Feature Article

The Casa Colorada Ball Court

INAH Turns Mounds into Monuments

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(Click photo to see higher resolution)

A Site Report by Dr. Steven Fry

Among some of the oldest structures in the Chichen Itza archaeological zone is the Casa Colorada group. For the past few weeks a team of archaeologists and workers from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), under the direction of Jose Francisco Osorio Leon, have been excavating several of the buildings, looking for clues that they hope will provide them with answers as to the early settlement of the ancient city.

The group consists of several buildings. It is named after one of the buildings, Casa Colorada, which is Spanish for Red House. It also has a Maya name, Chichanchob, which according to INAH may mean "small holes." In one room of the building there are extensive carved hieroglyphs that mention rulers of Chichen Itza and possibly of the nearby city of Ek Balam, and contain a Maya date inscribed which correlates to 869 a.d., one of the oldest such dates found in all of Chichen Itza.

While the Casa Colorada is in a good state of preservation, other buildings in the group, with one exception, are decrepit mounds. One building is half standing, named Casa del Venado (House of the Deer). The origin of the name is unknown, as there are no representations of deer or other animals on the building.

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Adjoining the Casa Colorada is a ball court which until very recently was in ruins. This is the focus of study by INAH archaeologists.

Last week Dr. Steven Fry visited Chichen Itza in the company of Dr. Peter Schmidt of INAH. Dr. Fry is a chemist, not a professional archaeologist. This is a report of his visit.

The current excavation and re-assembly is occurring on what is the backside of Casa Colorado. The construction, which includes a ball court (one of 10 found so far at Chichen Itza), is of more recent origin than the Casa Colorada. According to Dr. Schmidt, the best evidence indicates that Casa Colorada was built first, as indicated by the architectural styles and building materials employed. For example, the corners/edges of the Casa Colorada's exterior are rounded, much like the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal. The surface stones on the main construction of Casa Colorada are clearly rougher than the well polished surface stones of the ball court and associated building.

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Until recently, tourists who walked between El Castillo to the north and the Caracol and Las Monjas to the south would stroll through the rubble of the former ballcourt. That pedestrian traffic has now been re-routed to the east.

The ball court, which runs north-south, appears to be about 7 meters wide and 17 meters long, although I was not able to measure. In addition to the re-assembly of the basic parts of the ball court, INAH has also re-assembled a walled area on the north side. This area was formerly open and tourists passed through it.

The ball court actually consists of two ball courts, one built atop another. The older court is about 2 meters shorter than the "current" ball court.

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INAH workers uncovered an older ballcourt behind a newer one (with red mortar). (Click photo to see higher resolution)

The west wall of the ball court adjoins the back wall of the Casa Colorada. The east wall of the ball court adjoins another building, which until recently was just a mound of fallen stone. This building originally consisted of a platform base with a columned building atop, overlooking the ball court. At the time of my visit the platform's three outer walls had been re-assembled to a height of about three meters, and the top was still rubble. The original structure on top of platform has six foundation stones for columns, arrayed across the face that overlooks the ball court. Six free-standing columns would create seven porticos.

Archeologists have sorted out many stones finished at the same angles used to create a vault, with rough backsides and finished angled faces which are characteristic of the stones used on the inside walls of vaults. The vaults appear to be of typical Maya design, inverted v-shaped stone ceiling/roof structures. Dr. Schmidt explained that INAH plans to continue excavation of the top of the platform, exposing the materials needed to reassemble the original 6-columned building with a vault.

There are also two groups of finished stones that nicely fit the triangular shape and size of ends of the roof, like gables in a Western house, that enclose the ends of the vault. There are also sufficient characteristic cornice stones to create a cap around the top of the building, indicating that the original structure had a vaulted roof with decorative crown features on top of the platform overlooking the ball court.

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Triangle of stones, highlighted with white line (Click photo to see higher resolution)

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Assemble cornice (Click photo to see higher resolution, including INAH archaeologist Jose Francisco Osorio Leon)

On the east side of this platform, opposite the ball court, is a wide set of stairs leading up the platform.

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The stairs rise from a sacbe, a Maya raised road, of which dozens criss-cross Chichen Itza. Across the sacbe from this building is another mound commonly called Maudslay's Temple, after the 19th century archaeologist Alfred E. Maudslay. According to INAH archaeologists, there are detailed plans to excavate and re-assemble Mauldsay's Plataforma in the future, but they are awaiting funding.

This ball court is typical of most ball courts at other Maya sites in the area, such as Uxmal and Coba, where there is a short wall of one or two meters that supports an angled bench of two to four meters that then joins a vertical wall.

The Casa Colorada ball court features six nicely carved bas-relief panels, each representing a group of four ball players, dressed in traditional costume. Each of the four corners of the low interior walls of the ball court has a single panel, and two more small panels are inlaid opposite each other in the center of the low facing walls of the court. The bas-relief panels are no more than 1 meter tall and less than 2 meters wide. The figures carved into them are wearing the characteristic Maya ball player's costume: plumed headgear and protective pads, as well as a ball at their feet.

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According to Osorio Leon, there have never been any rings or posts found in the area. From an athlete's perspective, this court would be much easier to score in than any other court I've seen in Maya land, due to its smaller size. This court is about the same length but easily 30 percent narrower than the ball court at Uxmal, and likely only 10 percent of the size of Chichen Itza's Great Ball Court. The size differences raise interesting questions about changes in significance and societal functions of their ball games over the span of four centuries at Chichen Itza.

The latest re-constructions appear to include materials of high quality and interesting design, with very few missing pieces so far. The INAH workers have been assembling what appears to be a considerable quantity of well mated and well matched stone work. To my untrained eye it appears to be very different in style from the earlier constructions of Casa Colorada and the Templo des Venados, as well as other buildings around that plaza.

When INAH's Osorio Leon and his team finishes the 6-columned building on top of the ball court's plataforma, the area will be a very nice addition to the larger complex that already has several exceptional buildings, such as the Caracol and Las Monjas. This more modest construction, from my perspective, is an excellent use of limited government funding. Good bang for the buck!

For the latest developments on the excavations at Chichen Itza, see the American Egypt Daily Blog.

 About Casa Colorada 

Of all the structures at Chichen Itza, the Casa Colorada must feel the most ignored. While almost every other ruin has had some significant exploration or restoration or even attention from visitors, the Casa Colorada has been long been bypassed for other monuments.

For decades, tourists wander past coming from El Castillo and the Great Ball Court to the north, but they usually only give Casa Colorada a glance before moving on to the more visually interesting Caracol and Las Monjas to the south. So insignificant was it that a path was cut through its adjoining ball court, even though there is a perfectly serviceable sacbe (an ancient Maya road) right next to it.

But of all the structures at Chichen Itza, the Casa Colorada was one of the best preserved. One advantage to being overlooked is that it resisted much of the vandalism that hastened the destruction of other buildings in the ancient city.

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The front of the Casa Colorada at the beginning of the 20th century. (Click photo to see higher resolution)

The first to explore the building and write about it was John Lloyd Stephens. In his Incidents of Travel of Yucatan (1843), he noted, "The terrace is sixty-two feet long and fifty-five wide, and is still in good preservation; the staircase is twenty feet wide, and, as we approached it on our first visit, a cow was coming quietly down the steps ..."

The next to spend any time there was Alfred Maudslay, who simply used the building as a headquarters but only until a better room was prepared at the top of Las Monjas. Maudslay included the Casa Colorada in his very detailed report on Chichen Itza, but his description was so spare that one suspects he was wishing he was examining something else when he did.

The Casa Colorada has a large front chamber and three small chambers in the rear. The front room has one unique feature that many other monuments do not: hieroglyphs. There is a lintel with dozens of carved glyphs that only in recent years have been translated. For one, they contain a date of 879 a.d., making it one of the oldest dates found so far at Chichen Itza.

The glyphs apparently mention three rulers or government officials, including a K'inich Jun Pik To'ok, believed to be a ruler of nearby Ek Balam. Ek Balam at the time was the dominant city in the region, a century or two before Chichen Itza's rise to power. The glyphs also describe a fire ritual

One of only two stelae found at Chichen Itza was found in the area of the Casa Colorada. Other Maya cities have several stelae (such as nearby Coba), but Chichen has been relatively barren of the large, free-standing stone markers that usually contain artwork and glyphs. At Chichen Itza, most scholars believe that at the time the city flourished, it was controlled by a political organization that did not place high value on literacy, at least on public monuments. The Casa Colorada stela, therefore, must predate those regimes.

According to a recent press release from INAH, work has begun or soon will begun to excavate and explore other structures around the Casa Colorada, such as the Casa des Venados (House of the Deer), with the hope of learning more about these buildings constructed two centuries before Chichen Itza became a dominant political power.

-- EJ Albright

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