Friday, March 23, 2018

Cantona Part 2 of 4: The ancient city's unique Ball Game Clusters

Main pyramid of Ball Court Cluster #7, viewed from its right side. Archeologists have identified twenty-seven ball courts at Cantona. This represents more than twice as many as any other pre-hispanic city in Mesoamerica, most of which have only one to three courts. Another unique aspect of the city are its twelve "clusters". Each of these include a ball court, one or more pyramids, and one or two plazas, along with various platforms, altars, stelae, and other structures. Eight of the twelve clusters have been fully unearthed and I took hundreds of photos of them. I obviously couldn't use more than a fraction of my photos for this blog so I decided against walking you through each of the clusters. Instead, I will focus on Ball Court Cluster #7 because it is the largest and most complex example of Cantona's clusters. As I take you through this site, please keep in mind that there are eleven other clusters, and twenty-six other ball courts scattered around the 66 hectares (163 acres) of the Acropolis.


Schematic of Ball Court Cluster #7. This is the largest cluster at Cantona. At the very top (east end) is the main pyramid with two levels of staircases leading to its top. Below the pyramid is a large plaza containing a small altar. Cluster #7 contains two plazas and only two of the other clusters share that distinction. The second plaza is smaller than the first and is separated from it by a raised area with staircases that allow transit. The bottom area of the schematic, below the second plaza, is a complex section containing a long, narrow corridor in the shape of a capital "I", with three dots along its length. That is the ball court. Just below the ball court is a defensive fortification that appears like a kind of nipple extending down. In addition to its large number of ball courts and cluster arrangements, another unique feature of Cantona is its deliberate asymmetry. Most other pre-hispanic cities are symmetrically laid out along a strict north-south-east-west axis. Their layout is associated with astronomical cycles and religious beliefs about the four cardinal directions. At Cantona, not only is the overall urban layout asymmetrical, but the individual elements within the various clusters, including #7, also lack internal symmetry. Archeologists believe that this is a deliberate arrangement. The positions of astronomical bodies cyclicly change from one equinox or solstice to another, and the orientation of the various structures appears to reflect these changes. In this posting, I will take you through the schematic above, beginning at the very bottom, or west end, of the site. For a Google satellite view of Ball Court Cluster #7, click here.

The rectangular space above, enclosed by stone walls, is a defensive fortification. This structure, at the extreme west end of the cluster, was added some time after the other sections had been constructed. Such fortifications reflect a growing sense of threat, either from external sources or from internal unrest.  At the far end, you can see a long rectangular corridor with sloping sides, covered by reddish pine needles. That is the ball court.

The Ball Court complex

The ball court schematic. The defensive fortification is at the bottom and the playing field starts just above it and extends up in the shape of a capital I. On the left side of the schematic is a square, enclosed area called a recinto. On either side of the long corridor with the three dots are sloping walls, also part of the playing area. Spectators sat along the top of the sloping walls, as well as in some of the structures at the schematic's top (east end) that form the boundary with the smaller plaza.

Balls were made of hard rubber, obtained from trees growing in the hot, low, coastal areas. The Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC) have been called Mesoamerica's "Mother of Civilizations" because so much of pre-hispanic culture originated with them, including the ball game. Their homeland was the Gulf Coast, where the rubber was gathered to make the balls. From there, the game migrated, probably along Olmec trade routes. Eventually, versions of it came to be played as far south as Honduras and as far north as Arizona in the US. One version, called ulama is still played in Sinaloa, in modern Mexico. The balls of the ancient game varied from about the size of a grapefruit to that of a soccer ball (like the one above). Some ancient relief carvings and murals depict players using balls as big or bigger than a beach ball, but this was probably the result of artistic exaggeration. The balls were quite heavy and players had to wear thick, leather armor around their mid-sections and on their heads to avoid injury, or even death, if struck by a ball.

The playing area included both the flat rectangular corridor and the sloping walls. The "dots" on the schematic are revealed here as flat pieces of stone, arranged together as disks. Signs at the site describe them as "goals" but it is not clear exactly what that means. The specific rules of the ancient game are not fully understood, nor are the strategies the players used to win. In Xochicalco and other cities that were Cantona's Epi-Classic Era contemporaries (650 AD - 900 AD), stone rings were mounted on the walls on either side at the mid-point of the court. One way of scoring involved passing the ball through the ring. However, no such rings are evident in the courts at Cantona, so the rules apparently differed from place to place, and may have evolved over time. The games were not simple entertainment, but were deeply religious in nature and steeped in ritual. The court here is closely aligned with the equinox, an astronomical event which was used, along with the solstice, to schedule planting and harvesting. However, that was by no means the only ritual function associated with the game.

These large stone phalluses were found buried in the playing field. They are about .66 m (2 ft) tall. Such phallic symbols are quite common in pre-hispanic societies and represent fertility and the act of sowing. In pre-hispanic beliefs, the earth was feminine and rain was divine semen fertilizing it.

Stela mounted at the top of the north wall of the court. This monument marks the mid-point of the playing field.  In the recinto behind it, human remains were discovered, including those of a child wearing a jade necklace. The sacrifice of children was a common offering to Tlaloc, the rain god. Their tears were believed to be a pure representation of rain. In addition, the child's necklace was jade and the Nahuatl word for jade is chalchihuite, which can also mean "drop of precious water".

Skull of sacrificed man also found in the recinto. This is another example of the strong linkage between Cantona's ball courts and human sacrifice. The large hole in the back side of this man's head testifies to his violent end. It is unknown whether he was a player, or simply a captive brought to a ball game for this purpose. Such acts were viewed as critical to ensuring an adequate food supply. Blood represented the essence of the universe. The gods had shed theirs in the process of creating the world. Returning the favor with human blood was a way of encouraging the gods to provide adequate rain, soil fertility, and good harvests. In the view of pre-hispanic people, no offering was more valuable than human life itself.

Made of razor-sharp obsidian, knives like this had multiple uses during sacrifices. They were used to cut out living hearts, for decapitation, and for the post-sacrifice dismemberment of a body. All this seems grisly and cruel to a modern sensibility and it no doubt seemed that way to the victim at the time. However, the beliefs of pre-hispanic people appear to have been sincere. Drought, crop failures, and famine were realities to these people. Particularly in Cantona's high desert environment, the margin of survival was thin if the rains failed. For millennia, people had been worshiping and making sacrifices to Tlaloc and his early predecessor, the Storm God. Today, even with weather satellites, we still cannot perfectly predict the weather, much less control it. The ancients did the best they could with what they had.

The Second Plaza

The Second Plaza is also known as the Plaza of the Balcony. Some of the structures on its north and east sides were apparently built to provide the best views of the ball game, kind of like theatre boxes. There is a small military post on the lower right (southwest) corner. This may have been built around the same time as the fortifications on the west end of the ball court. On the upper (west) side of the plaza are stairs that lead up to the Main Plaza.

The Plaza of the Balcony, viewed from the east end of the ball court. On the the right side of the photo, in the center, you can see the stairs leading up and  over the structure that separates the two plazas. The left (north) side of the Plaza of the Balcony is occupied by a series of terraces and steps leading up to one of the so-called "balconies".

Plaza of the Balcony, looking west toward the ball court. The photo was taken from the top of the steps leading to the Main Plaza. On the right (north) side are the terraces leading to the balcony.

Main Plaza and Pyramid

The Main Plaza, also known as the Grand Square, is the larger of the two plazas. At the top (east) side is the Main Pyramid with its two staircases leading to its summit. Just in front of the lower staircase is the double altar. At the bottom (west) side is the staircase leading to the Plaza of the Balcony. On the north, south, and west sides are more sets of terraces, built like stadium seats. A small pyramid overlooks the northwest corner of the plaza. A total of nine sets of stairs are located around the plaza, more than are found in any other cluster's plaza.

The Main Pyramid, with the double altar in front. The ceremonies conducted here were closely related to the ball game. It is possible that the winners were paraded here and cheered by the people gathered on the steps and terraces surrounding the plaza. Various kinds of sacrifices were offered at the altar.

A smooth stela stands at the very bottom of the pyramid's staircase. The purpose of the stela is unknown. There are no carvings on it, and the artisans at Cantona did not use stucco designs on stelae. At other pre-hispanic cities, stelae are usually covered with glyphs commemorating rulers, victories, and important dates. This one is a mystery.

Human remains were also found in the walls of the Main Pyramid. They were apparently victims buried here after their sacrifice. These discoveries, as well as other burials throughout the city, tell us a great deal about the beliefs of the city's inhabitants. However, the human remains also open a window on the health and physical condition of the people who lived here. For example, we know that the average height of men was 1.62 m (5' 3"). For women it was 1.55 m (5' 1"). Examination of teeth revealed a wear pattern showing that people were eating foods processed on stone metates, which left tiny bits of stone mixed with the food. The caries (cavities) in the teeth indicate a diet high in carbohydrates. The carbs probably came from the maiz (corn) and seeds ground on the metates. Osteoporosis was common due to a lack of calcium. The average lifespan was 25-35 years. Mortality was high among infants and juveniles and particularly among women of reproductive age.

A small, double altar stands in the plaza a few feet from the base of the pyramid's staircase. This style of altar later became popular throughout ancient Mexico. It is the major focal point of the Grand Square and was the site of offerings to the gods, probably including human sacrifice.

Small obsidian knives like these were used in a practice known as "auto-sacrifice". Not all sacrifices involving humans were fatal or even involuntary. Since human blood was considered essential to the functioning of the cosmos, people sometimes offered their own blood. Auto-sacrifice involved cutting or piercing soft parts of the body, such as the tongue or the genitals. The devices used included small obsidian knives, as well as the spines from the maguey plant or the stingers of manta rays. The practice produced blood but, as you might imagine, also a considerable amount of pain. In turn, this often produced a trance-like state during which the individual could enter the underworld and make contact with the gods.

View from the top of the Main Pyramid, looking southwest. The terraced south wall of the Great Sqaure forms the boundary of Cluster #7. Beyond it are more terraces and pyramids, as well as other clusters. The large structure in the distance on the left is call El Palacio (The Palace). To its right is a pyramid that overlooks Cantona's Central Plaza, known as the Plaza de la Fertilización (Fertility Plaza). We will look at these areas in a future posting.

The view to the northwest includes the small pyramid bordering the north wall. Beyond this boundary of the Great Square, you see what appears to be open, yucca-covered desert. However, concealed in the yucca are thousands of closely packed structures, separated by an intricate street network. There are more ball court clusters with pyramids and plazas, as well as residences, workshops, fortifications and more.

View to the southeast from the pyramid's top. In the foreground is a small pyramid associated with another ball court cluster. Behind it, in the distance, another pyramid/plaza complex rises. Interspersed with all of this ancient architecture are numerous unexcavated mounds of rubble that conceal still more structures. The architecture that has been revealed at Cantona is overwhelming, but one must keep in mind that all this represents only 10%--and possibly as little as 1%--of what is here.

This completes Part 2 of my Cantona series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any thoughts or questions 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


  1. Great job, Jim, as always. We were in Cantona about this time last year on an Archeology tour and enjoyed the place. You brought new information to us as you often do.


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