Sunday, November 17, 2013

Chiapas Part 17: The palaces, temples, and pyramids of Toniná's upper Acropolis

The Temple of the Earth Monster is adorned with a distinctive roof comb. Under the palm-frond palapa just to the right of center is the Shrine of the Earth Monster, seen in my last posting. The Temple  is located on the eastern side of the sixth level of Toniná's Acropolis and is entered by the doorway at the center of the photo. Roof combs were decorative elements found atop temples and pyramids throughout the Maya world. They were often used to hang large relief carvings of kings or gods which could be seen from a long distance.  In this posting, we'll look at the palaces used as elite residences and administrative centers and at some of the thirteen temples located on the various levels. For a site map of the Acropolis, click here.

The palaces of the elite

Palace of the Grecas and of War.  The palace is located just above the Wall of the Grecas. The Venus throne is located under the palapa at the upper right. Both of those impressive structures can be seen in my previous posting. This building was one of Toniná's chief administrative centers. Within these walls, busy officials attended to the city state's business, accounted for tribute, and performed other administrative functions for the ruler. The structure's name also indicates a connection with war. The elite warriors may have met here to plot strategy in their long campaign against Palenque, the traditional enemy, as well as against other cities in Chiapas and the surrounding lowlands.

Seen from above, the residential compounds of the palace complex resemble a maze. Our guide (above), was a very nice young fellow from San Cristóbal de las Casas. He was quite nimble in moving up, down, and around the Acropolis. Unfortunately, he spoke no English and my Spanish is insufficient for anything as sophisticated as archeological questions. He did show me the various structures and sculptures, for which I was grateful because I could have easily missed some on my own. Keep in mind that what you see above is just one small section. The door at the top center leads to yet another maze, and so on.

Looking back through the door to the section seen previously. The structure of the doorway shows how a corbel, or "false," arch is built. Stone slabs are placed closer and closer together as the door rises until a long lintel can complete the top. The Maya architects never achieved the true arch. This meant that their walls had to be especially thick and the rooms long and narrow. I could only pass through this door by stooping slightly. The ancient Maya, like their modern counterparts, were of fairly short stature. The lower part of the wall at the left is still covered by a layer of plaster. Brightly painted plaster or stucco would have covered most of the rough stonework we see today.

One of the palaces had a long porch supported by large pillars. While I have seen round pillars in Maya sites such as Uxmal and elsewhere, the only ones I saw at Toniná were square in shape. Long pillared porches are still a staple in Mexican architecture. These provide protection from rain and sun and allow a great deal of outdoor living.

Small, square windows line the exterior wall of a palace. The windows are fairly high up and only about .3 m square (1 ft. sq) each. The interior of most palace rooms must have been dark and gloomy since the doors are generally small and a lot of rooms have no windows at all. However, the use of these spaces would likely have been for storage or sleeping or protection from rainstorms. During the day, outdoor living would have been the rule since the climate is generally mild in this part of the world. The various terraces and porches of the Acropolis would have provided ample space to conduct life's daily routines. On days when the heat might become oppressive, people could retreat to the cool dim rooms, protected by the insulation of their thick stone walls. Conversely, on cool rainy days, the rooms could be easily warmed with a small fires.

Many of the residential rooms were equipped with platforms like this one. These appear to have been sleeping platforms, with ample space underneath for storage. Some rooms have two or more such platforms. By modern standards, nearly all the rooms in the elite residential area are small. However, they were built of stone and are sturdy enough to have withstood the ravages of more than 1000 years. How many modern homes will still be standing after that length of time? The common person's home was called a nah and was made of sticks and mud. The only part of those perishable homes to have survived are the stone platforms on which they were built.

The owner of this apartment decorated a wall with painted stucco grecas. The lattice of Xs are a common Maya feature. Above the crosses are some repeated features called grecas that may be abstract, or may be animal faces turned sideways. Notice the red and blue paint, faded but still visible on the surface of the stucco.

This was an ancient toilet, according to our guide. The drain is now plugged with earth. If our guide is right, this is one of the few examples I have seen of "indoor plumbing" in a pre-hispanic site. The conquistadors under Hernán Cortéz reported that the Mexica (Aztecs) had a highly organized system of public restrooms from which the human waste was regularly collected for use as fertilizer on their chinampas (floating orchards and vegetable gardens). However, all that was destroyed in the Conquest.

A water cistern occupies the floor of another room in the residential complex. Storing water in easily breakable clay pots would have been problemactic. Using slaves from their various conquests, the elite could keep the cistern full with water carried up from the stream that flows along the base of the eastern boundary of Toniná (see Part 15 of this series).

A mysterious disk lies at one end of a long hallway. What its purpose might be remains a puzzle to me. However, a similar but smaller disk can be found at one end of Ball Court #1 on the Great Plaza (see Part 15). That disk has been identified as the base of a column. It is possible that this one might be for a similar purpose. Still, its location would be an odd place for a column. Once again, to my frustration, there was no informational sign in the area.

Temples of the upper Acropolis

A series of twisting stairways leads up from the palace levels to the temples above. Two open doorways with no lintels stand at the entrances of two temples on successive levels. Behind the upper doorway, you can make out the roof comb of the Temple of the Earth Monster on the next level above. Notice the small yellow footprint at the bottom of the stairway. These indicated safe routes up the Acropolis. Unfortunately, they are the only signs I found on the Acropolis.

Side view of the Earth Monster Temple, looking south. Here, you can see the roof comb more clearly. Notice the small windows in the side of the temple, typical of those found throughout the Acropolis complex. To the left of the Temple, on a lower level, you can see part of the palace complex we visited earlier in this posting. The people living and working on the upper levels of the Acropolis would have had magnificent views of the Valle de Ocosingo and the mountains of Chiapas' central highlands. Aside from the aesthetic aspect, enemies could be seen approaching from a considerable distance.

Roof comb of another structure to the west of the Earth Monster Temple. These roof combs reminded me of the board-and-cinderblock bookshelves I created as a young college student. In front, and to the right, are two more roofless  temples. The 13 temples on the Acropolis were each dedicated to a different god in the Maya pantheon. The number 13 was especially potent in the Maya cosmos: 13 principle gods, thirteen levels of heaven, and 13 months of 20 days each in the sacred 260-day calendar. It doesn't end there, but you get the idea.

A tree grows out of the top of this small, unnamed pyramid on the sixth level. The people of Toniná abandoned their city sometime after 909 AD. That was the last Long Count date inscribed on a Toniná monument, and the last such date found anywhere in the Maya World.  The fast-growing jungle immediately began to take over. For a thousand years, Toniná lay forgotten, empty, and overwhelmed by the forest. Foreigners finally began to poke around, beginning with early Spanish explorers, . However, it was not until the 19th Century that people began organized archaeological investigations. Explorers like John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood stopped by in the 1840s on their way to better known sites such as Palenque. Serious excavation didn't begin until the first part of the 20th Century. Significant discoveries are still being made, including some in 2013.

The Temple of War is one of two pyramids on the top level of the Acropolis. I took this shot from the top of the somewhat-taller Temple of the Smoking Mirror which sits a few feet to the east of the Temple of War. The Smoking Mirror Temple is associated with agriculture, among other things. Thus, the two temples represent the two most important functions of the ruler and the priests and warriors who surrounded him. Their top responsibilities were to ensure the proper functioning of the agricultural economy, and the successful conduct of warfare.  The bottom three levels of the War Temple are  relatively intact, but the upper levels have been largely destroyed. According to the model in the museum, there were three additional levels topped by a large roof comb. The two flights of stairs you see directly in front of you, on the east side of the Temple of War, each contain 9 steps, echoing the 9 levels of the underworld. On the north side, there are several other sets. The bottom of these contains 13 steps, a familiar number.

A workman carefully climbs the stairs on the north side of the Temple of War. Each riser is fairly high and the steps themselves are narrow. Missed footing could result in a nasty tumble resulting in serious injury or worse. Because of this, INAH has restricted access to many pre-hispanic pyramids and temples. Fortunately for my photography, this was not the case at Toniná.

This completes Part 17 of my Chiapas series. Next time we'll take a close look at the Temple of the Smoking Mirror and at some of the many stone and stucco sculptures found on the various levels.  I always appreciate feedback. If you'd like to leave a comment or have a question answered, please either use the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Great photos and commentary!

    (Incidentally, Battle of Celaya is misspelled.)

  2. Thanks for the correction! I always appreciate the sharp eyes of my blog fans.

    Best regards, Jim


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim