Friday, June 29, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 15: Dzbilichaltún's Cenote, Ball Court, and Colonial-era ruins

Xlacah Cenote is located at the southwest corner of the Great Plaza. The name Xlacah means "Old Town" or "Old People." Cenote is a Spanish corruption of the Maya word dzonot, meaning "well." In ancient times, cenotes were the sole reliable sources of clean, fresh water in NW Yucatan. The initial settlement of this area more than 2000 years ago was probably due to this readily available water. The name Xlacah seems to support that view. Cenotes in NW Yucatan are associated with the Chicxulub Crater, created when a massive meteorite struck the northwest coast about 65 million years ago. The impact caused the worldwide extinction of the dinosaurs and other species, but there were some positive aspects. Along the curved edge of the crater, the limestone base underlying most of the Yucatan Peninsula was cracked, allowing water to further penetrate the already porus limestone. Eventually, trickling water undermined the limestone platform. These weakened areas collapsed into sinkholes, opening up underground pools and rivers that became cenotes. In this, the last of my four postings on Dzibilchaltún, I'll show you the Xlacah Cenote, the Ball Court, and the remains of some interesting Colonial-era buildings.


Once a sacred site, this is now a popular swimming hole. A Mexican tourist enjoys the cool water on a hot Yucatan day. There are no life guards, so swimming is at your own risk. The oval-shaped pool is about 30.5 m (100 ft.) at its widest point. Various groups of divers have attempted to find the bottom since the 1950s. They managed to reach a depth of 44 m (144 ft), but no one has yet found the bottom. The divers did find numerous objects made of wood, bone, and stone, as well as fragments of pottery. A number of human skeletons were also found, but it is unclear whether these were sacrifices or possibly drownings that occurred over the centuries. Some of the objects seem to have been offerings, so it is believed that this was a sacred site, not just a source of potable water.


Mouth of a small cave near the cenote. The photo above shows how a seemingly solid platform of limestone can be undermined by water leakage. The Maya believed that caves were openings into the mystical underworld, and they were especially important if they contained water. Chaac was the rain god and the Maya believed he lived in cenotes and water-filled caves. If the appropriate ceremonies and rituals were performed, accompanied with the correct offerings, Chaac would send water from the cenote or cave up to the skies to form rain. For  an agriculture-based society, this was an extremely important process. In addition, caves were closely associated with sexuality and fertility. The entrance of a cave represented the vagina and the cave itself the womb. Still another view of caves concerned life and death. That which emerged from a cave represented life, and that which descended into one represented death.


Dzibilichaltún as archaeologists found it.

This large conical pile of rubble was once part of a temple. Just outside the southwest corner of the Great Plaza are several large rocky mounds. This one has a group of sisal plants growing at its peak. The stone heap is probably 6-9 m (20-30 ft) high. Mounds like this are what archaeologists typically find when they locate a new site. A layman walking through the jungle would probably pass right by, without a second thought. It would be even easier to overlook the thousands of smaller ruins that dot the area. There are 8400 structures within the 25.7 square kilometers (16 sq. mi) of Dzibilchaltún, and the vast majority are unexcavated.


A partially restored temple, its top still covered by rubble. This temple is located near the western end of the Palace (see Part 14). There was no evidence of on-going work, so the restoration project may have run out of money or time. In many cases, large trees have taken root on top of ruins like this. Over the centuries, the jungle has reclaimed an area once swarming with human activity.


Tourists clamber over the ruins. In many of Mexico's major sites, tourists would be barred from clambering over ruined structures like this. The authorities of INAHA, the Mexican agency concerned with archaeological sites, are concerned about touritst safety, but also about the structural integrity of the ruin. I included this shot because the people help provide a sense of scale on this once-large temple.


Wildlife abounds in Yucatan. This iguana peeped up at me from a pile of rubble as I passed by. The iguanas at Dzibilchaltún seem fairly tame, probably because they are used to tourists and protected by the site staff. There 180 species of reptiles and amphibians native to Yucatan. The one above may be a Spiny Tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura defensor) which is found only in Western Yucatan.


The Ball Court

Carole and Denis approach the ball court. The view above is of the north end of the ball court. Two features found almost universally at Mesoamerican ruins are stepped pyramids and ball courts. Both kinds of structures date back to that "Mother of Cultures", the early Olmecs. Dzibilchatún's court is located a short distance to the southwest of the Palace. Its size is modest compared to the huge ball court found at Chichen Itza, but this one is still of respectable dimensions. Some ancient cities had multiple courts, but we didn't see any others during our visit. Still, they may well have been there, given the long occupancy of Dzibilchaltún and the number of unexcavated rubble piles scattered through the surrounding jungle.


The court shows many of the features found in such Mesoamerican structures, but lacks others. Here, you are looking north, from the south end of the court. The playing field, as usual, consists of a long rectangular grassy area along with the two sloping stone walls that parallel it. Spectators would have sat along the flat tops of the stone walls. However, this ball court's playing field doesn't appear to incorporate the areas at each end. In the design of many other ball courts, these areas would correspond to the short cross pieces at the top and bottom of a capital "I", but the cross pieces are missing in this court's design. At Chichen Itza and Uxmalthere are large stone rings mounted, one on each wall, through which players would have tried to propel the hard rubber ball. There are no such rings on the Dzibilchaltún court's walls. No sign was available at the sight to explain these differences, and there was no mention of this ball court in any of the on-line or printed materials I researched.


A stairway mounts the rear of each of the Ball Court's sloping walls. This would have allowed spectators to ascend to the level area where they could stand or sit along the top of the sloping walls. The ball games functioned as much more than simple entertainment. They held deep religious significance and were directly related to the Maya origin myth. The games were also used as a way to settle conflicts, sort of a combination of a Super Bowl and a Supreme Court hearing, with a High Mass thrown in for good measure.


Just beyond the ball court were more ruins. These were scattered through the forest off into the distance and may have been residential.


Remains of stucco surfacing. The ancient Maya often paved the surfaces of their plazas and sacbes (roads) with stucco made of limestone paste. The surface seen above can be found near the north entrance of the ball court. Leaves have drifted into shallow depressions in the stucco. Oddly, this prosaic pavement gave me more of a feeling of connection with these ancient people than their great temples and pyramids. I felt I was literally walking in the footsteps of those who passed this way thousands of years ago.


The Colonial-era ruins at Dzibilichaltún

In the center of the Great Plaza stand the ruins of a Colonial-era chapel. Dzibilchatún was a still-functioning Maya city when the Spanish arrived. As late as the period between 1590 and 1600, there were enough people living in and around the ancient city for church authorities to build a chapel here. The usual Spanish practice was to build such a church directly on top of an existing temple or pyramid, in order to firmly establish the dominance of the New Order. In this case, they built their chapel in the center of the Great Plaza, surrounded by all those ancient structures. However, they did cannibalize materials from the old buildings to construct their new church. The ruins seen above are the barrel vault of the presbytery with an altar in the back. Attached on the left (north) side is a small room that served as the sacristy. Extending out into the grassy area is a line of stone which was part of the foundation of the open-air nave.


The chapel, as it may have looked in early colonial times. The nave was open-aired, with a thatched roof supported by poles. This kind of simple structure was known as an "Indians' chapel". Under its thatched canopy, the Maya were taught the elements of their conquerors' religion. The nave is, of course, long gone due to the perishable materials with which it was constructed.


The presbytery containing the altar beneath the barrel vault. Above the altar, you can see two niches, no doubt containing religious statues when the chapel was functioning.


The "Priest's House" lies just north of the chapel. I wasn't certain whether this was colonial or pre-hispanic until I saw the arched window (left). Since the Maya never achieved the true arch in their architecture, this was definitely the house where Franciscan friars stayed during their circuits through the area. Found inside the house was a piece of stone carved with the date 1539. The significance of the stone's date is unknown, but the military part of the Conquest of Yucatan was in full swing at that time. Mérida wasn't founded as the colonial capital until 1542.



Gate to a Colonial-era corral. At one time, Dzibilchaltún was part of a hacienda that apparently raised cattle and horses. In the background, the massive stairway of the Palace rises to its top platform, lined with 35 doorways. I wondered what a colonial vaquero (cowboy) might have thought of the great temples and palaces standing silently around him as he tended his herds.

This completes Part 15 of my NW Yucatan series, and is the last of four segments on Dzibilchaltún. I am proud of this four-part subseries, since it may represent the most comprehensive record of this ancient city available on the internet. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to provide feedback, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you would like to leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim
















Friday, June 22, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 14: The Dzibilchaltún Great Plaza's South and East sides.

Looking west down the stadium-like steps of the Palace. In parts 12 and 13 of my NW Yucatan series, I showed Dzibilchaltún's Temple of the Seven Dolls, and the North and West sides of the Great Plaza containing the Main Pyramid, the temple/residential complex known as Structure 38, and the Standing Temple. In this posting, we'll complete the circuit with a look at the south and east sides of the plaza. To help orient yourself, you might want to refer briefly back to Part 13 for a schematic showing the whole Great Plaza area.  Dzibilchaltún contains a number of features unique among Maya cities. To begin with, it sets the record for the longest continuous occupation: over 2000 years. In this posting we'll see a couple more of those record-setting features.


Edifice 44: The Palace


Edifice 44 (the "Palace") takes up the whole south side of  the plaza. In the site map above, you see a top-down view. The arrow points to the immensely long set of fifteen stairs leading to the top of three stepped platforms. On the top platform is a long series of pillars, which are actually doorways into the now-roofless structure. According to the sign at its base, the whole building is 130 m (420 ft) long, and the steps are the longest to be found in all of Mesoamerica. The 35 doorways at the top level exceed in number any other set of doors to be found in the Maya region. The rectangular structure at the back of the long platform (upper right) contains several rooms of unknown purpose.


The east end of the Palace was built with rounded corners. Such corners are fairly unusual in Maya construction. The only others I have seen are on the Sorcerer's Pyramid at Uxmal. The Palace was built during four different periods of Dzibilchaltún's history, with some sections covered over by successive constructions.


View of the grand staircase looking east. The Palace was in use from the peak of the Classic era well into the Post-Classic (600 AD - 1000 AD). Although archaeologists nicknamed it the Palace, the building appears to have functioned more like a set of stadium seats. From them, hundreds of spectators could view the various religious and political rituals conducted in the Great Plaza. In the foreground is a stone wall from a Colonial-era corral.


The top platform of the Palace has 35 doorways.  All the doorways opened into a single long room, the roof of which is missing and may have been made of perishable materials. In the photo, you are looking directly east. Ancient people sitting on the steps of the Palace (to the left, below the pillars) would have had a spectacular view of processions emerging through the northeast entrance of the Great Plaza, after having traveled along the 400 m length of Sacbe 1 from the Temple of the Seven Dolls (see Part 12).


At the center of the long staircase, near the top, is a small entrance. Had this structure been an actual palace, with residential and/or administrative functions, it would have been full of rooms and hallways. Instead, the huge building contains this single doorway into its interior. This reinforces the impression that its purpose was to provide seating for extravaganzas in the Great Plaza.


The Palace entrance door leads to this hallway. Off the hallway to the right are three doorways opening into small rooms. These may have been for storage of materials related to the rituals in the plaza. Notice the corbel or "false" arch at the end of the hall on the left of the photo. The Maya never mastered the technique of the true arch, which meant that their buildings had to have thick walls and small rooms. Also notice the small objects hanging from the doorways at the upper left of the photo.


Above the doorways at the end of the hall were several hives. The bees (or possibly wasps) were not aggressive, thank goodness, and remained calm while I photographed them. The dark wooden lintel beams on the right do not appear to be original. They were probably placed there by the people who did the restoration work.


The East Side Complex

View of the East Side Complex from the top of the Palace. Because this set of structures is unnamed in any of the literature I have examined, I have dubbed it the "East Side Complex". Partially obscured by a tree is a long low platform with rooms along the top.  The platform is reached by a long staircase with five steps. In the center of the platform is a higher, but narrower, staircase. There are three sets of rooms on top of this platform, with a central cluster containing most of them. Two sets of rooms, identical to each other but smaller than the central group, are sited to the north and south of the center.


Site map of the East Side Complex. At the lower left is the eastern corner of Edifice 44 (the "Palace"). In the center is the complex seen in the previous photo, which--given the number of rooms-- was probably a true palace with residential and/or administrative functions. Above that are the two small temples which will be seen at the end of this posting. Above the small temples, out of sight, is the Main Pyramid, separated from the temples by Sacbe 1, which enters the Great Plaza at the northeast corner. Sacbe 1 is the ancient road that leads to the Temple of the Seven Dolls. These three structures make up the entire east side of the Great Plaza area. Oddly, they are ignored by all literature, either printed or on-line, that I can find relating to Dzibilchaltún's Great Plaza. Even a schematic of the plaza distributed by the Dzibilchaltún museum itself shows only a blank space in this area. The site map above is a detail from the overall Great Plaza site map (see Part 13) located near the Main Pyramid. The East Side Complex itself has no informational sign or site map devoted to its structures.


View of the southern end of the East Side Complex from atop the Palace. At the back of the platform, a set of four doorways leads into a narrow room. Between the doorways and the stairs leading up to the platform is a broad porch area. The year-round warm climate would have allowed various domestic activities to occur in this area, so large interior rooms would not have been necessary.



Closeup of the rooms at the rear of the East Side Complex. Above, you get a better view of the four doorways and the rooms into which they lead. The walls are thick and the rooms are small, indicating that they were probably used mostly for privacy, sleeping, or protection from the occasional rains. An identical set of rooms sits on the northern end of this platform. The eastern end of the Palace, from which I took the previous photo, can be seen in the upper right of the photo above.


View of the central cluster of rooms and its approach staircase. Most of the rooms in the East Side complex were grouped in this area, and it was clearly the most important part of this complex. Given that it faces directly onto the plaza, the East Side Complex was probably the residence of very important members of the elite class, perhaps the family of the ruler himself.


A line of identical doorways opens into of the central cluster of rooms. The rooms were not much bigger than a modern prison cell. The wooden lintels over the doors are part of the reconstruction. In the Yucatan climate, materials such as wood are very perishable.


Another view of two of the central cluster of rooms. These two rooms are divided down the middle by a wall. They were about 4 m (12 ft) long and 1.5-2 m wide (4-6 ft) wide.


Someone blocked a doorway in the East Side Complex. It was not clear to me whether the door had been blocked by the ancient people for some unknown reason, or whether it was filled up by the restoration crew to support the wall.


The East Side Temples

View from the Main Pyramid of the two small temples on the Great Plaza's east side. These temples form the northern section of the East Side Complex. The path you can see crossing diagonally just below the Main Pyramid is part of Sacbe 1 as it enters the northeast corner of the Great Plaza. Not much is left of the nearer temple, just a stone platform about .5 m (1.5 ft) high and probably 7 m X 10 m (20 ft X30 ft) in size. It may have been a sort of dance platform, or there may have once been a structure on top, made of perishable materials.


The larger temple is a rectangle with a nine-step front staircase. Nine was a sacred number to the ancient Maya and temples are often found with that number of stairs leading up to the top platform. For example, the famous Castillo (also known as the Pirámide de Kukulkan) at Chichen Itza is a structure made up of nine stepped platforms. The number nine is closely associated with both the Maya calendar and their nine-step underworld. The top of the temple contains the remains of an ancient altar.


Another view of the altar atop the second temple. The view is to the southwest, with the Palace stairs visible at the upper left of the photo. The people in the background can provide a sense of scale. There was no indication, when we visited, of what god or gods were worshiped on this platform. Like so much of the ancient Maya world, this remains a mystery.

This completes Part 14 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next part, we will conclude our visit to  Dzibilchaltún with a look at the sacred Xlacah Cenote, the Ball Court, and the Colonial-era ruins. I hope you have enjoyed seeing the longest-occupied city in the ancient Mesoamerican world. I appreciate feedback, so if you would like to provide some, either leave your thoughts in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim







Friday, June 15, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 13, The North and West sides of Dzibilchaltún's Great Plaza

The Main Pyramid, also known as Structure 36. This pyramid is located at the northeast corner of the Great Plaza complex, where Sacbe 1 enters. Sacbe 1 is the 400 m (1312 ft) long limestone road that connects the Great Plaza with the Temple of the Seven Dolls that you saw in the previous posting. The Great Plaza is of an heroic size and contains many fascinating and unique structures around its borders. There are so many that it will take this posting plus two more to show them all. As I always do before beginning a posting, I searched the internet for information about Dzibilchaltún. I was quite disappointed with the result of my efforts. The few websites I found focused on a mere handful of this ancient city's many amazing features. The rest of the site was usually mentioned vaguely in a brief sentence or ignored completely. As a result, most of the information about the structures you will see comes from photos I took of the signs in front of each. When I complete my four postings on Dzibilchaltún, I believe that my presentation will be unique on the internet in showing all the major features, with at least some information on each. Why go to all this trouble? My reasons are that Dzibilchaltún is not only a beautiful site, but also may be the longest continuously occupied city (500 BC-1542 AD) not only in the Maya area but also in all of Mesoamerica.


The Great Plaza

The triple stelae platforms. As you approach the Great Plaza entrance along Sacbe 1, this series of three ceremonial platforms appears on your left. They lie along a north-south axis just outside the plaza behind the row of temples and palaces that make up its east side. The platforms are roughly square and each stands about 1 m (3 ft) high, with  a two-sided stela (upright stone monolith) in the center. The stelae rise to about 1.2 m (4 ft) above their platforms. The flat faces of the stelae are now blank, but they once contained carved stucco designs. These three are among 20 such stelae found at Dzibilchaltún. Had the stucco survived, we might know a great deal more about the ancient city than we do, because similar stelae in other Maya cities usually contain pictures of priest-rulers and Maya hieroglyphs outlining dynastic histories replete with victories and conquests.


Site map of the Great Plaza and its associated structures. The map is oriented so that north is at the top. The Main Pyramid (Structure 36) is located in the upper right corner, facing slightly southwest. Attached to the lower left corner of the pyramid is the long, roughly rectangular Structure 39, which contains a fascinating underground room. To the west of Structure 39 is a rectangular stepped temple. Just to the north of the temple is a residential complex called Structure 38, home of an elite family of considerable importance. On the west side of the plaza is a temple in the shape of a reversed "L". Just south of that temple is an open curve marking the eastern boundary of a large, water-filled, limestone pit called a cenote. Occupying the whole south side of the Great Plaza is Edifice 44, a very long, stepped structure with a row of pillars along the top. The east side of the plaza is made up of a residential palace with a central stairway and three long sets of rooms on top. North of the palace are two more temples which form the southern part of the Sacbe 1 entry point. In the center of the plaza (see arrow) are the remains of some colonial-era structures including a very early 16th Century open-air church and a small stone house. In this posting, we will look at the north and west sides of the plaza. In the next, the south and east sides will be shown. The final posting will cover the cenote and some structures outside the plaza such as the Ball Court, and also the colonial-era structures. For the next couple of postings, you may want to refer back to this map to get your bearings.


Structure 36 & 39: The Main Pyramid and its undergound chamber

The Main Pyramid was built during a crucial historical transition. The Main Pyramid seen above is only partly uncovered. That which can be seen is made up of four square stepped platforms. The top platform stands 9.4 m (30.8 ft) above the ground. There is one grand staircase on the south side facing the plaza. At one time there must have been a temple on top built of perishable materials since no vault stones were found. Archaeologists date this building to between 900 AD and 1000 AD, the transition point between the Terminal Classic and Post-Classic eras. During this period of great turmoil, Classical Maya society was disintegrating. People were abandoning many of the famous cities in Guatemala and the southern Yucatan and moving into the northern area. "Mexicanized" Maya from the Gulf Coast, who had been heavily influenced by the Toltec civilization of Central Mexico, began an invasion of northern Yucatan, eventually conquering many cities in the area, including the city they renamed Chichen Itza.


Schematic of the Main Pyramid and Structure 39. Above you can see a top-down view of the pyramid, as well as the long, low, rectangular building projecting out from its southwest (lower left) side. Structure 39 was built onto the Main Pyramid during the Early Post Classic era (1000 AD-1200 AD), one of the few structures added to Dzibilchaltún during this period. The long rectangular building was originally topped by a double room with a two-columned portico in front and had entrance stairs with balustrades. Because it is so closely associated with the Main Pyramid, the structure may have had a religious function. In later times, Structure 39 appears to have been modified, and it was inhabited through the Late Post Classic era. The most interesting feature of Structure 39, and one of the most intriguing of all Dzibilchaltún, is the small underground room whose entrance is identified by the arrow.


The underground room is reached by a staircase and short hall. Almost immediately, there is a sharp-angled turn to left, forming an inverted "L" shape. After you make the turn, the room in front of you (seen above) is about the size of a small, walk-in closet. At the far end, to the left, is a small alcove. The room is lit by sunlight from an opening made by archaeologists.


Head of a fallen ruler? The carving seen above is one of two broken stelae (designated #18 and #19) embedded into the wall to your right as you enter the chamber. The bas-relief carvings are of richly-dressed men (possibly the same man) of the elite class. The figure above, shown from the neck up, holds a scepter in his right hand, indicating that he may have been a ruler of Dzibilchaltún. The style is pure Classic-era, showing no influence from Mexicanized Maya. Who was this person, and why was his stela broken and used as a wall-support in an underground room?


Lower half of one of the two broken stelae. In his left hand, the figure holds what may be a shield. He wears a sarong-like garment on his lower body and on his calves are leather thongs laced up from sandals (his feet are missing). From a belt around his waist hangs a kind of pouch which extends to his knees. The timing of the construction of Structure 39, along with the breaking of the stelae and their placement, may tell a significant tale in Dzibilchaltún's history. It was common practice among the ancient Maya for a conqueror to smash or otherwise deface the stelae of the ruler he displaced, thus making a very graphic political statement. Both stelae may portray the same ruler, and both have been decapitated, a common form of human sacrifice. The placement of these stelae indicates contempt. They are in an obscure location, and were used as lowly foundation supports. Rather than being placed in its normal upright position, the figure above is prone, a position of submission. The fact that the stelae are in Classic Maya style, and that they were apparently placed here during the period of the Mexicanized Maya conquest of northern Yucatan, indicates that the carvings may have been of the ruler who was on the throne when the outsiders took over. Assuming he wasn't killed in battle, his fate was probably to be sacrificed, possibly by decapitation, in the Great Plaza before the assembled multitudes,


But the story doesn't end there. Upon further examination of the little chamber, I made another intriguing discovery. There is a small alcove at the end of the room, directly opposite the decapitated stelae. The walls of the alcove are blackened by smoke from countless fires. Why would anyone build a fire here, in this obscure and unlikely spot? Clearly it was not the sort of place one would pick for a campsite. There are hundreds of better places around Dzibilchaltún for ordinary cooking fires. This has the hallmarks of a ritual site. The fact that it is directly across from the fallen stelae--there is no other point of interest in the room--indicates a possible relationship. Could priests from the new regime have come here to celebrate the defeat of the fallen ruler? This seems unlikely to me. Such celebrations would have been political statements of triumph, and thus public in nature. They would not have been hidden as these ritual fires clearly were. Perhaps some memory of the glorious Classic past flickered on through the dark ages of the Post Classic period, whose rulers' obsession with death is so evident at Chichen Itza. Could some secret cult have sought to perpetuate these old memories by coming here to light ritual fires to mourn the fall of the leader shown in the stelae, and all he represented? Much of the above is based upon a few facts and some educated speculation on my part. Anyone with factual information that would disprove my conjectures, or with an opposing theory, is welcome to comment.


Structure 38: An Ancient Palace

A site map of Structure 38 reveals a small temple overlooking a residential area. The Structure 38 complex is located just to the north of the long rectangular stepped temple seen in the dotted lines at the bottom of the drawing above. This places it just outside the rim of the Great Plaza, indicating that this was the compound of an elite family of great importance. A small, square, stepped temple occupies the east end of the complex (see arrow), with a broad stairway leading up to its door. On the other three sides of the complex are rectangular structures each containing multiple rooms. The middle area forms a mini-plaza where family activities could be conducted.


The Structure 38 complex, as it looks today. The forest in the background contains many rubble piles from ancient homes and other structures. Dzibilchaltún contains more than 8400 such structures and only a handful, like the one above, have been excavated. The area immediately around the Great Plaza was reserved for the homes of the elite. Moving out in concentric circles, you encounter traces of the more modest dwellings of the common people.


Structure 38's temple. Parts of this temple are still unexcavated. This is one of the oldest vaulted buildings in the ancient city. At one time it was covered with painted and carved stucco. The style of this and the other buildings of Structure 38 show the influence of the Central Mexico civilizations. This was the result of trade rather than conquest, since the complex was built sometime between 600 AD and 800 AD. That period was the height of the Classic era, and centuries before the Mexicanized Maya invasion.


The temple, viewed from the south side. In the foreground are the rooms of one of the residential structures. As you can see, the temple is taller than it appears from the front, due to a greater amount of excavation on this side.


Metates found within Structure 38. These limestone troughs were among several that were found in or around the residential buildings. Metates (may-ta-tays) were used to grind maiz (corn). The roundish object in the larger trough is a mano, the rock used to do the grinding. Metates and manos can still be found in Mexican hardware stores. They are not tourist nicknacks, but functional kitchen implements. This is one of the oldest continuously used technologies on earth, dating back to 7000 BC. In addition to the metates, archaeologists also found various pieces of pottery at Structure 38. However, those pieces were in the Dzibilchaltún museum which was closed for renovation when we visited.


Room directly behind the temple. A low doorway can be glimpsed at the upper left. The rather small and cramped rooms of the ancient Maya cities puzzled me at first. Why go to all the trouble to build these massive structures just to end up with such limited space? One answer has to do with the engineering problems encountered while building with un-reinforced stone, particularly when the concept of the true arch is unknown. Walls must be thick and not too high, leading to small rooms. However, there may be another answer: the climate. Rooms walled with thick stone provide insulation from Yucatan's oppressive heat and, conversely, can hold heat within the room on the few cool days. Finally, the rooms did not need to be big because the climate allows nearly year-round outdoor living. People would use the plazas, patios, and stepped areas of the structures to conduct business, engage in crafts or food processing, or just to lounge around.


A rectangular, four-stepped temple lies a short space to the south of Structure 38. This is the temple outlined with dots seen at the bottom (south) side of the Structure 38 site map. The photo was taken looking south from the Structure 38 temple platform. Just on the other side of the temple shown above is the Great Plaza. The west end of this temple forms the northwest corner of the plaza. There are large staircases on the north and south sides. At one time there may have been a structure built on top made of perishable materials.


The west side of the Great Plaza is formed by this temple structure. My information on this temple comes from my friend Erik, who shares my interest in archaeology and sent me some details from his home in Denmark. Structure 57, seen above, is also known as the Standing Temple and was probably built somewhere between 800-850 AD, the end of the Classic era. The construction shows influence from the Puuc style and is of rough stone blocks covered by a fine limestone plaster. Overall, the work seems superior to that of earlier buildings. The view here is from the top of the temple shown in the previous photo, looking slightly southwest at the northern end of the structure. The Standing Temple is "L" shaped, with the short arm of the L (out of sight above) at the southern end of the temple, extending off to the right. The staircase above has nine steps, a symbolic number in Maya cosmology. They believed that after death a person's soul entered an underworld with nine levels, the lowest of which was Mitnal, ruled by Ah Puch, the God of Death. Visible above, on top of the long arm of the L, are two rooms, each with a doorway facing the Great Plaza. The short arm, which extends west, is topped by another two rooms. These are back to back, divided lengthwise by a wall, and with a doorway facing north and another to the south. As with Structure 38, the forest behind this temple is filled with additional temples, homes, and other structures.

This completes Part 13 of my NW Yucatan series. In the next part we will continue our examination of the Great Plaza structures, including a palace built on a platform that is the longest in all of Mesoamerica. I always welcome feedback, corrections, and--especially in this case--additional information. If you would like to do this, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim