Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mexican Art and Archaeology, I

Fig. 1  Chichén Itzá
I have never seen or experienced any of the ancient or new Seven Wonders of the World.  Majestic sites such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Roman Coliseum and Taj Mahal have existed only in print or media forms for me, until now that is.  This month, I was elated to finally visit one of the "official" New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichén Itzá (fig. 1).

Fig. 2  Chichén Itzá, El Castillo
This ancient archaeological site, located in Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, was built by the Maya more than 1,000 years ago.  It is a city of ruins, with massive temples, columns and even a pyramid dotting its landscape.  Chichén Itzá's focal point is its central pyramid, El Castillo (fig. 2), which is a monumental step-pyramid that served dual purposes: both as a temple to the god Kukulkan (meaning plumed serpent), and possibly, as a calendar (Chichén Itzá tour, 2012). Each of the structure's four stairways contains 91 steps. When including the pyramid's top platform as an additional step, El Castillo has 365 steps, equivalent to the number of days in the calendar year - I'm convinced that this was no accident.

I found Chichén Itzá to be full of mystique.  It was breathtaking in its size, scope and beauty.  When combined with the sight of vendors, some dressed in traditional garb, crafting and selling original Maya art along the pathways, I felt like I was transported to another place and time; one that I was only partially familiar with as a result of my children's repeated viewings of Dreamwork's Road to El Dorado.

Fig. 3  Chichén Itzá, ball court
As I continued walking through the ruins, I found myself in the center of an enormous ball court (fig. 3).  For those of you who haven't extracted most of your historical truths from favorite childhood films, a ball court is a large open field bordered by 2 vertical walls; each one having a stone hoop jutting out at its top.  According to our tour guide, ball courts were used by Maya men to play a challenging game called "pok ta pok", which was similar to volleyball, only much more difficult given that the ball weighed 7 pounds and players weren't allowed to use their hands to propel it.

Fig. 4  Chichén Itzá, ball court hoop
Apparently, the object of the game was to hurl the heavy ball through one of the aforementioned stone rings (fig. 4), which, from my vantage point, looked to be 20 or 30 feet off the ground.  Each team consisted of six field players and a team captain, who, upon successfully getting the ball through the hoop, would be decapitated and sacrificed to the gods (because he was the worthy one).  At this point in the tour, it has become evident that several things were significant to the Maya belief system: the numbers 7 and 4, deities, animals and human sacrifice.

Many of their beliefs were based on cosmography (the study and representation of the heavens and earth), mythology and even magic.  While the Maya have been committed to safekeeping their ancestors' cultural heritage, many of their historical artifacts were unfortunately destroyed in the 16th century during the Spanish conquest.  We can still glean a lot of knowledge from the ruins on sites like Chichén Itzá.  For example, the structure, El Caracol, is believed to have been an observatory for the study of astronomy, a field the Maya were quite advanced in. 

Fig. 5 serpent head, base of El Castillo
Fig. 6  Relief of Plumed Serpent
Specific animals and reptiles held deep spiritual or superstitious meaning for the Maya.  Reliefs, carvings and sculptures of jaguars, serpents, monkeys and other important animals were recurring elements in many of the structures at Chichén Itzá (figs. 5, 6).  Even the ball court rings were sculpted intertwined serpents.  

Chichén Itzá's Aztec influence is exemplified in The Platform of the Skulls (fig. 7), known as Tzompanti, which is an Aztec word (Chichén Itzá tour, 2012).  It was quite shocking to walk along side the wall and view the many carvings of heads, knowing that this platform was the one used to place the heads of sacrificial victims.  As is the case with all humankind since our existence, the Maya sought to relay their knowledge and history.  The use of animals and symbols in pictographs, reliefs and sculptures made it possible for the Maya to document their story.  In the Temple of One Thousand Warriors (fig. 8), for example, each carved column represents a warrior.  The Maya also chronicled their beliefs in complex, painted glyphs, which will be featured in Part II of Mexican Art and Archaeology.

Fig. 8  Temple of Thousand Warriors
Fig.  7  Wall of Skulls

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