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A new power rises in the mountains, the mighty Toniná

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture off to the mountains of Chiapas to discover the mighty ancient city of Toniná.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
The enormous acropolis in Toniná, Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Toniná is a Mesoamerican archaeological site of the Maya civilization in what today is the Mexican state of Chiapas, 13 kilometers from the town of Ocosingo.

In the Maya Tzeltal language, Toniná means house of stone. But the original name of the city found in ancient texts appears as Po or Popo.

Entrance to Toniná temple complex on the ground floor of the acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The archaeological site covers six hectares. The bulk of the construction is concentrated in the area of the acropolis, which is 74 meters tall and towers above the plaza below. This massive complex ranks amongst the largest architectural feats of Mesoamerica and is even taller than the massive Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan.

View from the sixth terrace of the Toniná acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Toniná was likely founded sometime in the 2nd century CE, but not much is known about the city during this era because most archaeological evidence from this period remains buried under later construction. 

An undecorated sarcophagus is found in the interior of the grand acropolis at Toniná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The history of Toniná comes into clearer focus during the late classic in the 6th century CE. During this time, the city begins to experience a construction boom and begins to ramp up its militaristic ambitions. Thanks to inscriptions found on stelae, we have information pertaining to the rule of 13 different kings of the city. 

Sculpture of 6th century CE Lord of Toniná, Sotz’ Choj Muan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After coming to power in 688, king K’inich B’aaknal Chaak achieved a series of military victories over the city of Palenque, the premier power of the region during the classic age. In the following century, his heirs would go on fighting and capture Palenque, allowing Toniná to project its power across an enormous area. There is even evidence of Toniná capturing nobles from city-states in the Peten region, including Calakmul.

Likely administrative or elite residential complex on the grounds of the acropolis at Toniná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is hard to overstate just how impressive the acropolis at Toniná really is. The massive plaza is made up of seven south-facing terraces all facing to the north. It has a very distinct sense of geometry with a right-angle relationship between most structures. The rulers of Toniná must have been going for shock and awe when laying out the plans for their capital. 

The view of the areas surrounding countryside from atop the structure is really quite wonderful.

A view of Toniná and its surrounding region from atop the acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from being massive, the acropolis is also noteworthy for its stucco murals and several other interesting finds. The stucco relief is known as the “mural of the four eras” and depicts the god of death, Ah Puch or Kitizin, holding a decapitated head by its hair. 

Scene from the underworld depicting the Maya god of death, Ah Puch or Kitizin, holding a severed human head. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Keeping to the theme of decapitation, the relief repeats four times an image of an upsidedown decapitated head laying on what appears to be a bed of feathers— another allusion to the realm of the dead, or Xibalbá. 

An upside down decapitated head on a round shield of feathers lies in proximity to a crouching skeletal figure at Toniná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Towards the bottom of the panel, there is an interesting image of a man contorting his body in what seems to be some kind of ritual dance. Viewed from another perspective, the man’s extended leg could be seen as about to kick one of the repeating upside-down decapitated heads. He also appears to be blowing air out of his mouth.

Dancing or kicking man in Toniná, Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Inside a temple on the main acropolis is a representation of the maw of the monster of the earth, with a stone sphere inside its mouth, representing the sun.

A temple at Toniná contains the open-mawed monster of the earth. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In Maya cosmology, this being held the sun in its mouth during solar eclipses and the nighttime hours. The monster of the earth is also closely associated with the realm of the dead, or Xibalbá, and is a common motif in Rio Bec Mayan architecture.

Mayist scholars believe that the monster of the earth is best understood as an elemental power rather than a deity or god. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Outside the main acropolis, the most prominent structure is Toniná’s ceremonial ball court, as well as a series of tablero talud ceremonial platforms. 

Ceremonial platform with a ballcourt in the background at Toniná Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Speaking of the Mesoamerican ball game, Toniná has several beautiful carvings depicting the ceremony, such as this relief structure from Monument 171. The scene depicts the King of Calakmul, on the right, competing with the deceased ruler of Toniná, K’inich Baaknal Chaak.

A Mesoamerican ball court game being played by two kings at Toniná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Toniná is almost exactly halfway between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. The roads in the area are treacherous, especially if the weather is poor. Your best bet is to hire a tour guide in either Palenque or San Cristobal. 

Toniná is in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Image: Google Maps.

The altitude, along with the multiple twists and turns of the road, has been known to cause car sickness, so avoid eating too much for breakfast and bring along a box lunch. This area of Chiapas is also well known for its quality coffee production, so make sure you stop and pick some up. 

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink, other than water. The entrance fee is 65 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID.

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