaza. The pyramid and plaza may have been used for pre-game ceremonies. This grassy area, enclosed by colonnaded porticos, would have accommodated one or both teams along with various officials and dignitaries. The ruler and his entourage would have looked down from the platform atop the staircase. Once the preliminaries were complete, and the players took the field, the ruler's group could turn and use their elevated perch to view the action on the playing field behind the pyramid. It would have functioned the same as a "skybox" atop a modern stadium, minus the human sacrifice, of course.


The western side of the grassy plaza, showing its colonnades. Only the stumps remain, but you can visualize the rectangular columns supporting a roof over a narrow arcade around three sides of the grassy plaza. In the distance is the east side of Plaza Principal's high stone wall, with the Temple of the Three Stelae looming above it. I took the first photo of this posting from that point.


The South Pyramid. Behind and below this structure is the small plaza just south of the playing field. At the end of the game, the ruler would have mounted the pyramid's staircase to congratulate the winners and officiate over the decapitation of the losers.


Another ceremonial structure lies to the south of the South Pyramid. It has a sunken patio, surrounded by colonnaded porticos. A small staircase stands on the right side of the sunken patio. The staircase may have led to an altar or perhaps a speaker's podium. Although this structure is clearly a part of the East Ball Court's ceremonial complex, I have not been able to find any information about it. Both its composition and its location indicate a ceremonial purpose. However, its specific function is not clear.


The Animal Ramp

The ramp contains paving stones with relief carvings of animals. A total of 271 stones are embedded in the ramp. They contain the images of birds, snakes, monkeys, butterflies, and other animals. The ramp leads up from the plaza below the South Pyramid and emerges on the south end of the rectangular pyramid. Its path passes between the South Pyramid and the sunken patio enclosure seen in the previous photo. This is obviously a route of considerable ceremonial importance. Many stones appear to be missing from the ramp. However, an additional 492 have been found throughout the area of the East Ball Court.


Carving of a bird with its wings extended and its beak open. The bird's tongue extends forward and its tail is spread. The curve of the beak indicates it may be a raptor such as a hawk or an eagle, both of them powerful animals imbued with great symbolic meaning.


A snake writhes its way across another paver. One theory is that these animal paving stones are the  personal symbols of teams or players. In other words, a pre-hispanic version of medieval coats-of-arms. However, there is another possibility. This relates to the Temple of the Goddess of Fertility, toward which the ramp leads.


Temple of the Goddess of Fertility

A temple entrance can be found in the side of the Plaza Principal's west wall. This opening is directly across from the top of the Animal Ramp. The temple is dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility, also known as the Earth Goddess. Since the earth is the place where all creatures breed, it is thought that the temple and the ramp are connected.


The Goddess of Fertility, also known as the Earth Goddess. She sits with her knees folded back under her and her hands held at chest level. The goddess wears a short feminine cape and a striped headband. Xochicalco's Goddess of Fertility may be a local version of Teotihuacan's Great Goddess, a powerful deity connected with water, fertility, and militarism. Although the statue is quite worn, it appears to have the nose pendant and protruding teeth that are characteristic of the Great Goddess. While the Great Goddess was very important at Teotihuacán, the level of militarism skyrocketed when that great empire fell in 650 AD. One reflection of this change was that female deities declined in importance. This may be why the Goddess of Fertility has been relegated to a tiny shrine within the outer wall of the Plaza Principal, while male gods like Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl are prominent everywhere else in the city. However, although diminished in status, the Earth Goddess still seems to have been revered for her connection to the animal world.


Just as we finished our visit, an iguana popped out of the rocky debris. These are protected animals within the archaeological site and this one obviously had no fear of humans. On the other had, maybe it was a representative of the Earth Goddess, sent to say "hi!" I thought it was a fitting end to our visit.

This completes Part 9 of my Xochicalco series, and marks the end of the series itself. Congratulations if you have stuck with me through the whole 9-part series. I realize that some folks see these places as just another pile of old rocks. For myself, I remain fascinated by such sites and the incredible civilizations that once thrived in them. If you would like to leave a question or comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, April 7, 2017

Xochicalco Part 8 of 9: The North Ball Court ceremonial complex

The North Ball Court viewed from the east end. The ceremonial complex that includes the Juego de Pelota Norte (North Ball Court) lies along the base of the high wall that borders the north sides of the Plaza Principal and the Acropolis. To Mesoamericans, the ball game was not just a public entertainment. The contest was permeated with deep and complex religious meanings. This is why ball courts were nearly always closely associated with ceremonial areas. The struggle between the teams symbolically represented the struggle of opposing cosmic forces: death and re-birth. This was further connected to the cycle of the seasons and fertility.


The North Ball Court Complex

Model of the North Ball Court Ceremonial Complex, looking southwest. The ball court can be seen in the bottom center of the photo. It consists of a long, narrow space bordered by two high walls. On each end of the walls, the court opens out into smaller rectangular spaces set perpendicularly to the long narrow space. The shape of the playing field is like a capital letter "I", laid horizontally. On a platform above the south wall of the ball court is the Temescal (sweat bath), the city's water collection system, and the Polychrome Altar. Just beyond the west end of the ball court is a small, grassy plaza with an entrance to an underground tunnel complex that leads to an ancient astronomical observatory. In this posting, I will show each of these areas and discuss the purposes for which they were used.


Map of the North Ball Court. The left side of the diagram shows the teotlachco (ball court) from directly above, with the east end on top and the west on the bottom. The small structure on the lower right of the court is the Temescal, which sits on top of the south wall of the court. From this angle, you can clearly see the "I" shape of the playing area. Typically, spectators would sit along the top of the north and south walls, or gather at either end of the court. On the right of the diagram is a cross section of a court wall, viewed from one end. There is a stone ring set high above the playing area, half way down the court, with another on the opposite side of the court in the same position. The high steep slope of the North Court's wall, with a ring set far above the playing area, makes the North Ball Court unlike either the South or East  Ball Courts of Xochicalco. However, it closely resembles a Zapotec court at Monte Alban in Oaxaca and the great Maya ball court at Chichen Itza in Yucatan. This once again shows Xochicalco's multicultural mix, with Teotihuacán, Maya, and Zapotec influences.



The stone rings now lie on the ground in the middle of the court. Passing a ball through the hole in the tlachtemalacatl (ring) was one way of scoring. The hard rubber balls used on this court could not have been much larger than a grapefruit, given the size of the rings. The rules for play are not known, except through interpretations of paintings and carvings showing players in action. Apparently, it was forbidden to use hands or feet to move the ball. Only the player's hips and chest could be used. Given that the rings were set into the walls at least 3 m (10 ft) above the field, scoring must have been difficult. Total scores were probably quite low, although the a game would sometimes be played from dawn to sunset. The players wore protective helmets and thick leather armor called yokes around their waists. Even with this amount of protection, the heavy balls sometimes caused injuries and even death.


Marker, found at the North Ball Court. The sculpture was carved in a semi-circular shape and set into place using the rectangular post at the bottom. At the center of the marker is a Zapotec glyph containing the left profile of a face with the eye closed, a symbol representing death. Around the face is a box and below it are two parallel lines. In the Zapotec numeric system the lines represent the number 10. On either side of the face is a foot and surrounding all this are scrolls and a feathered head dress. The glyph has been interpreted as "10 Death". The semi-circular shape imitates the course of the sun through the day. The sculpture was apparently placed so that the sun would pass through it at sunset, the "death" of the day. This may have marked the end of the game.


Carved decorations in the form of conch shells lined the top of the walls. The shell is one of a number of aquatic symbols found in the area of the ball court, the Temescal, and the water system. All of these symbols are related to Tlaloc, the Rain God. The games, therefore, were a critical part of the effort by the priestly elite to encourage Tlaloc to continue the cyclical rains and thus ensure good harvests. It should also be noted that conches are a symbol linking Tlaloc with Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. He was the god who provided humanity with maiz (corn) and is further linked to Ehecatl, the Wind God who pushes the rain so that it arrives to nourish the fields. The belief that the priestly elite could intercede with the gods to ensure good harvests was the key to their power in Xochicalco's society.


The Temescal 

The Temescal sits atop the west end of the ball court's south wall. Steam baths have health benefits and can be pleasurable, but the primary purpose of the Temescal was religious purification. Those who were allowed to participate in these rites were the ball players and some important members of the elite. The walls of the steam bath were constructed from adobe and covered with stone. The roof was flat and supported by wooden rafters. The opening seen above was both an entrance and a channel which connects to the nearby water system.


The Temescal's entrance leads to a tub. At the back of the sweat lodge is a combustion room used to heat rocks. When the rocks were hot enough, they were sprinkled with water from the tub to produce the steam. Intense, steamy heat can produce trance-like or hallucinogenic experiences. During these, the participants apparently communed with the forces of the cosmos.


Carved conches were among the Temescal's decorations. The connection with water--and Tlaloc--is even more explicit here than in the ball court. Tlaloc is one of the oldest gods of the pre-hispanic pantheon. Appeals to a God of Rain are no doubt as old as agriculture itself. Tlaloc is probably pre-dated only by Huehueteotl, the God of Fire.


Another aquatic decoration found in the Temescal. This resembles one the "sand dollars" that can be found along the Pacific Coast. Sand dollars are the calcium carbonate shells of Clypeasteroida, an order of sea urchins. Conches and other sea shells were imported from the Pacific Coast along the trade routes dominated by Xochicalco. It is probable that these decorations were modeled on shells collected from the coastal beaches of Guerrero. That area was dominated at the time by Xihuacán, a trade partner of Xochicalco during the Epi-Classic era (650 AD - 900 AD).


Xochicalco's Water System

Examples of the drainpipes used in Xochicalco's water system. A drain pipe may seem pedestrian in comparison to exotic wall carvings or beautifully wrought jade jewelry. However the items above are just as emblematic of the creativity of Xochicalco's people as any luxury goods crafted by the city's artisans. In fact, the city's water system is one of its most remarkable features. Channeling and collecting water was important. It removed moisture from the roofs and patios of the various structures, preventing deterioration and water damage, a problem even of modern structures.


Water was channeled to this cistern from the Plaza Principal's structures. About half-way up the cistern wall on the left, you can see an opening. When the level in this cistern was approaching full, a plug would be removed so the water could be channeled to another, slightly lower cistern. When it flowed, the water spread out into a beautiful fan-shape, before dropping into the lower cistern. Another reason for the water system's importance was the scarcity of water sources on top of the mountain where Xochicalco was constructed. There were few, if any, springs that ran year round. Water could be brought from the lake to the south of the city, but there were no draft animals in North America at that time. The jugs would have had to be carried by hand for a considerable distance.



The lower cistern has two levels. Between this cistern and the one feeding it, a considerable amount of water could be collected for the use of the elite groups who lived on the upper levels of Xochicalco. It is unclear whether any of the common people had access to this water supply, but I would guess probably not. These cisterns were well within the areas of the city restricted to the elite.


Enjoying a cool dip. This drawing of a glyph shows an elite figure kicking back in one of the cisterns. Apparently they had recreational uses as well as a practical ones. Water was also channeled to the Temescal, so there were religious functions too. The entire water system was designed in advance of the construction of the city, which shows an extraordinary capacity to anticipate future problems and develop effective engineering solutions to overcome them.


The Observatory

Entrance to an underground passage leading to a celestial Observatory. Just to the west of the North Ball Court is a small, grassy plaza. The Observatory's entrance is located in the southeast corner at the top of a flight of stairs. From there, a set of tunnels leads to a chamber used for astronomical purposes. To gain access to the tunnel's mouth, you must pass through the North Ball Court from east to west. This symbolically connects the ball court with celestial observations. Processions of ancient astronomers, bedecked with feathered costumes and accompanied by flutes and drums, probably followed this route, which also marks the direction of the sun's movement from east to west. The route may further represent Quetzalcoatl's famous journey into Xibalba (the underworld) to recover the bones from which humanity was created.


Diagram of the tunnel system. The stairs are toward the bottom and the observatory is designated by the small circle at the top left of the tunnel. The tunnel system is much too extensive to be simply a passage to the small room used as the observatory. These passages may have provided space for other rituals, possibly related to Xibalba. Alternatively, they could have served for the storage of items, possibly food, that needed a constant cool temperature.


The main tunnel is surprisingly large. There is enough room here for several tall people to walk abreast in a fully upright posture. The passages were cut from the solid rock base under the Acropolis and Plaza Principal. A huge amount of work was necessary to remove all this rock. This is particularly true because only rock, wood, or bone tools were available. There is no evidence that metal tools had reached Xochicalco before it was abandoned in 900 AD.


The "chimney" by which the celestial observations were made. Although it resembles a chimney, channeling smoke was not its purpose. The hexagonally-shaped tube extends up into the Acropolis complex. The zenith of the sun occurs as it passes toward the Tropic of Cancer and then returns several months later. This happens between the 14th/15th of May and the 28th/29th of July. The shaft is designed so that when the sun is at its zenith, a hexagonal beam of light is projected down the chimney onto the center of the floor of the chamber. Recent analysis suggests that lunar eclipses can be predicted by using the tube to detect disturbances in the moon's movement close to the end of its cycles. The capacity to accurately predict the cycles of astronomical events enabled the priest-rulers to set the proper dates for planting and harvesting, as well as for other important cyclical events and their associated festivals. This demonstrated to the common people that the elite could at least predict, if not control, these cyclical occurrences. It is interesting to note that similar astronomical "chimneys" exist at the Zapotec capital of Monte Alban, and at the Matlazinca city of Calixtlahuaca.


Several additional tunnels pock the north wall. Their entrances were blocked, so we couldn't explore them. However, the diagram seen previously indicates that they do not connect with the observatory's tunnel system. Archaeologists speculate that these tunnels may have been used as quarries to provide material to build some of Xochicalco's structures. After the city was completed, they may have served as storage spaces.


The Polychrome Altar

The Polychrome Altar sits against the north wall, adjacent to the Temescal. The chamber containing the altar represents only about 20% of the original structure. This area was reconstructed, in part, to protect the altar seen above. Another purpose was to exhibit the ancient methods of stone masonry and roofing. The altar shows the talud y tablero style originating in Teotihuacán, from which at least some of Xochicalco's founders originated. The talud is the sloping lower wall of the altar, while the tablero is the vertical rectangular surface above it. Teotihuacán's influence was far reaching and, as a result, the talud y tablero style appears throughout Mesoamerica.


The Polychrome Altar gets it name from the traces of paint on its surface. The parallel wavy blue lines spaced vertically along the talud's surface may represent rippling water. The rectangular tablero area above the talud is also outlined with blue paint. In addition, a close examination shows some traces of red paint. This all indicates that the altar was once brightly painted in multiple colors, thus the name. Since both the nearby Temescal and water system are closely connected to Tlaloc, as is the North Ball Court, it is likely the altar was used for rituals dedicated to him.

This completes Part 8 of my Xochicalco series. I will finish this series with Part 9, when we will look at the East Ball Court Ceremonial Complex. I hope you enjoyed this posting and, if so, you will leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below. You can also email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim