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The Silk Route - World Travel: Cantona, Mexico
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Mexico: Cantona
July 2016

Ball court, Cantona

 

A densely populated Epiclassic city, tightly planned and with an immense number of ball courts within ceremonial clusters of pyramids and plazas - a fascinating site in a vast volcano-studded plain.

Pico do Orizabo and Sierra Negra
Pico do Orizabo and Sierra Negra

 

The Epiclassic site of Cantona lies about 90 minutes by car north east of Puebla, near the border with Veracruz state.

Though a well-developed settlement had existed here in Classic times, it was around 600AD that a new phase of development began, with walled walkways and residential compounds springing up.1 The building of the city was planned to a high degree and movement within the urban area seems to have been highly controlled, with single access points to each walled residential compound, and walkways and entry gates controlling access to the sacred acropolis - it must have been quite a claustrophobic place to live with all the walls and restricted access.

Cantona
Calle 1
This walled walkway is typical of Cantona, providing access to the site from the south west.


Cantona

In addition, the whole city was fortified and a moat was built at its most vulnerable point. The rulers appear to have feared attack from outside as well as unrest inside the densely populated city.


Cantona
Steps and walkways climb up through the terraces.
Obsidian spear tips
Obsidian spear tips.
On-site museum, Cantona.

One of the sources of wealth for the city, if not its major resource, must have been the Oyamales-Zaragoza obsidian outcrop, only 10km away.1 Formed by rapidly cooling volcanic lava, the resulting black glassy material is very smooth and extremely sharp. Obsidian was highly valued to make tools of all kinds: scrapers, knives, spear tips etc. as well as to make decorative items.

Cantona
Walled walkways and residential compounds.
Cantona Patio 2
Patio 2, Cantona, north end of Calle 1.
Family homes or patios were raised on platforms within a walled residential compound. Shrines and workshops might also be found in the patios.

A huge site, its singular claim to fame is the number of ball courts - 27 found so far, 15 of these within aligned architectural ceremonial complexes.

We began in the on-site museum which has some of the fascinating artefacts found here and a detailed history of the development of the city, divided into four phases. The first period is characterised by rapid urban development between 600BC and 50AD over 333 hectares. The walled living compounds were built, obsidian was mined, and Cantona traded throughout south and south east Mexico. At the end of this stage there were 16 ball courts, six of which formed part of planned architectural complexes which included a pyramid and plaza, sometimes with an altar.

 

Cantona

Cantona is being sensitively excavated and restored so that, with a little study, it is quite easy to make out the demarcations of the different areas, types of buildings and architectural features.

Cantona
Cantona
Model of a dwelling on a raised platform, on-site museum, Cantona.
Cantona

The second phase lasted until 600AD and was characterised by strengthened ties with other towns and cities underpinned by the exploitation of Oyamales-Zaragoza and the expanding obsidian trade. The city covered 1,100 hectares and there were 20 ball courts, half within aligned complexes.

Cantona
These walled walkways throughout the site must have felt very confining and claustrophobic.

Over the next roughly 300 years, though the population increased to around 93,000 and building intensified, culturally the city developed very little. It remained, however, the dominant and largest city in the central highlands, covering 1,453 hectares.

Cantona

Cantona stands on a volcanic substrate which was also used in much of the original construction, achieved without the use of mortar.

Cantona

The final phase lasted until around 1,050AD as the population declined and the city was abandoned. Whether this was due to climate changes or internal conflict or a combination of both is unknown - Cantona was so well-fortified that it is thought unlikely that it was due to attack from outside.

Cantona
Cantona
Western access to the ceremonial and civic centre of the city is up 47 steps, climbing 14.13 metres.


Cantona
Ball game cluster 5
The I of the ball court clearly visible in the lower diagram. On-site information board.

Cantona
Cantona
Lookout post in the north-west of the city.

 

We walked north along the walled walkway of Calle 1 through residential areas to the steps which lead into the civic and ceremonial centre of the city. At the top it is clear how well the city was fortified, with what appears to be a lookout post with wide views over the surrounding countryside.

Cantona
Ball game cluster 5, looking east from the west end of the ball court.
Cantona
Large stepped altar in front of the pyramid, cluster 5. Offerings of human remains were found buried beneath the altar.
Cantona
Structure 8, seen from the west end of ball court 5.
A stone box was found inside the pyramid containing offerings related to the different levels of nature: earth, sky and sea.


Cantona
Continuing archaeological work.

 

Here we encountered our first ball court, number 5, which is part of a sacred cluster, aligned with two plazas and pyramid. This ball court is a classic I shape with the remains of markers set along the central playing surface.

The ball game was part of the ritual aspect of Meso American cultures and often involved some kind of sacrifice or blood-letting.

At the east end of the ball court a plaza leads to a flight of steps up to a second plaza which has a large stone altar with steps on all four sides. On its far side is a pyramid.

Cantona
Altar and pyramid, cluster 5.
Cantona
Another ball court complex. Again the classic I-shape but with a greater slope to the walls. This one also has steps leading to the top of the slope.
Cantona
The last person to hold this obsidian arrowhead, apart from the man who dug it up and the archaeologist, was almost certainly a resident of Cantona, over a thousand years ago.

We came across several groups of workmen working on excavations and reconstructions. An archaeologist overseeing one group showed us an obsidian arrowhead they had found.

 

Cantona
Ball game cluster 7.
Cantona
Ball Court 7
A very strange shape for a ball court. It looks as if it has developed from a classic I, with part of the east end perpendicular area filled in with steps and the western end opened up.

 

Ball game cluster 7 is another that has two plazas as well as the ball court and a pyramid - it is the largest cluster at Cantona.

There are strong indications that the cluster was dedicated to the fertility of the soil and crop production: in the ball court two phallic statues representing sowing seed were found, the burial of a child wearing a necklace of green stones was found - the stones represent raindrops.

Cantona
Ball game cluster 7 from the west end of the ball court.

Cantona
First plaza east of ball court 7, with excellent views of the ball game. The steps lead up and over terracing into the Grand Plaza.

Cantona
Sunken Grand Plaza with stepped altar in front of the pyramid in complex 7.
Cantona
West end of the Grand Plaza, complex 7.
Cantona
West end of ball court 7 with steps filling in part of the perpendicular area.
Cantona
North side of the Grand Plaza.
The pyramid is part of Cluster 23.

Cantona
The smallest ball court at Cantona is this one, part of Ball Game Cluster 23 which has only one plaza between its pyramid and ball court. Cluster 23 is on the north side of Cluster 7 and its Grand Plaza.

 

Cantona
Sunken Grand Plaza, complex 7 from the north.
The plaza is ringed by terraces, perhaps used by spectators during ceremonies.
Cantona
Musical instruments and game tiles.
Conch shell trumpets, ceramic drums, whistles made from human or animal bone. Musical instruments were played at festivals and ceremonies.
Cantona
Pyramids, flowering Joshua trees and volcanoes.
Cantona
Penstemon

Cantona
Pyramid 7
Cantona
Plaza Oriente and pyramid El Mirador.


Cantona
El Mirador

Plaza Oriente, east of cluster 7, is the easternmost element in this monumental series of pyramids, ball courts and plazas at Cantona. Its pyramid is aptly called El Mirador - the views are stupendous!

Cantona
View across a vast, arid plain studded with extinct volcanoes, from El Mirador.
Cantona
Terraces which may have been part of an extensive market or commercial area.

 

From Plaza Oriente we worked our way back across the site exploring more of the archaeology on the south side.

Cantona
Terraces which may have been part of an extensive market or commercial area.

We passed many more pyramids and through a large area flanked by extensive terracing which it is speculated may have been a market place or similar commercial area.

Cantona
Another massive pyramid complex with its ball court on one side.
Cantona
A view over residential areas on the west side of Cantona.






Cantona
Food preparation and cooking pots.
On-site museum, Cantona.
The curved stone is a typical metate used for grinding grain by crushing with the cylindrical stone.

 

Cantona
Walled residential compound with dwelling platforms.

 

 

 

 

We came back to the western residential area about three hours after we'd set out. Cantona is a massive site and takes some time to explore properly, but it is well worth the effort for the extensive restoration of this densely populated city and the impressive ceremonial area, not to mention the incredible number of ball courts!

 

References

  1. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe & Rex Koontz, Seventh Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.