Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chiapas Part 18: Toniná's Temple of the Smoking Mirror and the altars and relief sculptures of the Acropolis

Temple of the Smoking Mirror, seen against a dramatic sky. The Smoking Mirror Temple rests on Level 7 of the Acropolis and was constructed with 4 stepped platforms. The peak of this temple reaches 80 m (262 ft) above the Great Plaza. It marks the highest point on Toniná's Acropolis. Steep stairways lead up to the top on the north side (above) and also on the west and south sides. "Smoking Mirror" is a reference often used in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica. It refers to obsidian, a dark volcanic glass that was used for mirrors and a variety of other useful objects including cutting tools, weapons, and jewelry. The Maya imbued it with mystical properties and associated it with K'awhil, the god of rulership, lightning and thunder. 

Seated near the top, a couple of tourists snap photos of temples on the lower levels. Below the tourists, on Level 6, are a temple with a roof comb and another behind it with a tree growing from its top. Both of these were shown in my previous posting. Anyone approaching the Temple of the Smoking Mirror from this south side faces a daunting climb, since the stairs begin on Level 6 and are very steep. The stairs on the west and north sides start on Level 7. In this photo, you are looking southwest.

The view looking southeast. Immediately below is an unnamed temple and to its left is the Temple of the Earth Monster. The Earth Monster Temple also has a roof comb and was featured in Parts 16 and 17 of this series. On the far left of center are the palaces and administrative of Levels 4 and 5. These were the buildings where Toniná's elite lived and worked. On the Great Plaza in the upper right, in front of a group of trees, are two parallel lines which form the sides of Ball Court 2. At the top center, surrounded on three sides by trees, is the much larger Ball Court 1. Both of the Ball Courts can be seen in Part 15.

View to the rear (north) from the top of the Temple of the Smoking Mirror.  From here, the Acropolis drops off steeply into a ravine containing a stream that runs all along the east side of the Great Plaza. This stream would have been the main water supply for those living on the Acropolis. Across the stream to the east, and also to the north and west of the Acropolis, wooded hills rise. A small farm with pasture for cattle and horses lies in the upper center of the photo. Ancient Toniná was much larger than the area covered by the Acropolis. The terrain you see here would probably have been cleared land occupied by the common people and filled with fields of maiz (corn). In addition the production of lime for plaster and stucco requires the burning of large quantities of wood. It is unlikely that the area would have been so heavily wooded at the height of Toniná's power in the late 9th Century AD.

Ruins of a small temple stand on Level 7, immediately behind the Smoking Mirror Temple. Several sources have connected this structure with gods of agriculture. That is also one of the associations given to the Temple of the Smoking Mirror. 

Toniná's famous relief sculpture panels

The divine Ball Game, played by two kings. The throne surrounding this relief sculpture was once used by a ruler named Jaguar Claw. The sculpture shown above is a reproduction and the original now resides in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. There are various interpretations of the meaning of this beautiful carving. The sculpture contains two ball players, and three sections of text. The ball in the center is of exaggerated size. Actual balls varied between the size of a grapefruit and a soccer ball.  For a close up shot of the player on the left, see Part 15 of my Chiapas series. This left side player may either be Toniná's greatest ruler, K'inich Baaknal Chahk ("Snake Skull"), or K'inich Yich'aak Chapat ("Jaguar Claw") who ruled 20 years later. The text refers to them both, but the date given for the ball game, 727 AD, is during the reign of Jaguar Claw. One interpretation is that Snake Skull is mentioned here in an attempt by Jaguar Paw to associate himself with the greatness of the past. There are often multiple, and very subtle, layers of meaning in Classic Maya art.

The right-side player is Took K'awiil, the ruler of Calakmul, an ancient Maya superpower. He wears an elaborate head dress, along with ear spools and bracelets that would have been made of jade. Around his waist he wears a yoke to protect him from the impact of the ball. Pads on his knees shield them as he kneels and puts his shoulder forward to strike the ball. His right hand is missing but has recently been recovered and reattached to the original sculpture in Mexico City. Took K'awiil's presence on this monument gives a fascinating glimpse into the geo-politics of the Maya world. At the time it was carved, there were two Maya city-states which were the superpowers of their world. Calakmul is in the southern part of present-day Yucatan, and Tikal is in the northern panhandle of today's Guatemala. They were bitter rivals for several hundred years. In the course of their long conflict, they made alliances with smaller regional powers. Toniná allied itself with Calakmul, just as Toniná's great rival Palenque was linked to Tikal. This carving can be seen, therefore, as a confirmation of the Calakmul-Toniná alliance as well as a statement that the current ruler of Toniná shared the greatness of his predecessor. Jaguar Paw was essentially proclaiming to the world "you can count on us, Calakmul, we're just as strong as we used to be!" While there are other interpretations of the monument's meaning, this one appears to be based on the actual text of the glyphs above the players.

Nearby the Ball Player sculpture is another showing a snake's gaping mouth. The left-hand Ball Player can be seen in the upper right of the photo. Although I combed the literature, I was unable to find out much about this sculpture. The gaping mouth of a snake can be seen in the center, with the sharp fangs descending from the upper jaw. The sculpture is set within a structure that looks very similar to the throne surrounding the Ball Players. It might be that this was the throne of K'inich B'aaknal Chaak (Snake Skull), particularly given the snake emblem and the fact that Jaguar Paw chose to put his throne so close to this one. However, that is only my own speculation. In any case, snakes were a powerful and very pervasive symbol among the Maya, as well as other pre-hispanic civilizations. The Classic-era Maya worshiped a deity known as Waxaklahun Ubah Kan ("War Serpent")

This long panel is filled with a stucco sculpture of people involved in energetic activity. Once again, I was stymied by the absence of an informational sign and by very skimpy reports culled from the internet. The panel measures about 5 m (15 ft) long and 1 m (3 ft) high and shows a series of gesticulating figures. At first I was mystified by the activity presented. Could it be a battle scene? Close inspection didn't reveal any of the weapons or fallen combatants usually seen in such portrayals. One photo I found on the internet identifies the figures as "little dancers." As I examined my photos of the stucco sculpture, this description seemed to fit.

Traces of ancient red paint can still be seen on this dancer. Proof that he is dancing can be found in the position of his feet. He balances on the toes of his right foot while extending his left with the toes up. Maya wall paintings, pottery and stucco carvings from various sites show dancers in similar positions. With his right arm raised and his left hand bent to his waist, he looks rather jaunty. Maya dances were great ceremonial occasions where the entire community participated, from the commoners up to the ruler. Hallucinogens were sometimes used to assist the dancers in closing the gap between reality and the spirit world. They wore masks and costumes in the form of their naguales (personal spirit animals) and it was believed that they became these animals while dancing.

One of the stucco figures seems to be doing the Maya version of the "Twist." His arm curled, the dancer leans to the left, presumably to the tune of ancient music. Hanging from the topknot on his head dress are long feathers. He wears bracelets on his upper left arm and wrist and is otherwise naked from the waist up. Hanging from his belt is a large disk and below it are further decorative elements. Faint traces of thousand-year-old ocher and Maya blue paint can still be seen. The Popol Vuh (the Maya Book of Creation) gives several examples of dances, most famously by the Hero Twins who use their skill in dancing to help them deceive and defeat the Lords of Xibalba (The Underworld).

The face of a terrifying monster peers out from this stucco sculpture. The Maya had vivid imaginations, possibly enhanced by hallucinogens, and their sculptors and painters produced nightmare images of various gods and mystical creatures. This one bears some resemblance to Chaac, the rain god. He was one of the most important figures in the Maya Cosmos due to his connection with agriculture and maiz production. Chaac had a benevolent side, bringing vital rain for the crops, but--true to the Mesoamerican concept of duality, he also had a dangerous aspect. He was associated with storms and the thunder, lightning, and destructive floods they could bring.  

A recently uncovered wall reveals abstract designs and traces of red and blue paint. These large designs very probably mean something, but I have no clue as to what it might be. In some respects they look like large glyphs. If anyone has any information about these remarkable designs, please leave a comment.

The Wall of the Captives shows a group of war prisoners awaiting their fate. The whole panel is about 3 m (3.3 yd) long and 1.2 m (4 ft) high, and is set on a sloping wall. This photo closeup shows three of the captives, two facing left and one facing right, all seated with their arms bound. Toniná was a particularly aggressive, war-like state, and images such as these are pervasive. As in modern times, Maya wars had political and economic aims. There was an additional purpose, however. The sacrifice of captives in order to feed their blood to the gods added a religious and ritualistic element to these conflicts. In Toniná, the gods seldom went hungry.

A seated captive leans forward in a posture of depressed submission. There is an object around his neck, and the necks of the others, that some have suggested may be a garrote or strangulation device. However, the preferred method of execution at Toniná was decapitation, so this is unlikely. Various sculptures of decapitated bodies have been found at Toniná, and since garroting did not usually produce blood--the food of the gods--I doubt they used that method. The device seen above looks more like a collar used for restraint and control.

Closeup shot of the head and upper torso of a captive.  The figure stares down with half-closed eyes. As a captive, he has been stripped of his ear plugs, necklaces, bracelets, and other finery. His hair has been tied up, part of the preparation for decapitation, so he will almost certainly be executed. Most likely he will meet his end on one of the sacrifice altars in conjunction with a Ball Game or other great ceremonial occasion. The ruling elite gloried in Toniná's military prowess and in displaying their captives in shame and degradation. They were not alone in this attitude in the Maya world, but they are noted for the amount of sculptures devoted to portrayals of captives like those above. On the other hand, Toniná did manage to outlast all the other Classic-era Maya city-states and posted the very last known Long Count Calendar date in 909 AD. After that, silence and the forest closed over this warrior state, as it had over all the others of the Classic world.

This concludes Part 18 of my Chiapas series. Many of Toniná's finest sculptures and other works of art have been removed from the ruins to the museum for safekeeping. As the concluding part of this series, we'll next visit the museum to see these treasures.  I always appreciate feedback, constructive criticism, and questions. If you'd like to leave 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

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.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, November 11, 2013

Chiapas Part 16: The Great Acropolis of Toniná

The Acropolis of Toniná is filled with palaces, temples, and altars. Level by level, the Acropolis rises high above the Great Plaza seen in the previous posting. Each of the seven successive levels can be reached by way of broad staircases stretching from east to west across the face of the Acropolis. At the very top is the Temple of the Smoking Mirror, also known as the Temple of Agriculture. The total number of steps leading up to it is 260, equal to the number of days in the Tzolkin, the sacred calendar of the Maya. In Toniná, political/social status dictated the level on which a person lived. Not surprisingly, the ruler occupied the top, giving him great vistas of the surrounding forests, mountains and, far below, the maiz (corn) fields of the Valle de Ocosingo. The common people cultivated those lush fields, and their work supported the whole society. On the several levels between the ruler and the commoners lived the elite warriors, priests, astronomers, architects, and administrators. Today, much of the Acropolis is covered by earth and vegetation. This gives the ruins an organic appearance, making it seem to grow right out of the ground. However, in its days of glory, Toniná would have been clear of the detritus of time, its limestone surfaces plastered, stuccoed, and vividly painted. In this posting and the next, we will look at the Acropolis and some of the structures found on it.

Scale model of Toniná, from the site's Museum. This gives a feel for what the Acropolis may have looked like at the beginning of the 10th Century AD. Note that each of the seven levels is made up of multiple platforms, a total of 13 in all, just as there are 13 levels of heaven in the Maya Cosmos, and 13 months of 20 days each in the Tzolkin. There are also 13 temples on the several levels, each devoted to a different Maya god. While there are various pyramidal structures on different levels, the entire Acropolis is itself one vast, stepped pyramid. As such, it is comparable in grandeur with such famous structures as the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan near Mexico City. At level seven, the very top, stand two pyramids. On the right, the Temple of the Smoking Mirror is the tallest part of the overall structure, reaching 80 meters (262 ft) above the Plaza level. The Pyramid of the Sun, by contrast, rises 75 meters (246 ft). To the left of the Smoking Mirror Temple is the Temple of War. These two temples represent the two most important responsibilities of Toniná's ruling elite: control over the agricultural economy, and the conduct of war. Politics, religion, war, and the all-important cultivation of maiz (corn) were seamlessly interwoven in ancient Maya societies. In the lower right quadrant of the photo, you can see palaces and administrative buildings, with their latticed roof combs. These were the residences and offices of the elite.

El Palacio del Inframundo

Three doorways provide entry to El Inframundo, an underground labyrinth. The Palace of the Underworld is located on the eastern side of the Acropolis. This complex labyrinth is pitch dark inside, except for a few small windows in the thick walls. This structure, on the bottom level of the Acropolis, represents the place of darkness into which the dead descend. In the Maya Cosmos, Xibalba ("Place of Fear") actually has 9 levels. However, the builders of the Acropolis were not prepared to go so far as to build a 9 story substructure under the Acropolis. They apparently felt that one level would be sufficient to get the point across.

A Mexican tourist peeps out of a side passage within the labyrinth. In the photo above, the passage appears well-lit. While there is a tiny square window at the bottom of the end of the corridor, nearly all the light in this photo was provided by my flash. Otherwise, the space would have been darker than the inside of a black cat at midnight. The ceiling of the long corridor uses a corbel, or "false" arch, made by stepping the sides of the wall in until they meet at the top. Master architects that they were, the Maya never achieved the true arch. The rituals of the priestly elite must have been illuminated by smokey torches, adding to the mystery and terror of Xibalba.

A window through the thick walls is shaped like a cross. The appearance of crosses like this thoroughly confused the Spanish friars who arrived shortly after the Conquest. Could the people who built these great edifices have been a lost group of early Christians who somehow wandered into the New World, scattering such crosses behind them? In truth, the meaning of the Maya cross is very different from that of the Christian version. The Maya cross represents the World Tree, with roots in Xibalba, a trunk that represents daily reality, and a broad canopy of branches (the cross piece) which represents the heavens. The ancient Maya believed that the Ceiba tree, found widely in their world, was the earthly manifestation of the World Tree. Even today, Maya loggers are reluctant to cut down a Ceiba.

Carole sits among some of the ruins of the Palace of the Underworld. I took this shot from Level 2, just above the three doors entering El Unframundo. The structure behind Carole has a row of columns across its front and is part of the  Palacio del Inframundo's complex. The labyrinth under the grass at my feet winds and twists below Level 2. The passages ultimately lead to stairways that bring you up, at last, into the sunlight. The ancients who trembled as they crept through the inky blackness must have been as relieved as I was to finally emerge.

Back down on Level 1, a stela adorns a small altar in front of a row of broad staircases. Other than the Palacio del Unframundo, Level one has only a few other features. The length and width of the Level 1 platform is such that it could have accommodated quite a crowd. The steps of the staircase would have formed seating areas where hundreds of people could watch the ceremonies at the altar.

Closeup of the small altar and stela. Stelae were important features of many Maya cities between about 400 AD to 900 AD. Some were carved, while others were decorated with stucco designs. The one above was probably  covered with stucco which has worn or fallen away over the centuries. Stelae were closely associated with the concept of divine kingship, and were used to detail dynastic histories, to commemorate important evens such as military victories or the accession of a new ruler, and to display the images of great kings or other persons of importance.

Wall of the Grecas

Another grand staircase leads from Level 2 to Level 3. This set of stairs has a small altar at its base, partially visible at the lower left. Above the staircase, you can see a long colonnaded structure. This may have been a temple, or perhaps a barracks for the warriors and lower level officials who lived on the west side of the Acropolis. Still higher, at the base of the tree in the upper right, is the base platform for one of the temples of Level 4.

The Wall of the Grecas is one of the Acropolis' most unusual features. The abstract symbol is a huge stone relief mural set on a sloping wall. Its dimensions are 7 meters (23 ft) high and 21 meters (69 ft) wide. Greca is a Spanish word referring to a repeating architectural design. Some archaeologists claim the grecas' "X"-shaped design represents Kulkulkan, the feathered serpent, known in non-Maya areas as Quetzalcoatl. Other archaeologists suggest that the "X" design represents Witz, the Sacred Mountain, and the three levels of Maya spiritual thought. The design reminded me of others I have seen at the Mixtec ruin of Mitla near Oaxaca, a state which borders Chiapas, and from which such designs could have migrated through trade. Above the wall, you can see several columns that were part of a structure known as the Palace of the Grecas and of War, or the Palace of the Stepped Frets. All these different names and interpretations show how much we have yet to learn after more than 150 years of archaeological studies of this site.

A side view of the Wall of the Grecas shows clever engineering. The zig-zag designs of the arms of the "X" are revealed to be steps leading up the wall to the palace above. After ascending the seven steps of an arm leaning toward the center, a climber must turn 180 degrees on the landing and ascend seven more steps on the outward leaning arm. Because the angle of the wall, the ascent is not as precarious as it might at first appear. It is useful to remember that the people who designed and built the Acropolis had no metal tools, no wheeled vehicles to transport the stones, and no draft animals to pull such vehicles. What they did possess was a sophisticated system of mathematics and engineering, and a wonderful eye for design. And, of course, they also had a huge supply of very low-cost labor at the command of the rulers.

The Venus Throne

Local Maya workers perform maintenance on the Venus Throne. The workers are employed by INAH, the Mexican federal government agency that protects and preserves Mexico's ancient heritage. This small but impressive structure is located immediately to the right of the Wall of the Grecas on the eastern end of Level 3. The constant flow of tourists clambering about the ruins means that the workers have plenty to keep them busy. At the base of the stairs leading up to the throne you can see a small wooden sign with the yellow imprint of a foot. This indicates the proper route a visitor should take to remain safe and avoid damage to the structure. Unfortunately, such footprint signs were about the only kind I found throughout the Toniná ruins, with the exception of a large sign at the entrance containing general information. Nearly all of the specific information I present here about the Acropolis' fascinating structures has been gleaned from other sources, including the internet. Some sources contradict others, and I have tried to use the sources that seem most authoritative.

A closer view of the Venus Throne. The feet of the throne resemble jaguar paws and the stucco design at its back represents Venus (hence the name) and contains designs carved to resemble precious stones. It is unclear whether the throne area was originally covered by an awning made of perishable materials as it is today. It seems logical that anyone important enough to sit on a throne like this would have been shielded from the sun and rain. Contemporary sculptures of Maya figures on thrones like this show them sitting, not with legs draped over the sides, but kneeling or cross-legged on the platform.

Another view of the Throne. Notice the stucco sculpture behind the throne, shaped like the letter "W". This is one of the symbols that represents Venus, a celestial body that appears twice a day as the Morning and Evening Stars. This dual aspect of Venus connected it to the Hero Twins who, by defeating the Lords of Xibalba, made the present world possible.  Venus was also closely associated with both Kulkulcan and Chaac, the god of rain. Kulkulcan (called Quetzalcoatl elsewhere), was believed to have given the gift of maiz to mankind. The rain brought by Chaac was essential to its cultivation. Only a person of great power and authority would have sat on the Venus Throne.

View from the Venus Throne over the Ocosingo Valley to the southwest. This area, now used as pasture for horses and cattle, would have been covered with fields of maiz in ancient times. A portion of the Wall of Grecas can be seen in the lower right corner. Also visible are various grassy mounds on Levels 2 and 3 that were once the bases of temples and altars. In the center of the left side of the photo, between the two palm trees, you can see the parallel walls of Ball Court 2 on the Great Plaza. The view from the Venus Throne seems truly fit for a king.

The Water Shrine

Sheltered by a palm frond palapa, the Water Shrine is a large sculpture of stucco and rock. Notice the small carved opening in the top from which the water would have flowed. It would have cascaded down, possibly to fall into the rough stone bowl seen at the bottom. Since there are apparently no springs near this spot, someone would have had to pour water into an unseen opening higher than the one you see above. How this was done, what sort of ritual was involved, and to what god it was dedicated remain a mystery to me. Generally speaking, ready access to water was extremely important to all the ancient Mesoamerican societies. The economic foundation of all those societies was the large scale production of maiz. Archaeologists believe that a key factor in the collapse of the Classic Era Maya civilizations in Chiapas, Guatemala, and southern Yucatan may have been a prolonged drought. This may have been caused by centuries of deforestation. Huge amounts of wood were needed to burn limestone to create plaster and stucco for great cities like Toniná.

Side view closeup of the Water Shrine. Here, you can clearly see the trough from which the water flowed. Also visible is one of the stucco carvings to the right of the trough. The design has the appearance of a spiral, or perhaps a conch shell. Conches were used as  trumpets to draw the attention of Chaac, the rain god.

Temple of the Earth Monster

This shrine stands in front of the Temple of the Earth Monster. This stone and stucco sculpture represents Witz, the Sacred First Mountain. The hole in the base represents a cave. The Maya believed caves were openings into the Underworld. The round stone has been interpreted as either the earth, or the sun, being swallowed by the Witz. That it would be the sun makes sense to me, since the sun is swallowed by the mountains surrounding the Ococsingo Valley on a daily basis. On either side of the mouth of the cave are writhing snakes, often associated with caves in Maya mythology.

On top of the shrine, above the cave, are the remains of what appear to be a stucco head. This may be the bust of an important ruler, who wanted to associate himself with Witz and the primal forces of creation. By making themselves the intermediaries between the people and the gods, the rulers and the priestly elite who served them were able to solidify their power, and command respect and obedience. Significantly, this shrine was built about the time when the stelae associated with divine kingship began to appear in Toniná.

Stucco design on the right side of the Witz' mouth. In the Maya creation myth, the Hero Twins, Hunapu (One Blowgunner) and Xbalanque (Jaguar Sun) had to enter the Sacred First Mountain's cave and match wits with the Lords of the Underworld. After undergoing numerous trials and tests, they tricked the two most important of the Lords into allowing themselves to be sacrificed. The rest of the Lords fled in terror and thereafter only had authority over the Underworld.

This completes Part 16 of my Chiapas series. Next week, I will continue our survey of the Acropolis at Toniná, focusing on the temples, pyramids, palaces, and stucco sculptures of the upper levels. I hope you enjoyed this posting. I always appreciate feedback, and if you would like you may either leave a comment in the section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim