Monday, May 19, 2014

Weekend Trip to Ocosingo and Tonina

Over the past few days we’ve experienced unprecedented amounts of rain for this time of year. Coupled with cooler temperatures, this cold/wet weather has made for a few slow days around the house. Yesterday we decided to combat the cabin fever by visiting the town of Ocosingo and the site of Toniná, a Maya site about two hours from where we’re staying.

Though long and winding, the drive was pleasant and the views of the surrounding landscape exceptional, especially as we climbed higher in altitude into the Chiapas highlands. The road between Ocosingo and Palenque is dotted with the rural villages of modern Maya, and we saw many of them planting corn and weeding their milpas as we drove past. This area of the Chiapas highlands is the heartland of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a largely indigenous peasant-based leftist group seeking indigenous control over local resources, especially land. The Maya communities of Chiapas live in impoverished conditions and are largely excluded from modern development, with over 90% of indigenous households without electricity and running water. In response to historically poor living conditions and economic disenfranchisement, the EZLN staged a rebellion from their base San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas on January 1, 1994. Since then, insurgency has developed into a powerful political movement that advocates for Mexico’s disenfranchised indigenous groups. Many of the Maya villages we passed along the road from Palenque to Ocosingo displayed signs and murals in support of the EZLN and their political objectives.

A horse grazing outside of Tonina, overlooking the Ocosingo Valley. 

After a two hour drive, we arrived in Ocosingo, and took a brief stroll around the zocalo (town square) before sitting down to lunch. After lunch, we moseyed over to the Toniná Archaeological Park to tour the ruins and visit the museum on site. Toniná is a medium sized Classic Period site located in the Ocosingo Valley, about 40 miles south of Palenque. The monumental site center of Toniná was established during the Early Classic, though early components of the site are not well known. Toniná bears the last long count date in the Maya lowlands – AD 909 – marking the “collapse” of political institutions centered upon the kuhul ajaw, or divine kings.

The presence of the EZLN influence marked with a sign, with Tonina in the background.

Emily makes a new friend on the way to the ruins.

Toniná is best known as a militaristic polity, evident in its art, inscriptions, and architecture. Images of bound captives are shown on many of their carved and sculpted monuments, including one of the only Maya depictions of a female captive. While Toniná apparently feuded with several Maya kingdoms, its greatest foe was Palenque. Many of the glyphic texts at the site detail sporadic warfare events between the two sites over hundreds of years in the Late Classic Period. At the end of the 7th century, inscriptions at Toniná hint at the greater strength of Palenque. For instance, Ruler 2 of Toniná disappears from written records in AD 687 after a conflict with Palenque. Toniná later became the dominant center when it captured several vassals of Palenque in AD 699. Ballcourt 1 at Toniná shows the six sculpted prisoners with their hands bound and heads lowered. In the 8th century, Toniná successfully launched a “star war” against Palenque, and in AD 711 the Toniná ruler B’aaknal Chaak entered the Palenque site core and sized its ruler K’an Joy Chitam, leaving a 10 year gap in Palenque’s dynastic history. Toniná remained the dominant site in the region in the Terminal Classic Period.

Tenon heads at Tonina Ballcourt 1.

Stela depicting the 6th century ruler Jaguar Bird Peccary.

Toniná is also well known for its elaborate sculpted friezes. The Frieze of the Dream Lords, shown below, depicts the parallel universe of the wayob’, where the alter egos of the Maya nobility lived. The skeletal figure depicted in the frieze is called “Turtle Foot Death’ because he wears turtle shells on his feet. Decapitated heads, jaguars, and other fantastic images are also evident in the frieze.

Frieze of the Dream Lords, left panel, showing "Turtle Foot Death" in the center.

 One of the features at Toniná we (Claire and Emily) most enjoyed was the carving of an Earth Monster near the top of the Toniná complex. Though part of the sculpture is missing, it is still possible to see the monster opening its mouth and the scorched insides where fires were most likely lit. It’s easy to imagine how imposing this monument would have looked when a fire was roaring inside of its mouth.

Altar of the Earth Monster, showing a fanged serpent with a stone ball in his mouth.

View of the Ocosingo Valley from the top of the Tonina main temple. 

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