Friday, June 29, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 15: Dzbilichaltún's Cenote, Ball Court, and Colonial-era ruins

Xlacah Cenote is located at the southwest corner of the Great Plaza. The name Xlacah means "Old Town" or "Old People." Cenote is a Spanish corruption of the Maya word dzonot, meaning "well." In ancient times, cenotes were the sole reliable sources of clean, fresh water in NW Yucatan. The initial settlement of this area more than 2000 years ago was probably due to this readily available water. The name Xlacah seems to support that view. Cenotes in NW Yucatan are associated with the Chicxulub Crater, created when a massive meteorite struck the northwest coast about 65 million years ago. The impact caused the worldwide extinction of the dinosaurs and other species, but there were some positive aspects. Along the curved edge of the crater, the limestone base underlying most of the Yucatan Peninsula was cracked, allowing water to further penetrate the already porus limestone. Eventually, trickling water undermined the limestone platform. These weakened areas collapsed into sinkholes, opening up underground pools and rivers that became cenotes. In this, the last of my four postings on Dzibilchaltún, I'll show you the Xlacah Cenote, the Ball Court, and the remains of some interesting Colonial-era buildings.

Once a sacred site, this is now a popular swimming hole. A Mexican tourist enjoys the cool water on a hot Yucatan day. There are no life guards, so swimming is at your own risk. The oval-shaped pool is about 30.5 m (100 ft.) at its widest point. Various groups of divers have attempted to find the bottom since the 1950s. They managed to reach a depth of 44 m (144 ft), but no one has yet found the bottom. The divers did find numerous objects made of wood, bone, and stone, as well as fragments of pottery. A number of human skeletons were also found, but it is unclear whether these were sacrifices or possibly drownings that occurred over the centuries. Some of the objects seem to have been offerings, so it is believed that this was a sacred site, not just a source of potable water.

Mouth of a small cave near the cenote. The photo above shows how a seemingly solid platform of limestone can be undermined by water leakage. The Maya believed that caves were openings into the mystical underworld, and they were especially important if they contained water. Chaac was the rain god and the Maya believed he lived in cenotes and water-filled caves. If the appropriate ceremonies and rituals were performed, accompanied with the correct offerings, Chaac would send water from the cenote or cave up to the skies to form rain. For  an agriculture-based society, this was an extremely important process. In addition, caves were closely associated with sexuality and fertility. The entrance of a cave represented the vagina and the cave itself the womb. Still another view of caves concerned life and death. That which emerged from a cave represented life, and that which descended into one represented death.

Dzibilichaltún as archaeologists found it.

This large conical pile of rubble was once part of a temple. Just outside the southwest corner of the Great Plaza are several large rocky mounds. This one has a group of sisal plants growing at its peak. The stone heap is probably 6-9 m (20-30 ft) high. Mounds like this are what archaeologists typically find when they locate a new site. A layman walking through the jungle would probably pass right by, without a second thought. It would be even easier to overlook the thousands of smaller ruins that dot the area. There are 8400 structures within the 25.7 square kilometers (16 sq. mi) of Dzibilchaltún, and the vast majority are unexcavated.

A partially restored temple, its top still covered by rubble. This temple is located near the western end of the Palace (see Part 14). There was no evidence of on-going work, so the restoration project may have run out of money or time. In many cases, large trees have taken root on top of ruins like this. Over the centuries, the jungle has reclaimed an area once swarming with human activity.

Tourists clamber over the ruins. In many of Mexico's major sites, tourists would be barred from clambering over ruined structures like this. The authorities of INAHA, the Mexican agency concerned with archaeological sites, are concerned about touritst safety, but also about the structural integrity of the ruin. I included this shot because the people help provide a sense of scale on this once-large temple.

Wildlife abounds in Yucatan. This iguana peeped up at me from a pile of rubble as I passed by. The iguanas at Dzibilchaltún seem fairly tame, probably because they are used to tourists and protected by the site staff. There 180 species of reptiles and amphibians native to Yucatan. The one above may be a Spiny Tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura defensor) which is found only in Western Yucatan.

The Ball Court

Carole and Denis approach the ball court. The view above is of the north end of the ball court. Two features found almost universally at Mesoamerican ruins are stepped pyramids and ball courts. Both kinds of structures date back to that "Mother of Cultures", the early Olmecs. Dzibilchatún's court is located a short distance to the southwest of the Palace. Its size is modest compared to the huge ball court found at Chichen Itza, but this one is still of respectable dimensions. Some ancient cities had multiple courts, but we didn't see any others during our visit. Still, they may well have been there, given the long occupancy of Dzibilchaltún and the number of unexcavated rubble piles scattered through the surrounding jungle.

The court shows many of the features found in such Mesoamerican structures, but lacks others. Here, you are looking north, from the south end of the court. The playing field, as usual, consists of a long rectangular grassy area along with the two sloping stone walls that parallel it. Spectators would have sat along the flat tops of the stone walls. However, this ball court's playing field doesn't appear to incorporate the areas at each end. In the design of many other ball courts, these areas would correspond to the short cross pieces at the top and bottom of a capital "I", but the cross pieces are missing in this court's design. At Chichen Itza and Uxmalthere are large stone rings mounted, one on each wall, through which players would have tried to propel the hard rubber ball. There are no such rings on the Dzibilchaltún court's walls. No sign was available at the sight to explain these differences, and there was no mention of this ball court in any of the on-line or printed materials I researched.

A stairway mounts the rear of each of the Ball Court's sloping walls. This would have allowed spectators to ascend to the level area where they could stand or sit along the top of the sloping walls. The ball games functioned as much more than simple entertainment. They held deep religious significance and were directly related to the Maya origin myth. The games were also used as a way to settle conflicts, sort of a combination of a Super Bowl and a Supreme Court hearing, with a High Mass thrown in for good measure.

Just beyond the ball court were more ruins. These were scattered through the forest off into the distance and may have been residential.

Remains of stucco surfacing. The ancient Maya often paved the surfaces of their plazas and sacbes (roads) with stucco made of limestone paste. The surface seen above can be found near the north entrance of the ball court. Leaves have drifted into shallow depressions in the stucco. Oddly, this prosaic pavement gave me more of a feeling of connection with these ancient people than their great temples and pyramids. I felt I was literally walking in the footsteps of those who passed this way thousands of years ago.

The Colonial-era ruins at Dzibilichaltún

In the center of the Great Plaza stand the ruins of a Colonial-era chapel. Dzibilchatún was a still-functioning Maya city when the Spanish arrived. As late as the period between 1590 and 1600, there were enough people living in and around the ancient city for church authorities to build a chapel here. The usual Spanish practice was to build such a church directly on top of an existing temple or pyramid, in order to firmly establish the dominance of the New Order. In this case, they built their chapel in the center of the Great Plaza, surrounded by all those ancient structures. However, they did cannibalize materials from the old buildings to construct their new church. The ruins seen above are the barrel vault of the presbytery with an altar in the back. Attached on the left (north) side is a small room that served as the sacristy. Extending out into the grassy area is a line of stone which was part of the foundation of the open-air nave.

The chapel, as it may have looked in early colonial times. The nave was open-aired, with a thatched roof supported by poles. This kind of simple structure was known as an "Indians' chapel". Under its thatched canopy, the Maya were taught the elements of their conquerors' religion. The nave is, of course, long gone due to the perishable materials with which it was constructed.

The presbytery containing the altar beneath the barrel vault. Above the altar, you can see two niches, no doubt containing religious statues when the chapel was functioning.

The "Priest's House" lies just north of the chapel. I wasn't certain whether this was colonial or pre-hispanic until I saw the arched window (left). Since the Maya never achieved the true arch in their architecture, this was definitely the house where Franciscan friars stayed during their circuits through the area. Found inside the house was a piece of stone carved with the date 1539. The significance of the stone's date is unknown, but the military part of the Conquest of Yucatan was in full swing at that time. Mérida wasn't founded as the colonial capital until 1542.

Gate to a Colonial-era corral. At one time, Dzibilchaltún was part of a hacienda that apparently raised cattle and horses. In the background, the massive stairway of the Palace rises to its top platform, lined with 35 doorways. I wondered what a colonial vaquero (cowboy) might have thought of the great temples and palaces standing silently around him as he tended his herds.

This completes Part 15 of my NW Yucatan series, and is the last of four segments on Dzibilchaltún. I am proud of this four-part subseries, since it may represent the most comprehensive record of this ancient city available on the internet. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to provide feedback, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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