Koba, located in the northeastern Yucatan peninsula in the modern Mexican state of Quintana Roo, functioned as a Classic Maya metropolis. The center was also occupied in the Preclassic and Postclassic periods. The site includes prominent archaeological features such as pyramids, tombs, vaulted structures on elevated platforms, staircases, altar stones, stone carved slabs (stelae), and a complex set of roads (sacbeob) that connect the core area to the peripheries of the site and distant centers such as Ixil (20 kilometers to the southwest) and to Yaxuna (100 kilometer to the west). The core of the 63-square-kilometer site includes a 1.5-kilometer-square area built on an artificial elevated platform which was the focus of the royal court, with large pyramid structures, elite residences, reception areas, broad stairways, and alley-like passageways. Koba was dramatically successful in creating an expansive Classic Maya regional center with its spokelike sacbe system binding peripheral noble houses to the core area and serving as the boundaries of the contiguous suburban zones. Longer roads, trading expeditions, and warfare defined the limits of this regional state. The population of Classic Koba, estimated as 55,000, resided adjacent to the civic-ceremonial core and included greater nobles, lesser nobles, attendants to these, artisans, and modest commoners.
The Iglesia pyramid and the Nohoch Mul (Ixmoja) pyramid, located in the core area, are surrounded by vaulted architecture on both high and low platforms. The vaulted structures range from lavishly complex, double-wide vaulted structures to smaller, single-vaulted rooms. The functions of the central court area and its associated architectural forms are revealed through ethnography, ethnohistory, art history, and epigraphy. At Koba, this sector of the site is difficult but not impossible to interpret. The glyphic record at Koba is sadly eroded, the stone slab stelae inscriptions faded and in some cases broken; however, the ethnohistoric record provides some insight into the political importance of Koba. In addition, the ethnographic record of the Yucatec Maya lends some support to interpretation of the suburban zones, family structure, economic and political organization, and the religious symbolism and practice at the site.
One of the stelae at Koba illustrates connections between Koba and a woman from Naranjo, a Maya center located to the south. Through the tie to Naranjo, Koba was also bound to Tikal, but alienated from Calakmul and Caracol. Additional stelae at Koba mark the fortune and struggles of the center as part of the pre-Columbian Maya region.
Architecture and Construction
The central core zone and palace space at Koba is not like any other site: it is unique in its setting on the shore of Lake Koba and Lake Macanxoc, extending north to the Nohoch Mul group. Features include two ball courts, high platforms topped with double-vaulted structures, altars, stelae, enclosed private courtyards surrounded by substantial constructions with vaults, staircases, and tombs. Multiple entrances into restricted courtyards are seen in buildings adjacent to the Iglesia pyramid, at the south and terminal end of Sacbe 27, and in the large, but perhaps unfinished, enormous mound to the west of the Nohoch Mul pyramid. Small spaces open onto large plaza areas (such as the zone in front of the Iglesia pyramid, from adjacent plazuelas, and from the high mounds and vaulted structures in the Coba Group B). Another large plaza area is found in front of the Nohoch Mul pyramid and main staircase. Large courtyards and the open plaza areas were the location of public theater, ritual and secular activities. More intimate enclosures (such as the modest plazuela behind the Macanxoc group, perhaps the area around the Las Pinturas group, smaller courts such as those associated with vaulted structures found at the end of Sacbe 27, and plazuela groups dispersed throughout the suburban zones) also functioned as loci for ritual celebrations and secular activities. Elite constructions involved high-energy investments in collecting the stone, rubble fill (chich), and plaster for stuccoing the walls. The amount of stone collected and shaped to construct the pyramids and some of the complex elite residential structures was enormous. Small sascaberas (granular limestone mines) for collecting raw materials for stucco are found adjacent to the perimeter of the central core area, in the northern survey zone, and elsewhere. In the suburban zones, platforms, vaulted constructions, and the foundations of pole-and-thatch housing required the collection of stone. Granular limestone for stucco, support beams, wall poles, and roofing thatch were required for construction of vaulted and unvaulted structures that served as shrines, residences, kitchens, storage buildings, and foundation stones for small garden areas. While stucco murals and fragmentary stucco in walls can be seen in the core area, stucco was also applied to walls outside the central zone. To the south, stucco walls were found at Dzib Mul and fragments of stucco can be seen on the high vertical walls on the east side of the Kitamna mound.
Administration and Court Structure
Classic Koba also housed principal and secondary nobles who performed key administrative duties and whose residences were located adjacent to the core in residential zones and at the ends of the many sacbeob (roads) for which Koba is deservedly famous. Important positions associated with the ruler include his Baah Ahaw (“Head Lord”), the Sajal and Ah K’uhuum, Yahaw K’ak, (the “Fire Lord”), Yahaw Te (“Tree Lord”), Ebet (“Messenger”), Ah Baak (“Captive Taber”), or Baah Pakal (“Head Shield”). These and their associates managed the operations of Classic Koba, inside and beyond the city limits.
The rulers pictured on stelae at Koba had female counterparts. Costumes worn by royalty are only visible in carved stone stelae, but these carvings show elaborate feathered headdresses, and details of dress, as well as scepters of power characteristic of Maya kings and queens elsewhere. It is highly probable that the elite men and women at Koba wielded both supernatural and earthly power as they did elsewhere in the Maya zone.
Ceramic art of the period indicates the presence of powerful women: royal wives who forged powerful alliances between Maya kingdoms. The significant relationship between rulers and powerful women is also manifest at Koba where a royal woman from Naranjo is portrayed on a stela at the second ball court constructed near the Nohoch Mul complex. The rulers and the queens were accorded elite burials; although to date no noble woman’s tomb has yet been located, these high-status individuals would have carried symbolic codes in their dress, posture, and actions. The prime identifier for maize deities is the net overskirt of linked jade beads; both kings and queens are known to wear this garment, including the Koba queen from Naranja.
Documentation and Symbolism
The murals, glyphs and carved stelae found at Koba are badly eroded and faded but some records can be recovered. The stelae reflect important individuals involved in sacred and secular activities of import to the success of Koba as a central place. The decorated and elaborate figures mark dynastic histories, war triumphs and ritual common to Koba and other Maya centers.
Life at the Maya court is reflected in rulers standing on the backs of captives; seated on elevated platforms with cushions, pillows, and mats; in curtained rooms; in public spaces; dressed with care in elaborate costumes and headdresses. The stelae provide documentation of clothing; sandals; elaborate, feathered headdresses; jewelry (jade, shell, and bone); elevated platforms for positioning rulers; associated attendants to the court (small dwarf figures representing companions to the Ruler/Maize God, manifestations of the dwarf/stubby malformed maize ears that commonly form on the corn stalk); and symbolism that reflects maize, cacao, and the calabash tree. The ceramics at Koba date primarily to the Late Classic Period (600-800 AD), although the site was occupied in earlier and later periods. The Late Classic pottery is Tepeu I and Tepeu II styles, and fragmentary.
The quincunx, symbol of the Maya four directions and the center, appears as a decoration on the stairway to the north of the Iglesia patio and marks the entrance to the first ball court reconstructed at Koba. The staircase may have been designed to celebrate victory and bring the battle to the Maya court as ballplayers marched down the stairs into the playing field. Battles were played out on the ball courts that merge secular and sacred space. Who the Koba warriors were fighting and why remains unclear, but elaborate trade relations and tribute payments may have been cemented through military subjugation.
Maya warfare focused on the capture of enemies, and these conquests were incised on Koba stelae where captives, with their wrists and feet bound, are crouched beneath the feet of rulers.
Maize, Myth, and Sacrifice
The Classic Maya gave central importance to the life cycle of maize, including attention to the wet and dry seasons; crop planting; and its sprouting, ripening and harvesting, as well as activities associated with processing the kernels (removing them from the cob, grinding them, and the nixtamalization process). The tragic adventures of the Maize God in the Underworld, his death, and resurrection, and the adventures of the Twin Heros (Hunahpu and Xbalanque) represent a story of epic proportion retold in the Popol Vuh. This epic has deep roots that reach back into the Classic and perhaps Preclassic Maya Periods: A Maya lord seated on top of a mountain or stone was recognized as part of the story of the Maize God; the Maya ruler on an elevated platform was identified with the Maize God; the Maya lords living on top of high, elevated platforms in cavelike, vaulted, stone buildings impersonated the Maize God. The site of Koba is riddled with metates in the core area and in the suburban zones. Noble residences with domestic structures and associated metates document significant processing of maize on the household level and in the central zone. In addition, Koba also has round altars that may have been used as sacrificial stones, with the victim’s body recognized as the symbolic center for the sprouting of maize (as illustrated by Maya artists at Piedras Negras, Peten, Guatemala, in the Codex Dresden and Codex Tro-Cortesianus, and in the Temple of the Warriors and Temple of the Jaguars at Chichen Itza).
Offerings excavated at the La Iglesia pyramid beneath a reset stela revealed shell, cinnabar, jade, and pearls as symbolic reflections of the Maize God, blood, death, and resurrection. A second offering in front of the first included seashell, jade, shell beads, and unworked hematite, replicating the first offering and reinforcing the symbolic associations of maize, death and rebirth. A third offering associated with La Iglesia revealed a censer, a monochrome plate, and miniature mano and metate, also representing association with the Maize God and suggesting rituals performed by the ruler as the Maize God impersonator. A skeleton buried in La Iglesia, with jade beads in each hand, illustrates the Maize God interred in the Iglesia mountain underworld.
To the north of the pyramid structure, the first ball court reflects the struggles of the Maize God and his brother, as well as the activities of the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh epic. The second ball court at Koba has a ceramic skull located in the center of the playing field. The courts represent “places of sacrifice” associated with elements (such as the calabash tree, jaguars, sacrificial knives, mosquitoes, coatimundi, squash, ants, vampire bats, blow-guns, comal griddles, masa corn meal), as well as with cunning, wit, and transformation. The ball courts at Koba reflect Maya symbolism, sacrifice, and resurrection as is recorded in the Popol Vuh epic as well as the importance of maize, other plants, and animals in the Maya world. While burials and offerings at Koba that include jade (acquired by long-distance trade) represent the Maize God’s costume minimally in comparison to the royal jade masks found with kings interred at Palenque and Calakmul, the symbolism is present and clear.
One significant obsession of Maya royalty was the emulation of the life of the underworld deity known as God L, the wealthy god of trade and tobacco, whose palace was richly furnished with objects desired by Maya kings. God L, old and toothless, with jaguar attributes, exhibited richly brocaded capes and extravagant feathered hats; frequently, his attendant owl was perched on his head. Beautiful women attended to his needs, and he received the frothy chocolate, a beverage preferred by the Maya nobility. God L was associated with the Rabbit scribe and the Moon Goddess, and because of this he is of particular interest in a discussion on Koba. The La Iglesia group at Koba is a place associated with reverence to the Moon Goddess, Chibirias (or Ix Chebel Yax) in contemporary local mythology. The Moon Goddess is known to be associated with abundant rebirth and regeneration in maize mythology and, according to Redfield and Villa Rojas, campesinos (farmers) in Chan Kom have reported that maize is grown following the lunar calendar. Local hunters continue to burn candles and incense before they enter the forest at night. The hunters seek deer, an animal associated with Blood Woman (mother of the Hero Twins). God L, the Rabbit scribe, the Moon Goddess, and the Maize God perform their parts in the Maya epic story, played out in ball courts and adjacent zones at Koba. God L, as trader (clearly manifested in the murals at the site of Cacaxtla), was tied not only to maize but also to cacao. These two crops, central to the Maya economy, can be seen on ceramic vessels documenting the connection between cacao and maize, as well as the economic and symbolic significance of these crops. While maize is known to have grown successfully in the relatively moist climate zone around Koba, it has been suggested that Ixil served as a “bread basket” zone to the southwest of Koba, connected by a substantial sacbe (roadway). The moister climate may also have allowed the growth of cacao at Koba (which was also grown to the south in Honduras). Deep cenotes around Koba could have served as microclimates for cacao cultivation; there is evidence that a large cacao tree was known to thrive in a cenote in the southern zone at Koba until a decade ago. The ability to grow even a few cacao trees in a cenote would have heightened the political and economic power of the Koba rulers. As documented on ceramic iconography; the Maize God is linked to the cacao tree. Cultivation of fruit, fiber, bark, and resin was important in the Maya garden city and reflected social organization.
Another possible transformation of the Maize God appears in the calabash tree. One Hunahpu (the father of the Hero Twins and representative of the Maize God), appears as a head in the calabash tree. Maize, cacao, and the calabash tree were all prominent features in the environs of Classic Koba; their high productivity would be associated with royal, economic, and political clout. The Koba ball courts and caches of jade, cinnabar, pearl, and shell document royal concerns for these trade and prestige products.
The Hero Twin Hunahpu loses his head to the gods of the Underworld, and may be represented by the skull in the second ball court at Koba. His skull is only a temporary loss, replaced by squash and then reattached; however, he later sacrifices himself with his twin brother by leaping into the fire. Their bones are ground down to masa (corn powder), thrown into water, and reconstituted as fish, fish-men, and the Tricksters who defeat the Lords of the Underworld to emerge as the Sun, Moon, and Venus. The three celestial images were probably observed and plotted from the Cono or Xaibe observatory at Koba. The structure has been reconstructed; alignment with the adjacent pyramid/mountain, the Nohoch Mul, and other structures reflects the astronomical prowess of the Maya residing at Classic Koba.
Myth as Urban Organization
Koba, in line with findings and interpretations elsewhere in the Maya region, depicts the contrasts between agricultural wealth based on maize, and commercial wealth based on cacao. The stelae, murals, vaults on platforms, and pyramids attest to the complex nature of Maya urban organization at Koba, and to the struggles and strength of the social groups residing in the city and beyond. The clearest portrait of Maya social dynamics was played out in the ball court where king and queen, father and son, agriculture, trade, politics, and religion are patterned as epic myth and social realities.
Human remains have been excavated at Koba, including an adult interred in a filled chamber associated with the La Iglesia pyramid. A reburied skeleton of an adolescent has been excavated in a small stone crypt. Burials outside the core have not been located but single structure units may have served as barrio shrines, perhaps associated with burials, as noted elsewhere in the Maya zone. What made Koba able to rise to its social, political and economic heights, and what caused the center to falter and collapse? What allowed the nobles of Koba to connect to the southern Peten zone? What permitted the center to gain access to pearls, shell, cinnabar, jade, and obsidian among other exotic and valued goods? Who were the rulers that guided the city? Who were the warriors and traders that protected and provided the goods that enabled the city to thrive? An understanding of these issues is yet to be achieved; however, it is clear that the center rose to great heights and accomplished massive tasks in building pyramids, palaces, and vast numbers of house compounds (both large and complex, as well as modest and simple structures). One clue to the builders’ intent might be the blue-green color seen on fragments of stucco and in faded murals at Koba; blue-green represents the fifth direction, the center: the union of celestial, terrestrial, and underworld levels of the cosmos.
Beyond the stark realities of politics and economic life, the people of Koba clearly designed the center to merge secular, sacred, and mythic in a rich pattern that characterized Classic Maya culture and was to endure in contemporary Maya culture, albeit, in an innovative pattern.
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