Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Chiapas Part 15: Toniná, the Maya warrior kingdom

Temple of the Smoking Mirror stands on the seventh or topmost level of Toniná's Acropolis. One of the goals during our visit to Chiapas was to see and photograph Toniná, one of the most militarily aggressive of the Classic-era Maya city-states. In fact, it was this warrior kingdom that finally conquered much-better-known Palenque, located about 64 km (40 mi) to the northeast. Palenque fell in 730 AD, after a bitter 26-year war. Toniná is also famous for its stone sculptures of war captives, carved "in-the-round." In addition, the city contains a monument carved with the last known date from the Maya Long Count Calendar. Archaeologists consider that date, 909 AD, to mark the end of the Classic Era Maya world. After that, the jungles of Chiapas and Guatemala gradually swallowed up the monuments of Toniná and all the other once-glittering Maya cities. Most of those Classic Era centers were not unearthed for almost a thousand years.

The Overview

Toniná sits on a hill with a panoramic view of the surrounding valley and mountains. A lone vaquero (cowboy) rides across an emerald pasture that is typical of the country surrounding the ancient ruins. The grey limestone with which the city was constructed causes it to almost disappear in the haze. In ancient times, the city was vividly painted and would have been clearly visible from a great distance. The Toniná ruins are open Tuesday through Sunday, 9AM - 4PM, and there is a fee of $46 pesos ($3.53 USD) to enter.

The late afternoon sun lights up the limestone in this telephoto shot, looking from east to west. The city rises in a series of stepped  platforms. At the extreme left is the Great Plaza. There are temples in the middle, on the first several levels moving toward the right. The main pyramids and palaces are at the highest levels on the far right. The top of the Temple of the Smoking Mirror, the highest pyramid on the Acropolis, reaches 80 m (262) above the Plaza level. By contrast, the huge Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan is 75 m (246 ft) tall. However, the Acropolis encompasses many temples and pyramids, while Teotihuacan's pyramid is a single massive structure.

A scale model from the Toniná museum gives a clear picture of the layout of the city. Carving out the broad Plaza area from the hill was a colossal job. Then, it had to be leveled into an immense platform. A small river snakes along the right (eastern) side of the platform's base. It would have provided much of the city's water. Seven more levels were added to create the Acropolis on the north end of the Plaza, each level with its own temples, palaces, and pyramids. On the lower right of the model is Ball Court 1, built in 699 AD. Ball Court 1 is a sunken area in the shape of a capital I. To the left of the Ball Court, in the lower center of the photo, is the two-level Temple of the Cosmic War. At the northern end of the Plaza, just in front of the first level of the Acropolis, are two low parallel structures. These are the sides of Ball Court 2. On the right-hand side of the Plaza, the wall of the first level platform makes a sharp right angle turn. Above the angle is a small temple with three doors. These doors are the entrances to the Temple of the Underworld, a labyrinth of passages and stairways leading up to the second and third levels of the Acropolis. On the right-hand (eastern) side of the third and fourth levels are the lavish palaces of the nobility, priesthood, and military leaders. The structures on the left (western) side of the third and fourth levels are the more austere quarters of ordinary warriors and middle-level functionaries. On the very top are the Temple of the Smoking Mirror, and to its west, the Temple of War.

View of stepped platforms at the rear of the Acropolis.  From the very bottom level of the museum's model, up to the base of the pyramids on the top, I counted thirteen platforms. Each of the seven levels (eight, counting the Plaza) is comprised of several of these stepped platforms. There are also thirteen temples on the Acropolis and, significantly, thirteen levels of heaven in Maya cosmology. All this construction happened by stages over several centuries, of course. What we see today is only the last stage of construction, built between 650-900 AD. The structures erected during the Early Classic period (400-650 AD) are buried underneath it. In ancient Mesoamerica, most of the great edifices conceal numerous earlier, smaller structures. Rather than build from the ground up, the ancient people used the previous buildings as a base, thus saving themselves a lot of work.

The Approach

The ruins lie several miles away from a small town across the gently rolling Ocosingo Valley. Smoke from the town of Ocosingo can be seen in the top center of the photo. The town is approximately 14 km (8.7 mi) away on a road suitable for street vehicles. Today, the valley around the ruins is used today primarily for pasturing horses and cattle, but in ancient Mesoamerica there were no large domesticated animals. The fields you see above would probably have been filled with maiz (corn) and dotted with the homes and villages of commoners. A large agricultural surplus would have been necessary to feed the elites who lived in the Acropolis area. Recent excavations indicate that Toniná may have been much larger than archaeologists previously thought, with roads extending out to other large structures on nearby hills.

As we walked along a path to the ruin, a trio of horses grazed contentedly on lush grass. This is definitely the country for them. In fact, local vaqueros hang around the parking area with saddled horses, hoping to rent them to tourists. The horses were beautiful, especially in this setting, and I couldn't resist a quick photo. We didn't rent any rides however. The walk from the car-park to the ruin is only a few hundred yards and, besides, Carole is not a great fan of horseback riding, particularly after our arduous 7-hour horseback trek to Paracutin Volcano.

The Ocosingo Valley is in the heart of Zapatista country. This sign stands just outside the ruins. Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) is known in English as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or Zapatistas for short. It is named after the great Emiliano Zapata, who was the foremost social revolutionary of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Allied with Pancho Villa's forces in the north, Zapata fought for a social transformation of Mexico, where the poor and dispossessed could achieve Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty). In the end, both Zapata and Villa were assassinated by former Revolutionary allies who didn't want to transform Mexico as much as they wanted to enjoy for themselves the fruits of the Revolution's victory. Many Mexicans, particularly the poor, have revered Zapata ever since. The EZLN burst upon the scene on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect. For a short period they seized and occupied San Cristóbal de las Casas before withdrawing to a number of what they describe as "autonomous communities." The Zapatista movement is deeply connected to Maya culture and social history and seeks to win autonomy and control over traditional lands and resources in Chiapas. They see themselves as part of the struggle against global corporate domination and the destruction of indigenous cultures. Opposing them are large landowners and their allies in the Mexican government. Some of these landowners are foreign corporations and some are Ladinos (wealthy non-Maya Mexicans). There have been sporadic outbursts of violence since 1994, mostly against the Zapatista communities. However, for a considerable time now, an uneasy truce has been maintained. During our visit, both Carole and I felt an underlying tension that we have not experienced anywhere else in Mexico. On the poster above, Emiliano Zapata is shown on the left, Cuban Revolutionary Che Guevara is in the center, and Subcomandante Marcos (leader of the Zapatistas) is on the right.

A small stream snakes along the east side of the platform of the Great Plaza. Just after the EZLN sign, we crossed a small wooden bridge and entered the forest surrounding the ruins. In ancient times, water from this stream would have been carried up to the Acropolis in clay pots carried on the heads of an endless line of servants or slaves. It would have been a never-ending task, because--to the best of my knowledge--there are no other water sources on the hill above. By contrast, Toniná's rival city-state, Palenque, took advantage of a stream running through the middle of their temple/palace complex. They dug it out and lined it with flat stones, creating a paved channel for a considerable distance. In that way, the flow of water regulated, and flooding from the stream was reduced. By constricting the flow of the stream so that it shot up in a 2 m (6 ft) gush, the Palenque builders actually produced the only known Maya fountain. Toniná produced no similar civil engineering achievement, but it did have plenty of slaves captured in its incessant wars. The rulers would get their water, one way or another.

A long set of stone steps leads up to the Great Plaza. A Maya woman carefully sweeps the stairs to prepare them for the day's tourists. This view gives you an idea of the height of the platform on which the Plaza sits above the surrounding lands. Part of the height was achieved by the natural rise of the land, but a good deal of it was built up. Although Toniná is an impressive site, it is much less well-known than Palenque and consequently gets far fewer visitors. Many tourists on the way from San Cristóbal to Palenque pass through Ocosingo (about 1/2 way between) with little sense of what they are missing if they fail to take the short detour to Toniná.

The Great Plaza

The various levels of the Acropolis are reached by central staircases. As I approached, I felt some of the awe which must have been experienced by ancient visitors as they faced the magnificent complex from the broad open spaces of the Great Plaza. This is exactly what the builders and their royal masters intended. In those earlier times, the structures would have been brilliantly painted and thronged with people in elaborate costumes and spectacular feathered head dresses. Archaeologists have so far found 93 structures on the Acropolis, including temples, altars, palaces, administrative quarters, tombs, and pyramids. Buried underneath are structures from the Early Classic period. This has created difficulties in understanding the earlier time. The Early Classic ruins are difficult to access without disturbing the later constructions. Consequently, Toniná's history prior to the middle of the 7th Century AD is fragmentary.

View of the Great Plaza from the top of the Acropolis, looking southeast. The platform on which the Great Plaza sits, and which includes the area under the Acropolis, covers 6 hectares (650,000 sq ft), an immense area. In the upper left quadrant of the photo is the sunken Ball Court 1, with the small Altar of Sacrifices slightly to its right. I was standing not far from this Altar when I took the previous photo of the Acropolis. In the upper right quadrant is a grass-covered mound with a row of altars in front of it. This is the ruin of the Temple of the Cosmic War. Hidden under the trees in the lower left quadrant is the Palace of the Underworld. At the extreme lower right are the parallel sides of Ball Court 2.

Ball Court 2 is sited just in front of the Acropolis' first level platform. The court was open at each end, as is often the case for Maya ball courts. The upper, or southern, parallel side of the court contains a row of five altars. There may have once been a sixth on the far right. Although smaller than Ball Court 1, its placement is such that thousands of spectators could view the game while using the staircases and platforms of the Acropolis like stadium bleachers. Archaeologists believe Ball Court 2 was constructed in 517 AD, placing it in the middle of the Early Classic period. It is much smaller and less elaborate than Ball Court 1, built 182 years later.

Altar of Sacrifices and the Temple of the Cosmic War. These two structures are located toward the south end of the Great Plaza platform. The Altar of Sacrifices, in the foreground, is only about 10 m (30 ft) from the edge of the sunken Ball Court 1. Its location indicates that it was almost certainly associated with the activities there. The Altar was used for human sacrifices, probably by decapitation. War captives would have been the usual victims. In a future posting of this series, I will show some of Toniná's many sculptures of kneeling captives, their arms bound and their heads lowered in postures of submission. Some of the statues are headless, indicating they have been decapitated. The Temple of the Cosmic War stands in the background of the photo. This temple was built in two stages. The grassy mound is the ruin of the oldest part, probably from the Early Classic period. The stone temple just barely visible on top of the mound was built in 692 AD (the Late Classic Era). The row of five altars across the front (north) side was probably built at the same time. Each of the altars had a disk in front of it identifying it with a particular god. To date, I have been unable to locate information about which gods were worshiped at the Cosmic War Temple or how it got its name. If anyone can provide such information, please leave a comment below.

Ball Court 2

Ball Court 1 was built in a style used throughout Mesoamerica for millennia. The court is shaped like a capital I, with the main playing area in between two walls that slope down to long, low rectangular platforms, also part of the area of play. At each end of the court, there are rectangular spaces shaped like the cross pieces at the top and bottom of a capital I. They would also have been part of the playing area. However, these "cross piece" areas are unusually large, in my experience, and may have been intended for ceremonial purposes before or after the game. The entire floor of the playing area is cobbled with stone.

Another view of court, showing the large, cobblestoned, "cross piece" area. The walls of this sunken area, and its counterpart on the south end, are stepped down, making plenty of space for spectator seating. Ball Court 1 sits right at the eastern edge of the Great Plaza's platform. Behind the trees in the upper left corner of the photo, the land drops down sharply to the stream seen in photo #9 above.  Toniná's Ball Court 1 is important for several reasons. It was closely associated with the long war against Palenque. Built in 699 AD by K'inich B'aaknal Chaak, Toniná's greatest ruler, the dedication of the court celebrated three victories over Palenque's ruler K'inich Kan Balam II. Sculptures of captives representing real people were placed on the sloping walls in the center of the playing court. One of the captives has been identified as Yax Ahk (Green Turtle) who was a nobleman from the city of Annay Te', an ally of Palenque located on the Usumacinta River. It is very likely that Yax Ahk was decapitated on the nearby Altar of Sacrifices.

A sculpture of a bound captive and two snake monsters decorate each side of the court. They were apparently used as playing field markers, or scoring counters. The ones seen above are recreations of originals now kept in the Toniná museum. Another reason this ball court is important, even unique, involves the Popul Vuh. It was the sacred book of the ancient Maya. The Popul Vuh describes the history, cosmology, and creation myths of the ancient Maya world. Recent discoveries of six snake head ball game markers buried in the nearby Temple of the Underworld have led Mexico's archaeologists to conclude that the ball court famously described in the Popul Vuh is in fact the one at Toniná.

A bound captive stares glumly down from the Ball Court wall. This is a replica of a sculpture kept in the Toniná museum. The man is naked except for a loin-cloth and earrings. His arms are bound behind him and there is also a rope across his thighs, He kneels on a large rectangular shield on which is inscribed his name, Chan-Maas, and the date of his capture. Another sculpture is of Sak B'alam, a noble of Palenque who was captured sometime between 688 and 699 AD. Almost certainly, both of these men were sacrificed. As recently as 2011, more sculptures of captives have been found just to the south of Ball Court 1. Two of those are especially well crafted, although who they actually represent is in dispute. Mexican archaeologists believe that the two were warriors from far-away Copan, in Honduras. In the Classic Era, a great superpower rivalry existed between the states of Tikal in modern-day Guatemala and Calakmul in modern Mexico's Yucatan. Each of these ancient superpowers had allies and client states, much like the United States and the old Soviet Union. In this complex struggle, Toniná was allied with Calakmul while Palenque was allied with Tikal. Tikal's ally Copan sent warriors all the way to Palenque to support that city-state in its struggle with Toniná. The fortunes of war and superpower politics led to the capture of these two Copan warriors. They were probably decapitated on the Altar of Sacrifices as a prelude to another of the games played in Ball Court 1.

Closeup of Ball Court 1 snake monster. The snake heads represent astronomical movements such as solstices and equinoces. To the Maya, astronomy, mathematics, and religion were intricately related, and the ball game was played as a part of a variety of rituals which kept the world on track. According to archaeologist Juan Yadeun, "serpents refer to the scepter of the rulers, considered lords of the maiz (corn), those who held the knowledge of the agricultural cycle, farming and harvest times, which only could be calculated by reading the sky."

South end of Ball Court 1. Here, you can clearly see the "stadium seating" design of the sunken court's walls. In addition to keeping the world from careening off the tracks, the ball game had other functions. It was often associated with the celebration of major events such as military victories or the accession of a new ruler. There are also some reports of its use as a device for settling disputes. Finally, there is the basic human enjoyment of exciting spectacles and the desire by rulers to display their magnificence. Since nearly every ancient Maya city had at least one ball court, and some had several, the game was clearly a central cultural feature across the entire society.

The base of a pillar is set into the middle of the south end of the court. Several sources have identified this disk-like object, with a groove around its edge, as the base of a pillar. The location of a pillar at this point puzzled me, because it would have significantly interfered with the free movement of players at the south end of the court. I have seen Maya and other Mesoamerican ball courts all over Mexico and Guatemala, but never one with this feature. The Mesoamerican game has very ancient roots. The earliest court yet discovered dates to 1400 BC. That was 2100 years before Ball Court 1 was dedicated. The game may have been invented by the Olmecs, sometimes called the "Mother of Cultures". The Olmec society, which existed between 1400 BC and 400 BC, developed many of the religious, cultural, and architectural features that were characteristic of Mesoamerican societies for 3000 years. These included not only the ball game, but stepped pyramids, ritual human sacrifice, and the worship of the plumed serpent god, called Kulkulkan by the Maya.

The Sport of Kings. This beautifully carved stone panel found on one of the upper levels of the Acropolis. It depicts two players in a titanic struggle, with an oversized ball between them. The player shown above is Toniná's most famous ruler, K'inich B'aaknal Chaak. I will examine this panel extensively in a future posting, but I include it here as an example of the equipment and protective gear used by players. Some of the items shown are of exaggerated size or were only used ceremonially. The ball shown on the right is much larger than the ones actually used. They ranged in size from a softball to a soccer ball and were made of a stone covered by hard rubber. Some of these  balls have been found to weigh as much as 9 kg (20 lbs). The royal player above wears a protective yoke around his waist. These were ordinarily made of padded leather, but yokes used in ceremonies were often made of stone. The yoke was necessary because a player could be injured or even killed if struck in the abdomen by the heavy ball. The king's knees are protected by fringed pads strapped around his calves, and he wears high-backed sandals on his feet. The fluid energy and power of this wonderful carving shows it to be one of the Maya masterpieces.

This completes Part 15 of my Chiapas series. Next week, I will continue with at look at the various altars, temples, and palaces that make up the Acropolis. I always appreciate feedback and corrections, so if you would like to make a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim