Chitzen Itza

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The Temple of a Thousand Warriors is part of the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the northwest of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The extensive Pre Columbian ruins at Chichen Itza are a UNESCO World Heritage within easy reach, by day trip, from the tourist resort of Cancún. They were built by the Mayan people.

Chitzen Itza is a large and complex site. It is dominated by a step pyramid known as El Costelio. A ceremonial avenue stretches for 5 kilometres through the main complex.  Archaeologists have found almost 100 ''sacbeob'' criss-crossing the site, and extending in all directions from the city. Satellite sites extend in all directions.

Chitzen Itza is thought to be a religious complex built around a sacred well. The Mayan words Chichen Itza mean “at the mouth of the well of the Itza. Itza was the wizard of the water. Water was important. The Yacatán is a dry limestone plain which has little surface water. The land is dotted with sinkholes and caves. The sinkhole at Cenote Sagradoon on the edge of the Chitzen Itza site is impressive. The Well of Sacrificde is 60 metres in diameter and drops 27 metres to the water table. Chitzen Itza developed as a place of pilgrimage to the sinkhole. When Edward Herbert Thomson dredged the well from 1904 to 1910 he found thousands of votive offerings and human remains whose wounds were consistent with human sacrifice.  Archaeologists believe that the well was used for human sacrifice in times of drought. The artefacts that Thompson found are now in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

Although the ruins are impressive archaeologists believe that Chitzen Itza had a short period of grandeur. At around 600 AD the site started to gain prominence as a regional centre for pilgrimage by people from the northern Mayan lowlands. The site is though to have become more important in the tenth century when other centres in the southern Mayan lowlands fell into disrepair. In 987 AD a Toltec king, Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl garrisoned the city and made it is second capital. Buildings that pre-date Quetzalcoatl are Mayan character. Those built after his arrival have a mix of Mayan and Toltec styles from central Mexica. Under Quetzalcoatl Chichen Itza became a major regional centre which centralised power in the northern Mayan lowlands. El Costilo is a monument to his kingdom.

The collapse of Chitzen Itza is a mystery. When the Spaniards found the site in the sixteenth century Cenote Sagradoon was still a place of pilgrimage but Chtzen Ittza was largely abandoned. According to Mayan sources the site was abandoned when the ruler of Mayapan conquered the site in the thirteenth century. Archaeologists have found evidence that the city was sacked in about 1000 AD which is remarkably close to the heyday under Quetzalcoatl. The cause and date of the collapse is still under investigation.

The physical site at Chitsen Itza is separated into compounds which were originally separated by low stone walls. The three most important compounds are associated with sinkholes. The Great North Platform is close to the Well of Sacrifice. The Ossario compound is close to the second largest sinkhole at Chitsne Itza. It is called Xtoloc meaning the Lizard in Mayan. The smaller Casa Colorado complex takes the Mayan name Chnichanchob which means small hole because the area contains many small sinkholes.

The Great Northern Compound contains the most impressive monuments at the site. It contains the step pyramid of the El Castilo, numerous religious platforms, the Temple of a Thousand Warriors and the Great Ball Court.

Major excavations took place at Chichen Itza during the 1920s and 1930s. The Mexican government sponsored the excavation and restoration of the El Castilo and the Great Ball Court. At the same tine the Carnegie Institution was given licence to excavate the Temple of Warriors.

The El Casilo dominates the site. Westerners call it the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. The Mayans call in the Temple if Kukulcan. It is a step pyramid with staircases rising on each side. During their excavations the Mexican government wanted to test a theory that it was built above an earlier pyramid. They found a stairway under the north face which led down into an inner chamber. This chamber contained a great treasure: a red throne in the form of a Jaguar with inland jade spots.  Until 2006 the throne room was open to the public.

El Castillo has a special astronomical alignment. There are 91 steps on each face. Add one for the top plinth and this gives the number of days in the year. On the spring and autumn equinoxes the shadow falls exactly on the western edge of the northern face. Scultpure on the northern staircase allows the shadow of Kukulcan, the plumed serpent to slither down the staircase.

Rafael Cobos commenced new excavations near El Castilo in 2009. He is looking for structures that predate the pyramid.

The pyramid of Ossario it is a similar but smaller than that of El Casslio. Unlike the El Cassilo this pyramid has an opening at the centre which leads down to a natural cave. When Edward Thomspon excavated the cave he found skeletons and votive offerings. Thomson though that the pyramid was a Temple to the High Priest. Modern archaeo3lgists think that it was rather a place of sacrifice.

The Temple of the Warriors lie to the east of the El Cassilo. This is a stepped pyramid with a difference. It is fronted and flanked by rows of carved stone columns depicting warriors. Some of the columns would have once supported a roof like structure. As with the El Cassilo the temple contains an earlier structure known as the Temple of Chac Mool. The Temple of the Warriors is a fusion of culture. The only place with a similar though lesser structure has been found is at Tula in Centrla Mexico. Tula was the twin capital used by Quetzalcoatl.

An archaeological appreciation of Chichen Itsa has to take into account the great ball game. The Great Ball Court is one of the most intriguing places at Chichen Itsa. The courtyard measures 166 x 68 metres with 12 metre high walls. The walls carry numerous carvings in which players are involved in gruesome human sacrifice. Although it is not clear whether the winners or losers of the game were sacrificed it is clear that the ballgame had a ritual and cultural significance beyond mere sport.

Casa Colorado is of interest because it contains the earliest surviving buildings at Chitzen Itza. They date from 869 AD. The central complex is of interest because it contains a dedicated building called the Observatory Temple.

Chitzen Itza is an impressive and extensive site. Much of it has yet to be explored. Archaeologists still have a great deal to learn of its mysteries. What were the rules of the great ball game and why was the site abandoned?

More about this author: Nick Ford

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