Sunday, April 1, 2018

Cantona Part 3 of 4: The Plaza of Fertility, the South Plaza & Pyramid, and the Palace Complex

Cantona's largest pyramid overlooks the Plaza of Fertility. These structures are part of a civic, religious, and administrative complex that lies just south of Ball Game Cluster #7 (see previous posting). The proximity of Cluster #7 suggests that it played a part in the functions of the overall complex. If you open a separate screen page and click here, you will see a Google satellite image showing how all these structures relate to one another. An ancient street passes through the image diagonally from west to east (left to right) and separates Cluster #7 (north of the street) from the rest of the complex to its south. In this posting we will look at the Fertility Plaza (far left in the satellite image), the South Plaza and its pyramid (left of center at bottom), and the Palace and its attached pyramid (bottom center stretching to the right). All of these structures lie to the south of the ancient street. A precipitous escarpment, marked by the dark green vegetation at its base, runs west to east along the bottom of the satellite image. The escarpment forms the southern edge of the Acropolis, a plateau which contains the elite ceremonial area.

Plaza of Fertility, its pyramid, and its ball court

Schematic of the Fertility Plaza, pyramid, and ball court. The geographic orientation is west (top) to east (bottom). The Plaza of Fertility is the large, open, sunken square at the bottom. It has a small stone structure in its center and a set of stairs leading down into the square from its east end. Above the Plaza is the pyramid, with a grand staircase leading up to its summit. Along the left (south) side of the pyramid is the ball court, shaped like a capital "I".
View of the Fertility Plaza and pyramid, looking west. The small square of rocks in the foreground is duplicated by another in the center of the Plaza. These served some ceremonial purpose, possibly as altars. Just beyond the nearest rock square is the top of the stairs leading down into the Plaza of Fertility. The right and left (north and south) sides of the sunken Plaza are delimited by stepped walls. The east side is bordered by the Palace, where I was standing when I took the photo. When archeologists excavated the top of the pyramid, they discovered a variety of offerings, including human and deer bones, as well as ceramics, stones, and shells. Also present was a "tool kit" containing two long, thin, obsidian flakes called prismatic blades, as well as a variety of other razor-sharp obsidian cutting tools. The human bones show cut marks and signs of having been boiled. All this points to human sacrifice, dismemberment, and ritual cannibalism. These activities would have been part of fertility ceremonies conducted atop the pyramid by priests and other members of the elite.

Small altar at the bottom of the pyramid's staircase. This has been described by archeologists as part of a "mask" representing a deity, although I confess I can't quite make it out. The summit of the pyramid was not the only area where evidence of human sacrifice was discovered. Excavation of the staircase revealed human skulls and long bones along with tranchets, which are curved obsidian blades probably used to de-flesh bones.

The Fertility Plaza, looking northeast from the left corner of the pyramid. In the upper right are the terraces that lead up to the Palace. Under the floor of the plaza, more human bones were discovered, with more evidence of cannibalism. Also present were prismatic blades of the sort used in non-lethal (but quite painful) voluntary bloodletting. During a ritual called auto-sacrifice, priests and other elites cut or pierced their own tongues, earlobes or penises in order to produce blood to encourage the fertility of the earth. Why blood? Well, the ancients believed that the gods had shed their own blood to create both the earth and human beings. Blood sacrifices were seen as a way of returning the favor and ensuring good harvests.

Other evidence of fertility rites includes large stone phallic sculptures. Nine of these were found buried in the floor of the Plaza of Fertility. Similar phallic sculptures were found in the main plaza of the nearby Ball Court Cluster #7. Adequate precipitation was the critical element for growing maiz (corn), the staple of the Mesoamerican diet. Rain was seen as divine semen, fertilizing the earth, hence the phallic sculptures.

Huehueteotl, the Fire God, holding a skull between his knees. This statue of the Fire God was created between 50 and 600 AD, the period known as Cantona II. The statue was dug up in the Plaza of Fertility near the foot of the pyramid. We don't know for sure what the people at Cantona called the Fire God (or even what they called themselves). However, the Aztecs called him Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old, God". Whatever the name, his image has been the same, from the earliest times, all over Mesoamerica. He is always portrayed as a wrinkled, hunched-over old man, in a seated position, with his hands on his knees and a tray on his head. In the tray, lit coals or copal incense would be burned. Control of fire was the first great step for humankind in its quest for mastery over the natural world. Fire represented both a powerful tool and a dangerous force, and this naturally suggested an otherworldly explanation. The Fire God is probably the oldest of all gods, since the control of fire pre-dates agriculture and thus also pre-dates the Storm God (later known as Tlaloc, the Rain God). The Fire God was tied into the Mesoamerican calendar system, in which a holy 260-day year and a secular 360-day year were linked together in a 52-year cycle. At the end of the cycle, the New Fire Ceremony was conducted. All existing fires were extinguished until the appropriate sacrifices were made, including that of humans. At that point, the chief priest ignited a new fire in his temple and, from it, fire would be carried out to all the households.

A ball court stands along the left side of the Plaza of Fertility's pyramid. Its placement here probably has to do with the nature of the terrain. Not far to the left of the ball court, an escarpment drops vertically 10 meters (30 ft) to the level the elite neighborhoods. As discussed in Part 2 of this series, ball courts were also closely related to fertility and good harvests.

The flat surface of the ball court's playing area is in the shape of a capital "I". The sloping walls were also part of the playing field. Although the precise rules of the game seem to have varied from place to place, it is believed there were generally two to four players on a side. The ball game somewhat resembled volleyball, in that the idea was to keep the ball in play. It could not be touched by hands or feet and the primary method of moving it was to strike it with the shoulders, thighs, or hips. Aside from its entertainment value, the game was a metaphor for the ongoing struggle between the cosmic forces of light and darkness. The ball represented the sun and stars moving across the sky, which created the seasons during which planting and harvesting occurred.

Pot representing Tlaloc, the Rain God. He looks pretty fed up, probably because he hasn't been served his favorite food, human blood. Tlaloc had several helpers, called the Tlaloque, whose job it was to produce rain by breaking large clay pots of water, like the one above. The ancients believed that the sound of thunder was produced when the pots were broken.

Platforms and terraces that once contained elite homes. The view here is from the top of the pyramid, looking down on the elite area below the escarpment. The size of the platforms in the upper left suggests that some of the homes were quite substantial. However, since they were made of perishable materials, nothing remains but the stone platforms themselves.

South Plaza and its Altar and Pyramid

Schematic showing the South Plaza, its pyramid, and the Palace terraces. The South Plaza is the large square area at the bottom containing a stepped altar. To its right is its pyramid. Just above the South Plaza is a slightly smaller sunken plaza. This is part of the Palace Complex, which has terraces bordering the top and right sides of the sunken plaza.

The South Plaza, its altar, and pyramid. These structures, although they are a distinct unit, are directly adjacent to the palace and may have formed part of the Palace Complex.  The pyramid's summit contains the remains of what was either a temple or a residence. If the latter, it was probably the habitation of a very high official, perhaps the chief priest. Regardless of the pyramid's possible residential purposes, this plaza was clearly for ceremonial purposes, particularly given the presence of the large altar. The typical Mesoamerican palace tended to combine residential, civic, ceremonial, and administrative functions.

The grand staircase of the pyramid demonstrates Cantona's unique building styles. Unlike those in other Mesoamerican cities, Cantona's stone structures use no mortar. The stones were carefully cut and placed upon one another, with the gaps filled in by small rocks. It is a testimony to the skill of the ancient architects that the buildings have survived not only as much as 1600 years of use, but an additional 1100 years since they were abandoned. Another difference is that, unlike the other cities, Cantona's walls were not stuccoed smooth and then painted. Instead, the stone surfaces were left bare, with different kinds and colors of rock used to decorate them. In the pyramid above, you can see smooth, light-colored, cantera stone on the stairs and on the vertical part of the lowest of the pyramid's stepped levels. The balustrades on either side of the staircase, as well as the upper stepped-levels, were constructed with tezontlea rougher volcanic stone with a darker color. The low walls bordering the other three sides of the South Plaza are similarly decorated. This unique style may have been due to local geology. Volcanic stone is plentiful here, but limestone for stucco is scarce. In addition, this desert area's limited wood supply would have made it difficult to create stucco, which requires large amounts of firewood to burn limestone. Still another of Cantona's unique aspects is that, unlike most of its contemporaries, the city-state seems to have deliberately fended off most of Teotihuacán's cultural influences. Even though an example of the talud y tablero architectural style, popularized by Teotihuacán, can be seen along the bottom of the pyramid above, it is one of the few to be found at Cantona. And, in fact, talud y tablero actually pre-dates Teotihuacán, as does Cantona itself. The style could well have been adopted at Cantona before Teotihuacán's rise to power and influence.

View from the top of the South Plaza's pyramid. The mountain ridge on the upper right is named Cerro de las Águilas (Hill of the Eagles). Below the pyramid's summit, you can see most of the plaza as well as the two-level altar and its steps. The vista of desert and mountains is grand. If a high priest lived atop this pyramid, he certainly enjoyed a spectacular view from his front porch. Just beyond the plaza's south and west boundary walls, seen in the middle ground, are a series of terraces which drop down the slope in steps.

The terraces below the boundary walls of the South Plaza. These terraces are large enough that they might have been occupied by dwellings or administrative offices. Cantona's architects made creative use of every possible feature of the terrain. Their conformance to the vagaries of the terrain further differentiates them from their contemporaries in other Mesoamerican cities, who adhered more rigidly to the concept of symmetry.

View of the Fertility Plaza pyramid from the top of the South Plaza pyramid. Running diagonally across the photo is the three-step wall bordering the north side of the South Plaza. In the middle of the wall is a small staircase leading up to the sunken plaza that is a part of the Palace Complex.

The Palace Complex

View of the Palace terraces from atop the Fertility Plaza's pyramid. In the foreground is the Fertility plaza. In the upper right, framed by the volcano, is the South Plaza pyramid. Various perishable structures once covered the tops of the terraced areas.

The sunken plaza in front of the Palace. The purpose of this plaza is not clear, but it could have been used for smaller civic gatherings such as a priestly council. It could also have functioned as a place for the residents of the Palace to work or just sit and socialize and admire the view. These uses were not mutually exclusive.

View to the north from the top of the Plaza's terraces. Here, you can get a sense of how the architects used asymmetry in their building practices to cope with the uneven terrain. In the middle distance is the Ball Court Cluster #7. The area beyond appears to be open, yucca covered desert. However, hidden among the yucca are thousands of house platforms, walls, streets, and alleyways. To get a sense of how densely packed these structures are, click here on this Google satellite map.

View to the northeast from from the top of the terraces. In the upper left is Cluster #7's pyramid. In the center of the photo is a staircase that leads up to another part of the Palace Complex.

View to the west along the main street that separates the Palace from Ball Court Cluster #7. To the left are terraces leading up to the Palace. In the upper right is the small military post built during the Cantona III period when fortification and militarization intensified. This street was one of the main avenues that transected Cantona from west to east.

Terraces of the Palace from the main street. This section is a long, semi-rectangular construction with the sunken plaza on one end and a pyramid on the other. As stated before, it would have served multiple uses, including residential, civic, and ceremonial.

Pyramid at the east end of the Palace Complex, viewed from its north side. The pyramid faces west over another sunken plaza. This structure is much larger than the pyramid that overlooks the South Plaza and is more likely to be a temple than a residence. In my next posting we'll take a look at the elite neighborhoods just below the Acropolis, as well as more "middle class" homes lower down the slope. I'll show a number of interesting artifacts that illustrate the daily lives of the inhabitants of Cantona.

This completes Part 3 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. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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