Tonina: The Great Plaza

Sacrificial Altar and Ballcourt 1 at Tonina W0435: Entrance to the Great Plaza

As you enter the archaeological site of Tonina from the museum, the first area you enter is the Great Plaza. Covering an area of 6 hectares, the Great Plaza is the first, and by far the largest, of Tonina’s seven tiers. The ascent up these seven tiers is designed to take you to the heavens, 71 metres above. However, on Level 1, you are probably in a mock Xibalba, in the eerie underworld, and the first building you will encounter is the sunken ball court on the eastern edge of Platform 1 (the western wall and lower sloping step are visible in the very left quarter of fig. W0435). The ball-court was typically an arena where slaves would contest in a fatal ball-game, partly as a spectator sport, but mainly to provide honourable victims to be sacrificed to the gods. A large square altar is found just beyond the ball-court (visible top-right in fig. W0435) on which it is believed the contestants would have met their destiny – hence it is called the Sacrificial Altar. They would normally have had their throats slit, to bring about a quick death, and then their heads would be removed with a large obsidian blade – this would take some time to complete. This was symbolic of the game played by legendary heroes of Mayan culture, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, which ended with the Lord’s of Xibalba beheading One Hunahpu and later using his head as a ball. This death was avenged by the Hero Twins, the children of One Hunahpu, who overcame the Lords of Xibablba and raised their father from the dead. Sitting at the southern end of the Great Plaza is the Temple of the Cosmic War, which is thought to have been completed in 692AD (visible as a grassy mound, capped with exposed remains of the temple enclosure at the centre-top of fig. W0435). In front of the Temple are the remains of 5 large stone altars that were once home to dedicatory discs that have long since been removed and are catalogued as Monuments 124,135,136,137 and 139. It seems probable that the altars were dedicated to the Five Houses of Xibalba.

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