Posted by: Johan Normark | October 27, 2009

El Pilar – Nohol Pilar’s ballcourt and E-group

Before my fieldwork in the Cochuah region I spent four seasons in the Belize Valley. I first spent one season (1997) at Baking Pot. During a weekend I took a taxi to El Pilar, the largest site in the Upper Belize Valley. I liked the site and I later contacted Anabel Ford who was/is the director of the BRASS (Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey) project. I returned to El Pilar in 1998, 2000 and 2001. It was actually my work at this site that set me on the path toward studying causeways. In 2000 and 2001 I directed the survey and mapping of household mounds surrounding the monumental architecture which had already been mapped. I will present El Pilar in several posts. This first one deals with a description of the major buildings in the southern part of the monumental core. I will use my old reconstruction drawings as illustration, I am too lazy to scan my old slides.

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El Pilar seen from northwest

El Pilar was noted by the Department of Archaeology in Belize in the 1970s by Joseph Palacio and Harriot Topsey (Ford et al 1995). A preliminary map of the eastern monumenal group was developed in 1984. However, the surrounding areas of the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna have only partially been surveyed and mapped. During the 2000 field season a long-term settlement survey project was initiated which continued in 2001.

Several smaller satellite sites surrounds El Pilar. Laton lies 4,5 km from El Pilar and is thus far the only known major obsidian production site in the Lowlands. Thirty-nine exhausted prismatic cores and over 30,000 pieces of obsidian debris were found at this site. The obsidian came from El Chayal and Ixtepeque. Other minor centers such as Alta Vista, Yaxox, and Bacab Na lay closer to the valley (Ford et al 1995).

El Pilar lies in a hilly area, roughly 235 m above sea level. It consist of four monumental groups of architecture. Two of these lies in modern Belize (Nohol Pilar and Xaman Pilar) and the other two (Chikin Pilar and Kum) lies in modern Guatemala. The core of the Belizean monumental groups of El Pilar measures roughly 600 x 200 m. The southernmost group is called Nohol Pilar and it is the focus of this post.

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Plaza Axcanan

Plaza Axcanan lies at the southern end of Nohol Pilar and consists of three range-structures and two pyramidal mounds, to the east and to the south. Terminal Classic construction in this area involved stone robbing from older structures which suggests that the plaza was enclosed quite late (Ford et al 1995). Four meters below the entrance to EP3 which flanks the north end of Axcanan lies the site’s largest plaza, Plaza Copal. It had a wide accessway from the large Bryan & Murphy causeway in the west (more on this in a later post) and a stairway from the lower lying Plaza Duende in the north. A small ballcourt with Late Formative traces, straddles the eastern edge of the plaza, squeezed in between the major structures EP3 to the southwest and EP7 to the north.

EP7, on the eastern side stands on a basal platform with side wings to the north and south. This 80 m long and 17 m high building have been penetrated by a 44 m long tunnel which shows a long construction phase spanning from the Middle Formative to the Late Classic. The earliest structures consisted of a platform constructed of clay from an aguada which lies to the east. Thus it seems likely that the aguada was enlarged relatively early in the site’s history. These earliest structures face east whereas the Late Classic structure face west, toward the plaza. This Middle Formative clay platform probably faced an open plaza to the east. At this time the plaza sloped in south-east direction, toward the aguada. Later there was a shift in the slope to the northwest which may have occurred at a time when the south platform and the central temple were connected and thus restricted the flow of water to the aguada. It is believed that when the orientation of EP7 changed, Plaza Copal was extended to the west. Large stones inside the temple, forming a header-and-stretcher style retaining wall have been dated to the Late Formative (Wernecke 1998, 2000) Two large rectangular shaped stones, probably stelae, have been found at the base of EP7 and in Plaza Duende near the base of the Duende- Copal stairs. The stela found at EP7 seems to have fallen from a higher location (Wernecke 1994).

Plaza CopalEP10 in the west is 80 m long, 30 m wide and has a 14 m wide stairway which leads to a wide range structure on top. EP10 is approximately 12 m high. It appears to be a five-stepped terraced pyramid. The corners facing the plaza were rounded as seems to be the case for several larger structures at the site (Ford et al 1995). South of EP10 lies a pile of construction debris which may have been intended for the re-building of EP7 which was under its way (Wernecke 1994). EP7 and EP10 form a so-called E-Group (named after Group E at Uaxactun where this arrangement first was discovered). These are bilaterally symmetrical temples on east and west sides of a plaza that faces each others.

Two smaller temples straddles the northern side of Plaza Copal. EP8 in north-east and EP9 in the north-west. The lowest floor of EP9 contained a Middle Formative round platform. It was five meters in diamater and 25-35 cm high. These kind of structures have been found at Barton Ramie, Rio Azul, and Cahal Pech (Aimers et al. 2000). There are no signs of a superstructure and they may have worked as dance platforms or oratories, related to ancestor worship. This structure was later covered by an open plaza. The replacement of round structures with rectilinear ones in later periods may indicate a shift in form but a maintained content, that is, lineage or burial shrines.

Plaza Duende is a large open area with only one major structure in the northwest corner. It was reached from Plaza Copal in the south by a wide stairway. As people moved to the north from Duende they had to walk down a ramp on the eastern side of the plaza and into a low lying plaza labeled Escoba. North of this area we find Plaza Faisan which unites Nohol Pilar with Xaman Pilar in the north. I save that for another blog post.

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