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.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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