Sunday, April 16, 2017

Xochicalco Part 9 of 9: The East Ceremonial Complex and its Ball Court

The East Ball Court's Ceremonial Complex, looking northeast. The photo was taken from the top of the Temple of the Three Stelae. In the upper right is a rectangular pyramid overlooking a large grassy plaza surrounded by the remains of colonnaded porticos. Carole is the figure approaching the plaza's southern entrance. The ball court is out of sight behind the rectangular pyramid, running parallel to it on a lower level. A small pyramid stands just to the north of the rectangular pyramid. The North Pyramid's twin stands on the south end, out of sight. The East Ball Court is one of three at Xochicalco. They are different from one another in both structure and function. The South Ball Court (Part 2) was constructed on a lower level some distance from the elite part of the city. It was associated with the sacred 260-day calendar. The high-walled North Ball Court (Part 8) was linked to the underground astronomical observatory and to the worship of Tlaloc, the Rain God. The East Ball Court was the main arena where Xochicalco's elite, along with important visitors from other cities, would gather to watch the players settle political issues according to the favor of the gods.

Satellite view of the East Ball Court Ceremonial Complex. The top of the photo is the north end. Shaped like a capital "I", the court is located in the center of the complex. On its west side is the rectangular pyramid and the grassy plaza with its surrounding porticos. Two smaller pyramids stand to the north and south. On the north end of the playing field are rooms where players prepared before the games and cleaned up afterward. The open area on the south of the "I" was a plaza for post-game ceremonies lauding the winners. The losers were probably sacrificed on the altar in the lower right corner of this open area. On the middle of the east (right) side of the "I" is an additional viewing area for the use of dignitaries, probably from the visiting team's city. (Photo from Uncovered History).

The Ball Court

The East Ball Court, looking north. The shape of this court is similar to that of the South Ball Court. The long narrow playing area is bordered by low, slanting walls, very different from the steep, high walls of the North Ball Court. Like the other two courts, the East Ball Court had two rings through which a ball could be passed to score. They were set into the low walls on either side of the court at the mid-point. The tops of the low walls would have served as viewing areas for lower-status members of the elite. The players' preparation / cleanup rooms can be seen at the far end of the court. The games were sometimes used to settle political or military disputes. At other times, their function was to simulate the on-going struggle to maintain the balance of the cosmos and its astral cycles.

A ball court and pyramid sculpted from volcanic rock.  This carved stone clearly illustrates the sacred nature of the ball game. It is not known for certain whether the sculpture served as a construction model or was used during sacred rituals related to the game, or possibly both.

Ring from the East Ball Court. Unlike the other two courts, the East Ball Court's rings were covered with sacred animals carved in relief. The rectangular arm to the side of the ring was set into the wall to secure it. The hole in this ring appears to be somewhat smaller than the ones on the North and South Ball Courts. It may be that balls of different sizes were used, or perhaps the smaller size in this ring was to make the scoring on this court more difficult.

Drawing of the designs on the East court ring. At the top is a fanciful feline crouching with its claws on either side of the ring hole. The cat, perhaps a jaguar, wears a somewhat sinister smile. To the left of the creature's head are a pair of crossed bones. It may be that a similar pair once appeared on the right, but that area is too worn to tell. The bottom half of the ring is occupied by a pair of birds, one following the other. Given their long drooping tails, they may be quetzals. The highly revered birds were much sought-after for their plumage. Small dots drop from the birds' beaks. A dot in the Zapotec numeric system represented the number one.  If these are numbers, then they can be translated as two and three. Felines and quetzals were considered sacred in ancient Mesoamerica.

Ceremonial stone yokes represented the protective armor of the players.  Player's yokes were normally made from wood, leather, or rubber. They were worn around the mid-section of the body to protect the stomach and lower chest from the impact of the heavy rubber ball. This stone version would obviously have been much too heavy and cumbersome for use in actual play.  Stone yokes like the one above could weigh as much as 20 kg (45 lbs). Instead, they may have been used as trophies for winners or as grave goods for deceased players.

Caiman skull found near the ball court. The caimans is another animal symbolically linked to the ball game. It represents the Earth Monster whose devouring jaws consume the stars at sunset, seeds when planted, and human beings at death. The Earth Monster's entrails represent darkness, cold, and death. On the other hand, the elements are the prelude to the coming day, life, and the sprouting of seeds and fruits. The ancient ball games were reenactments of the cycles of life, conducted to ensure that these cycles continued uninterrupted.

The Ceremonial Complex

The North Pyramid. Below the back of this small pyramid are the players' preparation and cleanup rooms at the north end of the ball court. The function of this structure is unclear. Perhaps the ruler used it to exhort his team--sort of a pre-game pep talk. In addition, it would have been a good viewing once the game started.

The central, rectangular pyramid and part of its grassy plaza. The pyramid and plaza may have been used for pre-game ceremonies. This grassy area, enclosed by colonnaded porticos, would have accommodated one or both teams along with various officials and dignitaries. The ruler and his entourage would have looked down from the platform atop the staircase. Once the preliminaries were complete, and the players took the field, the ruler's group could turn and use their elevated perch to view the action on the playing field behind the pyramid. It would have functioned the same as a "skybox" atop a modern stadium, minus the human sacrifice, of course.

The western side of the grassy plaza, showing its colonnades. Only the stumps remain, but you can visualize the rectangular columns supporting a roof over a narrow arcade around three sides of the grassy plaza. In the distance is the east side of Plaza Principal's high stone wall, with the Temple of the Three Stelae looming above it. I took the first photo of this posting from that point.

The South Pyramid. Behind and below this structure is the small plaza just south of the playing field. At the end of the game, the ruler would have mounted the pyramid's staircase to congratulate the winners and officiate over the decapitation of the losers.

Another ceremonial structure lies to the south of the South Pyramid. It has a sunken patio, surrounded by colonnaded porticos. A small staircase stands on the right side of the sunken patio. The staircase may have led to an altar or perhaps a speaker's podium. Although this structure is clearly a part of the East Ball Court's ceremonial complex, I have not been able to find any information about it. Both its composition and its location indicate a ceremonial purpose. However, its specific function is not clear.

The Animal Ramp

The ramp contains paving stones with relief carvings of animals. A total of 271 stones are embedded in the ramp. They contain the images of birds, snakes, monkeys, butterflies, and other animals. The ramp leads up from the plaza below the South Pyramid and emerges on the south end of the rectangular pyramid. Its path passes between the South Pyramid and the sunken patio enclosure seen in the previous photo. This is obviously a route of considerable ceremonial importance. Many stones appear to be missing from the ramp. However, an additional 492 have been found throughout the area of the East Ball Court.

Carving of a bird with its wings extended and its beak open. The bird's tongue extends forward and its tail is spread. The curve of the beak indicates it may be a raptor such as a hawk or an eagle, both of them powerful animals imbued with great symbolic meaning.

A snake writhes its way across another paver. One theory is that these animal paving stones are the  personal symbols of teams or players. In other words, a pre-hispanic version of medieval coats-of-arms. However, there is another possibility. This relates to the Temple of the Goddess of Fertility, toward which the ramp leads.

Temple of the Goddess of Fertility

A temple entrance can be found in the side of the Plaza Principal's west wall. This opening is directly across from the top of the Animal Ramp. The temple is dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility, also known as the Earth Goddess. Since the earth is the place where all creatures breed, it is thought that the temple and the ramp are connected.

The Goddess of Fertility, also known as the Earth Goddess. She sits with her knees folded back under her and her hands held at chest level. The goddess wears a short feminine cape and a striped headband. Xochicalco's Goddess of Fertility may be a local version of Teotihuacan's Great Goddess, a powerful deity connected with water, fertility, and militarism. Although the statue is quite worn, it appears to have the nose pendant and protruding teeth that are characteristic of the Great Goddess. While the Great Goddess was very important at Teotihuacán, the level of militarism skyrocketed when that great empire fell in 650 AD. One reflection of this change was that female deities declined in importance. This may be why the Goddess of Fertility has been relegated to a tiny shrine within the outer wall of the Plaza Principal, while male gods like Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl are prominent everywhere else in the city. However, although diminished in status, the Earth Goddess still seems to have been revered for her connection to the animal world.

Just as we finished our visit, an iguana popped out of the rocky debris. These are protected animals within the archaeological site and this one obviously had no fear of humans. On the other had, maybe it was a representative of the Earth Goddess, sent to say "hi!" I thought it was a fitting end to our visit.

This completes Part 9 of my Xochicalco series, and marks the end of the series itself. Congratulations if you have stuck with me through the whole 9-part series. I realize that some folks see these places as just another pile of old rocks. For myself, I remain fascinated by such sites and the incredible civilizations that once thrived in them. If you would like to leave a question or comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

No comments:

Post a Comment

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